Death in the Evening

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The dreams of two young men from adjacent villages on either side of the Telangana-Chhattisgarh border ended in tragedy. Rahul Pandita reports from Bhadrachalam

THE ROAD TO Chhattisgarh from Telangana’s Bhadrachalam town is a proper road now; tarmac was laid through the forest about eight years ago. As one drives past, it is not unusual to find an Adivasi sitting on his or her haunches on the road—not by its side, but on the road itself. They sit with a certain insouciance, oblivious to the danger of being run over by a speeding vehicle. It is as if the road does not exist, as if it is still the forest of their forefathers, possessing transfiguring power in their minds.

It was almost 40 years ago that a squad of Maoist guerrillas passed through this forest to create a rear base in Bastar. In those days, Bastar was a part of Madhya Pradesh. Bhadrachalam used to be in Andhra Pradesh before Telangana become a separate state. For the area’s Adivasis, though, this area remains a contiguous land mass. Pressure from government forces has made the Maoists cautious of their movement along the Telangana- Chhattisgarh border. But still, it is they who control most villages around here.

It is through the Bhadrachalam route that Maoists get most of their essential supplies. Members of Maoist militias—villagers from areas under their control who act as their eyes and ears and also as supplementary soldiers—visit the town to buy things that the guerrillas require: cloth for their uniforms, food, medicines, even fuse wire for Improvised Explosive Devices. Many items of daily use are bought from the Cherla market, over 50 km from Bhadrachalam.

On this side in Telangana, Maoists often come to Kurnapalli village. Earlier, they would descend upon such villages for cooked food. Of late, to avoid spending too much time in villages, they have begun to collect dry stocks of rice, lentils, spices and so on that they take back into the forest. This area is handled by senior Maoist commander, Hari Bhushan, who has narrowly escaped police action several times in past few years. His wife, Sharada, has also been active in this area for long. Hari Bhushan’s deputy is a man called Koyyada Sambaiah, better known as Azad. He has recently been promoted to the divisional committee of the CPI (Maoist).

On July 24th, one of Azad’s close associates, Arun, was killed in an encounter with the police on the outskirts of Kurnapalli. Villagers in and around this hamlet, say police sources, would often call Arun to settle minor disputes among themselves. On September 3rd, Maoists summoned five elders of Kurnapalli to a village just across the border in Chhattisgarh and beat them up. “[The Maoists] do it to instill fear among villagers who they suspect of being police informers,” says Sunil Sharma, police chief of Bhadradri Kothagudem district (of which Bhadrachalam is now a part).

Three days later, the Maoists summoned about a hundred others from nearby villages for severe beatings. This left many with grave injuries, including 52-year-old Irpa Venkateshallu from Kurnapalli. “Many villagers begged the Maoists that he be taken to hospital, but they did not budge,” says a villager who does not wish to be named for fear of being targeted by Maoists. Venkateshallu died soon afterwards.

It was in 2006 that the Maoists came for the first time to Pusuguppa, another village on the Telangana side of the border. It included Sharada and another senior Maoist leader locally known as Sooryam. Just across the border, about 10 km from Pusuguppa, is Chinnautapalli village in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district.

In 2009, a Maoist commander called Sukhdev picked up an 11-year-old boy from a government school here. Sori Nandu, a Gutti Koya tribal, was trained by Maoists to join them. He turned out to be an asset and was made a part of a ‘dalam’ (Maoist squad). He could read and speak Hindi and was sharp and courageous. His friends gave him the name Dual (‘leopard’) after he killed one in the forest. He reported to a commander called Lachhana, a divisional committee member of the CPI (Maoist).

After a few years, Nandu began to develop differences with some of his superiors. “Since he was educated, he would argue with Lachhana and others, which they didn’t like at all,” says a police source.

Nandu and Bharat were better educated than their senior Maoist leaders in the Bastar region and ultimately fell out with them

In 2017, at the age of 20, Nandu finally approached the police and surrendered. “He was a dreamer,” says Sunil Sharma. “He was fond of good clothes, and also wanted to give his mother a good life.” Another police officer recalls Nandu’s fascination with how modern things worked. “He would look for hours at an electric fan and ask questions. He opened radio sets and mobile phones to see what was inside them,” he says. After the surrender, Nandu went to Hyderabad, where he worked as a labourer for few months. Later, on his return, he went straight to Cherla market where his mother sells little items of daily use to eke out a living. He gave her all the money he had earned in Hyderabad. “His mother was so happy. But we told him not to go to Cherla because the Maoists could target him,” says the police source.

Ultimately, with a little help, Nandu got a job at a petrol pump in Bhadrachalam town itself. Impressed with his diligence, the pump’s owner raised his salary to Rs 7,000 a month and also offered him a place to stay. In the meantime, Nandu had fallen in love with a girl. In January this year, the two got married. “He called me and said he wanted to buy a motorcycle. He sounded very cheerful,” says one local intelligence officer whose job is to keep an eye on surrendered Maoists.

In Pusuguppa, another young man, eight years elder to Nandu, would join the Maoists a few years after him. Irpa Laxman, alias Bharat, had one brother and three sisters. As a child, he went to a school run by the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, an NGO affiliated with the Sangh Parivar. He graduated from Bhadrachalam Degree College in 2013.

Bharat’s family owns about 20 acres of land. His elder brother, Irpa Nageshwar Rao, worked in the fields to support his family. It is around this time that Laxman came in touch with Sukhdev, just like Nandu had.

It is believed that Sukhdev gave him about Rs 35,000 to buy an autorickshaw that he could ferry passengers with between his village and Cherla, a distance of about 20 km. Sukhdev also wanted him to use it for supplies from the market there.

The police soon came to know of this arrangement. Bharat was scared that they would pick him up. He vanished from his village, joined the Maoist ranks. And started teaching in their temporary schools. He taught tribal history and also took classes in science.

But, in a few years, just like Nandu, he fell out with senior leaders like Azad. “They would have regular arguments about things. The senior leaders did not like the fact that he was educated and knew better about most things,” says another surrendered Maoist who now lives elsewhere with a false name.

Maoists stoned Bharat to death in front of his brother and other shocked villagers

Ultimately, Bharat spoke to his commanders and told them that he wanted to leave. Sometime later, he gave himself up to the police. By this time, ironically, the man who had turned both Nandu and Bharat into Maoists had surrendered as well. Sukhdev, according to police sources, sells fertiliser along with his wife somewhere in Telangana.

After his surrender, Bharat chose to return to his village. He had ideas. He got a water pump from the little money he had and started growing vegetables on his land. He made sure his niece attended school. “He brought her to me once and told her that if she has to become a police officer like me, then she has to study hard,” recalls Sharma.

The first crop Bharat grew was okra. It did very well. He even took a share of the harvest to his friends in town. He clicked pictures of his produce and WhatsApped it to all his friends and acquaintances.

The only fresh vegetables that go to Maoist strongholds from Bhadrachalam are tomatoes. Bharat took permission from a senior Maoist leader, Savitri, to sell his produce in villages in Chhattisgarh like Bhimaram and Pujari Kanker, which the police call ‘liberated zones’.

IN THE WEE hours of March 2nd, a team of Greyhound commandos laid an ambush in Pujari Kanker after crossing over from Telangana. The team had information of a gathering of senior CPI (Maoist) leaders, including Hari Bhushan and another leader, Damodar. In the ensuing encounter, 10 Maoists, including six women guerrillas, died. A Greyhound commando also lost his life in the operation. Most of the Maoists were from their Central Reserve Committee (CRC), whose main job is to protect senior leaders. But Hari Bhushan managed to escape.

On March 26th, Bharat was to meet a prospective bride in a neighbouring village. Two days before that, a group of Maoists appeared in Pusuguppa and took him away, saying they wanted to speak to him about an important matter. On March 28th, his brother was asked to reach Chinnautalapalli. When he reached there, he saw that about 200 villagers, including people from his village, had already assembled there. There was a big group of about 150 Maoists as well. It included Sharada, Azad, and Lachanna.

Nandu would look for hours at an electric fan and ask questions. He often opened radio sets and mobile phones to see what was inside them

As the villagers watched, the Maoists first brought Sori Nandu. He had been picked up from his village where he had gone with his wife. For three days, say eyewitnesses, the Maoists beat him up badly. That night, in front of the villagers, Nandu was tied to a rope and beaten up again. In front of the villagers, Maoist leaders forced him to say that he and Bharat had provided information to security forces about Maoist movement.

Then Nandu was put to death.

Minutes later, as a stunned silence fell over onlookers, Bharat was also brought out and asked repeatedly to confess to his ‘crime.’ But he refused. “They kept beating him, but he kept saying that he had no information and hence could not have provided it to the forces,” says an eyewitness.

Afterwards, as shocked villagers looked on, Bharat was taken to a corner. “They kept hitting him with stones for more than 30 minutes till he died,” the eyewitness says.

“We have information coming from there all the time,” says a senior intelligence officer based in Hyderabad. “But these two had left the Maoists completely and were not privy to any information. So there is no question of them being used as informers.”

After the executions, Bharat’s body was sent back with his brother, who was also given a stapled letter that he was ordered to hand over to a local journalist in Cherla.

“Civil rights activists create such furore if they smell any wrongdoing in our operations. But tell me: why would they not raise voice for someone like Bharat or Nandu? After all, these were young men who could have inspired so many other youngsters to get educated and make a life for themselves,” demands a senior police officer.

As security forces push further into their bastion, they are increasingly turning on the very people they claim to be fighting for. In Chhattisgarh, too, there are regular reports of them battering people in villages and even killing some in cold blood. Several villagers have also become victims of the explosives that Maoists plant to target Indian security forces.

The police now believe that the Maoists are making desperate attempts in their erstwhile areas of influence in Telangana to attract young men and women to their ranks. In Telangana’s Jogulamba Gadwal district, a 19-year-old girl of the Scheduled Caste Madiga community went missing from her home on July 15th. Police sources say she may have crossed over to Chhattisgarh to join the Maoists. Incidentally, Rathna Bai alias Sujatha, the 56-year-old wife of the Maoist supreme commander Ganapathi, is from Gadwal district.

On October 2nd, about 150 activists embarked on a march on the Bhadrachalam-Chhattisgarh road that Maoists had taken four decades ago. Their plan: to walk 186 km and appeal to ‘all sides’ to give peace a chance. But the Maoists called for a boycott of the march.

Nirmalangshu Mukherji, an academic and author of The Maoists in India: Tribals under Seige, says he recalls a time during the Naxalbari movement when villagers in Birbhum in West Bengal got so sick of Naxals and the police repression that came along with it that they actually guided the police to their hideouts.

But it seems unlikely that the Maoists will learn any lessons from such examples. In the coming days, it is feared that Bastar and its surrounding areas will witness further violence. “Things are inching towards a gruesome counter-revolution [in Bastar]. That is why it is important for civil society to intervene and stop the carnage from both sides before it reaches devastating ugliness,” cautions Mukherji.