In a Madia Gond village in Gadchiroli.
PRABHAKAR Tekavade and Pandu Alam, were classmates and friends at the Lok Biradari residential school near Bhamragad in Gadchiroli district, the heart of the naxalite-affected region in Maharashtra. After completing school education, Pandu joined the police force and went on to become a commando in the C60 squad, which carried out anti-naxalite operations. Prabhakar joined a naxalite group and adopted the alias Juru. He rose to become a commander in a dalam (armed squad).
On one of the rare occasions when Juru emerged from his forest hideout to attend a wedding in Jandia village, Pandu showed up with his force. The police shot dead Juru. It was given out that he was killed in a police encounter. Some months later, when Pandu was on his way to search a naxalite hideout, he was killed in a mine explosion. The two were only 35 years old when they died in 1997.
In the jungles and 120-odd naxalite-affected villages of eastern Gadchiroli, it is the Adivasis who pay the price for extremist violence. "Whether a policeman or a naxalite, it is the Adivasi who is caught in the crossfire. The bosses are never Adivasis. They are safe in their offices or hideouts," said Suku, a resident of Bhamragad.
Police records show that the more than 80 per cent of those killed on both sides are Adivasis, says Shirish Jain, Superintendent of Police, Gadchiroli.
Ultra-Left revolutionaries operate in the western and southern parts of this resource-rich jungle at the tip of eastern Maharashtra, bordering Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. These forests are home to the impoverished Madia Gond tribe. Deprivation is so acute among the Adivasis that the infant mortality rate here is one of the highest in India. Poverty, exploitation, jungle cover and the proximity to naxalite-infested neighbouring States have made Gadchiroli a hotbed of extremist operations. According to the police, naxalite violence in this area is escalating every year. This year saw the highest number of incidents.
Naxalities came from the adjoining Andhra Pradesh and the undivided Madhya Pradesh in 1980 to "liberate the people" from "state repression". Fifteen dalams work in Maharashtra. The Communist Part of India (Maoist) has around 250 full-time members and 3,000-odd local supporters, the police say.
Many tribal people accused of being informers are killed by naxalites or harassed by the police. In 2000, extremists visited a village one night and dragged Masa and his brother Beka out of their hut. They tied them with a rope to two other villagers, Kesa and Katiya, and flogged all the four of them in the village square. They were accused of being police informers. The extremists slit the throats of Beka and Kesa. Masa and Katiya were spared. "They thrashed me till I became unconscious and my whole body had swelled. Luckily, I was taken to the hospital soon, so I survived. After killing my brother and Kesa, they sang some revolutionary songs and left," says Masa. "The police arrived only at 1 p.m. the next day." After Beka's death, his two sons stopped going to school and started tilling his farm.
On the other hand, several innocent residents have been jailed on the suspicion of being supporters, and some have even been charged under repressive anti-terrorist laws. Bande was jailed for one year. "The police found my father's old hunting gun in my house and arrested me. After I was freed, I struggled for the next few years fighting the case in court. Finally, I was acquitted," he says. People fear the naxalites more, says Bande. "The police will put you in jail, but the naxalites will kill you without any explanation."
WHAT makes the people join the naxalite movement? Initially, most of the rebels came from Andhra Pradesh. They recruited young locals like Sudha (who has surrendered), who were taken up by the romantic band of people who visited their village, chatted with them, sang songs and gave eloquent speeches against the exploiters - the Forest Department, the police, the government, the contractors...
Harassment by the police pushes many naxalite sympathisers underground. "Once there is even a minor case against you, the police arrest you every time there is a violent incident. Many Adivasis have had to sell their land or cattle to pay for the court cases against them. When they run out of money, they join the naxalites or they go underground to escape police harassment," says Bande.
The naxalites explain that they exist only because of local support. Every night, the activists rely on village residents to feed them. They camp in tents on the outskirts of the villages. "There is a people's war going on and the vast majority of the Adivasis are supporting the war and participating in it. The movement could not have survived and expanded without the local people's participation," says Narmada, a member of the Maharashtra State committee of the CPI (Maoist), in an e-mail interview with Frontline.
Are the local people really supportive or are they terrorised? Can you refuse food to a visitor who arrives at your doorstep with a gun? "Everyone in the district feeds them, but that doesn't mean they support them," says Bande. "If you refuse, they will get angry and attack the local police station, and run away. And the villagers would have to suffer the consequences, face police arrests."
Despite the constant fear, Adivasis do agree that naxalites have forced contractors to give them higher wages for tendu leaves collected and bamboo cut. The contractors are also a major source of revenue for the naxalites. The naxalites demand one day's wages of all workers for the party fund. They call it tax. Even the Ballarpur paper factory in the region has reportedly been forced to pay huge amounts to the extremists every year. When it comes to money, they have no problem dealing with "class enemies".
The villagers say that the naxalites have also reduced the harassment by forest officials and the level of corruption. "Earlier, forest officials would demand money if we cut wood to build our homes. They would keep harassing us saying we were farming forest land illegally. After the naxalites punished them, the harassment has reduced considerably," says Suku, a panchayat samiti leader who was once reportedly beaten by extremists on the grounds of corruption. (He denies that the incident happened.)
A downside of the naxalites' presence is that development is virtually non-existent in the area. Industries or businesses are deterred by the violence and extortion. Government funds meant for rural and tribal welfare remain unutilised and/or reach the wrong hands every year. Doctors, teachers and government officials are scared to enter the villages. Government employees view a transfer to Gadchiroli district as a punishment.
In fact, a 40 sq km area on the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border is considered a `liberated zone' where even the police do not venture. There are around 25 villages in this zone. Here, naxalites hold military training camps and even run an arms factory and a printing press, the police say.
"I agree there has been sheer neglect of the Abujmad region," says Shirish Jain. "We can't do anything in the Chhattisgarh part of the border. We are trying to have more police outposts, but there are many practical problems and governmental delays." He says that the police are trying to reach out to the people though meetings, peace rallies and surrender schemes. "Policemen go to the villages to find out the problems. Then we inform other government agencies and ask them to work there," he says.
Around 232 villages have signed up for the Gaon Bandh (village ban) scheme, which gives Rs.2 lakh for development if a village agrees to impose a ban on naxalites. However, this seems to be more on paper. Many villages signed up to please the police, but they succumbed to threats from the rebels. " Anyway, we did not get anything from the government after signing up," said the sarpanch of a village that agreed to the scheme. However, Shirish Jain claims that resistance to the naxalites is increasing. In Bholepalli village, people got together and stopped the extremists from killing a police constable in April, he says.
The names of some persons have been changed to protect their identities.`I am 27, my life is destroyed'
I WAS around 12 years old when the naxalites started coming to our village. During the meetings [they had with the village residents], they used to say young boys and girls should come forward so that we can bring about the rule of poor people.
They had guns but I was not scared because they were so free with us, like our own brothers and sisters. They used to ask us about our troubles, the problems in the village, our thoughts, feelings... . They used to even settle small disputes in the village.
My parents died when we were young. I have a younger brother and sister. We used to live with our uncle, who worked with them and later, joined them. One day, the commander told my uncle, "We are taking this girl with us."
I was 12 years old. I don't even remember why I went with them, I was so young, uneducated. They taught me everyday for two hours in the morning. They made us listen to the radio, talk about politics, world history. I didn't feel any desire to do anything for my country or my people. Many from our village joined them, so I thought that I should also go. We used to visit the villages all day, until the evening, and return to the jungle in the night to sleep in tents. We used to plan eight days ahead which villages to go to.
Just like the police, the naxalites undergo a tough military training. I was in three winter camps. They teach us how to use a gun, how to open it, fit it, what to do if the enemy comes. They also used to sing songs and tell us what is happening in the world. Even when I was in the village, I had learned to throw bombs and shoot. It's not difficult.
I joined the dalam [armed squad] straightaway. I was commander for three years. I was ill, so they demoted me to area committee. For six months, I was platoon commander. Then I went to a military camp, where they teach you rolling, jumping. There, I got very ill. My stomach started hurting a lot. Six months later, I had to be operated for ulcers. So I left the platoon.
I was married in the dalam to Naresh. I left him after three years. He didn't tell me his surname but after we got married, someone told me that he was a distant relative. I didn't like that so I left him.
During the 14 years that I was in the party, I went back home only twice, that too for one or two hours.
I faced 11 encounters. If the police fired, we would return the fire. I didn't know whether anyone was killed or not. I have seen my comrades cut others' necks if they were informers. I didn't kill, but those with me did. When I saw that, I felt it was not right.
I didn't like it in the jungle. I thought: "How long will I keep roaming?" I wanted to go home. The police force had become stronger, so firings had increased. Sometimes you didn't get food. I tried to leave, but I had gone very far in Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh. My health worsened there, so I asked them to transfer me to Maharashtra. But they kept refusing and told me, "Don't go. You are so senior, you know the jungle, and you know the language."
They sent me to a platoon, which came to Maharashtra, so I took my chance and ran. I got up at 4 a.m. and escaped to my village. When I reached the village, I thought that I would rest for two or three days and then surrender to the police. But my uncle called the police the same day.
My uncle left the party before me. I heard them say that our house will be burned because my uncle went back. I felt that it was best to leave. What was the point of staying after they had harmed my family and destroyed my home? After that, my seniors started to be suspicious of me. How could I tell them to save him [my uncle]? They would not listen. I was small, didn't have any say in decisions.
I surrendered in May 2005. I can't go back home. I knew that I would have to go to jail or stay with the police. There was no other way. Even there, I would have eventually died by a bullet. Luckily, the police have pardoned my jail sentence. I am living with my uncle and his family. He now works for the police. If I go back to my village, they will come to get me. The rest of my family is still in the village. They are still in danger.
Now, my life is destroyed. I wasted 14 years. Coming back half-way through my life and starting again is difficult. If I had stayed at home and got married, it would have been better. Now at 27 years, I have to start a new life again.
As told to Dionne Bunsha