At notorious Maoist Hidma’s village, CRPF camp establishes mental edge | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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At notorious Maoist Hidma’s village, CRPF camp establishes mental edge

Mar 04, 2024 04:46 AM IST

After four decades of silence, Puvarti in Sukma, Chhattisgarh, saw the arrival of 3000 security personnel on February 16, breaking the Maoist stronghold.

PUVARTI (SUKMA)

Puvarti, on the border of Sukma and Bijapur districts of Bastar range in Chhattisgarh, where 47-year-old Mandavi Hidma was born (HT Photo) PREMIUM
Puvarti, on the border of Sukma and Bijapur districts of Bastar range in Chhattisgarh, where 47-year-old Mandavi Hidma was born (HT Photo)

For four decades, Puvarti has been enveloped in a mutinous silence.

It is an isolation that is all too evident. The homes are all thatched, far and wide apart, the bamboo walls held up by unstable logs of wood, shrouded in the dense foliage of the inhospitable forest. There are no handpumps, no electricity poles, just darkness in the night; no officials of the district administration have ever ventured this far. There is no school, no hospital, not even a gram panchayat building. It has rarely, if ever, heard the growl of a motorcycle; the only path to the village of a thousand people was a thin, narrow, unpaved clearing through the overgrowth. Around 120 kilometres away from the closest district headquarters, Puvarti was impenetrable.

Until the morning of February 16, when it heard the sounds of 3000 security personnel march towards the village. They wore different fatigues, and stripes on their uniform. Some were from the Central Reserve Police Force; others from the state police. Some carried the infrastructure to set up a police camp; all carried weapons. The silence was broken.

The attention had been coming. Puvarti is on the border of Sukma and Bijapur districts of Chhattisgarh’s Bastar range, the arena of a deadly battle between the security forces and the banned CPI (Maoist); a battle once called India’s gravest “internal security challenge” by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2006, and the focus of every state and union government since Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000. In Bastar, where the violence has been most severe, all seven districts, Kanker, Kondagaon, Narayanpur, Bastar, Dantewada, Bijapur, and Sukma are categorized as “left wing extremism (LWE) ” affected by the union government.

Also Read | Chhattisgarh: Maoist commander with a reward of 8 lakh surrenders in Sukma

Yet, even by those standards, Puvarti has always had special focus. For the Maoists, it is a village that they have always counted as part of their “core liberated zone”. For the security forces, it is the village they had thus far never been able to reach; the village that according to police records, is home to 23 Maoist cadre. And importantly, the village where 47-year-old Mandavi Hidma was born.

Known by various aliases, such as Hidmalu and Santosh, Hidma has been one of India’s most wanted men for close to two decades. His name figures on the NIA’s most wanted list, and the reward on his head, from across multiple central agencies and state police forces is over 1 crore. His name figures in the police records of every major Maoist attack on security forces. In 2011, when 75 CRPF men were killed in Tadmetla, Hidma was there. In 2017, when 37 died in two separate attacks in Sukma, ditto. Even in 2013, when the Congress leadership was wiped out in a Maoist attack in the Darbha valley, the police records say he was there.

For the Maoists, his life is already part of folklore. The tribal Mudiya boy from Puvarti that grew to head battalion number one of the CPI (Maoist), their largest and most aggressive guerilla military formation. Since 2022, while there has been little confirmation, some literature seized by the Chhattisgarh police have suggested that he has been promoted to the Central Committee of the CPI (Maoist), their highest decision-making body, likely the only tribal member in it.

Also Read | Anti-Maoist operations in Chhattisgarh intensified since Nov 2023: Police data

In many ways therefore, the advance by the security forces was not just tactical or territorial, it was “psychological”. “The opening of the camp is significant because it happens to the village of Hidma, because of whom many others have joined the Maoists. All these years it was controlled by them,” P Sunder Raj, Inspector General (Bastar) said two days after the establishment of the camp.

The symbolism was clear almost immediately. When the forces first arrived, among the first people they met, and photographed furiously, was Madvi Pojje, Hidma’s mother. “She asked for medical aid, and our forces got a doctor for her. Many villagers will now feel that if Hidma and other commanders cannot protect their own village, they too will soon be liberated,” Sunder Raj added.

The Arrival

The groundwork had been laid weeks in advance. On January 29, security forces first set up a camp in Tekalgudem, three kilometres away. On the night of February 15, the advance began. An area of four kilometres around Puvarti was first cordoned-off, and then a security perimeter of 800 metres set up around the village.

They were careful, there had already been warning. Within a day of setting up the camp in Tekalgudem, the forces came under ferocious fire from the Maoists. When the encounter ended, three CRPF men were dead, and 15 others injured.

“We learnt our lessons from Tekalgudem, and we were prepared. Even the journey of three kilometres was always going to be tough. The path had to be widened to ensure movement,” one police officer at the camp said.

Also Read | Kanker Maoist encounter fake, say family members of 3 killed, police deny charge

At the break of dawn of February 16, 3000 security personnel — of the CRPF, the Chhattisgarh Police’s Special Task Force and the District Reserve Guard — descended on the village. On February 17, a day after they set up the camp which will now be occupied by CRPF, the expected pushback came. “We came under fire from a group of Maoists. We were expecting them, and we hit them back hard,” a senior police officer said. This time, there were no casualties.

Since then, for the past 10 days, Puvarti has seen sights and sounds it has never seen before. The fortification of the camp has been incessant, aided by a 100 trucks, 400 motorcycles, 50 tractors and construction machines. The plan is to eventually begin to bring basic facilities to the village; handpumps, electricity, potable water, toilets. “Puvarti was deprived of all this because of Maoists, the terrain and the dense forests. But that is what setting up security camps does. It helps us bring welfare schemes to them, which will in turn help people free themselves from the Maoists,” Sunder Raj said.

But the immediate concern for the state is the security of its men. The area of control has to be widened, and a helipad constructed to aid the quick evacuation of any injured if there is an encounter. Most importantly, a pucca road from Tekalgudem to Puvarti has to be built. “The road will be a challenge. Now that there are a huge number of security forces in Puvarti, the threat of a camp attack is limited. But the Maoists always attack during road construction which requires our forces to leave the camp in road opening parties (ROP), or vehicles that can be targeted with IED’s. That is our next goal,” a senior police officer said.

Life inside Puvarti

It is 2pm on February 23, and even if the expanse of Puvarti is barely four kilometres, there are two different worlds. One is a beehive of activity, where civil contractors are surrounded by watchful security personnel carrying weapons, frenetically constructing a helipad. The other is filled with the quiet of the mud homes of residents, nearly all of them empty. The village has eight settlements — known locally as paaras — and of these, security personnel are camping in three. Around each, trenches have been dug to mount weapons. Most attention is focused around the paara that has the hut in which Hidma was born, with 500 security personnel camped next to it.

Most men, except the children and the elderly, left the night the ground began to rumble. Sitting beneath a thatched roof, a group of women watch the events around them nervously, whispering to each other in Gondi. “The men are in fear. Some of them come in the night, and leave early in the morning. The security forces have assured them that they are free to do their farming, and will give them everything they need. But people are afraid, and for now, are not staying,” said 38-year-old Kadti Jogi, a resident of the village.

The police reach out to the women when they can, asking them to persuade their husbands to stay. “But we can only ask. There is nobody we know in the village, and it feels strange and lonely despite all the activity,” Jogi said.

In one corner of the village, there is a patch of six acres of land that the villages have always known as belonging to the “party”, their term for the CPI (Maoist). It is here that Maoists grew vegetables that would feed their cadre if they were camped close by. “The security forces tell us to use the land and take the vegetables. But even that fills us with fear,” one villager said.

One among the group of women speaks out, a little louder than the rest. Her voice is afraid of the future, but that fear elicits some anger. “Who knows what will happen now? We want to work in our fields, farm and be left alone. The security forces are offering us help, and hopefully the men will return soon,” said Bajam Ayte.

A few paces away, 100 metres south of the hut where Hidma was born, a small unit of 20 CRPF jawans have set up camp. On the ground, on two plastic sheets, two of them are sleeping on the ground under the shade of a tamarind tree, their weapons never more than an arms length away. Sleep has been hard to find, and they take turns. The other 18 are wide-eyed and awake, starting at any movement. Two of them have mounted their AK-47’s on the broken mud wall of a home.

The unit commander said that the work around them has been frenetic. “In the last few days, three handpumps have been bored, and medical camps have been established. We have brought solar lights, and in the next few days, two anganwadi centres will be established. Plans for a school are underway, and we are guarding officials from the Sukma district headquarters who are working day and night. The aim is to send a message that we are with you, and the Maoists have no place,” the commander said.

Every half an hour, there is the hum of a helicopter overhead, or of drones that are surveilling the terrain for any sign of Maoist movement. “We have to constantly sanitise for IEDs in a five kilometre radius,” the commander said.

With the CRPF men is one jawan of the district reserve guard (DRG), a separate unit of the state police across the seven districts of Bastar that among their recruits, has surrendered Maoists. The jawan is one of those men that served time as a rebel as a young man, and grew up with stories of Hidma’s legend. “No one had ever imagined that a camp will be established in Puvarti,” the DRG jawan said. But his knowledge of the Maoists — the rationale for the DRG that first started in 2008 was that surrendered Maoists had an intuitive understanding of the organisation, terrain and the language — means that he knows that a riposte is coming. “I know something big is going to happen. I know Hidma and his strategic ability.”

Next to him, the unit commander speaks slowly, but firmly. “Let him come. We are waiting.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    State Correspondent for Chhattisgarh. Reports Maoism, Politics, Mining and important developments from the state. Covered all sorts of extremism in Central India. Reported from Madhya Pradesh for eight years.

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