Posts Tagged ‘Chhattisgarh

Delhi University professor Nandini Sundar has been taken by controversy again. This time a surrendered Bastar “Maoist”, Podiyami Panda, has alleged that he facilitated meetings between her, rights activist Bela Bhatia and top Maoists, a claim she denies. Last year, Sundar, author of The Burning Forest – India’s War in Bastar, was charged with murder of a tribal in Sukma district. Far away from the Maoist hinterland, sitting at her office in Delhi School of Economics, Sundar faults both the government and the Maoists and pleads for peace talks. Where she herself is concerned, she sees a “witch-hunt” by state agencies. Sundar, 49, an awarded academic – recipient of the Ester Boserup Prize (2016) and Infosys Prize ( 2010) – also tells SONIA SARKAR that she suspects directives against her are coming from the very top in the political establishment – the Prime Minister’s Office and national security advisor Ajit Doval.


Q. What’s your response to Podiyami Panda’s statement that he was the link between you and Maoist leaders in Bastar?

A. I have never met any Maoist leader through Panda. It’s a false statement.

It seems that he has been tortured in police custody. His family members have filed a habeas corpus plea in the Chhattisgarh High Court. In the affidavit, his brother has stated that he met Panda in the presence of police; he was not able to walk properly, and seemed to have injuries on his feet. It is clear that he has been saying whatever the police want him to say. The police have been trying to frame us for a long time; they make us the target whenever they get an opportunity.

Q. Have you ever met Panda?

A. I know him for the past 15 years. He was a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and sarpanch of Chintagufa in Sukma. I met him because he was strongly opposing the Salwa Judum (civil militia) movement in 2005. It was in April 2015 that I met him for the last time.

Q. Did you ever meet any Maoist leader?

A. In May 2006, as part of the Independent Citizens’ Initiative, I met Gudsa Usendi – the name taken on by a succession of Maoist spokespersons. I object to this question on principle because it is insulting to researchers. If journalists feel entitled not to reveal their sources and meet all sides, why shouldn’t researchers? For the record, I have written on my chance meeting with lower cadres in my book. I criticised their violence, so they accused me of equating their violence with state violence. For my research, I would have wanted to meet more Maoist leaders but they never offered any guided tour or any interview because I asked them too many difficult questions.

Q. Why do you think Bela Bhatia and you are often drawn into controversies? Why is there so much questioning of your role in Bastar?

A. It is because Bela and I have been consistently insisting on peace talks. The state wants to discredit us. It doesn’t want any middle ground – it wants a black-and-white situation where there is nothing but the presence of military force.

Q. You have been working in Bastar since the 1990s. Is this sort of harassment new to you?

A. The state started harassing me ever since I filed a petition in the Supreme Court opposing Salwa Judum. In 2007, the police photo-shopped my image. I was shown with my arms around Maoist women cadres. They wanted to say that I filed the case on behalf of the Maoists. When I protested, the police replied saying it was one “Ms Jeet”. Nothing has ever been heard of this Ms Jeet before or after. In 2010, when I visited Bastar along with a friend, after being asked by the additional solicitor-general, we were picked up by 50 armed special police officers. They even followed us to the airport to make sure we left. Then last year, there was a murder charge against me but I have got a reprieve from the Supreme Court. But now, there is harassment by the Centre, which is putting pressure on Delhi University. If I apply for leave, I am asked, “What’s happening to your murder case?”

Q. Do you think the former IG (Bastar range) S.R.P. Kalluri made things worse for you? He filed murder charges against you.

A. I don’t think Kalluri was the sole issue. Yes, his language was defamatory. But I was harassed even when Vishwaranjan was the director-general of police (from 2007 to 2011). The main issue is that chief minister Raman Singh is condoning all of this.

Q. Do you think the Centre, too, has a role in all of this?

A. Yes. Either the Prime Minister’s Office or the national security advisor, Ajit Doval – it’s the political establishment that should be held accountable, not just the police.

Q. What changes have you noticed with BJP coming to power?

A. I think, Salwa Judum has spread all over the country in the form of gau rakshaks and vigilante mobs. The atmosphere now has become vitiated and violent.

Q. Are you a tribal rights activist or has your role changed into that of a mediator between the Maoist and the mainstream?

A. I don’t call myself a rights activist or a mediator. I am a sociologist whose work is to research and teach. In the course of that, I have been drawn into this because it’s an area I have done research on.

Q. What’s your understanding of the Maoists issue? Where are they going wrong?

A. The surrendered Maoists I interviewed have revealed that there is corruption in the ranks. Also, they carry out horrible punishments – like they kill people if they are suspected of being police informers. This is a perversion of their policy. The top leadership should realise that this strategy is going nowhere.

Q. What should be the approach of the government towards Maoists?

A. There should be peace talks. There should be a set of independent people who could be trusted by both sides such as former Supreme Court judges, retired administrators, policemen and others to mediate.

Sonia Sarkar travels into the depths of Abujmarh, Chattisgarh’s inaccessible and guerilla-run forestland, to find flourishing shoots of commerce and change.

A collage of colours – bright blue, yellow and black – welcomes you to Orchha, a small town in the Maoist stronghold of Abujmarh in Chhattisgarh. Coloured tarpaulin sheets drape tables laden with goods set up along the undulating lane that cuts through the dusty town.

Ramesh Usendi holds his chequered blue-grey lungi, fluttering in the wind, with one hand, and with the other fiddles with an MP3 player. He has bought this digital player of Chinese make for Rs 150.

“The shopkeeper downloaded some Gondi songs for me,” says the 25-year-old from Jatlur, 30 kilometres from Orchha in Narayanpur district. Gondi is the predominant tribal language spoken in Abujmarh.

In this back-of-beyond pocket – a land caught in a time warp – excitement arrives every Wednesday morning. For this is when the haat comes up, week after week and through the year. People walk from their villages in the hills and forests, often trekking all day and more to travel 45 kilometres or so, to buy – or perhaps just look at – the goods on sale.

There are torches on the tables, LED bulbs, emergency lamps and even selfie sticks. From synthetic clothes and plastic slippers to fashion jewellery and from pencil cells to mobile phones, the market tempts villagers with a variety of goods. Most have a Made in China emboss; the prices range from Rs 50 to Rs 1,400.

  • WORLD WINDOW: The Orchha bazaar is a social hub where tribals from far-flung hamlets congregate once a week. Pictures by the author

Dressed in a fitted red blouse with a green gamchha and a strip of printed cloth wrapped around her thin waist, Santi Gota of Handawada has walked with her two little children through broken roads and crossed two streams to reach what the locals call their bazaar.

She has bought clothes for her two-year-old son and four-year-old daughter, and is now looking at artificial silver earrings for herself, a local interpreter explains. “We wear only traditional brass jewellery. But these artificial ones look different,” she says.

The market, a running affair for more than three decades, is the lifeline of people living in the 237 villages of Abujmarh, a terrain that spans across 4,975 square kilometres. The locals also sell their own produce – brooms, tamarind, Indian gooseberries ( amla), etc. – in the market; this is how most earn a little cash and ease living.

But the market has changed character. There was a time it sold only essentials such as rice, sugar, salt, pulses, spices and utensils. For the past five years or so, it has been flooded with cheap Chinese goods.

The shopkeepers are petty merchants from Narayanpur town, who collect Chinese goods from markets in Jagdalpur and Raipur, and sell them in Orchha, 65 kilometres away. Most of the goods enter Chhattisgarh through Hyderabad, administration sources say. According to some estimates, Chinese goods worth about Rs 300 crore are sold in the state every year.

Attempts have been made to put a curb on them. Chief minister Raman Singh had said recently that the government would ban the sale of Chinese goods. There was an outcry against such goods in October, when Chinese-made halogen lamps apparently burst at a cultural programme in Rajnandgaon district and caused eye injuries to many present.

But Abujmarh is not troubled by such threats. The sellers say that halogen lamps and torches are in big demand because electricity is rare; it embraces but a few rural outposts like Orchha, Godadi and Mandali. “Villagers often buy halogen lamps and torches in bulk for the entire village,” says Sunil Singh, who sells the torches for Rs 150 and the lamps for Rs 300 a piece.

The other popular product is the mobile phone. There is no cellular network in the villages, but people like to carry cell phones. “They listen to songs on their phones,” says Suresh Soni, another shopkeeper. “Portable radios are in demand. They want to hear the news,” he adds.

Some shopkeepers believe villagers often buy radios and phones for Maoists living deep in the jungles of Abujmarh. Over 175 villages of Abujmarh fall under the so-called liberated zone ruled by the Jantana Sarkar, or people’s government.

Little is known about this region; it lies cut off from the rest of Chhattisgarh and the country, courtesy an inaccessible geography and the violent politics of Maoist cadres. “The name Abujmarh means nobody knows about anything. It means the area which is unknown, deserted and blank,” says a paper called “Orchha, the market within blank space of Abujmarh” by N.L. Dongre.

The forests are thick with mango, tamarind, mahua and peepal trees. The Indravati river cuts off Abujmarh from Bastar, making it even more isolated. Populated by people belonging to the Gond, Muria, Maria and Halba tribes, most Abujmarh villages can be accessed only by foot.

That is why development is not a word that the villagers know of. Government officials have not stepped into the interiors of Abujmarh. Orchha, its headquarters, is one of the few places that can boast of a healthcare centre. Abujmarh has not been surveyed by the government, and there has been no official mapping yet.

One of the vehicular roads to Orchha leads off from Dhaudai in Narayanpur. I travelled about 30 kilometres down this track to reach the market. The curved and pebbled road passes through dense forests of sal, teak and bamboo thickets. By night, this stretch is inky black. The occasional and passing blur of lights are CRPF camps set up along the route.

After an hour of travelling in the dark, a huge pillar with faded murals of a tribal man and woman welcomes you to Orchha.

Orchha, not to be confused with the more famous tourist destination in Madhya Pradesh, springs to life on Wednesdays – occasionally even Tuesday nights – when the stalls are set up. Sometimes, the police stop vendors from setting up shop at night. When that happens, the market opens the next morning.

On an average, some 400 villagers gather in Orchha for the bazaar. They buy essentials such as vegetables and cereals, and Chinese goods that interest them. The place is also a social hub; this is where tribals from far-flung hamlets convene. “For six days a week, they live in isolation. People wait for this one day,” says Narayanpur district collector Taman Singh Sonwani.

The stalls also tell the villagers about new technology, or of changing trends. For instance, people for generations in these regions have cooked food in utensils made of clay or bottle gourd skin. Now they buy aluminium pots. If they ate mostly boiled kodo kutki (millets) and pikhur (a tuber), they are now buying vegetables, oil and turmeric. Stalls selling samosas and jalebis do brisk business.

Though many tribal people still wear traditional clothes, an increasing number of men sport shirts or T-shirts and cargo shorts, which they pick up from the market. Once they walked barefoot; now they move around in plastic slippers. Women, who earlier wore just a piece of cloth or a lungi wrapped around their waists, are often seen in saris and blouses.

“We have taught them how to wear clothes,” says samosa-seller Nibha Banerjee, who has been setting up a shop in the market for 30 years. Someone called Banerjee? Here? But of course; after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, a lot many refugees were re-settled in these parts and have since made it their home.

This is also where the tribal people – who usually speak Gondi, Maria and Halba – pick up a smattering of Hindi and English. Some of their children study in schools run by the Ramakrishna Mission or the government. Last year, for the first time, three boys from a village in Abujmarh joined Delhi University.

Muru Ram, a 19-year-old boy who has come to Orchha to buy a chain saw for his father, has studied in a Mission school, and now wants to go to Jagdalpur for further studies. The chain saw is not available, and he is asked to come back after a few weeks.

There are rumours that local Maoists have asked hawkers not to sell Chinese goods. The news is unconfirmed and unexplained, but the shopkeepers are worried. “We will clear the stock and not pick up fresh ones. But we will run into losses if we don’t sell Chinese goods,” Soni says.

Ironically, the sale of Chinese goods is the only issue on which the Maoists and the Centre are on the same page.

For the villagers of Abujmarh, China perhaps is no longer a symbol of guerilla warfare with the promise of revolution. It now stands for lights, phones, batteries and music, for profitable commerce and ease of life, no more.


• Area: 4,975 square kilometres, mostly unmapped and inaccessible.
• Stretch of metal road: 54 kilometres
• Population: 34,950
• Maoists (rough estimate): 500
• Security forces: 800 across six camps (Orchha, Dhanora, Basingbahar, Kurusnar, Akabeda and Kukdajhor)
• Security personnel killed between 2012 and 2016: 11
• Maoists killed: 36
• Government schools: 135 across only 30 villages
• Schools destroyed in 10 years: 50*
• Healthcare centres: 6 across 5 villages; 42 had been sanctioned
• Healthcare centres destroyed in  10 years: 12*

*No damage to schools and healthcare centres in the last 5 years
Source: Government and police in Narayanpur and Orchha.


Published in The Telegraph, December 26, 2016.


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