Thursday, May 1, 2008

Guerillas of the mist

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In the impregnable forests of Dandakaranya, Maoists are the lords of the jungles. Dreaded by security forces, they call themselves “Professional Revolutionaries.” TSI’s Executive Editor Sanjay Basak and Deputy Photo Editor Ranjan Basu spent 10 days among the guerillas and discovered the other side of these killing machines

As the weak rays of the red sun struggled to break through the dense mist on a frosty winter morning, we saw her for the first time. Clad in a green uniform, with a .303 rifle firmly gripped in her left hand, she was leaning against the door post. The comrade, a soldier in the band of dreaded Maoists, was supervising the preparation of our breakfast, “Poha” (a mixture of beaten rice and peanuts).”

The day before, travelling in a Bolero, on that isolated stretch of Pakhanjur Road, notorious for the IED blasts carried out by the Maoists at regular intervals, we were heading for a village in the Kanker district of Chhattisgarh. Around 9 pm, after driving for nearly seven hours, racing past several fortified police stations, the vehicle stopped at a lonely stretch.

As we sat inside the vehicle in pitch darkness, we saw a figure stepping out from behind the bushes. The man got inside the jeep and led us to the village, from where we began our journey into the land, lorded and controlled by the soldiers in green. In the region, while Maoist men are called dadas (elder brother), women comrades are referred to as didi (sister). At another isolated spot, with our baggage on our backs, we were shifted to motorcycles. The bikes raced through the uneven muddy tracks, prickly bushes, manoeuvred through the rows of tall sal trees. The ride came to a halt when we approached a river. In that all-engulfing darkness, we took off our shoes and waded through knee-deep water to cross over to the other side. Across the river, all trappings of civilisation simply disappeared. We were brought in front of a hut. “Yahaan electricity nahin hai (there is no electricity here),” our guide said. For the next 10 days, as we moved from one village to another, we found even 60 years after Independence, the region lacked basic amenities like “bijli, sadak, paani (eletricity, road and water).” Also, the Maoists need the cover of darkness to survive and carry out their lethal operations, which is why they choose such locations.

Inside, in the courtyard of the hut, two men warming themselves in the chill had huddled around a bonfire. Suddenly we heard a voice from behind. “Lal Salam.” We turned around. In that glow of the flickering flames we saw a woman, sporting a shirt and trousers, clutching a self-loading rifle (SLR). She extended her right arm. “Lal Salam comrades,” she smiled. We repeated, Lal Salam, after her and followed her gesture to raise our fist for that red salute. She introduced herself as a member of the Divisional Military Commission (DVMC). Enquiring about our trip, she asked us to take rest for the night. It was already close to midnight. As we were being led into a room, we noticed two boys in green with rifles, standing at the entrance of the hut. “So jayie, kal apko pahunchna hain. Abh raat ho gayi. (Sleep. Tomorrow you all will have to reach a place. It’s late now).” Having no clue of our final destination and the journey ahead, I said: “Hum abhi bhi chal sakte hain. Agar apko takleef na ho to (We can go now, if you do not have any problem).” She smiled again and repeated: “So jaiye (Go to sleep),” and quietly left the room.

In the wee hours of the morning a man, wearing a black shirt, khaki trousers, with an AK-47 woke us up. He introduced himself as Ramu (name changed), a member of the DVMC. He informed that after tea and breakfast, some comrades would lead us to another village. “Where are we going, what’s the programme?” I wanted to know. “Pata nahin, aapko comrade log bata denge (No idea. Some comrades will tell you),” he feigned ignorance. Later during the course of the journey, we realised that the comrades never let you know their programme in advance.

It was then, for the first time, we met comrade Revati (name changed), who would lead us for the next six days; she was at the time making our breakfast. As we were about to leave, Ramu politely cautioned us against taking any picture of the comrades without clearance from the high command – the Central Committee. He indicated that there was a “possibility” of meeting some members of the Central Committee (CC), the highest policy making body of the CPI (Maoist).

On February 5, around 6.30 am, in that foggy winter morning, led by Revati and three others, we began our long march. The next 10 days that we spent among the Maoists, we got to see the human face of these killing machines. After the usual “Lal Salam” ritual, Revati informed : “Teen ghante chalna hai (we have to walk for three hours).” In these inaccessible tough terrains of Dandakaranya, the Maoists do not calculate distances in kilometres. As per their rough estimations, one can walk 4 kms an hour in those tortuous terrains with deep forest cover, turbulent rivers and steep hills. “We calculate distances in hours and minutes. For us time and speed are of essence,” a senior member of said.

A .303 rifle slung on her right shoulder, a chest belt with holsters carrying six grenades and 20 bullets, comrade Revati marched ahead, leading the team. Her satchel, with PLGA (People’s Liberation Guerilla Army) inscribed on it, carried the bare necessities. This included, two soap cakes (Lifebuoy and Rin), coconut oil, a towel, Vaseline (during winter), Dettol, a torch and a blanket. We were being led by two women (including Revati) and two boys. All of them were armed to the teeth. After an hour of walking through dirt tracks, we were gasping for breath. The luggage on our backs felt heavier with each step. As we dragged ourselves, the comrades, moved like panthers on the uneven tracks of the paddy fields and the forests, eyes scanning the surroundings for any sign of the enemy. After nearly three hours of that strenuous trek, we reached the outskirts of a village, close to the forest. The Maoists often camp outside the villages and stay close to the forest. In the event of any attack by security forces, this vantage point gives them an opportunity to disappear into the jungles.
We were taken into a fenced area with a huge haystack in the middle of the field. A cot lay under a thatched roof. As we collapsed on the cot the comrades did not even bother to take a breather. While a woman soldier stood guard, Revati and two boys disappeared into the village. Whenever the Maoists camp near a village, the members of the village militia, the armed party members – whom they prefer to call Jan Militia (people's army) – provide them with foodstuff, including rice, vegetables, spices among other things. The group then sets up temporary base camps and cook up a "feast", in which members of the village militia and their families participate. The “ganjis” (utensils in Gondi, the tribal dialect) are also provided by the village militia.

The band led by Revati then returned with the “ganjis” while some villagers followed them with the bags full of provisions. The comrades gathered firewood. Despite living in jungles, the sense of hygiene and cleanliness of the Maoists are remarkable. Immediately the comrades started scrubbing and cleaning the utensils and then they put water for boiling. “Chawal banayenge? (Cook rice now?)”, I asked. “Nahin pine ke liye (No for drinking),” she replied. These people do not drink water (either drawn from the running streams or bore-well) without boiling. The water from the bore-wells installed by the state government contain high quantities of iron and is one of the main causes of dysentery among villagers. Water-borne diseases like jaundice, Hepatitis A and B are rampant among the tribals. The Maoists have launched an awareness campaign among the villagers in this regard. After boiling the water, the soldiers strained the water and filled into the water bottles. Suddenly one of them spotted my colleague, who was reclining against the haystack. “Uth jayiye,(get up) ” the boy screamed. In that huge pile of haystack, the Maoists had concealed grenades, arms and other paraphernalia. This was the last time, we ever ventured near any haystack during our stay. The group then pulled out blue tarpaulin sheets from under the haystack and started cutting them into large pieces. On asking, they informed that the sheets were for sleeping. Stretched out on the cot, we told them not to bother, since were comfortable enough. Revati started laughing. “Rat mein sone ke liye. Chalna hain yahan se (These are for sleeping during the stay. We have to move),” she said. From that day onward, the “jhillis (tarpaulin sheets) became our bed rolls. As we mingled with these band of women guerillas, we sensed a strange blend of feminity and fierce determination to “liberate the people” and “wage the protracted war against imperialist forces.” Once we asked the purpose behind this “futile exercise and mindless game of death.”

Frowning, this indoctrinated cadre of the Maoists replied : "Samrajyabad ke khilaf ladna hai. Dushman ko marna hai. Marna hai (We have to fight against the imperialism. We have to kill the enemy. We have to die)”. The hands that scrubbed the utensils, cooked with care, swept the floors, could as easily kill and maim the enemy without a moment's hesitation. The 25-year-old, Revati an Area Commander (AC), is a lethal shot and an expert on explosive devices. The battle kit being carried by Revati contained multi-meters (for IED blasts) and a target board, apart from her .303 rifle. All the ammunition carried by the Maoists are either snatched from the security forces, or locally manufactured. Those who do not have guns carry bows and arrows. “They are more dangerous than guns. The arrows kill silently,” a soldier said. The arrows have left several dead or disabled in this war zone.

“Khana khayenge (Want to eat)?” The food was ready. These Maoists started finding our small appetite quite amusing: “Bas? Is that all you eat?” Whenever we groaned in pain after hours of gruelling treks these “professional revolutionaries,” would blame it on low food intake. Their mantra for survival and walking tirelessly is: “Datke khao, datke chalo (Eat big, walk hard).” Barring the top commanders, all the recruits are between the age group of 15 and 25 years. There are also orphans (whose parents either died natural deaths or were killed in police encounters), move around with the Maoists. “We do not use them for our operations. We educate them,” claimed comrade Sonu, Central Committee member. The Maoist history taught to the children of the region eulogise the tribal freedom fighters, denigrate national leaders like Nehru and Gandhi. Their courses attack the Indian Communist parties like CPI(M) and CPI and call them “fascist forces.” For them the “Naxalites are true patriots.” One of the leading propaganda units of the Maoists is the “Chetna Natya Manch (CNM),” a dance drama troupe, that composes songs in praise of PLGA to counter the Salwa Judum, a government-sponsored movement to wean people away from the Maoists.

After lunch, Revati informed, “Ab thoda aram karenge aur phir jayenge (We shall proceed after a short rest).” We were expected to start around 2.30 pm. The Maoists move in two phases during the day. They begin their first phase around 6.30 am in the morning (if not earlier) and walk till about 10 am. Then they begin the second movement, after 2.30 pm. This is mainly because they suspect that the main movement of the security forces is between 9.30 am to 2.30 pm. During the late afternoon, the police are generally hungry and tired, they claim. This is the time they prefer to move or attack, apart from the darkness of night.
After resting for nearly five hours, we took off. Revati carried a bag of rice on her head. As she marched on, crossed rivers, the bag stayed perfectly balanced on her head. After crossing a river, she asked us to hand over our luggage to the comrades. “Pahar chadna hain (We have to climb),” she pointed towards a cliff. Our sense of chivalry came in the way. “De dijiye (give them to us),” she insisted. “No, it's okay,” we were determined to carry the load ourselves. She smiled and began the climb. The climb was steep, the track was rocky and we had to push through dense bushes and trees. Within 15 minutes, we were completely frazzled. My colleague had virtually given up and lay sprawled on the ground, breathing heavily. “De diijye saman (give us the luggage),” she again said. Who cares for chivalry? Without a murmur of protest, we handed over our bags to the women. Everyday for the next 10 days, we walked at least seven hours a day. We reached a village around 7 pm and were taken to a ghotul (a cultural centre of the village). We found some members of the “jan militia” waiting for us. A fire was immediately lit inside the ghotul. Exhausted, we crashed out on the jhillis, spread out before the bonfire. As the pain started easing we heard them humming a tune. “What about a song ?” we asked. “Hindi gana nahin ata (Can’t sing Hindi songs),” Revati replied. Majority of the comrades sing only revolutionary songs composed by the CNM. After much persuasion, they agreed to sing a group song. It was an eulogy of a comrade, “Mantu dada,” killed during a raid against the security forces. In that dead of night, the lilting tune, “re re loye ra re re la,” floated across the jungles of Dandakaranya.

Maoists are atheists. “We don’t believe in God. We believe in ourselves,” Revati said, while cutting up a papaya. They are also spreading the concept of atheism among tribals. For them religion is the cause of superstition. Earlier, instead of taking a malaria patient to a doctor, “the family members performed various rituals,” a member of the SMC said. The region, being a malaria-endemic zone, the Maoists move around with basic medicines like chloroquin and paracetamol tablets for the local tribals. They also carry vitamin injections for the ailing and the weak. To woo the villagers, these people also offer them clothes and blankets. Lack of blankets and bedsheets have resulted into deaths of many children in this region. Fire is lit near the beds to keep the sleeping babies warm. Stories of the tiny tots falling into the fire in their sleep and succumbing to the burns are common in this tribal land.

It was in early 2000, a handful of Andhra Naxalites entered Chhattisgarh to extend their guerilla zone. “History is witness that the tribals of Bastar never allowed any outsider. Yet they have accepted the Andhra Maoists, there has to be a reason,” Sanjay Pachouri, a local scribe at Narayanpur observed.

Life here is tough. Death lurks in every corner. And death comes in various forms, if not by bullets, then by disease. Malaria has become a major cause of concern for the Maoist soldiers. A senior member of SMC, who could be promoted to the Central Committee and is popularly known as “Motu”, is a chronic malaria patient. “I get hit by malaria every 15 days. The infection is not going,” he said. These self styled revolutionaries cannot venture into the cities for a medical check-up. Most of the time they do self medication.

Caution and constant vigil is another way of survival. Icy winds cut through our bones as we spend sleepless nights in the jungles, listening to the constant and heavy sound of dew drops falling on the makeshift tent, the boys and girls fan out for the night vigil –“sentry duty.” Every one and a half hour there is change of guard. Braving the chill, drenched by the thick fall of dew drops, from the leaves of the tall sal trees, they melt into the cover of darkness and are ready to shoot at the slightest stir.

Lack of infrastructure has not been able to weaken the network of these Maoists. Instead, it works to their advantage. “Mobile or satellite phones can be intercepted by the security forces, but you cannot intercept a human network,” a commander told us. This is one reason why development activities have come to a halt in the Maoist dominated areas. They do not allow building of roads and foil attempts to set up any communication network.

Information is passed through letters delivered on foot. The messages are also carried across from one village to another by the sound of drums. In the jungle, the Maoists also signal by mimicking calls of various birds. Moreover, in this impenetrable forest, the security forces are alien to the terrain. Often, deep inside the forest, we would come to a point with at least four different tracks. Never once did our guides lose their way.

The Maoists refrain from alcohol; only a very few smoke. These Maoists have also launched an anti-alcohol drive in the villages. Tribal men are heavy drinkers of Mahua, the local brew, and by the afternoon they are usually drunk. While they drink and focus on cock fights, their favourite pastime, women have to work doubly hard, balancing household chores with economic activities like collecting forest products and selling them in the local market. “There is also major gender bias among the tribals,” a comrade revealed. “It is mainly because of these reasons, a large number of women are joining us,” he claimed. He argued that the party affirms equal dignity for women. “Moreover, joining the party gives some meaning to their life,” he maintained. Forty per cent of PLGA soldiers are women.
The party completely controls the lives of their comrades. Cadres cannot marry without permission or outside the party, unless the person is already married before joining the outfit. The party does not encourage soldiers to have children. The Area Commander, Revati, is married. Her husband is also in the PLGA. “We meet maybe once a year. We both have work to do,” she said. And children ? “Nahin, paristhiti theek nahin hai (No. The situation is not right for children),” she said. I asked a senior member whether he ever missed his wife, who is a DVCM in the party. “Yes," he replied with a sigh, "I do,” and then quickly regained control. “These are distractions. We both have work to do,” he said. The general secretary of the CPI(Maoist), Ganapathy’s wife is reported to be an Area Commander, operating somewhere in Andhra Pradesh.

If the party is against its cadre having children, it is encouraging childbirth among the tribals. Jaggu dada, a DVCM member revealed that the tribal population in the region was rapidly going down. The party is now exhorting tribals to have at least three children. Incidentally, these children of the tribals are the future soldiers of the party.

On the fifth day, Revati’s information that we might have to stay put in that village for at least two days, since she had no further communication started bothering us. We still had not met any Central Committee member and had no clue of our final destination. As we were lying down after lunch, Revati was engrossed in reading party literature. These activists also move around with a transistor. They are avid listeners of BBC Hindi news; Chhattisgarh News in the evening is a must for all of them. “This is the most important link with the outside world," a party member said. Old Hindi newspapers are carried to the comrades in the forest by the carriers. They pounce on these old dailies like a pack of hungry wolves. There is also an effort among the young Maoist cadres to educate themselves. Most of the soldiers we met were school dropouts.

One afternoon, while we had dozed off inside a tent, the soft undertones two girl cadres woke us up. One of them was teaching the other Hindi and English alphabets. “Bolo (say) A for apple,” she went on, while the other repeated "A-for-apple" after her. “My son is studying in a party school,” Jaggu dada said. He wants his son to join the party. But there was also that 50-year-old soldier of the PLGA, who has so far managed to keep his sons away from this never-ending dance of death. His eldest son is a farmer and he does not want him to join the party. “I want him to live,” he was emphatic. And there was this 19-year-old comrade, waiting for a promotion before getting married. Speaking in fluent Hindi, the comrade revealed that both his ambushes against the security forces had failed miserably and narrated an episode, when he “ran like hell,” to escape the chasing bullets. He also finds Mao’s Red Book (given to the cadres by the party) “difficult to understand.”

On the fifth day, as we wondered vacantly about our next movement with Revati refusing to share any information, suddenly we found her jumping to her feet. We spotted a huge platoon of Maoist soldiers led by a man in a kurta and jeans, carrying a sten gun. All the four comrades, leading us rushed to him and stood in rapt attention. The man came in and summoned all the soldiers for a roll call. Only then he approached us and introduced himself as comrade Sonu, a top ranking member of the Central Committee. He informed that we would be taken to a spot, where the Maoists plan to observe Bhumkal divas (the day when the tribals rose in rebellion against the British). We then realised that Revati had complete information all along, but deliberately kept us in the dark for reasons of “security of the senior comrade.”

Day Six. None of us had bathed or changed clothes. There was no provision to enjoy this basic human pleasure. The soldiers, constantly on the move, follow the same routine. As for clothing, the soldiers are given two sets of uniform and a green pullover for a one and half years. They carry a sewing kit to mend the torn portions, since they are perpetually dressed in battle fatigue.

On the seventh day we came across an SMC member, comrade, Pandu dada. A former PWG member from Andhra Pradesh, he has been operating in Chhattisgarh for the last 20 years. As we moved towards the venue of the “Bhumkal celebrations,” we saw hordes of villagers, including women and children, carrying muskets, axes, guns and bows and arrows rushing towards the function. The strong support base created by the Maoists among the tribals was evident.

It was Revati’s turn to leave. “Handing over” the TSI team to Pandu dada she came to bid farewell. “Hum jayenge, (I will leave)”, she extended her right hand for a handshake and with swift gesture raised her fist for the final “Lal Salam." This soldier of Mao then melted into the crowd of villagers and armed comrades.
The journey from here onwards became perilious. We now moved into the Dantewara region. The number of soldiers accompanying us had also increased. We were moving towards an undisclosed location, to meet villagers, who fled from the Salwa Judum camps. Leading us now was a , stengun-toting, cautious senior member of the State Military Commission, Shyam dada. This commander, preferred jungles to the outskirts of villages. The nights inside the forest were eerie. The strange silence of the jungle was occasionally disturbed by the croaking of frogs and the rhythmic chorus of the crickets. Hundreds of fireflies, which lit up the area, disappeared one by one, as the temperature fell rapidly. Sleep was impossible, as the chill rose from the ground. The darkness and forest cover, so coveted by the Maoists, had started getting to us. We were visibly jumpy and would startle at routine sounds like when people broke off branches from a tree in the deep forests. From a distance these sounded like gunshots to us. The pressures were telling on us.

A young soldier tried to reassure us. "Do not fret," he calmly said. “If there is an encounter with the police, we are going to die first.” He stretched out his hand and gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. “After that what ?” I was dead serious. He said nothing, just burst into a loud laughter. Born into abject poverty, misery, these young boys and girls have lost their fear of death. We found them joking about ambushes, laughing about encounters and teasing the one, who fled during a shootout. Unlike LTTE, these soldiers of death, do not move around with cyanide capsules. “We don’t want them to die. Everyone should get a chance to live,” Shyam dada said.

It was the last day of our journey. Since we would be approaching a village close to the highway, a complete platoon, with 27 members, escorted us. Around 8 pm, we reached the outskirts of the village. Two motorcycles were waiting to take us to a hut in a village near the highway. On reaching the hut we saw an electric lightbulb after 10 whole days. “Light!” we screamed. There were two cots, one with dirty and soiled quilts. I wrapped the muffler on my face and simply crashed out under that quilt. Around 4 am, a man with a blanket wrapped all over, came to escort us to the bus.

In that pitch dark as we followed him we heard the furious noise of the turbulent Indravati river. My colleague had a small torch, which was hardly of any use in darkness so thick. As we approached the river, suddenly the man asked us to take off our shoes. “What do you mean?” we almost screamed. “Where is the bridge?” we demanded. “It's there, its middle section is a bit submerged, but we can still walk over it,” he replied with no trace of agitation in his voice. You could see nothing.

The sound of gushing water was fearsome. “Follow my footsteps,” he firmly said. “Keep that damn light of the torch on his feet,” I told my colleague as, I held on to our escort with shoes in one hand. The chain moved slowly. Suddenly the man moved on to the edge of that so-called bridge. “The middle section is broken,” he cautioned us. Cursing under our breath, we moved on. Those 10 minutes were the longest of our lives.

I looked outside the window of the speeding bus. The sun was rising from behind the mountains dotted with dense impregnable forest. I could still see the soldiers in the green, walking in that “single-line formation,” marching forward, to carry on with their "revolution". They wait for history to judge them.
Maoist Jehad

The guerilla fighters are now contemplating suicide squads, writes Sanjay Basak

Spreading across the tribal belts in the country, the CPI (Maoist) is now contemplating forming suicide squads. Sitting in a deep forest in the Abujhmar region, a senior member of the State Military Commission (SMC) of the CPI (Maoist) said that the party was now contemplating forming suicide squads. “We are thinking of mentally preparing the comrades for the task.” While fixing his solar light, he went on, “it could be bit tricky, since we are not a fundamentalist organisation. We are fighting for an egalitarian society. It’s difficult to prepare such squads, but we are seriously contemplating.”

The Maoists are also moving towards forming battalions needed for shifting from guerilla warfare to mobile warfare. Each battalion would consist of 250 trained soldiers. However, despite the formation of the battalions, the outfit would not give up its guerilla tactics of hit and run. With the formation of the battalion, the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army would be re-named as People’s Liberation Army, just as Chairman Mao had named his army. The membership drive has been intensified for the formation of the battalions. At this juncture, the PLGA comprises Platoons (27 members each) and Companies (75 members each). There are nearly 6,000 members in the PLGA. The Maoists have also set up zonal committees in Assam for “proper coordination” with United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), whom they regard as “nationalist forces.”

In this tribal belt, the Maoists are also running a parallel government called, Revolutionary Government. They have ministries like Finance, Judiciary, School and Culture, Forest and Health. The party is also working towards formation of trade unions to get a hold over the country’s work force. Meanwhile, to counter the growing “menace”, the police have launched a major Low Intensity Conflict (LIC), apart from direct confrontation. In the LIC, the police are trying to drive a wedge between the Chhattisgarh tribals and the Andhra leaders by distributing leaflets saying: “These Telugu Maoists are very clever. They fire from your shoulders. They are taking advantage of your innocence. They are sexually exploiting your sisters…” The forces were also providing economic assistance to the families and asking them to pursue the insurgents to give up arms.

However, one of the main reasons for the daring raid on the police facilities in Orissa, on February 15, is a signal that the outfit intends to intensify such attacks, following acute shortage of ammunition. “We are running short of arms and ammunition. We are not being able to provide arms to all our soldiers,” the SMC member revealed and added: “We need to intensify attacks on the armoury.” The Maoists have also targeted Uttarakhand for expanding its guerilla base.

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