At a clearing in the forests of Chhattisgarh, barely a kilometer from the Chintalnar CRPF camp, a man in civvies walked up to our local guide. “Don’t take them any further. Remember, you have to live in this state”, he threatened.
A few hours earlier, we had chanced upon a Naxal poster nailed on a tree, saying 10 women were raped by the forces. We were waiting for motorcycles to visit their villages. The narrow strip of road slowly disintegrates ahead of Chintalnar, after which the ‘interior villages’ are considered Maoist strongholds. In the myopic narrative of the state, any attempt to venture into these areas is seen as an attempt to assist the Maoists.
Despite repeated attempts, security forces did not allow TEHELKA to go beyond the Chintalnar camp. Reasons ranged from safety concerns to the pretext of a Naxal bandh. “No one is being allowed into the area,” said Dornapal Assistant Sub-Inspector SK Dhurve. We watched as trucks and buses passed through without hindrance. TEHELKA then met the rape victims by crossing over into Andhra Pradesh, traversing an alternative back route through deep forests. What was an 80-km journey stretched to atleast 300 km.
In the Chhattisgarh conflict, there are many tools of war-the clampdown on civil society, the unplugging of Adivasis from access to the media or the judiciary, the arming of civilians, fake encounters, the arbitrary detention of villagers, and now a brutal targeting of tribal women. Rape has become a way to terrorise an entire community into submission. The Adivasis of Dantewada are increasingly being left with two choices-become part of the ‘mainstream’ or flee further into the forests.
Already, a new exodus has begun. The village of Mukram, only a few kilometers from where the Maoists ambushed 76 security personnel, is turning into a ghost village. On May 22, three a girls were raped and five people including the Sarpanch picked up.
Facing a backlash from the troops, most of the 115 families are fleeing to Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. “The forces broke into my houe during search operations”, says Mangal Kunjam. “Who knows what they might do next. We are leaving for Orissa tomorrow”
OF RAPES AND REFUGEES
At the edge of the forest, under a bamboo thatch, a lone clay pot simmers on a log fire. Crushed chilies and strewn clother are the only markers of habitation. This clearing in the forest is now home to two sisters-Madvi Hidme and Madvi Aimla- who recently fled their mud huts in Mukram. A third girl, Madvi Posse, hides in her aunt’s hut a few kilometers away.
Hidme, Aimla and Posse are the new pawns in a brutal war raging inside India’s heartland. All three girls, 14-18 years, accuse the forces of rape.
At around 4pm on May 22, they were sorting mahua flowers when they were picked up by patrolling troops and taken towards the Chintalnar CRPF camp. Two men held each girl by the arm. Midway, the women were thrown on the ground and beaten. They say the assaulters were a group of SPOs-Special Police officers –in shirts and lungis, joined at varying points by men in uniform. “You are so healthy, the Naxals must be feeding you well”, a man sneered at Hidme.
“They stamped on us with their boots. They kicked us in the stomach. They thrashed our backs with a gun and poked us with rifle butts. They beat us till our skin turned black and blue and until we soiled ourselves. They tore our clothers off. They accused us of helping the Naxals attack the forces”, says Hindme.
When the men tried to press themselves upon her, Hidme began screaming for help. She was gagged with a towel. “I was kicked in the genitals till I bled”, she says. She recalls being ‘grouped’ by several men before she lost consciousness. There were nail marks across her chest and her genitals bled for several days after.
“don’t go back home, I’ll marry you”, one of the assaulters told Hidme. “If you run away, we will find you, cut you up into pieces and bury you in cement”.
When Hidme regained consciousness, she was ordered to wash up in the pong. By then, Hidme’s mother had arrived to save her daughters. All four women were taken inside the CRPF camp and beaten again. “They pulled us by the hair, and twirled us around in circles”, Hidme says. At the camp, the men said that these women were part of the Chetna Natya Manch [CNM] the Maoist cultural outfit and had been picked up while they engaged in song and dance. It was only when an officer told his men, “Are you going to eat them? Lt them go”, that the three women were let off.
“We have no knowledge of any rapes last month”, says TG Longkumer, Inspector General of Basta. Ask Madvi Hidme if she wants her assaulters punished, and the horror of her story becomes more evident. You expect a fierce cry for justice. It does not come. Instead, there is a quiet statement: “These Cobras and SPOs should leave Dantewada. They should be sent out”, She has never heard of the Supreme Court, or any court, but says she’s willing to testify.
Justice, perhaps, is an urban idea. Perhaps that is why four women in Samseti village are yet to see any trace of it. TEHELKA’s cover story in July 2009, detailed the rape of six women in Samseti village in Dantewada. In court hearings, the state claimed that the accused SPOs are absconding. But TEHELKA tracked two of the accused. Soyam Muka, leader of Konta camp, was interviewed at his home a few kilometers from the police station. Budo Raja, leader of Injaram camp, lives opposite the CREF camp and greeted us with a jawan by his side.
In lacchipara, barely a few hundred meters from the Chintalnar CREF camp, villagers say at least one woman was raped, while attempts were made to rape two others. Madavi Nanda had stepped out of her bath and was barely clothed when the forces dragged her out of her house towards a distant hand pump,” says her mother-in-law. She was stripped naked and beaten. Another woman who was also dragged to the spot says she saw the forces lift Nanda’s petticoat. “They would have raped me too, but villagers had gathered,” she says.
“It has become a pattern for the forces to harass the women when the men are out in the fields, ‘ says Jago, a farmer. He alleges that they tried to rape his wife while she was cooking, ‘;” the forces tried to steal a hen I bought from Andhra for Rs. 300, “ says neighbor Madkam Sodi. “When I protested, a man brabbed my throat and bit my cheek”
In many ways, Dantewada is rapidly descending into a zone of no control-a battlefield where both armies have little writ over their soldiers. The Naxals continue to kill Adivasis as police informers villagers say it is often personal enmity, done without the knowledge of top comrades. The troops and SPOs continue to loot homes, steal chicken, threaten children, kill farmers and rape women.
This month, 600 more men arrived at the Chintalnar camp. TEHELKA has lernt that 150 SPOs were recruited this year and there is talk of inducting at least 1,000 more. To understand why this is significant, wander the 23 ‘relief’ camps in Bastar, set up in June 2005 after the raising of the Salwa Judum. Though the term means ‘Peace March’ and is touted as a local uprising against the Maoists, it is widely accepted that the Judum is a state sponsored militia responsible for evacuating 644 villages, killing countless tribals and displacing at least 1.5 lakh people.
In a sense, the Judum split Vastar into two-the camps and the villages, the roadside and the ‘interiors’, the State and the Naxals. It left no other options. That is what continues to be reinforced brutally on the ground. That is why a Sarpanch and his wife, an Anganwadi worker, had to rent a room by the road in Dornapal. “It’s not safe in the village. You never know when homes can be attacked”, says Madvi Podiyam. His own friends in the Salwa Judum have warned him: “Don’t go to the interiors. If we see during a search operation, we might kill you”.
Inside the Injaram camp, villagers are virtually under curfew. “We feel caged we have to come back by 6 pm. We can’t even trust the forces. If they bump into us on the road at night, they’ll think we were helping the Naxals”, says Madvi Bhime.
In Konta town, Aslam Bhai can barely sustain his family. Before the Judum days his income was Rs. 10,000 per month now it’s barely Rs. 3,000. A flourishing trade of tora [a fruit], madhua and tarmarind brought thousands of villagers to the Konta town market every Thursday. “No one comes now”, he says. “They are either in the camps or the villages”.
In April 2008, an Administrative Reform Commission headed by Congressman Veerappa Moily recommended the disbanding of the Salwa Judum. Additional Solicitor General Gopal Subramaniam asked: “How can the State give arms to some persons? The State will be abetting a crime if these private persons kill others”. On February 5, 2009, the state government assured the Supreme Court that the Salwa Judum was on its way out.
Yet, on the ground, Judum leaders themselves claim the movement is alive. Thousands continue to live as refugees, forcibly brought to the camps, unable to return home, and forever trapped in their identity as part of the Judum. More among them are now being made SPOs.
“How can they claim the Judum is over? Asks Kora Podiyam, a Sarpanch living inside Dornapal camp. “We have come here in the name of the Judum. We help the forces. If we get information about Naxals, we inform them immediately. Until we are here, the Judum exists”.
“There is no question of the Salwa Judum dissolving”, exclaims Judum leader P Vijay. “In fact, more and more people want to join us”. Most of these are families affected by Naxal violence or unemployed boys in the camps. Like Rajesh Arvind, who became an SPO when he was 12. “I had nothing else to do”, he explains. “It was good money”. His monthly salary of Rs. 2,150 will increase to Rs. 3000 starting July 2010.
Then there is Madkam Moriya from Banda village. “The forces barged into my village and began burning men alive”, he says. “We had no choice but to flee to the camps. Then the Naxals burnt the remaining homes”. When he reached the Konta camp, “Netas asked me to be come an SPO”, And so he did.
Madkam Munna, 19, has been living in the Dornapal camp since 2005. In the violence that ensued at the start of the Judum, Naxals killed three people in his village, including his uncle. He became an SPO in August 2009. Within six months, in February 2010, he was made part of the elite Khoya Commandos and trained in operating SLRs, LMGs, AK-47s, hand grenades and rifles. In the past one month, Munna has been on 20 search operations and picked up five people.
The SPOs are a lethal tool in a divide and –rule policy that is rapidly pitting Adivasi against Adivasi. Though the government claims that SPOs are distinct from the Salwa Judum, such stories blur the lines. The irony is that the women being raped and the SPOs assaulting them are pawns in a dangerous game.
At present, insiders estimate the total number of SPOs in Chhattisgarh to be at least 12,000. Sources told TEHELKA that the state police are hoping to induct more SPOs into the District Force[DF], where Rs, 12000 is the starting salary. In the last batch of DF vacancies that opened up this month, 70 of 120 posts have been filled by SPOs who need only to have passed Class 5. In a way, this could turn the DF into a sort of ruthless militia.
Sanjay Sharma, deputy SP of Dantewada, confirmed to TEHELKA that the DF has reserved seats for SPOs but would not say how many. “Those who are unemployed and against the Maoist ideology can become SPOs”, says Sharma. “for constables, education, physical fitness and a constabulary exam is a must. These not do apply to SPOs. They have to be 18, have good attitude and knowledge of the local terrain”. Intelligence is meant to be the primary asset of an SPO, but it often becomes a way to get personal enemies killed.
If you happened to be in an SPO tent, in the fading light of a hot summer day, as a bunch of 20-somethings toss around a football, the irony would become evident. “We have no intelligence, we haven’t caught any Naxals, and the public lives in fear of us”, says Soyam Mukesh, 22, “but there’s no way out”.
That is why SPOs inside Errabore camp whisper when the inspector is not looking. “We fear a Naxal attack. They fire at the camp at least twice a week. I’m scared to walk o n the road at night. We have become bigger targets after becoming SPOs, says Venkatesh, 26, from Gaganpalli village. “Even if we leave the job and go elsewhere, we’ll always be marked. We will die either way, so it’s better to keep fighting”. That is why Panda Mukesh, 23, shrugs now after four years of duty. “I’ve seen so much blood, nothing affects me now”.
Slowly, insidiously, the conflict has altered daily life in Bastar. Villagers trek hundreds of kilometers to weekly markets in Andhra Pradesh fearing harassment at the local bazaar. In Burkhapal, villagers have gathered in the dusk, frantically hailing passersby. Hours ago, in single file, the women started their 20 km trek to Chintagupa to get their PDS rice. The men have stopped going to the market for fear of being picked up. It is night in the deep jungle, and women have not returned. Patients in Dantewada now cross over the border because there is not a single MBBS doctor in their town. Children in the ‘interior’ villages go to a school in Adrapalli, AP. Whatever hospitals and schools existed earlier have either been emptied out by the Judum or blasted by the Naxals. Nearly 100 schools closed last year.
It has been five years since the Judum was formed, but there is no rehabilitation policy for displaced villagers. TEHELKA visited four ‘relief’ camps and found that almost 100 percent of the Adivasis want to return to their villages. Manni Paro pays a Judum leader Rs. 200 a month to keep her mud hut and tarpaulin sheets. Those who cannot afford the bribe moved further into the more cramped sections of the camp.
“We were much happier in our villages. The Naxals didn’t bother us before the Judum started. We got fish from the lakes and reared our chicken. Everything was cheap,” says Madkam Sita, from Konta camp. “Here, there is nothing to do and not enough to feed my three children”.
In what is perhaps an attempt to corroborate the government’s claim that it is giving the Judum no official support, the supply of free ration to the camps was stopped three months ago. Korsa Sanmu, Sarpanch of Silger and Judum leader, met the CM for answers. “We can’t feed you forever. You have to stand on your own feet. The supplies had to end at some point”, he says the CM told him.
The desperation has triggered a new trend. Most Dornapal camp villagers now trek upto 20 km to cultivate their fields, always fearfully. Some have received notices form the Naxals: “Come back home. We will not harm you”. But the past records are ugly, and there is a trust deficit in Dantewada.
For those whose homes are deeper in the jungle, even such daily trips are impossible. Mangal Dai from Aserguda village now toils under the NREGS, but yearns for his five-acre plot. “If I go back, the Naxals will kill me for being part of the Judum, and the Judum will kill me for helping the Naxals”, he says “We’re being hounded at both ends”.