All agree that Rajita Usendi, a local Maoist commander in Gadchiroli, was trapped in a hut and consumed by fire. But beyond that simple story lies a more complex tale.
Javeli (Maharashtra): A 32-year-old Maria Gond woman, Rajita Usendi, was killed on the night of May 8 in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra. She was a Naxalite.
“They threw six or seven grenades to kill her…” “It was the longest encounter in Gadchiroli history…” “Her body was burnt beyond recognition…” These were some of the comments I heard about the gun battle that took place, after the police returned with the burnt corpse of the unidentified woman found in a house on the outskirts of Horekasa village in Gadchiroli district.
Eight days later, on May 16, constable Bandhu Vichami, also a Maria Gond. was killed after being kidnapped by CPI-Maoist fighters near Koti police station for the alleged offence of ‘building an information network.’ There being no civilian witnesses, the specific details of his death are not known.
Neither incident is part of the mainstream narrative of events unfolding in the heart of India. While a memorial poster was put up for Vichami on May 17 outside the Gadchiroli sessions court (as has been done for countless other slain policemen), Rajita’s body was still in the mortuary, her public memory as controversial as the life she lived. Didn’t the Supreme Court once say the Naxalites were also ‘children of the republic’?
Rajita was born in 1984 or 1985 – the exact year is not known – in Javeli village, in Kasansur panchayat of Etapalli Block, and died as Naxalite area commander for Chatgaon.
Her village Javeli is isolated:. villagers don’t venture too far into the towns, for fear of being deemed Naxalite supporters by the police. Others from the village had also joined the Maoists: a young man, Ramsu, who had previously joined the party, decided to leave it and live at home. However, he was not allowed to resume a normal life; a police team eventually arrived to take him away and then attempted to distribute saris, volleyballs and carrom boards. Ramsu is now a surrendered Maoist, but he only joined the police because he was beaten, according to the villagers, who bear no ill will towards him.
In the village itself, a decades-old transformer lies derelict. The village subsists without electricity. There are 83 homes in Javeli, 81 of which are Maria Gond, one Parden and one mixed Bengali-Maria, which the villagers talk about with pride (the father was a Bengali who married a Maria, whose son has also married a Maria). The villagers own land but depend on rain for cultivation.
Rajita was the youngest daughter of Birija and Raje and had studied till class 5. She had two older sisters, both married and with children.
She joined the party when she was still a teenager. Some say she was in the party for 18 years, others say 15. In one version of the story, she was 14 years-old when she joined the party, in another she was 17. Either way, there are no traces of her left in the village: no documents, no photographs. The police came in 2007 and removed every bit of her life that she had left behind.
The people of Javeli spoke in whispers. They knew I was not a journalist from the jungle but an outsider, a journalist from Mumbai. Not even in a thousand conversations would they reveal to me the secrets of Rajita. What they told me was what they had decided the world could know about a child who joined the party, became a leader and was finally burnt to death in a village not far from theirs.
For instance, they would not tell me whether Rajita was involved in the May 21, 2009, ambush in the nearby Dhanora forests that claimed the lives of 16 security personnel, including five policewomen. Or whether she was involved in the deadly May 5, 2011, improvised explosive device blast that killed five civilians on the Dhanora-Rajnandgaon road. Even if they knew, it was clear that they were not going to tell me these things.
Her mother Raje sobbed softly, repeating in Gondi, as she remembered Rajita’s body arriving at the village: “She had no hands, no legs… Her head was half-burnt.”
The police sent the family a note that said ‘one female Naxal member was killed’ and asked them to identify the body. They were taken to Gadchiroli, where they identified Rajita’s remains and were questioned. They were held there all day and fed chicken and rice for dinner.
“We told you so many times to ask her to surrender,” one of the C-60 commandos told them in Gondi, “But you didn’t listen, she didn’t listen and now you’ve come to take away her burnt body.”
“We put bombs inside the room and killed her,” they would add.
Rajita’s 75 year-old father spoke to me in a slow voice about how his daughter made the right choice, how he used to miss her only in the beginning after she left and how she used to be a different person when she came back to visit.
“Sarkar zulm karti hai, toh ladki achha kam karne ke liye gaye,” he said (“my girl has given her life to the struggle”). He repeated this again and again.
She never married; she never had any children. She never returned to the village as anyone but a Maoist: giving speeches and warnings, issuing statements. “She used to say that we should live well and not fight among ourselves, that young men shouldn’t waste their lives drinking and that if there is a fight, one should sort it out in the village itself and not report it,” a village elder added.
“We never thought she would get killed. She never stayed in one place for more than two or three hours. But she was in this village from afternoon till evening,” said someone else.
The last stand
What were Rajita’s last moments like? She died in a room without a window, shredded with bullet holes. Her body was found next to burnt mahua fruits – is that how a Maria Gond dies, burnt to death with mahua fruits? Some say she was physically sick and could not escape and told her bodyguard to run away. Others say her bodyguard ran away in fear, leaving her alone to die.
The villagers of Horekasa kept repeating that there was almost no firing from inside the house – that most of the firing was by the security forces and was intermittent, from a few guns at a time. The forces sat inside anti-landmine vehicles and fired at the house. The Naxalites did not fire because innocent people were inside, said the villagers.
It was at three in the morning that a barrage of firing hit the house, along with large explosions. This account by the villagers is almost identical to that by the police. In an interview with the Indian Express, the superintendent of police went on record and said, “We spent a lot of time trying to convince the Naxals to give up but they sent back the messengers, asking them to mind their own business. After we decided to take on the Naxals, we first cordoned off the village and also evacuated other houses to keep civilians away at a safe distance. All this took many hours. The actual firing did not last for more than 30 minutes.”
The story is ‘almost identical’ since the police claimed that the house where the ‘Naxals’ were hiding was on the outskirts and not in the middle of the village.
The proximity of the firing to people’s homes resulted in bullet holes in their walls at angles proving only security forces could have done it. The villagers were also shouted at and forced to spend the entire time inside their homes, at first only on the floor. The women narrating the events exclaimed that they had to go to the toilet within their homes.
The villagers were only allowed outside when the security forces wanted them to put out the fire that had engulfed Rajita, which had happened under unclear circumstances: did it start when multiple under barrel grenade launchers were fired at her hideout, or was petrol or kerosene thrown into the house?
The other inconsistency between the villagers’ and the police accounts was regarding the escape of the second Naxalite, who apparently disappeared in the dead of night, from a house with only one exit, surrounded by dozens of security forces. His escape seemed humorous to the villagers of the panchayat: he escaped like “a fart in the smoke,” said one, who mimicked the runaway taking his clothes off, crouching and escaping into the darkness.
“How did the police get there?” the villagers asked, alternating between Marathi to Gondi as they conversed, confused about who the informant could have been.
They spoke of how Rajita had gone to the house of Yamunabai, an old woman, and asked for water. She was tired and wished to rest and asked Yamunabai to let her into her house and lock the door. When the police finally arrived, they forced Yamunabai to open the door and found two knapsacks. The scene the villagers then described is similar to what happens when a snake enters a house: the police backed away in fear, wondering if Naxals were actually inside and cordoned off the house.
When it was confirmed that Rajita and her bodyguard were there, they sent villagers to ask them to surrender. One doesn’t know why Rajita refused to surrender, or why a lone woman was surrounded by dozens of policemen killed in a village only three kilometres away from a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp? The police could argue that they didn’t want to be ambushed by more Naxalites. But they had superiority of umbers and firepower, with a CRPF camp a mere 10 minutes away. Wouldn’t they want more Naxalites to fight and be decimated; isn’t that why they are deployed?
The only sound the villagers of Horekasa heard from the house on fire was Rajita’s screaming. She abused no one, raised not a single slogan and shouted nothing at all.
The day after the house burnt down, the assistant superintendent of police told the villagers to account for the damage caused and submit a petition to the nearest police station.
Five people, including the police patil of the village Mahadev Ramaji Parse went to the Chatgaon police station with an account of everything that had burnt – crops, money, books and documents – but they were only beaten by the policemen.
“Tumhare goan mein naxali ate hai, aur humko nahi bola tumne!” the policemen would abuse them, even demanding the aged patil resign: “Tum gaon ke patil ho ke kuch nahi karte ho.”
The village gaita or headman, Pandurang Pada, son of Gendu, was beaten with a bajirao, a kind of whip, along with the aged Yamunabai Parse, wife of Madhav, and her nephew Lalaji Narote, in whose house Ranjita had taken refuge, and Gyaneshwar Kirange, husband of Ranjan and an ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) worker.
All three men showed the week-old injuries inflicted by a bajirao, while Yamunabai was beaten on the palms of her hand. As Gyaneshwar displayed his torture wounds, his neighbours teased him about how he had once tried to join the police but hadn’t been able to.
“Now we have to live in fear of the ones in the jungle,” added the gaita of the village.
The story of Rajita’s life and death has a Rashomon-like quality where not just truth but the idea of what is moral depends on who is telling the tale. For some, the Naxalite commander was nothing: she deserved the death she was given, and was killed like a dreaded animal that sneaks into a house. Others feared her. To many in the village, she was a respected leader who, as an adivasi, spoke to them in their own language. And to her parents, she was their own, a daughter sacrificed to the only revolution they know.