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Dantewada: The deadly battle of attrition

LiveMint logoLiveMint 28-04-2017 Shaswati Das

Dantewada (Chhattisgarh): Armed Maoist guerillas ambushed the 74th battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) guarding a road building project in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh on Monday afternoon, killing 25 personnel and seriously wounding seven. It is no coincidence that the deadly attack by Naxals targeted the CRPF unit providing security cover to the workers developing the road connecting the remote villages of Chintagufa and Burkapal in Sukma district.

It represents the new battle line in the face off between extremists and the state—while the latter is pushing to bring remote villages on the development map primarily through better connectivity, the Naxals are equally determined to prevent this.

At the centre of this tussle is the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna (PMGSY), which ambitiously aims to link all 35 districts severely affected by left-wing extremism to the national highway network. However, due to threats and attacks by Naxals, villages located in the so-called Red Corridor continue to be excluded from the growth story.

Iron ore mines and conveyor belts along the adjoining hills in South Bastar remain under constant surveillance. Photo: Shaswati Das/Mint

The state government’s motivation—backed by the union government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—is inspired by its belief that the lure of development will help it steer a new narrative among the historically neglected communities, and thereby disrupt the ecosystem that fosters extremist activities.

They are convinced this will enable them to bridge the existing trust deficit between locals and the state government.

“The progress of highway construction in these districts has been very good in recent years and is contributing to development in the region,” secretary for road transport and highways Sanjay Mitra said.

Precisely the trigger for the Naxals to ramp up their attacks; unable to take on the enhanced fire power of the security forces, they have shifted tactics to ambushes and use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Already under pressure with revolts from within and the relentless squeeze of the security forces, the Naxals are desperate to block out government-ordained development initiatives—particularly connectivity.

Targeting infrastructure

Prior to the attack on Monday, Naxals had targeted the CRPF in Sukma on 11 March exacting stiff casualties—12 security forces lost their lives. This time they employed IEDs to target the forces that were deployed to guard the road under construction.

Then on 7 February, departing from their regular modus operandi of attacking in the dead of night, a group of Naxals trekked up the slippery ravines along Bacheli’s iron ore mines at Akashnagar at midday, robbed the mine of explosives and detonators used to blast rocks, and torched the conveyor belts.

A CRPF guard keeps vigil at the 231 battalion headquarters in Aranpur district. Photo: Shaswati Das/Mint

The ferocity of these attacks has only worsened over the last one year and more. In 2016, there were 70 landmine blasts—the highest in the last five years, according to home ministry data. Almost all of them targeted road infrastructure that the determined government seeks to put in place. And with a reason. In Chhattisgarh’s Naxal-affected regions—Dantewada, Bastar, Sukma, Dornapal, Narayanpur and Bijapur —the lack of connectivity is all too evident. A nine-hour and 380-km drive from Raipur to Dantewada city over a pot-holed under-maintenance national highway road is an eye opener.

Beyond Dantewada, areas such as Aranpur, Sukma, Dornapal, Konta, Narayanpur and Bijapur are part of the conflict zone. As a result, an attempt to construct and carpet the 80-km arterial Dantewada-Aranpur-Jagargunda stretch that would become a free trade link between north and south Bastar, has been thwarted by the Naxals.

ALSO READ: A reason to pause in Sukma

Dinesh Pratap Upadhyay, inspector general (ops) of the CRPF says that no sooner had the road construction started than the Naxals pressurized the villagers to boycott it. The villagers complied and the road was left incomplete. Today, Jagargunda is almost an island—disconnected from the rest of Bastar. As of now, the only mode of reaching Jagargunda and beyond is on foot or by a chopper. In other districts, the only available connect with civilization is the private taxi.

“Last year, in June, I had fractured my leg while returning to my village. Since it was dark, there was nobody in sight. There was no bus or even a cycle that could reach me to a doctor or to my home. I spent the night by the side of the road and in the morning, I requested one of the private taxis to help me get home,” says Anand, who hails from Bastar’s Sameli village.

Locals in Aranpur say that the only route to villages from the state and national highways is through dirt paths.

“Thereafter, to access a village that is almost two hours away, we walk through dense jungles. So unless it’s a life-and- death situation, we don’t leave our villages,” says Phool Kumar, a local villager.

Infrastructure work and road building projects are being carried out in South Bastar despite threats from Naxals. Photo: Shaswati Das/Mint

Villagers who ignore Naxal threats are subjected to brutal attacks.

“Should locals put up any resistance, the Naxals single out families or villagers and behead them, in order to send out a message to the locals. Fear of brutalization then drives people to lend support to the movement,” Kamlochan Kashyap adds.

In 2014, villagers from Sukma’s Bheji village opposed Naxal demands to prevent road construction projects from making progress; a bloodbath followed.

Bridging the infra deficit

In December, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA), chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, signed off on a Rs11,700 crore rural roads project, which would cover 35 districts that account for 90% of left-wing extremist (LWE) violence.

This is one of the largest projects to be undertaken by the central government and is aimed at plugging the infrastructure deficit in LWE-affected states, seventeen years since the formation of Chhattisgarh—mainly to spur development and usher in prosperity that, in turn, would wean local support away from Naxalism.

The ‘Road Connectivity Project for Left Wing Extremism Affected Areas’ makes room for 5,400km of roads and 126 bridges in areas such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and the Odisha-Andhra border—a project being seen as the only instrument that could potentially lead to the systematic elimination of Naxalism.

CRPF personnel check for IEDs along the road to Jagargunda. Photo: Shaswati Das/Mint

“The discourse has changed totally with villagers supporting the state. Earlier, they were in support of Naxals. We are making electricity and PDS (public distribution system) available to the villages. Gradual development has sent out a strong message to them that Naxalism is now just destructive. Although there are still pockets where they pressurize villagers to cut up roads and hamper development work, we are fighting that every day, along with the forces manning these stretches,” Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh said in a recent interview to Mint.

The Revolt Within

Jaimati Kumari stays with her husband in a shelter whose location is undisclosed. And there is a reason: fear of retribution from her former Naxal comrades whom she deserted.

Two years ago, in 2015, Jaimati, 34, feigning illness sought permission from her Naxal ‘Company Commander’ to go and live with her mother. The commander agreed. Jaimati, then one of the strongest assets of the Naxals’ women’s cadre, quietly made her way instead to the Dantewada police camp.

“The women in the cadres are raped, molested and tortured by the men. We are made to go for days without food or water. If we are ill, there is no medical facility that we can avail. If we protest, we are raped. I had taken to Naxalism because the ideology fascinated me. I realized slowly that there is no ideology left. There is only brutalization.”

Some distance away at another camp, Kishori, 29, tells a similar tale. Once a deadly Naxal cadre, who claims to have killed 70 people, a disillusioned and harassed Kishori forsook Naxalism for domesticity. “When they found out that we wanted to get married, they threatened to have his (my husband’s) parents and sister in the village beheaded,” she says.

A mine protection vehicle is used by the CRPF to minimise damage in case undetected IEDs explode. Photo: Shaswati Das/Mint

“The men would take turns raping me and I could not complain. Till one day, when we could not take it anymore and escaped. If we are found, we will be killed,” she says.

Both camps are in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district—one of the worst affected areas affected by LWE—and adjoining Sukma. Jaimati and Kishori are among more than 1,442 Naxalites who surrendered in 2016 across the Red Corridor—comprising large swathes of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and the Odisha-Andhra border, inking a new narrative on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Naxalite movement.

At the same time, the attacks earlier this week suggest that the Naxal threat is far from being contained. The authorities claim that they are slowly and steadily gaining an upper hand. In this, the next two years will be crucial, especially in the ability of the state and union governments to walk the talk on connecting remote areas in Naxal-affected districts to the mainstream.

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