Bullet over ballot
Bijapur, the southernmost district of Chhattisgarh bordering Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra is where I had to dispense my duties as Micro Observer for Phase I polling of Lok Sabha elections ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2m3Jk3G_RTE )This journey didn’t just take me to another world but also unravelled mysteries, myths and apprehensions I had about the gravest internal security faced by our country today – NAXALISM, how it has affected the demographics and existing state of affairs. This is purely anecdotal with assimilation of information from police, CRPF personnel and locals.
The Red Territory
It was the sort of news we dreaded. Two Pressure bombs had exploded injuring a couple of CRPF soldiers who were a part of the Road Opening Party for ensuring our security enroute to the villages where polling were to be conducted. Later it was learnt that a leg of one of them had to be cut. (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/two-security-personnel-injured-in-naxal-blast-in-bijapur/article5900639.ece)
We headed to Gangalur, our polling booth centre, after waiting for 4 hours for clearance from the forces. The landscape presented a quaint deserted appearance. I was told the district didn’t have a single industry. The source of income of the tribals is sale of tendu leaves, tamarind, mahua and other forest produce. Dependence of these tribals on forest is still apparent and absolute.
At a time when we are attempting to live on Mars, here at Gangalur time seemed to stand still. Hearing a Phone ring was blissful music. A shopkeeper’s gleeful riposte on network coverage, “Wo shiva mandir ke paas pakdega ya fir chowk ke boundary wall pe sata ke pakdo toh pakdega”, made me smirk with disbelief. “Agar rail line bich jaata hai toh mahol sudhar jayega; aaj se bees pachchis saal baad”, he added. He served the best black tea ever. Admiring his tea my thoughts lingered around his wish, how ironically futuristic for a time in the country that has put monorails and metros into the mainstream travelspace.
What seemed evident was the government’s effort to combat the naxals, locally known as mama, bhai or comrades. Police camps mar the landscape. Bellicose soilders can instill fear of impending ambush in the most intrepid souls by virtue of their omnipresence. It was quite literally a warzone.
On D (polling) day, we bathed at a tube well and defecated in farmlands before dawn. Then we ambled to our respective polling booths with fellow polling personnel guarded by cops. We were made to split into teams of 6. The Police cordoned us from all sides. A CRPF patrolling unit strode parallel to our path some distance away. Later their path intersected ours and they marched on again parallel to us on the other side.
We reached our polling booth after walking for an hour or so. Immediately, the police sprang into action, scanning the area with metal detector and cordoning off the entire high school premise. Amused and excited I witnessed with alacrity activities that were perfunctory to everyone but me.
COPS GET CANDID
I was authorised to observe three polling booths. For I, who had never been to polls before, everything was new and interesting. I witnessed the setting up of EVM, its functioning, mock polls and completed some formalities I was entrusted with. The election began at roughly 7:30 AM. The initial excitement was laid to rest by the inaction that ensued.
In the absence of any voting exercise I was bored because there was nothing to do and i was tired of clicking everything that seemed interesting. I now wanted to interview cops. Now this was a tough task. These cops with guns and embellishments carry an air about them making them unapproachable. I did gather enough courage to accost these seemingly callous sons of the soil.
The Subinspector, a young and fiery cop who wasn’t willing to speak to me initially opened up gradually.
He said, “Mohanta, we are handicapped with Human rights commission, section 302 & 307 of IPC. For example a naxal disposes his gun somewhere and roams about freely as a civilian. We know he’s a naxal but we cant take action. Only when villagers agree to eradicate naxalism can this end. The villagers hv been brainwashed. Sympthasing naxals have won their confidence and took advantage for meeting their diabolical ends. No one is spared, young and old alike are made to be part of the brutal machinery. Small action team (SAT) comprising of kids aged 10-15 years young specialise in planting pressure bombs. The villagers dont let out any information about naxals. Whenever police enter a village the villagers flee leaving kids, old people and women. In fact we consider ourselves fortunate if we see youngsters. They are beaten up by naxals if they remain present during visit on grounds of being associated with police”. He spoke extensively on the origin of naxalism in this region, of Salwa Judum, how todays naxalites cant spell out their motive/mission because they dont have one anymore. “Today even Swami Agnivesh vituperates naxalites for their atrocities. http://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/agnivesh-condemns-naxal-ambush-says-attack-on-democracy-114040901453_1.html Going into the forests is exciting. We look forward to the bullets exchange, otherwise combing operations are monotonous. Bas ek baar aamna saamna ho jaaye, ***** dun saalon ki. Kamine kab tak chipte rahenge.” Everyone aired the same sentiments. . All these invalidated the any claims of present day maoist sympathisers; Arundhati Ray’s specious article in particular. http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?264738-1
For the kind of efforts they put in and the sacrifices they make in the interests of the nation they certainly deserve better pay and living conditions.
MORE STORIES. MORE REVELATIONS.
There were no voters! While this was a cause of concern to the national politics, I had a bigger worry; Phone battery! It was about to die and it eventually did. I hunted for charging points. To my utter dismay wires dangled from top, no switches, no plug points. So here I was stuck in the middle of a territory far from the civilisation I know amidst cops and naxalites without a working phone. Security was never a concern, my major issues were, I couldn’t hereafter note my experiences in Google Keep and I couldn’t click pictures of what shaped up to be an experience of a lifetime. Anyways talking of experiences the Pithasin Adhikaris (presiding offcers of polling booths) recounted their previous polling experiences and on naxalism, almost everyone had stories to tell.
Among the polling personnel was a man whose leg was chopped off by a naxal named Hareram an erstwhile naxalite who had now surrendered in Warangal. http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-andhrapradesh/maoist-couple-surrenders/article5057415.ece Upon surrendering they receive handsome rewards in cash going up to 2-3 lakhs, depending upon the deadliness of the weapons they turn in. What’s ironical yet strategic from the defences point of view is that these zealots are then offered police jobs. An old man described how at his first posting as teacher in Pamed in 1980 the naxals who had trickled down from Andhra offered their services and sweet talks. To the people who wore no clothes, survived on alms they were like gods incarnate. Today these same villagers who once confided blindly on the naxals have fallen victims of their unlawful device.
Another fellow polling personnel described how at Pusnar the polling team was traumatised. They were made to walk deep into the forest to get to their polling booths. There was no potable water to drink let alone food. Threat loomed so large that at night people were asked to switch off their phones, maintain silence, and walk cautiously without dragging their feet. No sooner than reaching the booths naxalites open fired and innocent office bearers lay captive to the bullet rain. Our guy escaped the attack unharmed. Shockingly, this was their best polling experience. On every previous poll naxals had run havoc. They looted EVMs, set buses and cars carrying polling personnel on fire. The room I was sitting in had suffered a blast some years ago. A few voters trickled in from time to time. They had a request, each one of them, not to put the indelible ink on their finger. I didn’t understand Gondi so I couldn’t extract the reason for such a strange plea. “They don’t want to lose their fingers”, said a polling officer plaintively. It was no hearsay that in the past the bhailog have cut off fingers of these noble souls if they found the ink mark. Such is the state of democratic affairs in this part of the country.
It wasn’t just terror stories that came from them, they narrated funny incidents too. During the times of casting votes in ballot boxes, in the villages close to Andhra Pradesh, the tribals stamped on walls, on tables, possibly everywhere other than the candidate they were voting for. The tribal females, however, went bizarre. They put it on their breasts because stamp in Telugu translates to breasts in Gondi. To further the humiliation or at times fun for the polling officers, they would come out, point at their breast and show with alacrity, see we’ve casted here. As no sexual stigma was attached to that part of the female body they usually roamed almost naked, covering only the genitals with scanty clothes. However they got violent if anyone mocked or touched them. Even to this day some refuse to rinse their butts with water after defecating. They prefer leaves; analogous of the toilet paper concept of Westerners. Pretty advanced huh! Well there was more. Ghotul! Ghotul was a camp where young males and females spent nights together. It was here where they chose their partners, danced, had sex, promiscuously under the laws of the land and entered matrimonial. Marriage was considered sacrosanct. Sex, premarital or post, wasn’t as hyped as it is now. However over indulgence was scorned at. Just goes to show how India was always open in sexual matters and how young people behaved in age-old tribal societies, from which, quite obviously, we have descended but conveniently chose to ignore keeping in mind validating section 377 of IPC or the Chennai high court’s abysmal ruling on marriage
It was time for lunch. As I headed towards the dining place I noticed four stone relics standing in a line adjacent to each other and a wooden plank with a bison horn on top. A lady who busy collecting Mahua flowers took offence when I asked what these were. She answered sending a chill down my spine; these were tombstones of her family. It would have been inhuman had I asked her further. Annulled by naxals or police or disease? I kept wondering. I took my plate of cooked rice and dal and as I looked up I saw a scraggy boy with freckled legs stood protecting the mahua flowers left for drying in a vanquished roofless room. I asked him his name. he didn’t answer. I hand gestured for food, he came and sat in front. He gobbled like it was his first meal in months. I went back to my booths. Food had arrived for the cops as well, with whom I had patched a tacit friendship. They invited me over to share meal with them. It was an invitation I couldn’t resist. When will I ever get to do this again? I thought. Done with eating and done with polls. Total number of votes casted were 4, 5 and 17 from three booths, the maximum voting percentage being a meagre 3%. These figures include the votes casted by the polling personnel and some cops.
BRAVERY AND MISERY CONCOCTION
News of naxal ambush at several units poured into the camp. The Police Road Opening Party from Gangalur came under attack. The Cherpal unit of CRPF was under fire. The Thana incharge and his men moved swiftly on their bikes. Those at the station were busy exchanging information. One guy(operator) was constantly on the wireless collecting information and issuing alert orders. Roger, one down, go on and some code words that i should avoid mentioning, were sed a lot by him. It was chaotic. There was tension billowing in the air. But despite the grim environment, the soldiers were still discussing random stuff and cracking jokes, testimony of the fact that this was routine affair and having endured numerous such situations before had made them callous towards it. No one was allowed to move out of the police station. After a couple of hours our contingent of 59 was allowed to move out. For security reasons we were asked to walk rather than talking the bus. The road was long and circuitous. The journey was taking forever and the scorching sun provided no scope of any respite from the ordeal. We had already walked 20 kms and group seemed to be tiring. Older folks had boarded the bus. Our group walked in front right behind the first battalion. Suddenly we heard a deafening bang. Turned back to see smoke billowing in the air flames and people running in frenzy. Our worst fears had come true. The naxals had attacked. http://www.firstpost.com/india/chhattisgarh-6-election-officers-among-11-killed-in-naxal-attacks-1477349.htm
We reached Cherpal CRPF camp where another polling party joined the return brigade. As we awaited orders to move on, there was a thunderous noise. Was that a slap? Indeed it was. An old man stood with folded hands pleading not guilty. The CRPF cops rebuked him for providing shelter to naxals. The cops saw them run out of his hut. Ironical that the unfortunate localites have to be at the receiving end of both; the cops and the naxals. He was to be kept under supervision. He walked out rubbing his swollen cheek.
The journey to the other world was coming to end. What I saw, heard and experienced had stirred my insides. Sleeping in a bus inside Police camp for lack of space, enjoying walking on ends together fearing a naxal ambush with every breath, living and admiring the life of soldiers, the abject poverty, unimaginable backwardness of locals and the greatest of all – a Naxal attack. Indeed a journey to remember. Just when I thought the surprises and adventures of the trip had ended, i was awakened from my slumber by the bleating of a goat. Yes, two fully grown goats were travelling next to me in my bus.
Was this all a dream? Incredible.
“Naxalism is the greatest internal security threat facing the country today.” A visit to the interiors of Bastar can only testify the gravity of the statement and what it means to be a soldier or a tribal or a government employee or anyone remotely associated to it. I wonder will there ever be any development in these areas. Will there ever be opportunities of quality education, health care, employment etc?. The plain simple answer is NO, at least not until naxalism is obliterated.
Lastly watch this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7W-Aa13ThI documentary on the life of the tribe I met with here.
This article is authored by Anup Mohanta