Close encounters of the Naxalite kind

My mother was frantic this week when I failed to make my usual morning call to her a day after the Dantewada massacres of CRPF jawans by Naxalites. Actually, I had an early morning meeting to attend and, in that rush, I switched off my phone and simply just forgot about it. When I switched it on again at lunchtime, there were so many furious messages asking me to call that it was now my turn to get into a panic.

When I finally got to talk to her, she said, “I thought you had rushed off to Chhattisgarh. I was worried something had happened to you. I was switching channels on television all afternoon to see if there was any word about any further ambushes of either journalists or policemen. How was I to know? That is what you have done all your life, after all!”

I did not really blame my mother. As she said, I had cut my milk teeth in journalism on coverage of riots, massacres, communal and other conflicts and a lifetime’s habit is hard to shake.

Moreover, even if I had forgotten about it, my mother recalled how a couple of decades ago, I had got caught by Naxalites in the Allapally jungles of Gadchiroli. Actually, I hadn’t been alone. We were a group of reporters who were being given a tour of the jungles by the local legislator (he had promised us a tiger sighting or two). We were in the middle of nowhere when two armed men jumped into our jeep (the old fashioned jonga type, not one of today’s modern-day SUVs), held aloft rifles (I don’t quite remember now if they pointed it at any of us) and said, “Chalo!”

Of course, that put paid to our scheduled trip – we had to go where the armed gunmen took us. Soon enough we discovered they were Naxalites. They hadn’t been sure if we were cops (they thought we could be because the jeep was an olive green), but then they discovered that all that we were armed with was pen and paper. However, after that initial scare things went smoothly, though we had to abandon our tiger safari.

They took us to a jungle clearing where some more Naxals were gathered, sat us down and gave us all a sparse, rustic meal. And told us their end of the story. Among one of the chilling stories was about how they had tied up one particular exploitative landlord to a tree near an anthill, poured honey all over him and left him to be slowly eaten by the ants – he was screaming for hours and died in utmost agony. And these cold-blooded killers told that tale with relish! When it was dark, we were led back out of the jungles and we heaved a great sigh of relief as, hearts in our mouths, we all speeded to our respective homes and hotels.

My mother scolded me for days after that for putting my life at risk in such fashion. But when I got back to Bombay and told a cop friend of mine, he said, “I know.” And recounted the names of all those reporters who had been caught by the Naxalites in the jungles that day.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“If a Naxalite even sneezes in the jungles of Gadchiroli, we get to know about it at the police headquarters in Bombay a few minutes later,” he said matter-of-factly. “Not to say we were not worried when you guys were kidnapped. But we knew they would not harm you. They needed you to tell their version of the truth to the world. Moreover, they knew they would have been thoroughly dealt with, otherwise.”

Obviously, there was an impressive intelligence network in place. And when I asked him to explain, he gave me many off-the-record insights – many of those surfacing nationally only this decade. Actually, I now recall, Maharashtra had virtually succeeded in wiping out its Naxals – now they have to contend with those migrating from the adjoining jungles of Chhatisgarh. But when, in the Eighties, the Naxals cut off the head of a village sarpanch after kidnapping him the previous night and left it on his front doorstep for his wife to find the next morning, my friend told me, both the politicians and the police knew it was time to act – and act strongly.

Long before the word `encounter’ got into the national lexicon, as my friend said, the Maharashtra cops had decided that they would not let a single Naxal get away with, well, murder. “If we arrest him and take him to the courts, he will get bail, jump that bail and massacre again. In addition, we would have to contend with Naxal sympathisers and human rights activists who cry foul all the time, never mind who’s the killer and who gets killed. So we have decided upon a policy that we have kept classified: shoot to kill and drive them out of the jungles of Maharashtra.”,

I do not think it was a coincidence that virtually a similar policy drove gangsters and dons out of Bombay several years later (the very same cops who had been in charge of Gadchiroli had by then been posted in Bombay), ridding the state of these trigger-happy extortionists and gunmen.

But then the cops also had the backing of government – then Chief Minister Sharad Pawar had decided that cops will be sent to the jungles of Gadchiroli not on punishment but on promotion postings – and double promotions at that, sometimes with triple increments. If they lived to tell the tale, they would have gone up in rank over their colleagues when they returned to safer zones two years later. A Tribal Commissionerate was also set up on the same principles, bureaucrats receiving similar incentives. And the government decided there will be schools, hospitals and employment opportunities easily available in the forests.

Maharahstra’s cops then discovered that the Naxals hated this more than they had hated the lack of development – and jungle dwellers came more under fire from the Naxals for seeking to be part of the development process than they had been when they had no opportunities at all. But when Naxals, in turn, discovered that they were being quietly eliminated by the dozens, they quickly shifted base to neighbouring states and Maharashtra had its Naxal menace licked—for a short while.

Even today, though, Gadchiroli is not as bad as Dantewada or Lalgarh and Jharkhand. Probably because no political party in Maharashtra is dependent on Maoists for survival and the police are allowed to do their job and get on with it. As they did in even Andhra Pradesh, too. So wherever the buck might stop, it can be done. Provided we stop romancing these cold-blooded killers and treating them as some latter-day Robin Hoods.

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