In the second of a three-part series, Suvojit Bagchi meets the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Maoist and state militias.
During my stay in Dandakaranya’s Maoist-dominated areas that lasted five weeks, I saw hundreds of young boys and girls with staleness in their eyes and an indifferent demeanour. One of them, Suklu, a man in his early 20s, accompanied me to Mettagaon, a village dominated by the rebels north of the Indrawati River. I often caught Suklu in the corner of the tent, listening to news on the radio with his usual nonchalance.
Occasionally, he would put a red flower behind his left ear and a matchstick in his right ear and roll it. Suklu prompted me to think of him as an ideal candidate for the National Rural Employment Scheme (NREGA).
On the third day of my visit to the forests of Dandakaranya, Suklu left me shocked. We were on our way to Mettagaon when he told me that he headed the defence wing of the village council.
“We are called jan (people’s) militia,” Suklu said, adding that he headed a group of 25. He explained that the militia was a local force and differed from the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
“The militia’s role can be compared to that of the Bangladeshi freedom fighters of the 1971 war who acted as informers and mobilised sporadic attacks on the Pakistan Army or to Vietcong fighters, who the US Armed Forces referred to as ‘… man, woman or child… tough fighter (who fights for) liberation’,” he said.
The militiamen dress in civilian outfits, unlike the fatigue-clad PLGA members, and form several concentric and invisible layers around the fighters. The militiamen, being locals, mingle easily with villagers and collect information about the movement of state forces. In case a camp is exposed to a police operation, the Maoists use intelligence inputs from the militias to decide whether to stay put in the area, disappear or counter attack.
“We move faster than the forces as we know the terrain better,” Suklu said.
I stopped encouraging “romantic” notions about seemingly “incomplex” Gonds with brass earrings and red flowers in braids. It was, however, evident that the Left wing militias hardly care about the theoretical bits of Marxism or Maoism. Instead, they undertake dangerous assignments for the sake of the party.
One such assignment, to smuggle me across the area between the guerrilla base and police camps into Maoist-dominated regions, was undertaken by a man called Gassi. We walked past paramilitary camps even as Gassi thoughtfully acted as the lookout and asked me to “relax”. Curious as to what could drive someone to take such risks, I enquired about his motivation.
“My family has been systematically tortured by the forest and revenue guards,” Gassi said in broken Hindi.
Forest and revenue department officials have been allegedly harassing tribes in the region for decades over “chopping of trees or killing of wild animals”, which the locals consider an “infringement of their rights”. To make matters worse, the forest officers settled the cases “illegally” by taking money or by demanding other benefits such as the company of tribal women. A large number of the militiamen joined the party in solidarity with the movement to drive away the officials.
The militias actively assist the PLGA in combat. Being members of a hunter-gatherer society, the predominantly Gond militiamen are adept at setting up traps to snare animals. The traps are two feet deep and four feet wide cavities covered with shrubs. Inside the traps are finely chiselled wooden spears and iron rods inserted vertically.
The militias often set up such traps along the likely routes of the security forces. The objective is to make at least one soldier fall into the trap during a military encounter. “If one soldier falls into the trap, the entire battalion slows down,” Suklu said.
A group of tribal women singing about the revolution. They even break into folk songs from their tribes
The militias mostly carry gunpowder rifles and traditional weapons like bows and arrows. The weapons that are used to kill wild animals have often come in handy to thwart the movement of the security forces. The militias are also trained to make pressure bombs using ammonium nitrate. They can set up landmines and trigger blasts, though I did not get to see any.
In Mettagaon, the militia, also called the “base force”, has 24 members in the platoon, of which 13 are women. The platoon has five single-shot gunpowder rifles, 10 knives, and 10 bows and arrows. The overall size of the Maoist militias is anybody’s guess. Based on the number of village councils controlled by the Maoists, it could be between 1 lakh and 1.2 lakh. Surely, all of them are not party cadres.
Comrade Jagesh, head of the Northern Regional Command of the PLGA in Dandakaranya, refused to disclose the overall size of the militia for “strategic reasons”.
He did, however, mention that “300 to 500 boys and girls have joined every year since the launch of Salwa Judum”, the erstwhile state-sponso-red anti-Maoist vigilante movement.
“They are the eyes and ears of the party,” he said. When these “eyes and ears” waver, the party gets into trouble, leaders get arrested or killed. That the leaders survived in south Chhattisgarh confirms that the party, villagers and the militiamen are closely integrated.
An officer with the Chhattisgarh police said they feared the “eyes and ears” the most, as they are “hidden”.
The state has its own militia. Their names are changed periodically, from Gopniye Sainik (the secret army) to Salwa Judum, special police officers and the Auxiliary Force.
After leaving the Maoist strongholds, I had the privilege of travelling on NH 16 through Dantewada with several people who had decided to violate the law, albeit with state assistance. Dileep Sethia — a shaggy-bearded, stocky man in a neatly-pressed white shirt and trousers — was with a Maoist squad till the mid-1990s and now is one of the main strikers of Dantewada police.
He carries in his trouser pocket a 9mm pistol that fires 12 rounds. He walks around with a group of local boys who function as his bodyguards and often says that the war against the Maoists can never be won “without these boys”. Sethia and his “boys” are called the SPOs.
Technically, Sethia was not an SPO. He, in his capacity as a constable, headed a wing of SPOs with 65 fighters of the Delta Force of Koya commandos. He was happy with his life — the local police chief was a phone call away and he had bodyguards with semi-automatic rifles.
Sethia’s machismo, his eagerness to resolve all issues single-handedly, using automatics, reminded me of movie gangsters. “If they (the police) get 50 or 60 like me, things will change,” he told me.
Well-ensconced in my car, we set off on our tour of Dantewada. As I pressed the red button of my voice recorder, I realised it was worth spending an hour with Sethia.
Sethia: I was promoted because I took part in lot of operations, killed them (the Maoists) in various places… I led the group in various places, so was promoted and made a constable from being an SPO.
Question: People you killed were Naxalites?
Sethia: Yes, Naxalites.
Question: How many have you killed so far?
Sethia: I have lost count. Killed in several places. Entered Andhra Pradesh and killed, with Greyhound force… killed them in Maharashtra.
He has, incidentally, heard of the ideals of human rights. He knows that the law that scares also gives him immunity. He knows emotionally and physically he has an advantage over foot soldiers of the CRPF from Assam or Kerala. “Look at their paunches. They can’t fight. Only we (the local boys) can… We are tough, we know the terrain.”
He is aware that almost every senior police officer in south Chhattisgarh who criticises the arming of the tribes in public tells journalists privately that the war cannot be won without the Sethias or gangs of gun-toting tribesmen. He also knows that his parent organisation’s name will change from Gopniye Sainik to Auxiliary Force over the years, but he will always head the anti-Maoist force, till one evening someone guns him down in a nondescript weekly market.
On my last phone call, he told me that his bodyguard Yogesh had stepped on a landmine. “Guns failed this Gond,” he said as the phone line snapped.
(Suvojit Bagchi works for THE HINDU in Chattisgarh. He shares here his experience as a Correspondent with BBC World Service inside the Red Zone.)
(First Published in THE SUNDAY GAURDIAN)