Most of the countryside in Chhattisgarh had seemed so
deceptively serene and lush, it was unnerving to think of the shadows of
danger lurking in the thick forests. We had somehow managed to get to
the spot despite entry being restricted and here I was standing at the
very place where less than 24 hours ago, a virtually one-sided battle
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d & thunder’d
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred
That’s precisely what it had been. The 63 men
belonging to E and F company of CRPF’s 39th battalion were returning to
their base after being part of a Road Opening Party. They had split into
two batches. The first batch had moved ahead. Some men were relaxing
under a tree beyond an open field. The second group was on the only road
connecting Farasgaon and Dhaudei when about 50 Maoists hiding under a
bridge that served as a trench, suddenly attacked. There was firing from
three directions. The CRPF men were caught completely off guard.
Wherever I walked, on the bridge, in the fields off
the road, under the tree, there were cartridges left of the bullets that
had been fired, even a few that had fallen off unfired. And there were
blood trails everywhere. Under the tree where a local told us 18 bodies
had been found, there were huge patches of soil wetted and coloured by
blood. The tree trunk bore marks of the bark chipped off at several
places where the bullets had hit.
A mix of images before and after. Banana peels, empty
water bottles, gutka packets, even a steel tiffin box .
“Don’t touch, madam, it may be a bomb,” warned our
driver who was playing local guide. Because often they look deceptively
harmless and have wires attached to the lid, to blow up in the face of
whoever opens it. And then there were blood-soaked and now dried up
cloth and bandages, first aid kits that had been torn open in a hurry, a
few still unopened, the instruction leaflets flying around, belts and
shoes of the men, remains of exploded grenades and a couple of
unexploded ones, a couple of blood-soaked caps with one of them clearly
showing the hole where the jawan was shot. So many telltale signs of
what must have happened when the soldiers fought a losing battle.
May be it is a catharsis, to share gory details or
even the pathetic images that passed through my mind, of what must have
been the last thoughts of these men in the last few minutes as they came
face-to-face with death. Did the faces of their young children dance
before their eyes, did they imagine how shattering it would be for a
wife, a sister, did they want to say a last goodbye to a dear one, to
say how much they loved them, or did they want to be held one last time
in the arms of their mother in an embrace that takes away the pain of
death. I don’t know. They were all painful thoughts that made the entire
purpose of this war seem futile and meaningless. They were real people,
with real families, a real life and I could see no glory in a death
without a cause, that becomes just another number added to a statistic.
Exactly the same thoughts were voiced by a very smart
officer I met in Narayanpur. “Yeh shahadat nahin hain, madam. Bali
ke bakre ban rahen hain hamare aadmi.”
Certainly echoes the thoughts of the many others who
don the uniform and so can’t speak out. I was surprised the young man
walked around with us, without any fear, unlike many others, who I know
would prefer to remain ensconced in their barracks or behind the safety
of sandbags inside police stations-turned-fortresses.
The young man had spent six years in this area, where
everyday it is a toss between life and death. There are no pretences.
“I sometimes wonder who we are fighting and for what.
But we need to fight to live. Because they will come to my town (Raipur)
as well one day. It is only a matter of time. And if I don’t fight, I
won’t live. I only wish the government had a clear policy instead of
turning men into cannon fodder. So you end up thinking one day or the
other, your turn will come too.”
I didn’t see any fear in his face as he said this. It
was not even bravado. It was only a statement of fact.
A young boy who introduced himself to me as a special
police officer (tribal youth inducted after some training into the
police force for their knowledge of the area) said the CRPF men simply
are not upto this kind of guerrilla warfare. Even accompanying them (as
is necessary as per standard operating procedure) is a big risk, he
said. Because they don’t realise the dangers and won’t listen.
For example, an RoP should travel in a V-formation
with only the base that has a bomb-detection squad on the main road,
with the men spread out combing the jungle around for lurking dangers.
But that apparently did not happen in Narayanpur.
The boy explains that Maoist strategy is to instigate
the enemy (in this case, CRPF men) to fire and that is what they did,
almost feverishly, and exhausted their firepower soon enough.
Reinforcements from the base camp hardly three kilometres away took more
than three hours. After all, the men can’t risk walking into a booby
trap, which is known to be Maoist strategy to inflict maximum damage.
Others who had got ahead of the group also perhaps didn’t see much of a
point in returning to fight. There is no romanticism of bravery when you
are being showered with bullets from all sides and lobbed with grenades.
Post-mortem reports of the men suggested some had
been slit at the throat, some others killed in a cruel and crude manner.
“They make us sound like brutal killers. It is only
that 99 per cent of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (the military
wing of the Maoists) has tribal boys and men, who don’t have
sophisticated firearms. So they use local weapons like bow and arrow,
knives, ” explained Gudsa Usendi, spokesperson for the Dandakaranya
Special Zone Committee. “You may not agree with our violent methods,
Madam. But the fight ultimately is for the tribal land and the rich
mineral resources here.”
At one level I had to agree. I wish it was a black
and white picture. Some bad guys, some good guys, clearly demarcated.
But no, it is not. And that is why it becomes such a dilemma to either
condemn one side completely or support the other side ungrudgingly, with
an open heart and mind. And that’s why I feel thankful someone like a
Arundhati Roy wrote about the other side of the picture. You may not
agree with her but you will still have to address at least some of the
issues she raised. Simply pointing your sarcasm at people like her
whenever a horrific instance of Maoist violence takes place doesn’t
absolve the government of the larger responsibility.
It is an oft-repeated story. The injustice of
deprivation drives people to desperation. The choice is between living a
miserable, pathetic life, with hardly any rights on the one hand, and
the sense of power that violence gives on the other. Violence becomes a
weapon to hit back and assert for your rights. There is anarchy. The
State cannot allow that. Nor is it able to address the primary issues.
So the power of the State is rightfully used to assert that it is a
functioning democracy, where fiefdoms can’t be allowed.
But then States are not exactly run by the most clean
and wise men. There is corruption and there are vested interests greedy
for mineral wealth in the place the tribals have called home for
generations but are denied the right to live off it. No one will admit
it but the government’s policies only support the politically entrenched
and the economically powerful. Hands of the law-enforcers are tied by
the rule of law. It is an unequal battle. So unconstitutional,
extrajudicial methods, fake kilings in cold blood become acceptable.
There is retaliation. A fresh army of rebels. There is no end to the
cycle of violence.
The larger responsibility for this state of madness
has to be taken by the State, the government. Afterall, they are the
upholders of law. So my expectation puts the greater onus on the State
to play by the rule of law and do what is right.
Among the men who are pushed to the battlefront to
fight this war, there is disillusionment, hopelessness, a feeling of
betrayal and despair. You can see it in the blank, disturbing look in
many eyes. A soldier needs to feel passionately for a just cause, not
the horror, revulsion and futility of the battle. He needs to feel
well-equipped and trained to fight and win this war. Fighting constantly
to kill or be killed, watching your friends die and living on, awaiting
one’s own death, can’t be inspiring or beautiful. There is no dignity in
(Author is a Hyderabad based journalist and works with NDTV as its
Resident Editor. This report first came on her blog