Gadchiroli (Maharashtra): They are a number, the number 40: Forty Maoists killed, 40 terrorists killed or 40 ‘martyrs’ killed. They are ‘rakshas’ (demons), they are ‘supreme anti-nationals’, they are a heap of decomposed, bloated bodies wrapped in polythene sheets at Gadchiroli police station. But for their families and the community, there’s a different memory.
About a month after the encounter in which they were killed, a large gathering took place at the site, where one member from each family and people from neighbouring villages attended a ceremony called the ‘mirsum’ , that is held to help release the spirit of those killed unnaturally, or those who committed suicide. The smaller ceremonies took place in the villages of the deceased when the bodies were returned to the families and were buried in a ‘gumiya’ where the belongings of the departed are placed around the grave: from clothes, to vessels, to even their bicycles, chairs, khatiyas or clocks.
The Wire toured eight villages and met the families of those killed in the recent ‘encounter’, as well as the silent victims of Maoist violence. All were local Madia adivasis: of the 40 killed, only a handful were from Chhattisgarh, while one hailed from Warangal. The majority were from Bamragad and Etappali.
A universal pattern across families of known Maoists was that the police would often urge family members to talk their children or brother or sister to surrender to the police. The universal pattern for those who joined the C-60 (a specialised combat unit of the Gadchiroli police) is that the Maoists would ask them to leave the village, or tell them to leave the police. The killings of informants is not seen from the spectrum of daily conversation. ‘Chugli’ is a popular word that exists almost as a parenthesis to conversation: it means ‘backbiter’ in Urdu. There isn’t a Gondi word for ‘informant’. Another word used in Gadchiroli is khabari, or informer, which might as well connote a death sentence.
The villagers in Boria are exhausted with how their village has became ‘ground zero’ for the killings, its aftermath, and its carnival. They speak irritatingly about how the police forced them to retrieve the bodies from the river, paid them Rs 9,000, and installed a hand pump, which, true to the classic trope of Indian administration, has already stopped working.
They took 15 bodies out of the river on April 24, out of which four were women in civil dress, two were men in civil dress and nine were in the combatant uniform of the Maoists. They found two bodies on April 26, both in uniform, and finally on April 27, a half-burnt body of a woman in uniform, deep inside the forest.
Some of the bodies were in such a decomposed and mutilated state that the villagers weren’t even sure of the gender. “One man carrying a body from this end, says it’s a man, the other carrying the body from the other end, says it’s a woman,” a villager recalled.
The police had camped out at the village from April 22 till May 8. Then came the fact-finding teams, journalists and even the victims of Naxal violence who protested in the village.
Who are the people who perished in this historic ‘victory’, ‘flawless operation’, his ‘perfect ambush’, ‘massacre’, this ‘biggest Maoist encounter?’ And who are the others, whose deaths will not be marked by the village they were killed in?
When asked where his aunt is, Pali’s nephew Krishna, who is four years old, says, ‘Dolta’. Dolta means dead.
Pali was the second child of her parents. She has two younger brothers, and an elder sister and is the first person ‘martyred’ in the village of Nelgunda, Bamragad. The villagers of Nelgunda have faced police harassment twice in recent years, once when over 60 of them were beaten on the orders of a sub-inspector at Dodhraj police station for not taking permission to hold a ‘bazaar’, and the second time when they were taken at gunpoint to demolish a Maoist memorial.
“Why should we seek permission to hold our bazaars when they don’t have to do so in Bamragad” the village gaita, or elder, said.
The police had approached Pali’s mother Koli twice, asking her to convince her daughter to surrender. Pali’s brothers, her nephew and her mother were present during the interview. The adults were told the story that Pali had managed to escape the initial firing and was emerging out of the river on the other side when she was shot in the back.
Asked why Pali joined the party, Koli said, “When she was young, she didn’t want to get married, so she left. But even when we said she didn’t have to marry and she can come back, she didn’t do so. She would visit the village occasionally, but hadn’t in the last year. Each time she left, she told her mother “If I am alive, I will come, if I don’t come, I’m dead.”
On what she thought of the police terming her daughter as a ‘dangerous criminal’, a rakshas ,she said wistfully,”She wasn’t, she was good to people, even the other party people said they liked her. “Don’t fight with one another, don’t drink,” she would tell her younger brothers. She was exceptionally fond of Krishna, her nephew, with whom she would spend most of her time.
How did Koli feel about the ‘khabari’ responsible for the ‘encounter’ that took her daughter’s life? She murmurs, “Someone must’ve said where they were…whatever justice the sarkar decides on. Hum ko kuch maloom nahi (I don’t know anything).”
Koli goes quiet when asked if there is anything she wanted want to tell the state, the police, the government, the people who were responsible for her daughter’s death. After a pause, she said, “The police do the same work, the Naxals do the same work. They take up guns, and they kill each other… thoda unko vichar sochna chahiye, nahi sochte (They should introspect. They don’t). They shouldn’t kill each other.”
Two months after the April 22 encounter, the villagers of Gattepalli still have no clear idea about what happened to the eight teenagers from their village. They are ‘lapata’ (missing), they say when asked publicly, but in private they know that all of them were killed in Kasansur-Boria. They have even conducted the mirsum. The bodies of the teenagers were buried by the Gadchiroli police itself. As of June 1, over 18 bodies were unidentified but not returned to the families, as the official DNA results were pending.
According to a report in The Wire, a young woman identified as Raaso, was eventually identified as Bhuji. “When they first saw the photo of the dead body, they thought it was Raaso, but when they went to the police station, they realised it was Bhuji,” said Lalsu Narote, advocate and independent zilla parishad member, who has been closely following up on the village of Gattepalli and is active in seeking answers from the government.
Bhuji’s body was in such a decomposed state that the villagers didn’t bring it back to the village.
In all the villages this reporter toured in Bamragad-Etapalli, almost all the older women and men had Madia adivasi names, like Wadde, Dalsu, Pili, while the younger people had clearly Sanskritised names. The only village where that wasn’t the case was Gattepalli, where of the eight killed, five had adivasi names and were all from the ages 15 to 23, at different levels of schooling.
The villagers all stick to their story that the children went for a wedding, denying completely the police claim that they were new recruits to the party, recruited by one of those killed, Sainath.
“His father died, and he went into the forest.” That was all Dolesh’s mother says about him. Then his friends and neighbours, his childhood pals begin to tell his story. He was barely 15 or 16 when he joined the Maoists. He was an only child, and had studied until 7th standard. When his body was returned to Gattepalli, his burial was conducted without checking his injuries. “We saw his face and buried him,” said villagers.
At this stage, a man interrupted and said, “He went inside (the party) because of police harassment. There was a firing at Kasimpalli and the police had called him to the police station. They accused him, saying that the injured Maoists were getting treatment in his house, that the doctor was coming there. It was the tendu season, we remember. They beat him up, slapped a case on him as well. He was alone in his home, he had no one, jamanat karne ke liye koi nahi tha, toh woh jungle chala gaya (there was no one to bail him out. So he left for the jungle).”
In the 15 years and more that would follow, Dolesh would become Sainath. He would become a divisional committee member in the South Gadchiroli division and one of the ‘top three Maoists’ killed in the Kasansur-Boria ‘encounter’, along with Nandu from Arkampalli and Srinu from Warangal. Across the region, the name ‘Sainath’ was well-known, at times infamous. He was accused no.1 in the burning of the 80 trucks and JCBs on the Surjagad mountain. And his cousin, Irpa Usendi, who worked as a contractor at the site was made accused no.2 in the case by the police before he was killed by the CPI-Maoists, legend says, by Sainath himself.
According to police releases, Sainath was accused in over 70 cases of murder, extortion, arson, etc. (If one looks at the data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal, from 2004-2017, 160 civilians and 144 jawans were killed in Gadchiroli.)
Dolesh’s mother wanted him to surrender but he never agreed to it. “Woh nahi sunta tha, (He wouldn’t listen to her),” Birsu Atram said. Birsu was shot in the hand by the CRPF in 2015 while he was riding his motorcycle back home after dark. He was the first person from his village who had bought himself a motorcycle.
On April 19 , 2016, an encounter had taken place near Kudkeli where Keku Kovasi, alias Sarita, was shot dead by the police. She was a member of the Perimilli dalam and was married to Sainath.
“We will build Dolesh a memorial, as well as for everyone else,” said one of his friends.
Sainath himself came to kill Lalsu. He was brutally beaten with sticks in front of the whole village and then they took stones and smashed his face in. There was no warning before the killing, which was a deviation from what is apparently standard operating procedure among Maoists. They give repeated warnings to those accused of working with the state. Lalsu got none.
It was the day of the maka-jatra, the mango festival, and many people from neighbouring villages were present. A small squad of a five Maoists led by Sainath entered the village late in the evening while Lalsu was resting on his cot at home. While they were dragging him away, his brother tried to stop them. “When I asked them where they’re taking him, what wrong has he done, Sainath said why are you asking, you’re not going to see him again anyway,” his brother said.
The villagers themselves had to take Lalsu’s body to Bamragad and file an FIR. No local media came to the village, no official.
Lalsu was a farmer, and used to run the public distribution system in the village. “He was innocent,” said a local activist, adding “he was my senior in school, we knew he wasn’t involved with all this.”
A month later, when his elder brother Narango Kundi Atram confronted the Maoists on why they killed his brother, they beat him up.
When the villagers conducted the mirsum, people from neighbouring villages, and even from the home of a known-Maoist attended the ceremony.
“So many people are fighting in the world. She did not go into the jungle to fight just for us, she went to fight for everyone, for the whole world.” said Devu, Rukhmati’s father, while putting one of his grandchildren to sleep.
The police had sent him a letter informing him that his daughter was dead and he should come to the Gadchiroli police station. But they did not show him her body, just took his blood for the DNA tests. They showed them photos of the dead bodies on the computer but couldn’t identify her. Rukhmati was 16-17 years old when she went into the forests. She was one among three sisters and two brothers. The reasons for her going to the jungles were closely linked to internal village dynamics: Devu and his family were accused of ‘black magic’, were ostracised and forced to leave the village and lived at the outskirts. There was a virtual social boycott of the family, no one was to work in their fields, or visit their house. ‘They wouldn’t even want our animals to graze near their animals,” Devu said. Four-five years ago, the Maoists sorted this out, and it was again Sainath whose role was central, this time as arbitrator.
After the killings of both Rukhmati and Sainath, the family hasn’t faced any ill-will or a return of the boycott. ‘This girl here, her baby niece used to follow her back into the jungle whenever she came, and she had to be sent back,” Devu laughs.
The family found out that Rukhmati was killed a month after the encounter. Earlier, they used to get a letter from her saying she was alive and well. After the recent encounter, no letter arrived and the family began to worry. They had met her a week before the encounter, when she came to check on the family and told them not to come into the forest, as the Maoists had set up camp there.
When asked if Rukhmati was part of the squad that killed Lalsu, Devu replied in the negative. “She worked well for the people, let her enemies say what they want, she didn’t fight with anyone, she made no enemies”, he added.
“We know Mahari wasn’t killed on the 22nd, she was taken by the police along with Nandu and killed elsewhere,” said the villagers and her family members at Mirgudwancha.
Reports and accusations have come in that Nandu, ‘Lata’ and other Maoists were captured alive from Kasansur-Boria and were killed a day later in an encounter at Rajaram Khandla after being forced by the police to reveal nearby Maoist caches. This belief has been strengthened by accusations from Nandu’s family at Arkampalli claiming that a villager got a call from the Gadchiroli police station saying that Nandu had been captured. Then, a day later, they were told he was killed at Rajaram Khandla.
In Lata’s village, people speak about how she ‘ran out of bullets and surrendered,’ how they ‘took her to Aheri and tortured her.’ The day The Wire visited the village, a wedding was on between a boy from Mirgudwancha and a girl from Gattepalli. Villagers from Gattepalli whom we met a day earlier joined us again in the house of Mahari.
Lata had studied till the 7th standard and had gone underground more than 15 years ago, in 2003, when she joined the cultural wing of the CPI-Maoist, the Chetna Natya Manch and eventually rose in the party ranks. She married Nandu alias Vikram alias Vasant Atram from Arkampalli, whose death has been celebrated by the police as a ‘top catch’. The villagers of Mirgudwancha carried mud from their village to Nandu’s gumiya.
‘She used to come to the village and tell people, to understand the party’s niyam, not to fight with each other, to be careful about politicians…jal, jungle, jameen, that we are a very rich country and we should protect it.”
The police would repeatedly ask her parents, Dallu and Muri, to ask her to surrender but Lata refused to do so. She told them to protect her younger brother, to teach him how to work the fields.
“What would you like to tell the police and the state about your daughter?” I asked Dallu. “I don’t understand these things, so what can I say? She used to be in school, she used to help people a lot in the village,” he said.
“He didn’t even tell us he joined the C-60,” said Linga, Suresh’s father. The village of Kushnar is just around a kilometre away from Mirgudwancha. The route to the village has a large memorial coloured in the tiranga (tricolour) in memory of Suresh Linga Telami, the first person from the village to die as either a policeman or Maoist in this low-intensity insurgency and low-intensity democracy. Suresh was killed when his anti-landmine vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device on a road close to Bamragad, near the village of Kier. He lost his foot and bled to death. He was only 28 years old, and left behind four sisters, a wife and a son.
“They sent a man on a motorbike to come and tell us he had been killed,” said his family membes.
Suresh was studying in Aheri and after his BA second year he enrolled with the police, the only person from his village to do so. He married a year later. ‘The Maoists called us twice and told us to tell him to leave the C-60. Told us to leave the village after he joined the C-60. What do we tell them? If we speak up, it’s wrong, if we don’t it’s wrong,” said Linga.
“We did his mirsum at the blast site, there were people from Karampalli, Hemalkasa, Kier, our village Kushnar, some 25-30 people. Villagers support us, if Naxals die, they help, if police die we help, we have no problems with them, we attend ceremonies, weddings, deaths, we can only work together,” he said, adding “Why would I be angry that he went into the police? Yes, if he wasn’t in the police, he might’ve lived longer.”
Suresh’s family wasn’t used to people visitng their home, neither local journalists nor officials. While state policy encourages the public memory of policemen and women killed in Maoist violence, and you find their portraits at bus stations, at the Gadchiroli sessions court, outside the collector’s office, at the police station, on the Gadchiroli district website, there are almost no visits from anyone to the homes of the victims of Maoist violence. It is the families who’re asked to attend events, memorials, press conferences in other areas.
“We were called once for Ambrishrao Atram’s (incumbent BJP MLA, from Aheri) event,” said Suresh’s brother-in-law.
When asked who he thinks would be able to save the jungle and adivasi culture, the state or the adivasis. he says,” ‘Only we can.”
“What am I going to do with this photo of hers on the Aadhaar?’”says Mina’s mother. “I remember her when I see it,” say said, adding that the only photo of hers they have is the one on her Aadhaar card, where her date of birth is marked as 1995.
Mina was the oldest of three daughters and had studied till the 10th standard and was home for three years after that. She met a boy from her mother’s maternal village of Karkawada in Bhopalpatnam in a wedding and fell in love with him. She left to stay in his home at Karkawada in a live-in relationship for two years. It was from his village that she joined the Maoists.
“He started working in some company,” her mother said, adding “she went to the party after that. We don’t know anything else.”
Mina would meet her mother and father and two sisters only once in six years . They were called across the Indravati river to meet her, where “her father just scolded her, and she didn’t respond at all.”
Three generations of Mina’s family sit in the hot summer sun, her grandmother, her younger sister who barely remembers her and her mother and look at her photo: this is an old photo, they say, it must have been taken when she first went into the jungle. ‘The police told us thrice to ask her to surrender, but she never came home. “Ladai mein police bhi marta hai, naxal bhi marta hai ( In this fight, the police gets killed and so do the Naxals)“, said the family.
All images by Javed Iqbal.
Javed Iqbal is a freelance reporter and photographer.