AT 5:55 AM ON 6 APRIL 2010, Golf Company of the 62nd battalion of India's Central Reserve Police Force [CRPF] radioed field headquarters at Chintalnar to report they were receiving small-arms fire in the "Tarmetla sector" and had sustained one injury. Golf Company was conducting a three-day area-domination exercise in the forests of Dantewada, in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh—a stronghold of the guerrilla army of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).
Operation Khanjar ("Dagger" in Hindi) was Golf's last manoeuvre before the company was rotated out of Chintalnar to a less sensitive post. They were accompanied by their replacements from Alpha Company, who had just arrived from battalion headquarters in Barsur. The objective was to make their presence known in the district's scattered hamlets: they were to spend three days sanitising the sector of guerrilla presence and acquainting the men of Alpha Company with the rolling hills and dry riverbeds that surround the CRPF camp at Chintalnar.
For two days, 83 men had tramped from village to village, following up on intelligence reports that turned out to be inaccurate, setting ambushes for guerrillas who never appeared, and returning every night to sleep in a school building in the vicinity of their camp.
On the morning of the third and final day of the operation, Golf was near the fields of Tarmetla village, about six kilometres from Chintalnar, when the troopers heard the chatter of automatic fire. The company split into two groups: the forward section moved towards the source of the fire, while the rear guard tried to encircle the hidden Maoists by crossing a harvested paddy field and taking up a position in a clump of trees.
The fire kept coming: a burst from an unseen Kalashnikov from the left, a barrage from a light machine gun on the right, a volley from the top of a thickly forested hill directly in front of Golf. At 6:05 am, 10 minutes after its first call, Golf radioed field headquarters again, reporting another man injured and requesting reinforcements. A platoon of 20 troopers was dispatched almost immediately from Chintalnar to rescue their fellow soldiers—but they were stopped on the way by fire from a party of armed Maoists, positioned near a dry riverbed in order to prevent reinforcements from reaching the site of the fighting.
At 6:45 am, Golf reported six more injuries and called again, frantically, for reinforcements. The company was now caught in a textbook ambush, with the Maoists occupying the raised ground and the CRPF pinned down in an open field, under fire, or so it seemed, from all sides. A Maoist machine-gunner on the top of a hill was picking off targets at will, even as guerrillas taking cover in shallow ditches and gullies threw grenades and petrol bombs at the hapless soldiers. Well-positioned Maoist snipers took aim at CRPF machine-gunners and communications specialists. Survivors from Golf Company later said they saw machine-gunners shooting from trees, with replacement fighters taking cover behind the trunks, ready to climb up in case the gunners were taken out.
At 7:45 am, Golf Company's deputy commandant, Satyawan Yadav, made a phone call from the vortex of the ambush to say that his company had been completely surrounded—and then the phone went silent.
When reinforcements finally arrived from Chintalnar at 9:30 am, three and half hours after the first call for help, only seven badly injured troopers were still alive. The remaining 76 corpses had been arranged 15 to a pile, carefully stripped of their rifles, munitions, grenades, mortars and wireless sets. The Maoists, meanwhile, had laid their fallen comrades on makeshift stretchers and slipped back into the forests.
THE TARMETLA AMBUSH would soon be incorporated into Maoist legend as a "historic and unprecedented" success in their existential war to overthrow the Indian state—a victory that reinforced their belief that a materially superior foe could be humbled if the guerrillas followed the Maoist dictum, "You fight your way, and we'll fight ours." For the CRPF, the loss of 76 troopers in a little over three hours represented a lapse in leadership and tactics that would be difficult to shake off. For those of us covering the insurgency, Cheyattar—the Hindi word for 76—would become macabre shorthand for the events of 6 April 2010.
It was the day that the rest of India stopped looking at the Maoist insurgency as a protest by a few disaffected peasants fighting a losing battle for a lost cause. A day after the ambush, photographers arranged the discarded boots, spent shells and caps scattered at the site of the fighting into gruesome tableaux, which appeared on the front pages of newspapers in several languages; reporters flew, drove and took trains across the country, to photograph flag-swaddled coffins, interview shell-shocked survivors, and send back live footage from a blood-soaked paddy field in an unremarkable village in a war raging in the heart of the country.
In the Indian intelligence community, the killings at Tarmetla were the latest and most dramatic sign that the Maoists had transitioned from "guerrilla warfare" tactics—hit-and-run skirmishes carried out by lightly trained peasants—to a new and dangerous phase of "mobile warfare", in which well-trained rebel troops gathered in large numbers to mount meticulously planned counter-offensives against the state's security forces.
For the residents of Tarmetla, a village just like the thousands of scattered villages that the Maoists hoped to liberate and the state struggled to reclaim, the ambush marked the beginning of a yearlong cycle of violence that would shake their faith in both their supposed saviours. Over the next 12 months, the fate of Tarmetla would reveal the hairline fractures in the compact between the Indian state and its citizens as the escalating conflict between forces seeking to represent 'revolution' and 'democracy' would claim many more lives—and, ultimately, destroy the village itself.
A FEW DAYS AFTER THE AMBUSH, I received a phone call from an unknown number. "Ramanna planned this attack," the voice at the other end said. "Do you want to meet him?"
Ramanna aka Ramanaiah aka Ravula Srinivas, was a broad, dark, ox-like man with three names, a childlike voice and an AK-47 with a light wood finish. Now in his late 40s, and the secretary of the South Bastar Regional Committee of the CPI (Maoist), he had come to Dantewada 30 years ago as a teenaged activist in the People's War faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). In 2004, People's War had merged with the Maoist Communist Centre to form the CPI (Maoist); a formidable political force with a well-trained guerrilla army dispersed across seven states.
As the secretary and area commander of the most significant military sector in the Maoist insurgency, Ramanna is arguably the most important Maoist leader in south Chhattisgarh. Primarily a military man, he answers in turn to the all-powerful CPI (Maoist) central committee. While the central committee members flit from operation zone to operation zone, coordinating between various regional committees, Ramanna stays put and directs military operations over a 40,000 sq km territory spanning five districts: Dantewada, Bijapur, Kanker, Narayanpur and Bastar—which are collectively known as Bastar. It's an area larger than all of Kerala.
I met Ramanna in a tribal hamlet a day's march from the site of the massacre. An unarmed man, clad in a plain T-shirt and pants, picked me up from the outskirts of a forest and brought me down to a village, where a young woman carrying a .303 rifle walked me to a dropoff point manned by a contingent of uniformed guerrillas. At about 6 pm, we stopped at a hamlet of about 10 homes; a message had been sent, Ramanna was on his way.
There is no twilight in the forests of Chhattisgarh; darkness falls with almost binary abruptness. Ramanna and his deputy, Ganesh Ueike, arrived unseen under cover of total darkness. They sat side by side on a string cot, and in the small pool of light thrown by an LED flashlight tied to a Kalashnikov, Ramanna took my notebook and sketched out a diagram of the ambush.
Tarmetla, he told me, had exceeded his wildest expectations. The Maoists had lost only eight of the 300 fighters who participated in the attack. It was the heaviest loss incurred by Indian security forces in a single operation after more than 60 years of counterinsurgency in Kashmir, Punjab, the Northeast and, most recently, central India.
But to say that the Maoists had been lucky, Ramanna felt, was to underestimate their preparation. Maoist guerrillas had tracked the policemen for days prior to the attack. They had anticipated troop movements, and attempted to lay three ambushes in as many days, before Golf Company followed a small band of Maoist fighters who successfully lured them into an open field where the massacre took place.
Tarmetla was the culmination of a spate of Maoist raids that began in 2006. That year, an armed vanguard of about 100 Maoist fighters stormed the lightly guarded compound of the National Mineral Development Corporation in Bailadila in Dantewada and killed eight of its 16 guards. Then 1,000 villagers entered the compound and walked out with 20 tonnes of ammonium nitrate-based mining explosives. "How did they carry it?" I asked. "On their backs," Ramanna replied.
Four years later, in April 2010, the explosives were sprinkled across the Tarmetla ambush site in the form of lethal improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and were used to blow up a bulletproof vehicle sent to assist the policemen caught in the ambush. The rifles used by the cadres—Kalashnikovs, light machine guns, self-loading rifles and World War II-era, bolt-action Lee-Enfield 303s—had been collected from a series of attacks on police armouries across the country and were deployed alongside crude, single-shot muzzle loaders that the Maoists made themselves.
On 15 February 2008, the Maoists attacked a police armoury in Nayagarh, in the neighbouring state of Orissa, where they killed 13 policemen and made off with nearly 1,200 weapons, including indigenously produced INSAS assault rifles, the ubiquitous Kalashnikovs, light machine guns and several thousand rounds of ammunition. "This gun is from Nayagarh, I picked it up myself," a young Maoist fighter in Ramanna's entourage said as he handed me his 9mm pistol. "It was lying in a cupboard with its case, ammunition, everything."
"Actually, Tarmetla goes back even further," said Ganesh Ueike, who gave up a Master's degree in mathematics to join the revolutionary movement about 30 years ago. "This is only the most recent phase of the struggle. The revolution changes every 10 years."
The Maoist doctrine of warfare is spelt out in a document titled 'Strategy and Tactics of the Indian Revolution', which argues that the guerrillas are fighting a "fundamentally different kind of war…in which we recognise that the enemy is strong and we are weak…the enemy is big and we are small."
In the first phase, 'guerrilla warfare', an irregular force of peasants adopts a tactic that the authors sum up as follows: "When the enemy advances, we retreat; when the enemy camps, we harass; when the enemy tires, we attack; when the enemy retreats, we pursue."
In the second phase, which the Maoist leadership called 'mobile warfare', the aim is not to capture or retain territory but to wipe out opposing forces. In this phase, a well-trained army of regular fighters occasionally gathers in large numbers to attack vulnerable foes and push the war from a stage of "strategic defence" to "strategic stalemate", where both sides are bogged down in a prolonged conflict.
This stalemate, according to the Maoist document, sets the stage for a 'positional war', in which the Maoists seek to capture and control territory as a precursor to taking over the state. While the document cautions that "there is no Chinese wall demarcating the three [phases]", intelligence experts have long believed that the Maoist insurgency has entered its second phase.
"The movement is no longer at the guerrilla stage," Chhattisgarh's director general of police, Vishwa Ranjan, told me during a recent interview. "It is now in the mobile phase. A highly militarised state where their aims are still guerrilla… they are not yet fighting to hold territory…but they can now break into smaller fighting groups, stand and fight and even give pursuit."
SINCE IT BEGAN WITH AN UPRISING in the spring of 1967 at Naxalbari in West Bengal, India's Maoist movement has ebbed and flowed, with periods of intense activity followed by long years of relative calm—a turbulent movement that has occasionally collapsed under the pressure of the state and the tremendous intellectual burden of imagining a radical future, only to spawn fresh political formations, leaders, fighters and cadres.
While the uprising in Naxalbari was crushed by the end of the summer of 1967, the contagion of rebellion had spread far beyond Bengal. A July 1967 editorial in People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, excitedly described the events as "a peal of spring thunder [that] crashed over the land of India". In Andhra Pradesh, in particular, a tribal movement that pulled together diverse demands for separate statehood, land reform and debt relief had turned militant.
In June 1980, a group of People's War faction cadres, including the 17-year-old Ramanna, left Andhra Pradesh in search of a strategic and inaccessible base where a guerrilla army could be raised and trained, and settled on an area they christened Dandakaranya, or DK, after an ancient name for the dense forest that spans the border regions of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.
At the time, Chhattisgarh had not yet been carved out of Madhya Pradesh, and Bastar—which roughly corresponds with most of DK—lay more than 800 kilometres away from the state capital of Bhopal. Bastar, as the Chhattisgarh-based journalist Anil Mishra told me, was "the third world of the third world". "It still is," he added for good measure.
In her essay, 'Walking with the Comrades', Arundhati Roy writes that the guerrillas gained the trust of the forest-dwelling tribes of Bastar by taking on the Forest Department, forcing contractors and traders to pay higher rates for forest produce collected by Adivasis and clearing forest land for cultivation. Roy quotes a Maoist spokesperson, Comrade Venu, who claims that the Maoists distributed over 300,000 acres of land in DK between 1986 and 2000. This number is impossible to independently verify.
In 2004, the People's War faction merged with the east Indian faction known as the Maoist Communist Centre to form the unified CPI (Maoist). Since then, fighting between the Maoists and security forces has claimed more than 4,000 lives in eastern and central India. This most recent incarnation of the radical left is concentrated in a swathe of land along the borders of the states of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Bengal and Jharkhand, populated by India's Adivasis and studded with the country's most lucrative mineral deposits of iron ore, bauxite and coal.
Dantewada district, where the Tarmetla ambush occurred, is home to one of the richest ore mines in Asia. Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and parts of Bengal collectively house 40 billion of India's 46 billion tonnes of India's coal reserves, while the hills of Niyamgiri in Orissa have the fourth-largest bauxite reserves in the world.
For the Indian state, the goal of the current phase of the conflict is as much about gaining control of valuable natural resources as is it about restoring the peace. To this end, the Central government has poured heavily armed paramilitaries into Chhattisgarh and its neighbouring states; 60 battalions (about 60,000 men) of Central security forces have already been deployed in nine states, in addition to a proposed 37 Indian Reserve Battalions of policemen recruited locally.
But those seeking a district by district correlation between mineral deposits and Maoist operations are likely to be disappointed: in Chhattisgarh, the most intense mining and displacement are occurring in the north, while the movement is concentrated in the south—yet the dystopia of shattered communities and denuded landscapes in the mining belt has had a profound impact on the Adivasis, fostering apprehensions that the state will not brook any dissent when it comes to the seizure of ancestral tribal lands.
The Maoists have resisted the state's attempts to expand the scope of existing mining operations in south Chhattisgarh. But the National Mineral Development Corporation continues to run its most profitable iron ore mines in Dantewada, while Essar Steel, a private company, has laid a pipeline to carry iron-slurry through Maoist-controlled areas—which has spawned persistent rumours of a secret settlement between the Maoists and the mining companies, a notion vehemently denied by both sides.
The Maoist refusal to participate in elections has made it difficult to assess the degree of support they enjoy amongst the Adivasis whom they claim to represent. Critics of the movement believe that the Maoists are cynically exploiting the tribal population, and eliminating those who dare to question their diktats. Ramanna and other Maoist cadres I've spoken with claim that Adivasis comprise close to 90 percent of their forces. But unlike the Indian state and the Maoists, Adivasis are not bound by the same strictures of black-and-white declarations of allegiance: for the tribals, there is no contradiction in participating in electoral politics, buying state-subsidised food grains, visiting free eye camps organised by mining companies and also supporting the Maoists.
Historically, from its origins right up to the present, the Maoist movement has focused on the nature of the relationship between peasants and Adivasis and their lands: the Naxalbari movement arose out of a frustration with the glacial pace of land reform in Bengal. In the early phase of the Maoist movement in West Bengal in the 1960s, the struggle was to give land to the tiller; since the expansion of the mining sector at the turn of the century, it's been to keep tillers on the land they occupy.
In its note on the Maoist conflict, the Planning Commission—which advises the prime minister—refers to a study by Dr Walter Fernandes of the North Eastern Social Research Centre, which estimates that between 1947 and 2004, mega-projects have displaced a staggering 60 million Indians from an estimated 25 million hectares of land—approximately equivalent to the size and population of the United Kingdom. A draft report by the Ministry of Rural Development notes that despite comprising only nine percent of India's population, tribal communities have contributed 40 percent of the land seized by the state on the grounds of eminent domain. The displacement is likely to increase as India's mining industry continues to expand; while the Indian economy grew at a respectable 7.4 percent rate in 2009-10, the mining sector saw growth of 10.6 percent in the same period.
In his essay, 'Maoists in India', the activist Gautam Navlakha, who has conducted extensive interviews with the Maoist leadership, estimated that the CPI (Maoist) had 10,500 full-time cadres in 2005-06, about 7,300 weapons, a 25,000 member part-time people's militia (armed with bows, arrows and traditional weapons like machetes) and 50,000 part-time members in village level units. Support for the Maoists, Navlakha concluded, goes well beyond a few disaffected tribal districts.
THE INDIAN SECURITY ESTABLISHMENT has struggled to devise a coherent strategy to contain the Maoists. Until the 2004 merger, states were provided with Central paramilitary forces and left to devise their own strategies. In 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signalled a shift towards a more comprehensive, national-level military strategy by famously describing the CPI (Maoist) as India's biggest internal security threat.
A series of media leaks orchestrated by the Union Home Ministry in August 2009 described a proposal to escalate the state's crackdown on the Maoists with "the most wide-spread action against insurgents ever undertaken in the country", which the home ministry said would "last years". A month later, in September, the press began to report on the commencement of the first phase of 'Operation Green Hunt', an elaborate three-day operation in which the Central paramilitaries and policemen claimed to have killed 30 Maoists along the Andhra-Chhattisgarh border.
The first mention of an 'Operation Green Hunt' had actually come back in September 2005, when it was used by the Chhattisgarh state home ministry to describe a seven-day police operation that supposedly destroyed 21 Maoist training camps in south Chhattisgarh. After its subsequent resurrection in 2009, the press used 'Green Hunt' as an umbrella term to describe any and all anti-Maoist operations undertaken in central and eastern India.
On 7 April 2010, one day after the Tarmetla ambush, the Union home minister, P Chidambaram, flew down to meet the survivors at the Medical College hospital in Jagdalpur. At a press conference, Chidambaram was asked if the debacle at Tarmetla spelt the end of Operation Green Hunt. In response, he insisted angrily that there was no such thing: the media, he said, had created a straw man from the title used for a single, one-off operation.
Sitting on the hospital stairs, I asked a CRPF trooper if he thought that 'Green Hunt' was a myth created by the media.
He looked past me, into the emergency ward where his fellow soldiers were recuperating, and said: "If there is no operation, then what the fuck are we doing here?"
The CRPF has struggled to answer that precise question ever since it was deployed in Chhattisgarh 10 years ago. As a Central paramilitary force, its task is to assist the state police in their operations against the Maoists, but senior CRPF officers say they are flummoxed by the way their force has been used in the state.
Because "law and order" is typically under the jurisdiction of the state government, the CRPF is not authorised to operate without police assistance. Of the 76 men killed in the Tarmetla ambush, 75 were CRPF troopers. The 76th casualty was Head Constable Siyaram Dhruv, the sole policeman present—to fulfill the legal criteria for state police participation.
One afternoon, a few months after the ambush, I found myself discussing deployment patterns with a senior CRPF officer. The Maoists had struck again in June 2010, this time killing 27 CRPF troopers out on a road-opening operation in Narayanpur. The CRPF had lost more than 100 men in three months and morale was dangerously low.
"What are you supposed to do?" I asked him. Was his mission to protect the civilian population? To provide cover for infrastructure development? To serve as a strategic forward operating base in Maoist territory?
"To be honest, I have no definite answers," he said. "There is no written record justifying the current arrangement, though my information suggests that the CRPF resisted this deployment."
The futile deployment pattern, as I was to discover from sources in the intelligence community, was a ghost of counterinsurgency past.
PRIOR TO OPERATION GREEN HUNT (if it could be said to have existed), the most aggressive attempts to contain the Maoists had taken the form of limited operations at the district level, and none had proved more controversial than the Salva Judum that took shape in 2005. Ostensibly a public anti-Maoist movement with little government support, the Salva Judum was headed by Mahendra Karma, the leader of the opposition in the Chhattisgarh State Assembly. In 1991 and 1992, and then again in 1998, Karma had organised "spontaneous" uprisings in which he led lynch mobs into forest settlements considered to be Maoist strongholds and forced alleged sympathisers to turn themselves in to the police. The mobs were usually led by surrendered Maoists and the families of Adivasi victims of Maoist violence.
"In 2005, in some parts of Bastar, particularly in Bijapur, villagers had turned against the Maoists," said Anil Mishra, who has covered the Salva Judum since its inception. The emergence of anti-Maoist sentiment in several separate villages, Mishra suggests, eventually snowballed into the Salva Judum, a theory he illustrated with the story of two neighbouring villages in Bijapur, called Satva and Belnar.
Less than five kilometres apart, the two villages had distinctly different positions in the ongoing conflict: Belnar was considered a Maoist stronghold, where villagers attended meetings with rebel cadres, while Satva was seen as a pro-government village, and often visited by state officials. In 2005, the headman of Satva successfully lobbied the local administration for the construction of a residential school in the village. The villagers of Belnar said that Satva already had a number of government facilities and the school should be built in Belnar.
Meetings were held, but matters escalated, and at some point, the Maoists intervened on behalf of Belnar: one night, fighters entered Satva and stabbed the village headman. He survived, but the next morning, his family and 16 others fled the village and petitioned the local government for protection.
News of the stabbing spread quickly. More meetings were held, and villagers in Bijapur grew upset with what they felt was a pattern of arbitrary violence by the Maoists—which often, in turn, led to the villagers being victimised by state security forces.
"At this point, there was no 'movement', or Salva Judum," Mishra explained. "The villagers were trying to devise a middle path between the Maoists and the state." Then Mahendra Karma arrived with his crowds and coined the phrase "Salva Judum"—variously translated as "peace march" or more ominously, "purification march". One of the first acts of the Judum was to march to Kotrapal, a village considered sympathetic to the Maoists, and burn it to the ground.
Locals say that Karma's mobs dragged villagers into camps at gunpoint and warned that those who continued to live in the forests would be considered Maoist sympathisers. Judum members also allegedly burnt existing settlements to force the villagers out of their homes and into the camps.
A cross-section of non-tribal elites offered their support. Government schoolteachers, civil works contractors and grain merchants styled themselves as Judum leaders and were rewarded with lucrative contracts to provide basic services and build infrastructure in the newly formed settlement camps. And so the juggernaut rolled on, burning villages, lynching suspected Maoists, forcing tribesmen into camps and earning incredible profits by building concrete hutments, topping them with tin roofs and surrounding them with concertina wire.
The Salva Judum has been described as a policy of "strategic hamleting" akin to that practised by the Americans in Vietnam; an attempt to drain the 'sea of people' in which Maoist guerrillas are expected to swim. A similar tactic was employed in the 1970s to isolate the CPI(M-L), a precursor to the current band of Maoists, in their tribal base in Andhra Pradesh's Telangana region. A wire report from 1970, quoted by Sumanta Banerjee in his book, In the Wake of Naxalbari, described how "250 Girijan families consisting of 600 members were evacuated from their villages and were settled in Ramabhadrapuram, Jammivalasa and Peddabalibanda villages… The Government took this measure to wean away the Girijans from the Naxalite influence."
There is no precise inventory of the scale of violence carried out by the Judum, but the closest estimate might come from a petition filed in 2008 urging the National Human Rights Commission to examine 537 allegations of murder and 99 cases of rape. The commission's report was widely regarded as a whitewash—the 16-member investigating team included 15 current or former policemen, and considered only a small fraction of the allegations—but the number of charges filed presents a rough approximation of the terror unleashed by the anti-Maoist vigilantes.
The Judum also blurred the distinction between civilian and combatant. The state police raised a corps of Adivasi youth called Special Police Officers (SPOs), gave them assault rifles and a few weeks of basic training, and sent them out to fight the Maoists. Talented SPOs were made into Koya commandos, an Adivasi version of the Special Forces. The Maoists declared the SPOs and Judum camps fair game and conducted a series of raids, killing 26 civilians at Darbhaguda in February 2006, 15 at Manikonta in April, and 33 civilians at the Errabore camp in July 2006. According to figures provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Maoists killed 425 civilians and 131 security force personnel in the two-year period from 2005 to 2006.
This rapid escalation in violence prompted the state government to ask for between seven and 10 additional CRPF battalions to lead anti-Maoist operations. The CRPF already had about six battalions deployed in Chhattisgarh since the state was created in 2000; the additional forces were deployed to prevent the camps from being overrun by the Maoists, and to keep supply lines open to ensure that camp populations could be fed. The violence slowly subsided and villagers gradually began returning to their villages by the end of 2008, leaving behind roving bands of SPOs in a string of fortified camps whose sole purpose was to provide supplies to each other.
Many in Chhattisgarh have struggled to make sense of the Salva Judum. The Judum may have been supported, armed and financed by the Chhattisgarh government, but no one contests the fact that the Adivasis participated in significant numbers. For all its violence, the Judum could be seen as another chapter in the birth of a tribal politics where the Adivasis negotiated a path between two powerful ideologies—and their participation in the Judum could have been a signal to the Maoists that the support of tribal populations could not be taken for granted.
THE VILLAGE OF TARMETLA lies on a broken road bookended by two Salva Judum camps, Dornapal and Jagargunda. While Dornapal is on the well-supplied National Highway 221, Jagargunda functions as both a Judum camp and a forward operating base at the dead end of a 56-km trail to nowhere. In an ideal situation, the CRPF would have been deployed in a mutually reinforcing grid of camps, but Jagargunda's remoteness has forced the CRPF into a linear pattern with a camp of about 120 men every 10 to 12 kilometres with the sole purpose of securing Jagargunda's supply lines.
On the day of the ambush, the distance between camps stymied the rescue efforts from the start. The Maoists attacked at a point almost midway between the CRPF camps at Chintagupha and Chintalnar, and set up additional ambushes at spots just outside both posts to frustrate the reinforcements. An armour-plated truck that managed to break through an ambush was blown up by a massive IED planted on the main road, killing the driver, who was its sole occupant.
CRPF officials told me that a fully equipped team heading into battle can safely cover only about two and a half kilometres an hour, implying that even if the reinforcements had not been stopped by the Maoists, it would still have taken them about two hours to reach the site of the incident. Had the force been arranged in a grid, the distances between camps would have been shorter, and the Maoists would have found it much harder to stop reinforcements from reaching the besieged men of Golf Company.
When the CRPF was deployed in south Chhattisgarh in 2006, they moved into any standing concrete building they could find. In most cases, these turned out be schools, student hostels, government buildings and, in one instance, a veterinary hospital. The structures were designed for boisterous students and visitors rather than gun-toting guerrillas, and so they had wide-open verandas, big windows and airy corridors that the CRPF fortified with sandbags and concertina wires. The Maoists responded by blowing up schools in the interior villages on the grounds that the buildings could be used as forward operating bases in the future. In a two-year period from 2006-08, for instance, the Maoists destroyed about 70 school buildings in Narayanpur district alone.
The buildings initially didn't have enough rooms, water or toilets, forcing troopers to go into the fields every morning to relieve themselves. Occasionally, they would encounter Maoist snipers lurking in the forest, waiting to shoot the soldiers as they squatted down to defecate. In July 2009, two troopers were killed one morning in Rajnandgaon district in western Chhattisgarh, in precisely such circumstances. When police rushed to the spot, the Maoists ambushed the support party, killing 28 policemen, including the district's superintendent of police.
The Maoists have taken advantage of isolation of CRPF camps to creep up within firing distance at night, squeeze off a few rounds to harry the sentry and slip away under the cover of darkness. To save ammunition, the Maoists set off firecrackers in the hills overlooking the camps, prompting the troops to reply with live ammunition and two-inch mortars.
On most days, the troopers can be found standing on their tiptoes on the roofs of the low school buildings they have occupied, waving their cellphones in the hope that a stray signal from a distant cellular tower will allow them a brief conversation with their families back home. Many have bought 'hands-free' mobile headsets; it's hard to speak into a cellphone that you are waving above your head.
It's not easy to 'get signal' in south Chhattisgarh's rolling hills and thick forests, and so everyone who operates in the area carries a map in his head of certain trees on certain hills, or certain shallow depressions along mountain paths, where an inexpensive cellphone (usually a Nokia 1100) can pick up a network. "The cheaper the cellphone, the better the signal," is a bit of wisdom embraced by fighters on both sides. The battlefield at Tarmetla, in fact, was littered with shattered cell phones in the aftermath of the ambush. A few soldiers managed to call home as they bled to death; the killing field had better reception than their camp.
"The police sometimes switch off the cellular towers when the force steps out on their operations," Prabhat, a senior Maoist commander, once told me, over a cup of tea in a clearing in a jungle. "They do it to stop our informers from tipping us off on our cellphones. Now whenever the network goes offline, we prepare ourselves for a raid."
WHEN THEY LEAVE THEIR BASES, security forces usually conduct variations on two basic operations: 'Area Domination Exercises', which involve patrolling a broad swathe of forest around their camps, ostensibly to "sanitise" the area of guerrillas; and 'Cordon and Search Operations', or CASOs, in which troopers surround and then sweep through a village, in search of Maoists, explosives and ammunition dumps. CASOs are intended to be surgical strikes based on specific intelligence, but in practice they are often messy affairs with significant collateral damage.
In September 2009, the CRPF and state police planned out the first major anti-Maoist operation since the Salva Judum. Troops from the state police and the CRPF's elite Combat Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) force spent three days combing the Andhra-Chhattisgarh border and claimed to have killed 30 Maoists for the loss of only six CoBRA troopers. The evidently successful operation was called 'Green Hunt' and launched the 'media myth' that would return to haunt Home Minister P Chidambaram six months hence.
The 'myths' surrounding Operation Green Hunt go well beyond its genesis and existence. In February 2010, I visited a cluster of villages along the Andhra-Chhattisgarh border, and conducted a series of interviews to find out what really happened in those three days in September.
Although security forces claimed to have killed 30 Maoists during the September operation, they recovered only seven bodies. Villagers told me that six of the corpses were young men from the nearby villages of Gattapad and Palachalma, who had been stripped, shot in cold blood and passed off as slain Maoists.
Seven kilometres from Palachalma, residents of Gacchanpalli told me that the CoBRA troops had entered the village in the early hours of the morning and killed six civilians. Three of the victims, I was told, were over 65 years old; their bodies were left were they fell.
A few weeks later, on 1 October 2009, the CoBRAs and state police attacked another border village called Gompad. "We had specific intelligence that the Maoists were going to be present, right down to the house in which the meeting would take place," an intelligence source told me later. "I can't understand what happened."
What happened was that the security forces conducted a pre-dawn raid, opened fire and killed nine villagers—including a 12-year-old girl—and burnt down at least three houses. This time, the security forces did not release any information about the botched operation; CRPF sources told me they had forwarded the details to the state police, who apparently declined to make them public. News of the attack only emerged later in 2009, when 12 villagers described the killings in a petition submitted to the Supreme Court.
When we met after the Tarmetla ambush, Ramanna, the Maoist commander, told me that the CoBRAs had first struck on 17 September 2009 and destroyed a Maoist camp in Siganmadagu village, deep in the forests of Dantewada. "We knew they were coming, so our cadres quickly left the camp," Ramanna said. "When the troopers found no one in the village, they set up camp and began cooking lunch. We spotted them and counterattacked soon after, killing six of their soldiers." Ramanna claimed that his force then retreated with minimal casualties.
No one in the CoBRA battalion was willing to talk about the events of September 2009, but if Ramanna's account is accurate, it would seem that the force may have gone on a rampage after losing six of their own men in Siganmadagu.
This pattern of raids, ambushes and reprisals has become an entrenched part of counterinsurgency in Chhattisgarh in the period following the Salwa Judum. By dividing the countryside into pockets that supported and opposed the government, the Judum led to the creation of the "interior village"—an unofficial term used interchangeably with "Maoist village" to describe places where all residents are essentially assumed to be Maoist combatants. Every time the security forces were ambushed, they responded by attacking the nearest "Maoist village".
THE RESPONSE TO THE TARMETLA ambush was no different. Starting with the day after the ambush, when villagers of Mukram told me that CRPF troops had beaten a resident to death, I found myself writing a story almost every month on police atrocities in Dantewada's interior villages.
In June 2010, two months after the Tarmetla ambush, three girls from Mukram said that SPOs from the Chintalnar camp had intimidated, assaulted and ultimately raped them during a routine search operation near their village. In August, SPOs killed a man in Kutru village in Dantewada, passed him off as a Maoist, paid his family `2,000, distributed biscuits and alcohol in the village and told the villagers not to speak to the press. In September, the Border Security Force was accused of illegally detaining several villagers at a police station in Kanker and torturing them for three days; a 19-year-old girl told me that BSF troopers had blindfolded her, wrapped a naked wire around her throat and electrocuted her, demanding that she name the Maoists operating in her village. In October, a young woman from Bade Bidme, in Dantewada, said she was beaten, raped and her hair was cut off when the police raided her village. At the same time, the Dantewada police began picking up young men across the district and throwing them in jail. By the end of 2010, Dantewada's district jail held 577 prisoners under trial and four convicts, all squeezed into a compound intended for 250 inhabitants.
The frequency of killings and disappearances in Dantewada has not abated in 2011. In January of this year, villagers said that a company of SPOs appeared outside Bade Setti village in the early hours of the morning, picked up a young man called Kamlu Ganga as he walked to his fields and shot him.
Two days later, his corpse was produced in Sukma, a small town in Dantewada, 15 km from Bade Setti. The police said he was a Maoist who had been killed after he opened fire on their search party. Dantewada's senior superintendent of police, SRP Kalluri, held an extraordinary press conference in which he awarded a company of SPOs `100,000 for killing the supposed Maoist. According to a report in a local newspaper, Kalluri told the SPOs they would receive the same amount for every Maoist they killed that year; he also pledged, somewhat curiously, to abstain from eating salt in any form until at least 12 Maoists had been killed.
Police raids present villagers with the unenviable choice between staying put in their villages and braving the accompanying assaults, murders, arrests and thefts, or vanishing into the forests at the first signs of trouble. Both options are fraught with risk, as running away from the police is the surest way to get shot for being a Maoist.
As the intensity of raids has increased, many interior villages have adopted an ad hoc sentry system, where those in the fields keep an eye out for police parties and alert the residents of the village when they spot soldiers. Within minutes of the alarm, villagers can pick up their belongings and slip out into the relative safety of the forests.
Though villagers usually deny it, at least some of the village sentries are part of Maoist 'jan militias'—small village defence groups, which aren't formally part of the CPI (Maoist). These "part-timers" make up a Maoist intelligence network that spans hundreds of villages scattered across Dantewada and Bijapur, keeping the guerrillas informed of all movement in the forests. By putting pressure on interior villages, with raids and arrests, the police and security forces have unwittingly improved both the level of participation and the quality of the Maoist surveillance system.
One afternoon, I sat through a surreal lunch in an anonymous hamlet at a time when police movements in the area were particularly zealous. As my host served out large helpings of dal, fish and string beans, I witnessed what could only be described as a silent siren.
Young women soundlessly stripped their homes of clothes, money, utensils and jewellry and flung everything into sturdy carry bags. They tied their infants on their backs, picked up children in their arms, piled the bags onto their heads and disappeared into the forest. The men hung around: some hid their bicycles in the bushes, while the rest gathered around us.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"Oh, nothing," a young man sitting beside me said. "There is a rumour that a police party is on its way, but I don't think it's true."
"But what if the police suddenly appear?"
"Oh, nothing, we'll just run away as well," my host said, casually. "Would you like more dal? I'd offer you water, but my daughter has packed all the glasses and left for the forest."
As it happened, the police party did not come that day. But an hour later, five Maoist fighters appeared on the outskirts of the village, asked a few questions and left. "They had come to check on the rumours," my host explained, "There is a lot of movement these days."
IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE AMBUSH that killed 76 CRPF troopers outside Tarmetla, the isolation of the village that began with the advent of the Salwa Judum deepened dramatically. One of the largest villages on the route between Jagargunda and Dornapal, Tarmetla contained about 250 mud-walled houses, arranged in about six clusters, or paras. The villagers, who numbered about 1,000, sowed rice and a native cereal called kodo once a year during the rains, and harvested their crop in winter. They also collected forest produce in the fallow season. The village had a primary school and a maternal health centre, and seven handpumps that provided the villagers with fresh drinking water.
There was a regular bus service that stopped in Tarmetla on its way from Dornapal to Jagargunda, a major trading centre for Adivasis from nearby villages, who gathered there to sell forest produce like wild tamarind, Mahua and tendu leaves (used to roll beedis).
When the Judum came to Tarmetla in early 2006, the administration shifted the village's school to Dornapal and transferred the schoolteacher, Gudse Deva, to a roadside school 90 kilometres away in Sukma. As the government began building Salva Judum camps and deploying CRPF and policemen along the Dornapal-Jagargunda axis, the Maoists cut off the road at several points along the route, and the bus service that formerly connected Tarmetla to the rest of the district ceased.
One evening in 2006, Gudse Deva was travelling to Tarmetla when he was stopped by a group of Maoists, mistaken for a Judum member and killed. "The Maoists came and apologised to me," his wife, Gudse Raje, told me when I visited Tarmetla last year. "They said they had killed the wrong man."
Once the Judum began, the administration practically ceded Tarmetla to the Maoists. Gradually, all essential services in the village collapsed, and the maternal health centre was shut down. By 2009, all seven of the village's handpumps had failed; the villagers dug themselves a pond to collect rainwater. Journalists whom I met in Dantewada told me that in 2009, a team of health engineers had been sent to fix the handpumps in Tarmetla and adjoining villages, but they were stopped by the police—who claimed that fixing the handpumps would aid the Maoists.
When I visited Tarmetla in September last year, five months after the ambush, the drinking water crisis had become so acute that residents said 25 people had died of dysentery and vomiting over two months. The story was the same across Dantewada and the Judum-affected district of Bijapur, where about 100 people died in a post-monsoon DVD (Diarrhea-Vomiting-Dysentery) epidemic.
The younger brother of the slain schoolteacher, also named Gudse Deva, described the village as almost entirely cut off from its surroundings in the wake of the ambush. "Our people are harassed by the police and SPOs when they step out to buy rations or sell produce in the markets," he said. "No one even knows that our people are dying of dysentery."
The district collector, R Prasana, told me that the public health system in Dantewada had only 12 doctors with an MBBS degree to treat a population of 600,000—one doctor for every 50,000 people, though nine of those doctors were either stationed in the district hospitals in Dantewada or serving in administrative positions. Doctors with credible degrees, Prasana said, were reluctant to serve in remote areas like Dantewada and Bijapur.
Prasana had been transferred to Dantewada in September 2010, a few months after tackling a water-borne epidemic (which many suspected was cholera) in the neighbouring district of Bijapur. During his tenure there, Prasana had acquired a reputation as an imaginative and committed officer, and was credited with improving the health infrastructure by hiring doctors at elevated salaries using money from the National Rural Health Mission.
His appointment to Dantewada came at a time when the central government was contemplating a special development package for districts affected by 'Left-Wing Extremism'. The grant would eventually amount to `500 million a year, to be spent by a team comprising of the collector, superintendent of police and district forest officer.
In his first few months in the district, Prasana drove all over Dantewada, speaking with villagers, doctors and government officials in an attempt to bring some semblance of order to the chaotic landscape under his charge. He sought to replicate his successes in Bijapur by trying to appoint a paediatrician at the remote outpost of Konta, on the Andhra Pradesh border, pushed his men to visit interior areas and conduct medical camps, and tried to evolve transparent systems for procurement, transportation and distribution of food rations to Salwa Judum camps.
In an interview a few months after he took charge, Prasana said that villagers were responding positively to his overtures and spoke of how he felt the district could be turned around with time. He diplomatically refused to comment on police excesses, noting that his job was to focus on development rather than law and order.
But the schizophrenic situation in Dantewada—where the police executed Adivasis in their fields at dawn or whisked them away to prisons, while the district bureaucracy tried to ensure that villagers received their food rations and pensions on time—was only symptomatic of a broader contradiction in the approach that the state and Central governments had applied to the area, one that neatly divorced development from larger, and perhaps more pressing, questions of justice, law and due process. Prasana's struggle to win hearts and minds against a backdrop of recurring police atrocities was mirrored by the attempts of the Planning Commission to plot integrated development plans for the very same districts where the home ministry was sending more and better armed troops every year.
WHEN I MET THE WOMAN who I'll call Madavi Hidme in Tarmetla on 19 March , her face was so swollen that she had prop open her left eye with her fingers to look at the incinerated homes and smouldering granaries all around us.
On the morning of 16 March, Hidme heard the commandos crashing through the jungle and coming into Tarmetla, but they caught her before she could run away. They stole her bag of possessions, threw her to the ground, and beat her with sticks until she lost consciousness, she said. Several hours later, Hidme's sister found her lying naked in the bushes with a deep gash near her temple.
That day, the villagers say, a large group of SPOs surrounded Tarmetla, fired a few shots into the air to disperse the crowd, and then moved through the village, setting fire to the straw-roofed huts, stuffing burning hay into granaries and assaulting anyone who got in their way. Gudse Deva told me that the SPOs burnt at least 200 homes, granaries and woodsheds, assaulted Hidme, and abducted two men who are still missing.
When I arrived three days later, Tarmetla was eerily quiet. The villagers were still sifting through the rubble of their burnt homes, recovering articles that had somehow escaped the fire: a charred wooden beam that could still be used to prop up a makeshift roof, an aluminium pot warped by the heat. A baby slept soundly on a hammock made from a sari strung between two trees, while his mother cooked dinner on a stove consisting of three bricks arranged around a small fire.
The attack on Tarmetla came on the fifth day of a major operation in the area surrounding the CRPF camp at Chintalnar, and involved the CRPF's CoBRA battalions and the Chhattisgarh police's Adivasi Koya commandos, who, it is alleged, burnt close to 300 homes and granaries across three villages, killed three men and sexually assaulted three women.
On 14 March, the state police had reported the death of three SPOs in an exchange of fire in the course of a routine anti-Maoist operation. Chhattisgarh's director general of police, Vishwa Ranjan, confirmed that a composite force of over 300 Koya commandos and CoBRAs had participated in the exercise, but declined to discuss the specifics of the operation. Back in Dantewada, the police sealed off the Dornapal-Jagargunda road; journalists attempting to get in were turned away by armed SPOs.
But the news got out, as it invariably does: someone, somewhere in the jungles of Dantewada, walked to a spot where he found a cellular signal, and started making calls to the press.
On 19 March, a day before Holi, I slipped past the police cordon with a fellow reporter, Anil Mishra, on the assumption that the police would be celebrating in their camps rather than patrolling the forests.
We left our Jagdalpur hotel at 3 am and rode down towards the Andhra Pradesh border on a motorcycle. A guide had given us rough directions, pointing out 'safe' villages where I could reveal that I was a journalist with The Hindu, and 'Judum' villages that we should avoid at all costs.
We spent the first night in Tarmetla, and on the second day travelled to the neighbouring villages of Timapuram and Morpalli to assess the extent of the operation. Afterwards, I spoke to a few sources in the police, and pieced together the movements of the troops in the course of their five-day rampage.
In early March, a surrendered Maoist had told the district police and CRPF of a Maoist arms and explosives factory in Morpalli, a village about a day's march from the police camp in Chintalnar. On 11 March, more than 300 heavily armed troopers left their barracks at 4 am and arrived at the village four hours later.
As they entered Morpalli, the troops would have spotted a giant red-brick Maoist memorial that towers over the village's mud huts. An inscription on the front of the octagonal, six-metre-high tower celebrates the eight "immortal martyrs" of the 6 April ambush in Tarmetla, the success of which "is unprecedented in the history of the revolutionary struggle in India". Villagers say the memorial was built late last year, using bricks from a school building that was blown up in the Judum years.
Police sources told me the troops couldn't find the explosives factory, but villagers say the troops burnt 37 houses and sexually assaulted a woman tending to her fields on the village outskirts.
The villagers were eager to talk about the attack, and some gestured vehemently as they described the beatings administered by the police. A grandmother, who looked about 60, lay on the ground and curled into a foetal ball to illustrate how she hid in a woodshed; a woman named Madavi Hunge looked ahead stoically as she described how the force chanced upon her husband, Madavi Sulla, sitting on a tree and shot him through his legs, thighs and genitals. Hunge said the troopers left her husband to bleed to death on the tree; the villagers later brought down his body using a rope.
The troops left by noon, and took one 45-year-old villager, who I will call Madavi Ganga, along with his son and 20-year-old daughter, to the police station at Chintalnar. As we sat on a string cot, Ganga told me that he and his son were locked in a cell and beaten through the night; his daughter says she was stripped and sexually assaulted.The family was able to return to the village the next day, Ganga said, after village women surrounded the Chintalnar police station and demanded their release.
Two days later, on 13 March, the Koya commandos were deployed once more; this time to the village of Timapuram, where they arrived in the late afternoon with two captives in tow. The villagers had left, so the Koyas barricaded the village and settled in for the night.
The Maoists struck the next morning, ambushing the Koyas as they marched out of the village. Three Koyas were killed on the spot, and nine more were seriously injured. Under fire, the Koyas retreated into the village and called for reinforcements that arrived two hours later; a helicopter flew in to pick up the injured and the next morning the besieged force made its way back to their camp. But before they left, the Koyas burnt about 50 homes and granaries in the village and killed one of their captives with an axe: Barse Bima's wife found her husband's body lying face down, with his hands still tied behind his back.
Manu Yadav, the second captive, was taken to the Chintalnar police station, shot and passed off as a Maoist. The villagers only heard of his death when children from Timapuram, who were studying in a government residential school in Chintalnar, returned home to their parents with news of the execution. A senior policeman confirmed these details for me, explaining that the Koyas killed Manu Yadav because they needed "something to show" for the three commandos killed in the ambush at Timapuram.
The next day, on 16 March, the Koyas stormed through Tarmetla and burnt everything in their path. "As we watched from a distance, we could see the Koyas moving from house to house," one villager said. "I could hear a helicopter slowly circling overhead. The police knew what they were doing. They could see it from the air."
I spent the night of 19 March in Tarmetla. Astronomers had determined that the moon was closer to the Earth than it had been in 18 years, and the light was bright enough to read by. Six of us sat outside sipping liquor brewed from mahua fruit. There was nothing to eat, so we drank our liquor raw and talked about Maoists and policemen, Koyas and CoBRAs, the sacking of Tarmetla and the incomprehensibility and unfairness of it all.
As the mahua took hold, the conversation moved from the impersonal iteration of the effects of the raid (200 homes burnt! Hundreds of quintals of grain destroyed! One woman raped, two men missing!) to a more intimate recollection of loss: the necklace Sodi Hungi's mother gave her on her wedding day, the sari Madavi Handa was married in, Madavi Jogi's gold earrings, tools, blankets, sheets, clothes, cooking utensils, spoons, ladles, torches; everything bought, taken, borrowed, kept, gifted, handed down and now lost.
Someone made a wry remark about how we were fortunate that some liquor had survived the raid; we smiled, refilled our glasses and dropped off to sleep under a moon we would not see for another 18 years.