Posts Tagged ‘Bastar

Bastar has contrary reasons to suspect the outsider


DARKNESS IS beginning to fall; I am in search of a hotel room in Jagdalpur. Two hotels have turned me away. They don’t give out rooms to single women. The third offers me a room, but with a rider. I am not to tell anyone that I am a journalist.

Why not? Journalists and professors come from Delhi and write “nasty things” about Bastar, is the reply. “We have been asked by the police not to entertain such people.”

There is no room – but there is growing disdain – for journalists, political and social activists, lawyers and academics among sections of the townspeople. Activist Bela Bhatia witnessed that recently, when a group of people threatened her and her landlady, and asked her to leave her ghar and gaon without delay. She had accompanied a human rights team to meet women who had alleged being sexually abused by the police. Delhi academics Nandini Sundar and Archana Prasad have seen this, too. They were booked last year on charges of murdering a tribal.

The threats are real, but the police shrug them off. The Jagdalpur superintendent of police, R.N. Dash, is convinced that local people have their own reasons for wanting to keep journalists and others out.

“Because people from Delhi write bad things about Bastar, nobody wants their daughters to get married to local men. People living outside Bastar think that their daughters will not be safe here,” he says. “Those who refused you a room are most likely fathers who’d failed to get brides for their sons, all because of wrong reporting. It’s very natural for them to be angry at outsiders.”

But it’s not just the outsider who fears the police in Bastar. As I travel into the interiors of Narayanpur, Dantewada, Bijapur and Sukma, villagers complain about being threatened and intimidated by the police. Not surprisingly, they first treat me with suspicion, not convinced that I am a journalist. I may well be a police agent, they say.

“People have come to us posing as journalists and related our complaints about police torture back to the police. Then the police came and beat us up,” says a young Dantewada villager.

Once they are convinced that you are indeed a journalist, the villagers open up – their hearts and their doors. In a quiet village, I am offered a room by a teacher’s wife because the nearest town with a hotel is miles and hours away. She gives me dinner – a small helping of daal and chawal.

In Bijapur, a young man offers to take me to a village in the forests – to meet victims of police torture – on a motorcycle. My taxi driver, Chander, takes the wheel as the villager and I squeeze in behind him. He skillfully manoeuvres the bike through long stretches of pebbled road, dirt tracks, fields and underbrush. It even splutters its way through a small stream. And then, after a series of sharp twists and turns, Chander suddenly loses control of the machine. All three of us, along with the bike, plunge into a rice field. Chander, also a local, is more amused than hurt. “Take a picture, Madam, capture the moment,” he tells me in Hindi. “We will remember that we’d had a fall.”

Pictures and selfies taken, we get back onto the bike and the mud track. We are deep in the jungles now. The sound of the wind, the swish of the leaves and the chatter of the birds travel with us. Finally, we reach our destination after an hour.

For the people of Bastar, travelling for hours to cover short distances is nothing new. They are used to walking for miles when they have to catch a bus.

When we return to the highway on our way back, evening is just about to set in. A few villagers are waiting at fancy bus stops that flaunt stainless steel seats and huge photographs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Raman Singh. The wait is often a long one, for buses are rare on this route.

As the sun begins to set, I spot a dark-skinned woman, small and barefoot, carrying wood on her head. Soon I can’t see her anymore – she has vanished into the dark.

Like most people in Bastar, she is now invisible.

Telegraph. February 5,2017


Sonia Sarkar travels to the benighted Bastar heartland and discovers a populace scalded by a rogue conflict between Maoists and proxy striking arms of the state. Her report

  • DEATH AIN’T NO WAY OF LIVING: Anita and Ramesh Mandavi at their home in Surnar village, Dantewada. Their brother, Kanki, was allegedly killed in a fake encounter in January this year; Pic: Sonia Sarkar

The two teenagers were inseparable. They danced together at village weddings, laughed together – and died together. They were near a stream, chatting the way they always did, when they were gunned down by a group of policemen.

“I saw the cops shooting them,” says 19-year-old Vanjam Hungla, another resident of Palamadgu village in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district.

Sariyam Pojje and Vanjam Shanti fell to the ground. Hungla saw that. Pojje was still alive. “Then the cops shot her again,” Hungla says. “The bullet hit her stomach and her intestines popped out.” He could see a packet of tamarind chutney tied to her waist.

Hungla, detained by the police for 19 days after the killing, says he was asked to carry the bodies to the Polampally police station, 10 kilometres from where they were killed on January 30.

The police later said that the girls were Maoists: their names were added to the growing list of “Maoists killed in encounters” in Chhattisgarh.

The two teenagers, villagers say, were killed by constables of the ” arakshak police” or the District Reserve Guard (DRG). Most DRG members are surrendered Maoists. Some left the underground guerrilla group after being disillusioned by their ideology; some for a better life. Joining the DRG or the Gopniya Sainik (Secret Police) assures them of an income and perks.

“Some of them ate a roti and sat under a fan for the first time in their lives after joining the force,” says IG (Bastar range) S.R.P. Kalluri.

  • Divide and kill: File photograph of a District Reserve Guard team returning from an anti-Maoist operation

In the last two years, 123 former Maoists have joined the DRG. Villagers tell you that the DRG has the freedom to do what it wants. Homes are looted, villages burnt down, women raped and killed, men tortured and left to die. “They are not fighting Maoists, but the Adivasis (tribals),” says Somali Hemla, a 55-year-old Bijapur villager.

Hemla knows that well. Her 27-year-old son, Situ, was killed – allegedly by the DRG – in July.

“Situ was working in the fields when some 100 policemen dragged him to a nearby forest. He was nailed to a tree and shot,” Hemla recalls. “Later, we heard that the cops thought he was a Maoist commander who had the same name,” she says as she looks at a photograph of Situ, tears rolling down her gaunt cheeks.

Her youngest son, Paklu, 25, says he saw the men. “I recognised them. They were from our village.” He was picked up by the police and detained for over a month at the Gangaloor police station after Situ’s death.

His elder brother, Sukharam, 31, was charged with being a Maoist and has been in jail for 11 years. He was picked up by members of the proscribed civil militia group, Salwa Judum.

Salwa Judum is dead, but long live DRG. The former was disbanded in 2012, following orders from the Supreme Court. But the DRG has emerged from its ashes – and is seemingly serving the same purpose.

The 1,500-member DRG is the Chhattisgarh government’s way of dealing with Maoist-dominated Bastar. The force was set up in 2015, and emerged as a powerful body after its members were allowed to carry out search operations. The Central Reserve Police Force, too, has started recruiting tribals for a new force called the Bastariya Battalion.

Over the years, the Bastar police have hired villagers in different forms. Tribal members were encouraged to join as special police officers (SPOs), and then enroll in the Auxiliary Armed Forces. The joining rules – including educational and physical requirements – were tweaked to enable the government to recruit tribals. The SPO has since been disbanded.

The DRG, villagers believe, kills anyone thought to be linked to the Maoists. Villagers say that Pojje and Shanti used to attend meetings convened by Maoists, like many other villagers.

For many of the new DRG members, the job comes with the promise of protection. “I had no option but to join the force as police officials said I would get killed [by the Maoists or by the police itself] if I didn’t join them,” says a DRG constable. “It’s better to be here. At least, there is protection.”

There is also money. The government gives Maoists Rs 10,000 when they surrender. On being recruited as constables, they are paid Rs 20,000 a month. Some are sent for specialised arms training to the Counter Terrorism & Jungle Warfare College Kanker in Chhattisgarh, and a few to Mizoram’s Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School.

The police claim the new strategy is yielding results. Over 110 Maoists have been killed in anti-Maoists operations carried out by the DRG and the special task force (STF) so far this year – recording the highest number of deaths in the last 16 years.

“They know the terrain and topography well. They also know the Maoist hideouts,” Kalluri says.

This was the role that was given to the Salwa Judum, too. Set up in 2005, it is believed to have displaced over 1,50,000 people and killed 250 over seven years. Its demise led to the formation of new groups. The villagers allege that the names change, but the aim and execution remain the same.

In Jagdalpur, the district headquarters – where Kalluri’s close lieutenant, R.N. Dash, is the district superintendent of police – groups such as the Action Group for National Integration (AGNI), Police Friends, Police Natya Mandali and Jai Bastar Vikas Sangharsh Samiti have come up in recent times.

For the forces, the men’s knowledge of the terrain is all important. They can trek to the hilly and forested interiors with ease – something that the city police have difficulty doing.

Development has bypassed many of the villages, as has governance. The heads of most village panchayats live in the cities as they fear Maoist attacks. Villages such as Palamadgu and Koraiguda in Sukma are governed by a “Janatana Sarkar” – people’s government. Villagers say that the “Sarkar” repairs wells and distributes medicines. The two villages have freshly painted memorials for Maoists killed by the police.

Some villagers accuse the police of forcing them to join them. “They come for search operations and make us stand in a line. Then they ask, ‘Are you with us or with them’,” says Basuram Kuriam, a Dantewada villager. “I wish we could tell them that we are not with either.”

Sometimes, the villagers succeed in resisting the police. When constables from the Dhaudai police station asked young men of Narayanpur’s Sulenga to join them, the entire village opposed the move. “We asked them to first give us good roads, then to come to us for our boys. Now they don’t harass us anymore,” a villager says.

Mostly, however, villagers have little choice but to give in. And they allege that young men of their villages continue to be killed for no reason. That is what happened to Kanki Mandavi of Surnar village in Dantewada, they say. The 20-year-old deaf and mute man was picked up by the police from a market on January 26. A day later, he was killed with two Maoists, Bal Singh and Kosa, in an alleged encounter at the Turrempara-Lakhapal forest area.

“But Kanki had no links with the Maoists,” says his malaria-hit brother, Ramesh.

The world outside Bastar is taking note of these deaths. The Supreme Court in April slammed the state government for fake encounters. Top police officials also admit that there have been human rights violations. “In February, I wrote to the SPs to say that no police force is above the law,” says D.M. Awasthi, special director-general (Naxal Operation and Special Intelligence Bureau).

Some among the new recruits are troubled by the operations. “Perhaps I will join the Maoists again, if I get a chance,” says a surrendered Maoist, now in the DRG.

In Bastar, nothing changes.


The rise and fall of Salwa Judum

  • A civil militia started by the state government in 2005
  • Accused of raiding and burning down villages, torture, rape and murder
  • More than 250 people estimated to have been killed and 1,50,000 villagers displaced by the group over seven years
  • Was active in Dantewada, Bijapur and Sukma districts
  • Top leaders — Mahendra Karma, Ajay Singh, Soyam Mukka, Chaitram Attami and Sukhdev Tati
  • In 2011, Supreme Court called it illegal and unconstitutional; asked the state to disband it
  • Disbanded in 2012


District Reserve Guard (DRG)

  • Operates under the superintendent of police of a district
  • Since 2015, surrendered Maoists have been encouraged to join the force because they know the terrain and Maoist hideouts
  • Some of them are trained in the Counter Terrorism & Jungle Warfare College Kanker, and a select few are sent to Mizoram’s Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School
  • Many members state that they joined the force for police protection

Other Vigilante groups aiding security forces

1. Action Group for National Integration (AGNI)
2. Police Friends
3. Tangia
4. Jai Bastar Vikas Sangharsh Samiti
5. Samajik Ekta Manch (recently disbanded)


  • Number of Maoists killed: 188
  • Number of surrendered Maoists: 1902
  • Number of surrendered Maoists who joined the DRG (2015-16): 53 
  • Number of surrendered Maoists who joined the Secret Police or Gopniya Sainik: 70
  • Number of Maoists camps raided by the police: 21

Police figures; from June 2014 to November 2016

List of alleged fake encounters in 2016

  • January 2016: 13 civilians killed in Pedda Jojod and Akwa in Bijapur, Palamadgu in Sukma, and Surnar in Dantewada
  • February 2016: Three civilians killed in Singaram, Itanapara and Chintagupa in Sukma
  • May 2016: Four civilians killed in Marjum in Dantewada and Kanaiguda in Sukma
  • June 2016: Madkam Hidme of Gompad in Sukma was picked up from her village, raped and killed by police. Chhattisgarh High Court later directed that the body be exhumed and a postmortem be conducted and videographed
  • July 2016: Teen undertrial killed in Chandometa in Bastar
  • September 2016: Two children killed in the Sanguel forests of Burgum

Figures and names given out by Maoist groups and villagers



Bastar police boss S.R.P. Kalluri reveals to Sonia Sarkar the symptoms of his troubled reputation

  • Illustration: Suman Choudhury

    The mood changes palpably as the white car enters Jagdalpur Airport. Men in uniform straighten their spines; civilians are on their feet. An eerie silence descends on the helipad.

    But the man who alights from the car looks surprisingly innocuous. Is this short and stout man, just about five feet tall, the one who is referred to as the terror of Bastar? I can’t believe it.

    Neither can K. Sivarama Prasad Kalluri, the controversial inspector-general of police (IGP), Bastar Range, Chhattisgarh. “The people of Bastar love me,” says the 45-year-old officer in charge of the seven districts of Bastar, a Maoist hotbed.

    Perhaps not all of them. Bastar villagers accuse Kalluri of unleashing men on them who torture, rape and terrorise them. They are behind fake encounters and forced surrenders, many villagers allege, Kalluri is fighting Adivasis, not the Maoists.

    Not the villagers, Kalluri – a follower of Rajneesh, the late godman of Pune – counters. “It’s only people from Delhi such as Nandini Sundar who come to Bastar and spread negativity about me,” he says.

    Kalluri brings in the Delhi University professor often into the conversation. Sundar and three others were booked by the Chhattisgarh police last week for the murder of a tribal, Shamnath Baghel, of Namapara in Soutenar village in Sukma district.

    Baghel, a member of a local armed vigilante group called Tangia, had lodged a complaint in May against Sundar, Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Archana Prasad, and political activists Vineet Tiwari and Sanjay Parate. According to Kalluri, Baghel had said that Sundar had threatened him, saying that if he didn’t stop his battle against the Maoists, they would kill him.

    “Sundar will be investigated for this. We are going to make an issue out of this. But we are otherwise very busy,” Kalluri says when we meet in Jagdalpur on November 6.

    But something doesn’t seem right. When Kalluri speaks about Sundar on Sunday, there has been no mention in the media about the murder charges against them. Yet, when the news breaks, it appears that the charges were filed on November 5, Saturday.

    Baghel’s wife Vimala had delivered a baby boy on November 2. Baghel, who lived elsewhere with other Tangia members, visited her that day. He was killed two days later, at midnight, when he was sleeping at home, Kalluri says.

    Four days later, Kalluri informs me over the phone that an FIR against Sundar and the others was lodged at the Tongpal police station on November 5, based on Vimala’s complaint. Vimala, however, later told a news channel that she had not named Sundar or the others in her complaint.

    Further, it’s a distance of 14 kilometres or so from her house to the police station. Did she walk all the way right after giving birth to a baby, I ask him.

    “How does that matter,” he retorts. “You’re insensitive, inhumane and uncivilised. You are not a court of law. Do you think I care for you? You are just a journalist like hundreds of others. You cannot interrogate me. From your question, I can make out that you are going to come up with a negative story. I care a damn for journalists like you, coming from outside and trying to play havoc with Bastar.”

    He rants on for five minutes and 30 seconds. “Ask proper questions, be humane. Tribals are getting slaughtered because of remote control [actions] from JNU and DU. I will eliminate Maoism from Bastar, it’s my challenge. If you are sympathetic to the cause of tribals and democracy, I am willing to spend days and hours with you. If you want to write a negative story, don’t waste my time. Are these professors running terror camps in PoK or educating enlightened students? She threatens and the complainant gets killed, is this civilisation?”

    He bangs the phone down.

    Sundar, whose legal actions led to the ban on the government-led vigilante group, Salwa Judum, in 2011, is the Chhattisgarh police’s favourite bugbear. The 2010 Infosys Prize winner has often highlighted excesses committed by Kalluri’s forces. In May, she had filed a report about staged surrenders and mass arrests of tribals by the police. Her interventions also led the Central Bureau of Investigation to file a chargesheet against special police officers and Salwa Judum members for burning down 160 houses in Tadmetla in Dantewada district in 2011. Kalluri was then the senior superintendent of police (SSP) there.

    Kalluri is a lot more effusive before I raise the issue of Vimala and infuriate him. I ask him if the chargesheet has come as a setback for him.

    “I am working in full force, so where is the setback,” he asks. “Nandini Sundar and others will not be able to enter Bastar. People will stone them. They are on the run, and they are on the back foot. Strict legal action will be taken against anyone trying to tamper with our internal security. She has been inciting people to violence. They are inciting mutiny, a rebellion. They are all renegades,” he fumes.

    The super cop has no time for people who talk about human rights violations. He himself has faced such allegations. In 2007, civil liberties groups in the state took up the case of Leda Bai, a tribal woman in Balrampur, who had accused Kalluri of killing her husband and then raping her inside the Shankargarh police station. Leda later withdrew her complaint before the Bilaspur high court, and the case was dismissed. There have been allegations against him relating to fake encounters and forced surrenders, too.

    “So many commissions have been formed in these so-called fake cases (encounters) but, so far, all the allegations have been proved baseless,” he says.

    Kalluri doesn’t care too much for “people from Delhi” who come to Chhattisgarh to talk or write about tribal issues. The phrase “you journalists from Delhi” figures often in his conversation. He tells his aides, “These journalists who come from Delhi think that Maoists are Robin Hood.”

    The aides, including Jagdalpur superintendent of police, R.N. Dash, mill around him as we chat at the airport in the Bastar district headquarters (from where Kalluri is going to take a chopper). A 1994 batch IPS officer, Kalluri belongs to Andhra Pradesh, is a devotee of Lord Balaji, and sports an ash tilak prominently on his forehead. A constable brings him a glass of water. But Kalluri doesn’t want it. ” Hataao yahan se (remove it),” he shouts.

    The civilians waiting for him are members of a civil vigilante group called the Action Group for National Integration (AGNI), created under his guidance. They are lawyers, teachers, doctors, trade unionists and Bharatiya Janata Party members. Some of them were with the disbanded group, Samajik Ekta Manch, which allegedly harassed activists and journalists in Jagdalpur.

    “They are all nationalists who want to do something for the nation,” Kalluri stresses. “But there is a policeman in everyone.”

    I find that I am not the only one taking down notes; an AGNI member is scribbling everything down furiously, too. He is a journalist, he says.

    Kalluri uses the social media extensively to spread his messages. A day after we meet, he sends me on WhatsApp over 35 images, videos and newspaper clippings – some of which show him posing with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Kalluri tells Modi will eradicate Maoists before the next election,” says the headline of one newspaper clipping.

    He has the blessings of chief minister, Raman Singh, too. That’s the patent Kalluri style – staying close to power. (He was also known to be close, as Bilaspur SP, to Chhattisgarh’s first chief minister, Ajit Jogi.) These days he is seen as the current CM’s man. In 2009, he became the senior SP in Dantewada; in 2014, he was Bastar IG.

    The cop measures his success in numbers. He talks about the appreciative letters he has received from the ministry of home affairs in Delhi. More than 110 Maoists have been killed so far this year – the highest number of casualties in 16 years. He has been encouraging surrendered rebels to join the District Reserve Guard (DRG), which has led to successful anti-Maoist operations.

    “They (surrendered Maoists) are always after us, saying, ‘Sir, party nikaliye, operation jana hai (bring out a posse, we want to go on an operation),” Kalluri says.

    What about allegations that DRG recruits have been killing innocent villagers in the operations? “The police fire only in self-defence,” he replies.

    And then he elaborates, “It may appear that they are villagers but they are basically members of their frontal organisation, the People’s Liberation Army. When the man goes to a bazaar, he is a villager. But when the police run after him, he will pick up his bharmar (firearm) and fight.”

    Human rights activists allege that Kalluri is pitting tribals against each other. “They are using villagers and we are equipping villagers to fight their own war,” he says. “We ask villagers, are you on this side or that?”

    Kalluri insists that he has a humane face. Recently, he organised the wedding of former Maoists. “Sex is a biological instinct. So we tell them, if you want to join the mainstream, we will also see that you marry someone of your choice; we will pay for it. And we do it in a fabulous way,” he claims. “If someone’s marriage breaks, I am the first person to help them patch up. There is lot of love and hard work in it,” he says.

    He is getting ready now to board the helicopter, accompanied by Dash and AGNI members. He is going to Burgum, 72 kilometres from Jagdalpur, to meet villagers. “We want to leave behind a legacy,” he tells me. “In two years, Bastar will become a heaven.”

    I can already hear the harps playing.


    2000: Kalluri, a 1994 batch IPS officer from Andhra Pradesh, opts for the Chhattisgarh cadre

    He is posted as SP in northern Chhattisgarh. Is credited with decimating Maoist legions in Surguja district

    Efficiency apart, he also comes to be known as a ruthless figure. In 2007, Leda Bai, a tribal woman in Balrampur, accuses him of killing her husband and then raping her when she tried to get legal help
    2011: During his tenure as SSP Dantewada, three villages are burnt down allegedly on his orders. Uproar follows. Judicial enquiry is ordered and Kalluri is transferred
    2013: He is conferred the President’s Police Medal for Meritorious Service despite criticism by civil rights activists
    2014: The Chhattisgarh government appoints him IG of Bastar Range to battle Maoists. Kalluri’s hot-pursuit targets include social activists, academicians and journalists

‘These jholawallahs have the habit of stirring up issues’
Social activists feel he has violated human rights. But Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh says that he has turned around the state and set it on the path of industrialisation
Chief minister Raman Singh is smiling at the world. He is beaming from huge billboards, showcasing development in Chhattisgarh, lining the roads of its capital, Raipur. The smile, his associates tell me, is the chief minister’s calling card. So I am not surprised when he counters a question on the growing menace of Naxalism — when I meet him later in his office — with a broad smile.

“Around 99.9 per cent of the state is under our control. The Naxal situation has improved in the past seven years and is getting better by the day,” says Singh, smiling confidently. “Abujhmad — a 4,000-sq-km area in Bastar — is the only place which is partially under the control of the Naxalites. We will soon conquer that too.”

Singh, 59, is serving his second term as the state’s chief minister. Some eight years ago, he was a quiet minister at the Centre. Today, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader is seldom out of the news — rated as a successful administrator by his admirers and berated as a violator of human rights by his critics.

An astute politician, Singh, however, stresses that he never thought he would occupy the chief minister’s seat. “Politics was never in my nature. I came into politics by default,” he says, dressed in a neta’s typical garb of a white kurta-pyjama.

It was during the Emergency in 1975 that Singh decided to join socialist leader Jaya Prakash Narayan’s movement. He became a member of the students’ wing of the Jan Sangh, which later transformed into the BJP. “The president of the wing did not attend an important meeting, so I was asked to replace him,” he recalls.

Born to an advocate father and a homemaker mother, Singh grew up in various towns in Chhattisgarh. He studied science in a government college outside Raipur, and then became an Ayurveda doctor. But he continued to hone his interest in politics. He was elected municipal councillor from Kawardha, 140km from Raipur, in 1983. He also represented the town in the Assembly from 1990 to 1998. In 1999, he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Rajnandgaon, defeating veteran Congress leader Motilal Vohra, and was appointed minister of state for commerce and industries in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government at the Centre.

Singh says he became chief minister too by default. During the 2003 state Assembly elections, Singh was chosen as the chief minister at the last moment after former Union minister Dilip Singh Judeo — then the only BJP leader in Chhattisgarh with a statewide appeal — was caught on camera in a cash scam just weeks before the poll.

“I never thought that my involvement in politics would be for such a long period. I had never even dreamt that I would become a chief minister,” he says.

But Singh attributes his success to an old bond with the poor. “I started connecting with the poorest of the poor when I used to practise as a doctor because I had the opportunity to serve them,” he says.

His critics, however, hold that he is far removed from the poor these days. Villagers in places such as Janjgir Champa and Chhurikala, who have been protesting against government moves to acquire land for setting up industries, think he has little time for them. There have been accusations of government high-handedness. Singh’s party has been vocal on the issue of Nandigram in West Bengal — where police fired at protesting villagers. But hasn’t his government also trampled on the rights of Chhattisgarh’s villagers?

“There has been no police firing on villagers unlike in Nandigram. Some rare incidents of protests have happened. But we have increased the compensation package from Rs 70,000 to Rs 10 lakh per acre of land,” he says.

Clearly, Singh’s eyes are focused on industry, as land makes way for factories. Singh has signed 108 memoranda of understanding with industrialists, mostly for setting up power plants.

The industry bug bit him during his stint at the Centre. That was when he also learnt to hone his presentation skills — essential for wooing industrialists. “I learnt how to make my case stronger when placed before anyone — whether the Planning Commission or the Prime Minister,” says Singh.

He is doing that right now, even as he speaks. Every 15 minutes or so, he tells me how all is well in Chhattisgarh. “There is zero problem in my state. Industrialisation has developed our villages, as schools, hospitals and sports complexes get built around them. Jobs have been created for the villagers too. I am not worried about anything,” he asserts, his voice going up a few notches.

He takes a break to answer a call, while I look at the room we’ve been sitting in. It’s sparsely furnished with a wooden sofa set, a couple of chairs and a table. A huge plasma television set, however, is strategically placed facing the chief minister, who now resumes his speech. “I have changed the face of the villages with welfare schemes,” he continues.

I remind him that the Supreme Court appointed food commissioner, Harsh Mander, recently said in a report that people in three villages in Bastar — Tadmetla, Morpalli and Timmapuram — were “forced to live in a starvation-like situation.” They had been denied basic welfare schemes such as the public distribution scheme, pension and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

“Tadmetla is the only village which is not fully covered by government schemes. It is badly affected by Naxalites who stop us from going there. But I still visit these places against all odds,” he says.

The villages were recently in the news when activists claimed that three people had been killed, five women raped and 300 houses burnt by some 200 members of the Salwa Judum (vigilante groups armed by the state) and 150 special police officers (SPOs). But Singh dismisses the allegations. “The Naxals attacked these villages, not the SPOs,” he says.

In fact, he even denies the existence of the Salwa Judum. “Villagers who fear Naxal attacks have been given protection in our relief camps. There might be one or two armed persons in these camps but we have not provided them with arms,” says Singh.

I point out that social anthropologist Nandini Sundar — recipient of the 2010 Infosys award for social sciences — had in her petition to the Supreme Court alleged that the Salwa Judum was responsible for 537 murders, 99 rapes and 103 acts of arson in Bastar since the civil militia movement started in 2005. Singh is not convinced. “In these relief camps, we provide basic amenities to people who have been robbed of everything by the Naxals. How can these people be charged with such heinous crimes,” he retorts.

Singh, clearly, has quite a low opinion of social activists. “These jholawallahs have the habit of stirring up issues,” he says.

Not surprisingly, many social activists allege ill-treatment by the administration. Some have fled the state, and some have been jailed. The most prominent prison inmate was paediatrician and social activist Binayak Sen, who was charged with sedition and conspiracy against the state and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Raipur additional district and sessions court last December. The Supreme Court granted bail to Sen in April.

Sen’s imprisonment was condemned by politicians, professionals and activists from across the country and the world, but Singh doesn’t believe the state erred in rounding up the doctor. “I don’t think Sen has done any good to people here. There were no protests in my state. He must have treated people in Delhi and London, or perhaps he treated Sanyal whom he visited several times in jail,” he says, referring to jailed Naxal leader Narayan Sanyal.

He is not smiling very often now. His eyes keep darting towards principal secretary N. Baijendra Kumar, who is sitting next to him. Besides Kumar, Singh has called in his other trusted lieutenants — state energy secretary Aman Kumar Singh and his special secretary Subodh Singh — to sit through the interview. They take notes from time to time, and also nod in approval every now and then.

Singh likes his disciplined aides, being quite a disciplined man himself. He learnt the rigours of discipline at the shakhas or training camps of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which he joined as a youngster. Recently, he courted controversy after he asked his officers to join RSS shakhas. But Singh denies that now. “How can I ask someone to go or not to go to a shakha? It is a personal choice that one has to make,” he says with a frown.

The frown seems to indicate that my time is up. As I leave, I spot some books on Singh’s table. “I like reading everything from fiction to non-fiction,” he says, but can’t offhand recall the name of the last book that he read.

He remembers his favourite Hindi songs more easily. “I love listening to this song —Wahan kaun hai tera, musaafir, jayega kahan,” he says, referring to a song composed and sung by Sachin Dev Burman. Now the chief minister’s smile is back. “Who’s there for you, traveller, where will you go,” is the opening line of the song in the film Guide.

As far as Raman Singh is concerned, he is not going anywhere — not yet, in any case. He’s got reason to smile.