Malkangiri: Recent news reports from Malkangiri, Odisha have often revealed sensational news of hundreds of Naxalites and Naxalite supporters surrendering to the police at both BSF and COBRA camps at Mathili block: from 244 from the villages of Jhadadrasi, Ektaguda and Chamundrasi, to 281 from Sanaguma/Bara, to 117 from Bara alone, to 150 from Temurupalli, Pujariguda and Kukurkunda; whole villages, with women, children and old folk congregate for meetings outside police camps, as local reporters take photo-ops with police personnel giving speeches and distributing shirts and saris.
Most recently, ‘59 Maoists surrendered’ on May 4 at the Border Security Force camp at Kiang, out of which 25 were children, most below the age of ten, staring aimlessly into space and “waging war” against the state by almost drooling on the tarpaulin. The superintendent of police, Malkangiri, himself says that the media is misrepresenting.
“People are not surrendering. The militia, Revolutionary People’s Committee, village committee members and Chetna Natya Mandali are surrendering. Others are victims of Maoist violence. They have come to us to tell their tales of hardship and demand development in their area,” says Mitrabhanu Mahapatra, superintendent of police, 2010 batch.
The short history of this goes back to textbook counterinsurgency operations, from the creation of a network of informants by the police, a process made easier by the CPI Maoist’s weaknesses in the area, extenuated by their brutality against adivasi dissensions and that network itself.
Mathili block holds high strategic importance as it is directly connected to Darbha valley in the Sukma district of Chhattisgarh. The block is heavily forested and inhabited by Koya, Bhunjia, Paroja and Dharua adivasis. There is no massive threat yet of land grab by private corporations and while many non-tribals have grabbed adivasi lands closer to the town of Mathili, it is relatively insulated from them further in the forests. The villages closer to the roads have just recently been electrified and the main roads are just beginning to be turned from single lane to double lane roads (by the IVRCL company, now infamous for the Kolkata flyover collapse). Phone services are intermittent, with Cellone and BSNL signals found comparably deeper into the forests, helping the police immensely in gathering information from their informants.
According to a Ministry of Home Affairs document on the Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) division, “The Cabinet, in a meeting held on 20.08.2014, has approved mobile towers at 2199 locations, identified by the MHA in consultation with BSNL/state governments in the 10 LWE affected states. Out of 2199 approved projects, 932 mobile towers put on air as on 31.12.2015.”
Most of the Maoist leaders who function in Mathili from the Darbha Divisional Committee are Telugu and Koya than they are Odiya. In the past year, most of the area commanders in Mathili: Sunadhar, Vinod and Laxman have been killed (there are conflicting stories about whether Binod is alive or not). In Silakota, thirteen Maoists from ‘Kalimela Dalam’ were gunned down in 2013, most presumably in their sleep, the then-SP has gone on record to say, “There was no option of asking them to surrender. Even if I had asked them, do you think they would have? They would have shot back at me and we would have suffered casualties. It’s jungle warfare.”
The story then begins with the dalam commander who survived: Erma Kowaisi.
The man someone always wants to kill
Erma s/o Bhima, is a 32 year old Koya adivasi from Goliaguda, in Mathili block, who joined the Maoist village sangam in 2008 and then the armed squad, the dalam in 2012.
Today he is one of the highest-ranked surrenders in Mathili block in Malkangiri and is often seen in every ‘surrender’ meeting in the villages, speaking in Koya, translating for BSF, COBRA and local police. It is his role and knowledge of years of Maoist activities in the block that is helping to identify villages that have started to ‘surrender’ to the police.
Erma never speaks alone, he’s always surrounded by a cohort of BSF commanders who joke about the times they were after him, though all their other interactions are affable. Erma claims to have left the Maoist party for personal reasons, “Mera pitaji bahut gaali diya, tumhara kheti karo, aur biwi ke saath koi nahi tha” (My father abused me a lot, telling me to farm, and there was nobody with my wife). And, he adds, “The Maoists were killing innocent people.”
He claims that he had never fired his weapon and was only present when his commanders Sunadar and Binod were killing informants. One incident concerns Tonasudra Bhunjia (Udaigiri village) and Doblu Naik (Kopra village) from Kartanpalli Panchayat who were killed by a squad Erma was a part of. This happened in 2013. ‘There was no interrogation, no questioning, they just cut their throats and then shot them.’ Said Erma.
Tonasudra and Dobli had a public altercation with a sangam member: they had asked the sangam member why they should refuse government welfare when it helps people. This led to a physical altercation where the sangam member was beaten up by the villagers. The squad in response killed Tonasudra and Dobli. So much for the right to free association.
When I asked if the Maoists carried out any development in his area, on ‘jal, jungle, jameen’ (water, forest, land), he quickly responds that they did not. The Naxalites in the area never had full support of the villagers, with half in favour of the police and the other half with them. “Koi ekjoot nahi tha” (There was no unity).
Yet across Mathili block, the soft-spoken and warm Erma was someone everyone seemed to dread.
The villagers of Kartapalli who ‘surrendered’ on the May 4 would openly say that they feared both Binod and Sunadar. “They used to say, ‘If you don’t come for the Maoist meetings, you should leave your villages and go. After they were encountered, even Erma was like this. Meeting mein nahi aayega toh goan chodd ke jaoo” (If you won’t come for the meeting, leave the village).
In the village of Kartapalli, there are 35 Bhunjia adivasi homes and seven Koya homes. The entire village was empty, except for one man who did not go to ‘surrender’ as he had a headache but sent his wife and children, and another old Koya woman who just didn’t seem to care. The villagers all returned back from the police camp after lunch (dalma and rice), without any police escort. They then claimed they went to the police as they did not want to live in fear.
It was Erma, they said, who had first organised their village and created a sangam. If there was no Erma, their village would never had any connection to the Maoist party.
Did the Naxalites do any development work for their village? Barely, they say.
This is evidenced by the labour rates in the region. For Tendu patta, which is 120-140 rupees in Mathili, the rate is 150-170 rupees in Bastar. For Mahua, which across Mathili is 20-30 rupees per kilo, in Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh, the rates are 42-45 rupees, and in Dantewada, the rate is Rs. 50. In the village of Kartapalli, three ‘marwaris’ come from Chhattisgarh and buy produce at lower rates. The Maoists write in their pamphlets that the rates should be increased, the villagers say, but then laugh when asked how three contractors come from across the border and pay such low rates.
Did a protest turn ‘surrender’?
Bondku Kolar is a farmer who also drives a tempo in the village of Barha in Mathili block, closer to the Darbha forests. On September 26, 2015, he was called by the police for a trivial matter concerning his vehicle. He voluntarily turned himself over to the police but would soon realise that it wasn’t a matter of registration, “alag maamle ke liye rakha mujhe” (I was kept for some other matter).
According to him, the police wanted him to turn informant, so they kept him in the superintendent of police’s quarters for five days. He denied any form of emotional or physical torture, as the police asked him everything from who is rich and who is really poor in his village, to showing him photographs of known Naxalites and even Google Map images of the village. When he refused to cooperate, they finally arrested him on October 1, 2015, for being part of the Maoist team that blew up an Airtel tower. After he was released on December 9, on a bail bond of 50,000 rupees, he was re-arrested a few metres from Malkangiri jail for blowing up the gram panchayat building in Kiang. He was only just released on the May 2, on a bail bond of 40,000 rupees. Bondku was also one of the eleven people including panchayat samiti members who were taken away by the Maoists in 2015 for a praja court for supporting the police, but they were all let go.
Bondku is actually a supporter of the ruling Biju Janta Dal and when other local adivasis of the BJD had gone to complain about his arrest, they were asked if the Maoists sent them.
In this context, a COBRA team from Kiang reached the village at five in the morning on March 13, 2016.
Maga Sodi was sleeping when a soldier asked him to wake up and pulled the sheet off him. Maga Sodi just grumbled and wrapped himself back in his blanket and went back to sleep.
The soldier then got rough – tied him up and ransacked his house. “They tore some of my children’s books,” he said later. “I told them to let my hands loose, where would I go?”
At the end of the operation, three adivasi boys were taken away by the COBRA forces. A few hours later, the villagers decided to protest by surrounding the BSF camp at Kiang, demanding the release of those taken away, including Bondku. They spent all night at the camp, and the next day, were party to the reports of how ‘117 Maoist supporters had surrendered’.
In the morning, Erma ensured that the three who were taken away were released as they had absolutely no links with the Maoists.
Meanwhile, the superintendent of police denies the use of any force, and has said that they had to be taken away in a such a manner so it did not look like they were voluntarily surrendering.
Reason in the age of fear
When sarpanch of a village (name withheld on request) saw the photo of Erma I had taken, he reacted with sharp, abusive language against the man. “Iske darr se log Naxali meeting mein jaate the, aur abhi iske dar se log police ko surrender kar rahe hai.” (They were afraid of him so they went to Maoist meetings and now they’re afraid of him so they go surrender to the police.)
He continued, “90% yaha ke log jo surrender kiya bahut simple hai” (90% of the people who surrendered from here are very simple).
The sarpanch also lists how the Maoists have killed two of his friends in the village. They were taken away to the mountains, interrogated, murdered and their bodies were left in the village overnight. He claims they have killed dozens of adivasis across the block: three in Kiang, one in Salmi, three in Mahupadar, one in Tentilugoma, two in Kartampalli, to name a few. They were all killed on the accusation of being informants.
At the same time, the police had asked another sarpanch to cooperate with them but he refused. He claims that normal villagers are taken away and detained by the police regularly, across the Mathili block, but no one has ever complained, “Complain karega toh kaun sunega (Who will listen is we complain)? If we say anything, they will put cases on us.”
“In March 2014, at Kadapada village, two women and two men were kept with the police for five-six days,” he added. “Aur abhi Tulsi pahad ke upar Gugapadar gaon mein Naxali goanwalle ko poocha, kaun bola surrender karne ke liye? Aur 10-15 log ko maara woh log.” (And on the Tulsi mountains, the Naxalites confronted the villagers of Gugapadar and asked them, who asked you to surrender? And they beat 10-15 people).
Yet one sarpanch, Maheshwar Samrat of Temurupalli, a Halbi Adivasi, has no fear of reprisal by the Maoists, or is just a fatalist. He has been actively involved in ‘surrenders’ in his panchayat and claims he is on the Maoist hitlist. “If tomorrow they decide to kill me, the police will not be here, they will come only after I am dead.”
“So why did you decide to support the police when there is no security for you?” I ask.
“Uppar walle ka adesh hai (It is what God wants me to do),” he says as he laughs incredulously, raising his hands in the air. “Naxali jal, jungle, jameen bolte hai, lekin iska kuch kaam nahi hota. (Naxalites talk of water, forest, land, but no work happens towards it). He adds that they don’t let the gram sabha meetings take place and instead only want their meetings to happen.
“Do you think they will change?”
“They have to understand themselves first what is wrong with them. The Naxals have to realise that they are human and even the person they want to kill is human. Otherwise how will they change? They must forgo the conflict (himsa). After saying jal, jungle, jameen, how can you harm adivasis?”
Similarly, sarpanch B said:, “Naxal ka niyam thoda theek hai, lekin jo maar deta hai logo ko, woh bahut bekaar hai. Lekin Naxal bhi nahi rehne se, police aadmi se bhi khatra hai” (Naxalite policies are a alright but when they kill people, it’s not good. But if the Naxals are not there, the police have a free hand.
Development and education as agenda
In a meeting with the BSF and adivasis from Kartapalli, a BSF commander from Uttarakhand said, “The next time I meet you, I hope to be speaking Koya. Wait, what language do they speak? Halbi? Okay. You have come to our camp to join with us, yeh hi hamara adesh hai (that is our order). It is important that we trust one another. It would be wonderful if you leave the Naxalites and come towards us, in the long run it will benefit you. That’s all I will say now, the next time I hope to be speaking to you in your own language.”
A BSF commander from Bihar added, “First when we used to come into your villages, you used to run away from us. In the last four-five months, we did operations there, and you know the Naxalites have stopped coming… are they still coming? That you are coming towards us, it is what we are grateful for. Let there be development in your villages, let your children study. Is there a road coming in the village? Your children will study and go to Kiang, Govindpalli and Malkangiri.”
When I asked the villagers of Kartapalli if they have a school, they responded that they do and that their teacher Sushanto Behera comes everyday. They don’t have a road yet and they have one boy who has completed class 12. In Kiang, where there is a BSF camp as well as a COBRA camp, the teacher has not come for six months. “When it comes to development, from the BDO, the collector to those in the education department, I have sent complaints about our absent teacher but no one is responding,” says Somaru Naik, an LLB graduate and the sarpanch of Kiang.
At the same time, Haldar Poojari, who is the state president of the Adivasi Mahasabha questioned state promises of development. “They got all these people to surrender to the ‘mainstream’, so they can get development. What development? This area does not have irrigation, we depend on rains. So irrigate us, there was the Sapthadhar project, now do it. Give us our pattas (land titles), so many of us don’t have our pattas.”
“Many adivasis here are not even called adivasis here by the state,” he continues. “The Dhurwa and the Kondareddis near Chitrakonda, they are called adivasis elsewhere but not in this state. So they don’t get ST certificates to study.”
Yet Rajesh Madari of the village of Temurupalli, who is a BA in Arts graduate, only found himself a job in the panchayat gram sabha, earning 1,000 rupees per month. He detailed how most of the adivasis who graduated with him are now SPO’s. Maheshwar Samrat, his sarpanch added how educated Bhunjia youth do not see their aspirations in the CPI Maoist movement.
“There are no other jobs for adivasis here except SPO’s.’ Even Somaru Naik added: “Three-four years ago the rules changed where a lot of people who are graduates from Bhubaneshwar are getting jobs in services here. Not adivasis from here.”
They only work when unirrigated lands receive rains and farming can continue.
Meanwhile, the villagers of Katapalli laugh as they say how Erma taught them songs of the Naxalites, “aur phir bhaag gaya (and then ran away).”
The question arises that if the CPI Maoist is incapable of maintaining a mass base in the area directly adjacent to their bases in Bastar, then how are they capable of containing this senseless violent insurgency and keep up the ambitious claim of capturing state power? Mathili is a region where they do not even speak to all adivasi tribes, let alone the millions of oppressed: the Bhunjia’s repeatedly claimed that the Koyas would predominately go to them, their squads spoke in Koya or Hindi, not Halbi. Most villagers even claimed that most of the people who are going to the police to ‘surrender’ are Bhunjias and not Koyas.
In twelve years the CPI Maoist of Mathili have seemed to have alienated the Bhunjia population that had to face state repression. And from across the region, the police would create informants through force, carrot, stick, noose and manipulation and the Naxalites would kill them. In 2010 in Chitrakonda, I met the adivasi leader of the Malkangiri Cut Off Area Tribal Union, Komalu Anakum, who was living in fear of the police because his mass agitations for basic amenities were being misconstrued as Maoist activities. Today he’s a ghost, murdered by the Maoists in 2013 because they thought he was an informant.
The Maoists can claim they do this to protect their leadership, but the state will keep on making informants; the state will do what a state does. No matter what pretences they can keep up in different areas, counterinsurgency, to them, is not compatible with human rights; habeas corpus ki maa ki jai, and to them, no Supreme Court order, no international covenant on human rights which India is a party to and no legal recourse can ever interfere with their intelligence gathering. This is why they despise human rights activists.
Intelligence is their dogma. And the war is fought on the grounds of intelligence, details from the MHA reveal it: from the years 2011-2016(as of March) across the states, 494 LWE cadres were killed (this doesn’t count the innocent people killed or how many are killed in fake encounters), 541 security personnel killed, yet 679 ‘informants’ or those deemed ‘informants’ have also been killed.
And what would be the Maoist response to reclaim this block, if they wanted to? The killing of those who helped set up the surrenders? Is the only response to state violence, more violence against the population in the form of the killing of informants and dissenters? How many Ermas have to live in fear by repressing an entire population, hoping for the annihilation of the CPI Maoist? Has the killing of informants become so casual? Is one man’s atrocity different from another’s atrocity?
In 2010, there was a large red stupa for slain Maoists Sudhakar Reddy and Comrade Venkataih built overlooking the cut-off area. Today, there is a BSF camp behind it, and the stupa is coloured Tiranga.
When this all ends, if it ever does, will there be a stupa for the Komalus of Dandakaranya? Who will build it?