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Monday, June 09, 2014  

Nothing poetic about death

A report from ground zero at the site of the ambush in Narayanpur

"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."

Uma Sudhir

    Not tho’ the soldier knew

Some one had blunder’d

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do & die,

Into the valley of death

Rode the six hundred

It was these lines from Alfred Tennyson’s immortal poem `The Charge Of The Light Brigade‘ that were involuntarily playing in my head when I arrived at Narayanpur’s valley of death, in the Jharaghatti forest of Chhattisgarh. We had managed to reach there after nearly 18 hours of virtually non-stop driving from Hyderabad.

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 had raged.

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 it.

(Author is a Hyderabad based journalist and works with NDTV as its Resident Editor. This report first came on her blog

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