Dindori: As district gets added to India’s Maoist map, what it means for State
Fitari is quiet. The kind of quiet that can only exists in a village in the middle of a Sal forest, its people from a tribe famously reclusive. A thin black tarred road snakes its way to the village, cutting through the Maikal hills, and two small rivulets. As a vehicle passes, the children scatter and the adults stop and stare. Most watch with surprise. The sound of an engine, or the voices of outsiders are still rare.
But there is now wariness in those eyes too. For uniformed visitors, both Maoists and the police, have become increasingly frequent. And for villages in Dindori, now on the country’s Maoist map, that can only mean trouble.
In July this year, the Union home ministry revised its list of districts affected by Left Wing Extremism across the country, bringing them down from 90 to 70. In every affected state, except one, the number of districts either stayed the same, or came down. The only addition, Madhya Pradesh’s Dindori.
The list has also seen Chhattisgarh’s Mungeli district replacing Balod, which shares a border with Dindori, and the already declared Kabirdham district.
For security agencies, this is an admission that a decade long expansion project of the Maoists into these parts, first spotted in 2012, called the MMC (Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh confluence) zone requires focussed attention.
For 17-year-old Maha Singh Dhruv, the classification brings no solace, just a sense of dread, of the uncertainty and fear impending conflict bring.
“For the last year, I fear entering the forest thinking that if someday they (Maoists) meet me and ask for help, what will I do? I will have to help them because they carry weapons and if I do, the police will ask a hundred questions,” Dhruv said.
Dhruv is a Baiga, who form more than 80% of the population in Fitari, which has a population of 500 voters. The tribe, famously reclusive, are one of the 75 notified Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) in the country, and one of the seven notified in Madhya Pradesh.
The government defines PVTG’s as “tribal communities who have declining or stagnant population, low level of literacy, pre-agricultural level of technology and are economically backward”.
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Dhruv lost his father very young, and lives in small one room hut with his mother. He went to school in the village itself, but dropped out when his father died. Like with everyone else in the village, there is no income, only subsistence. There is paddy that grows seasonally in two acres of land, and a small kitchen garden where there are long stalks of maize. The rest, the forest has always provided for. But now, with the peace beginning to break, Dhruv wants to leave. “I want to leave this place now. I need a job in Dindori town, 80 kilometres away,” Dhruv said.
The mechanics of identification
The police focus is on three police station areas in Dindori district, Samnapur, Bajag and Karanjiya. The village has electricity but no mobile towers, and to make a phone call, the few who have phones climb up to specific areas atop hills where the signal bar on the handset flickers on.
Senior police officials told HT that earlier this year, they were given inputs of a team of Maoists attempting to speak to villagers in Fitari. Silence is perhaps the best escape and Dhule Baiga has an answer everyone else does too. “I know nothing,” he says.
Sanjay Singh, superintendent of police, Dindori, said the movement and interaction that the police have noticed in the area, have been in and around 65 villages, mostly in “Baiga Chak”.
In 1890, the then colonial government had notified “Baiga Chak” as an area that the Baigas lived in, where they would practice shifting agriculture, locally called “Bewar”. The residents would burn patches of forests and then sow seeds with the government instead training them to practice “settled farming”. At the time, the Baiga Chak had seven villages, but the term is now commonly used to refer to 52 villages, both in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
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But even if villagers are afraid to talk of the increase presence of Maoists, the police argue that there are clear indications of a growing presence. In 2018, four kilometres away from Fetari, in the biggest local market in Dhurkuta, where everything from an umbrella to spices is sold, a driver spotted a group of 28 armed cadres crossing the forests. “I remember it was a chilly morning and I was returning from a marriage in Dhurkuta. I counted them. Initially , I thought they were police personnel but later because they were very cautious, I realised that they are Maoists,” said the driver, tracked down by HT, who lives in Chhattisgarh’s Kabhirdham, bordering Dindori.
Acting on this information, the police had at the time, sent teams to the village and found telltale footprints at the spot the driver had mentioned. “I tried to ask the villagers but most said nothing. Only one elderly Baiga told me that he saw those people twice walking outside the village,” a local police officer said.
Officers of the Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh Police, who have interrogated surrendered cadres that worked in the MMC zone in the last three years believe that the Maoists are developing a new ‘base area’ in the dense Amarkantak forests. Amarkantak is where the Vindhya, Maikal and Satpura ranges converge in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
In 2012, the Central Committee of the CPI (Maoist) decided to form this new zone, apart from the one already operational in Bastar called the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee (DKSZC). Documents accessed by the police show that by 2017, the work of “social investigation” was completed by “vistar platoons” covering more than 500 villages in the area. This survey included analysis of demography, target population, economic status, employment, and socio-economic problems of the area along with the identification of safe routes for the movement of armed cadres. The aim is to create another “Abhujhmaad”, which is a 4000 square kilometre area in south Bastar, unmapped by the government, and known to be the area where members of the Central Committee of the CPI(Maoist) live and operate from.
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In their conversations, surrendered cadres have told police that the Maoists have surveyed the forests to map water bodies, high vantage points to watch the movement of troops and police stations in a bid to create a safe zone. The team responsible for developing this passage and base area is headed by Maoist commander Rakesh Ode, originally from Gadchiroli, who heads a team of 22 armed cadres. Rakesh heads three Area Committees of CPI (Maoist) – Bhoramdeo, Bodla and Khatiamocha and reports to Kabeer who heads the Kanha Bhoramdeo (KB) division of the MMC zone. Police records show that there are a total of 85 armed cadres operating in the area, of which 34 are women.
The beginning of a vicious cycle?
The increase in the Maoist presence is also throwing up a familiar, hotly contested argument, one that has caused much strife in areas such as Bastar. The Dindori police plan to set up four new police camps in the area, at Chauradadar, Padaripani, Chada and Gaurakanhari, all in Baiga Chak. In Dhurkuta, this plan worries Arjun Singh Dhruv, president of the Baiga Nritak Dal and a retired teacher. “I don’t know about Maoists and their presence in this area, but one thing is concerning for us – our freedom. When the forces will be deployed, we will be caged,” Dhruv said.
Dhruv said that Baiga culture has very little crime, close to no theft, so much so that there are very few homes that even own a lock. “The nearest police station, Bajag is 28 km from this village but when the police from outside (referring to paramilitary personnel) come to this area they definitely intrude into our daily lives, and can harass us,” he said.
Dr Vijay Chaurasia, a homeopathy doctor based in Baiga Chak, and author of the book “Prakriti Putra Baiga” shares similar concerns and said that it took him close to a decade to win the confidence of the Baigas. “If the Maoists are talking to Baigas and trying to enter this peaceful community, they are actually harming them. But the government decision to deploy forces in this area makes this tribe venerable. This is bad move,” he said.
But Ved Ram Hanote, Station House Officer of the Bajag police station has already spotted signs of a shift in stance and vocabulary in some sections of the population. “We have information that some people, possibly Maoists, are entering remote villages of Baiga Chak and encouraging the residents to encroach forest land for cultivation. To me it seems that the language of Baigas has changed, they have a new vocabulary where some are talking about rights and laws. Rights and laws are not bad in themselves, just that the change in words tells me that a new influence has seeped in,” Hanote said.
Although there has been no recorded Maoist violence in Dindori, the district police believe that the villages inside the forest of Dindori are now a “safe area” for Maoists. In March 2021, a massive anti-Maoist operation was launched by the Mandla police where, under fire, the Maoists escaped towards Dindori and settled there for about a week. “They travel along a river called Kharmer, which borders two states every time they feel pressure in Chhattisgarh or Mandla,” said the Dindori SP, adding that the state government had been trying to include Dindori in MHA’s list for last two years.
He said that he hoped that the Baigas being reclusive would stem the spread of Maoist influence, but hidden in that, is a double edged sword. “They rarely entertain outsiders and therefore the chances of widespread Maoist influence is less. But if the Maoists do manage this, then it would be really difficult for us because they rarely say anything to the police,” said Singh.
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The district plans to deploy all Baiga policemen in these areas, who will aid the paramilitary in their operations, and attempt to “keep a check on them”. The plan is to deploy 400 central forces, but augment them with 550 district police personnel. “We have started training officers to prevent any harassment in the region. The behaviour of police must change while working in these tribal dominated areas; otherwise the Maoists could take advantage and we will lose the trust of the community,” said the SP.
However, within the state apparatus, there is no unanimity on what is clearly a complicated question. Intelligence officials HT has spoken to said that the large number of deployments themselves may be what the Maoists want the state to do. “I think that the Maoists want such a deployment of police forces because this will make tribes feel threatened and in turn, they create ideological space for themselves. What is need of such a huge deployment? These villages are merely a passage of Maoists towards Amarkantak. Baigas don’t like uniformed people and hence it could be dangerous,” an officer posted in the region said.
The Chhattisgarh dimension
In Chhattisgarh’s neighbouring Mungeli district, also newly added to the list of Maoist districts by the MHA, around 50 villages of the Khudiya post in Lormi, are being watched closely by the state. Police functionaries said that all of these are Baiga dominated villages and more than ten “interactions” have been recorded in the past year. Remote and sparsely populated, these villages get cut off in the monsoon.
“My brother lives in Aurapani and guards a small rest house there. He told me that about a year ago , four people in black uniforms came and asked him several questions about and topography. They enter our village from Ajgar Pahad in Mungeli,” said Chamran Singh Baiga, who once lived in Aurapanu, but has since moved to Mahuamacha village.
A senior police officer, posted in Chhattisgarh’s capital of Raipur said Mungeli has developed into an area of strategic importance for the MMC zone. “We have included the district in our list Khudiya outpost is the entrance point of their base area –the Amarkantak forests. If they get support or recruitment from the villages alongside, it will be very difficult to contain them in next few years,” said the officer.
Chhattisgarh DGP DM Awasthi said the state wanted to be careful with its planning and deployment and not exacerbate a sensitive situation. “In 2018, Kabirdham was added in MHAs list and now we have decided to add Mungeli. The reason is simple, Maoists are expanding MMC zone towards Amarakant and it is important to check them. We are still thinking about deployment and based on intelligence inputs decisions will be taken,” Awasthi said.