Narayanpur, Chhattisgarh: In the winter of 2010, three armed left wing rebels entered Pulpar, a lush green, resource rich, but inaccessible village in the Abujmarh region of Narayanpur district. Forcibly taking shelter for a week, they demanded a full attendance of villagers in the morning and again in the evening.
Each family was asked to list children enrolled in the school and what the future plans of those who had recently passed their board exams were. There were just two: Sanku Gawade’s 17-year-old son, Ramesh, who had just cleared his Class XII exams, perhaps the first in the region, and another girl who failed to clear the Class X exam.
Ramesh wanted to join the police, which was the reason behind the sudden invasion. Word had reached the Naxals and Gawade suspects it leaked by one of the villagers. Ramesh was sent to his relatives’ home in a neighbouring village, just moments before the Naxals showed up. The rebels caught hold of Gawade’s younger brother Maniram and killed him in cold blood.
Gawade’s father, Sonsai, who approached the Rowghat police some 30 km away, was detained under the suspicion of being a “Naxal courier” and beaten up brutally. His body was found floating in a sewer, right outside the police station, a few days later.
The deaths were just a few hours apart and traumatised the villagers of Pulpar, several of whom ran away overnight. Thirteen out of 15 families had left together, leaving their land, cattle and most importantly, their forest behind. They walked for two days to reach the district headquarters in Narayapur, nearly 45 kilometers away.
Gawade’s story symbolises life (and death) in the conflict-torn Abujmarh, one of the most militarised areas in Chhattisgarh’s south Bastar. In Pulpar, approximately 2,000 families are believed to have fled in fear of police violence and Naxal extremism over the past five years, settling in the town’s outskirt region called Shantinagar. This region, however, is more commonly known as “Chota Abhujmarh” (little Abujmarh). Most of the villagers belong to Gond, Muria and Maria clans, all “vulnerable tribal groups”.
From the unknown hills, with difficult rocky terrain, rivers and rivulets, but amid the forest’s grandeur, the residents of Chota Abujmarh now live in squalid lanes, crammed in one or two rooms hutments.
They are treated as “encroachers” and the district administration is yet to regularise their settlement. Amenities like potable water, basic citizenry rights are beyond most families’ reach. Many, like the Gawades, are yet to exercise their voting rights since they moved to the slums. The settlement is expanding exponentially and at least 10-12 families arrive from Abujmarh every month.
In 2018, Ramesh is already a constable in the District Reserve Guard (DRG), having worked for nearly four- years. He was not home when this reporter visited his family. His father said he was on “election duty”, patrolling one of the two dozen DRG and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camps set up across Narayanpur region, all the way leading to Abujmarh. “It is an irony, that he is ensuring security so that others can exercise their democratic rights,” his father tells this reporter in broken Hindi, a language he learnt only a few years ago after reaching Narayanpur.
Every house in ‘Chota Abujmarh’ has at least one story of death at the hands of the state or extremists. The families here say personal security of their sons and daughters can only be ensured if they are employed in the police. Three men of Parishwar Gawade’s family, all under 25, have already joined the DRG as hawaldars (constables). They too had left Palakasar village of Abujmarh in September 2010, when their father Ayatu was killed by the Naxals, Parishwar told The Wire.
Since Parishwar’s family of 12 have lived in Chota Abujmarh, at least two elections were held. They only received their voter cards this year and will be voting for the first time on November 12.
“Every party promises better future, but not one candidate has promised that we can return to our village,” says Shanti Gawade, Parishwar’s sister-in-law.
All seven candidates contesting from Narayanpur, a constituency reserved for tribal candidates, have visited Chota Abhujmarh slums, promising “better roads and better implementation of Raman Singh government’s schemes”.
Narayanpur, a sensitive “Naxal zone”, is a BJP stronghold. BJP’s Kedarnath Kashyap won the 2008 and 2013 polls with a margin of 22,000 and 14,000 votes respectively. Locals feel he will be victorious once more.
Political banners have been installed in the basti; party workers are present in the area often. Some residents have been participating in the campaigning too. “We are taking our chances. We know none among us (residents of Chota Abujmarh) will ever make it big in politics. But if our participation gets our children better schools and medical facilities for the sick, I consider it essential,” says Aite Vadde, from Toke village.
In last four years, the villagers say, most children have been “adopted” by the trustees of Ramkirshna Mission school. Children as young as four and five are admitted in the school, which the villagers say is possible because of MLA Kashyap.
But scholars and journalists from the region warn of a larger story. “The education and caretaking are free in Hindu missionary schools, set up across Bastar region. But they also insist on imparting lessons in Hinduism. It is a price the tribals have to pay: erase their tribal roots and allow Hinduisation of the future generation, just to be alive,” says Tameshwar Sinha, a reporter from Bastar who has covered ground level right-wing projects working aggressively towards the Hinduisation of the tribals.
Tribal rights activist Soni Sori says since parents don’t have much choice, they hand over their children to the state apparatus. “Most of these Hindu missionary schools are run with complete state support and funding. They are an alternative to the state-run schools. Government schools have few students in most villages and teachers don’t come fearing both the Naxals and police. The state has failed completely in ensuring quality education for children of Bastar,” alleges Sori.
No political candidates have visited Abujmarh in the recent past. Komal Upendi, Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) chief ministerial candidate who is contesting from Kanker, says he last visited Abujmarh days before the election were announced. AAP is the only party that has declared a tribal person as the chief ministerial candidate. “Post announcement, the camps have shut down access roads and only villagers living in the forest are able to come in and go, that too with a lot of restrictions,” Upendi told The Wire. Grade IV employees of the district administration or technicians fitting solar panels in every village, who otherwise had access to the region, have also been asked to return to work only post-elections.
In Chota Abujmarh, some said they were not aware of state-level elections until they migrated here, an indication that many in Abujmarh forests continue to be excluded from the election process, even 71- years since independence. “The only elections we knew of before was that of appointment of sarpanchs in village panchayat,” said Malati Usendi, a sarpanch from Kodenar, one of the villages in Abujmarh.
Usendi has been living in the slum for four years. She tells The Wire that no sarpanch has ever lived in the village after his or her appointment. “If you participate in the election process, rest assured that you will be killed by the Naxals. My sister-in-law was killed in 2008, and later I was appointed the village sarpanch, but only after my family and I had already escaped from the village,” Usendi says.
Chota Abujmarh has several sarpanches living far away from the villages they are constitutionally appointed to govern. Usendi claims at least 200 sarpanchs have migrated, a claim that could not be confirmed independently. But every lane of Chota Abujmarh is inhabited by at least one gram panchayat member.
Usendi says, “I have barely managed to do anything as a sarpanch in four years. The only hope now is to vote wisely and get an MLA who is empathetic towards our issues and will help us return to our villages.”
But the question is, who is listening?