A Bus to Freedom in Bastar

A Bus to Freedom in Bastar

Decade-long isolation of a Bastar village ended with a bus service that started recently. The ride from Jagargunda to Dornapal negotiates dangerous terrains, and the passengers - most of them former Salwa Judum members - make the bus a prized target for Naxals. Yet, they are more excited than scared.
Suhas Munshi finds out why.

The long and winding road

Suhas MunshiSuhas Munshi | News18.com @suhasmunshi

Published: June 5, 2017

IT'S 7 in the morning in a remote village in Bastar. Almost all the inmates of Jagargunda, including its farm animals, are out inspecting the bus. It is the biggest object for as far as one can see, and it has returned to the village after 12 years.

Back then Jagargunda was a flourishing merchant town. It used to be full of traders and had schools, clinics and electricity. It lost all these in 2005 when government launched the notorious Salwa Judum campaign.

In their bloody clashes, Naxal and state sponsored Judum militias destroyed the town several times over. To stop arms supply to Judum members, Naxals went on to destroy the roads connecting Jagargunda to outside world - towards Dantewada on one side and to Sukma on the other. That year the village was cut off from the world.

Over time Jagargunda became home to retired Judum members. To protect it from Naxals, the town was barricaded from all sides and fortified with police and paramilitary forces.

To stop arms supply to Judum members, Naxals went on to destroy the roads connecting Jagargunda to outside world

Very few people have ever stepped out of the village in the last 12 years fearing Naxal violence. Not even to farm. Which is why the state still provides rations to its 5000 people twice a year. But some are now taking their first steps outside through this bus which was started on May 2. It travels 200 km daily through Dornapal and Sukma till Jagdalpur. The state road transport corporation has outsourced the service to a private contractor

It's early in the morning but residents of Jagargunda have already embraced the bus. Some reclining on it are having their morning black tea. Others are sitting inside the bus with neem twigs in their mouths. Children, who'd never seen something like this before, fill the bus, bursting out from the windows. A few teen-aged boys and girls are checking themselves in mirrors and brushing their clothes before stepping in.

Madvi, is a shy 17 years old girl who lives here and works as a tailor. She's going to Jagdalpur on this bus in hope to find better employment, with an aunt who's sitting close by.

"I know I can sew well, but I haven't got a chance to prove myself outside Jagargunda. I have some relatives in Jagdalpur and some down in Chennai. I'll try to find work somewhere and hopefully earn better," she says.

Kavasi, a young boy who used to work as a cook for the police here is also going towards Jagdalpur to try his luck at one of its hotels. While other passengers run a riot inside the bus, the two teenagers sit side by side, quietly looking at their phones. Madvi's aunt looking over both, stony-faced.

But the bus is not only a symbol of hope for the local people; it is also a cause of worry for those sitting in it.

But the bus is not only a symbol of hope for the local people; it is also a cause of worry for those sitting in it.

That's because in half an hour all of us are about to be driven over what perhaps is the most dangerous road in the country.

In and around the 58 km stretch from Jagargunda down to Dornapal, more than 50 soldiers, from state police and central paramilitary forces, and about as many civilians have been killed in the last three years.

Road from Jagarguna to Dornapal

CRPF camps along this road are routinely ambushed by Naxals, the most recent of which, in Burkapal, claimed lives of 25 CRPF soldiers.

Naxals have also carried out 18 improvised explosive device (IED) blasts on this stretch. And on this stretch patrol parties have dug up over 130 live IEDs in last two years.

Spikes, planted by Naxals in an attempt to halt CRPF convoys and attack them, regularly take out tyres of private pickup trucks.

"The risks are high. Situation here changes in a few seconds. Right now all these people are giggling and cracking jokes, the next moment there could be an IED blast and all of them will learn their lesson," Jagdeesh, the conductor says chuckling himself. He may not have expressed it very well, but he has a point.

In and around the 58 km stretch from Jagargunda down to Dornapal, more than 50 soldiers, from state police and central paramilitary forces, and about as many civilians have been killed in the last three years.

On the Dantewada-Sukma road, not very far from here, on May 17, 2010, Naxals blew-up a civilian bus they suspected was full of policemen. 24 civilians, apart from 11 Special Police Officers, lost their lives in the IED blast that day.

Dozens of civilians die each year accidentally stepping on mines, targeted at security forces, laid out by Naxals. Sometimes they issue an apology letter. But most of the time they don't even do that.

A FEW days earlier I met a Naxal leader from South Bastar division who didn't want to be identified. Among other things, I asked him about Naxals' repeated attacks on civilians, sometimes accidentally, sometimes intended to teach an alleged state spy and his family a lesson.

"We do it for the larger good. We kill spies to prevent greater bloodbath. First we warn them, but if they still don't listen to us, we kill them. If we kill a civilian accidentally, we immediately issue a public apology," the Maoist leader said.

But what gives them the authority to kill civilians? What if they kill somebody and later discover their innocence, as happened in the case of a local Bastar journalist Sai Reddy whom they killed in 2013? How does an apology suffice? What sort of punishment is reserved for cadres who 'accidentally' kill civilians?

"We do it in interest of the people whose representatives we are. We cannot jail our militia members. Like your outside government we don't have jails. But we strip them off their posts, which is a bigger punishment than what your government delivers. As far as Sai Reddy case was concerned, the top leadership had given orders to abort his assassination but it couldn't be delivered to our ground workers in time," he replied.

I didn't catch a note of contrition or remorse in his response but pressed ahead anyways. So was anyone held accountable? Has anyone ever been held accountable?

He did not reply directly and instead assured me that strictest punishment is reserved for such fatal blunders.

WE FINALLY start at 8, half an hour later than the scheduled departure. Not even 10 minutes into the journey and we're stopped at a CRPF camp. "Better to be shot dead," mutters the conductor Jagdeesh before going in to sign his name and answering questions from an officer.

We will eventually stop, for several rounds of verification and identity parades, at 10 more CRPF camps on our way. We spend from 5 to 20 minutes at each camp.

Back on the road again, our bus always seems to be approaching the future at an angle. It's hard to believe that the jagged dirt track down from Jagargunda, on which we're moving slower than our walking speed, was once a well paved and busy road that led to the National Highway connecting Sukma to Andhra Pradesh.

The bus has brought closer not just people but also more avenues of employment and luxuries.

Talking of angles, we immediately encounter an unbelievable geometrical hurdle just a few hundred meters from the CRPF camp we just left. "Ab aayega maza," Jagdeesh says as he switches on video camera on his mobile phone.

He spends most of his time recording the journey. "My videos are in great demand. And the part for which I get most requests is this one."

What Jagdeesh is referring to is a concrete triangle that once was a bridge until Naxals blew apart its either ends with IEDs.

The bridge that Naxals blew up

The driver needs to concentrate and the bus needs to lose weight. Most passengers get down. The bus begins to whir and strain up the steep incline.

As it reaches the summit, the bus halts for a second. It looks like the bus has lost contact with road and is stuck midair on the crest of the triangle like a seesaw. But Chintu, who's done this drill more than 10 times already, lands the bus safely yet again. And all of us are in it in no time.

A few meters ahead in Narsapuram we pick up a passenger - Raju. He speaks about what travelling on this road was like just a few years ago.

"My father had sent me to a school in Jagdalpur in 2008. We used to share very tense moments on our way back on his motorcycle. In those hours I never thought I'd ever travel along this road with my friends. I never thought we could get to the weekly market in Chintalnar or meet my relatives in Sukma, in one day," he said.

The bus has brought closer not just people but also more avenues of employment and luxuries. It has also brought the people of remote villages like Jagargunda, Narsapuram and Chintalnar closer to the primary hospital in Dornapal and the district hospital in Jagdalpur. It has allowed villagers to bring to their homes lifesaving medicines, food, battery powered lights, daily provisions.

And the bus has brought them a hope that one day several more buses will run up and down this road all the time, and they will be able to reach out to the world outside at will.

SUMMERS IN Bastar are unrelenting. Mercury breaches the 45 degree mark regularly. It is almost 9 and a lot of water bottles have already finished. Passengers look with hope towards Jagdeesh and he, in turn, looks forward to the next CRPF camp to fill in our empty plastic bottles.

We reach Chintalnar at 9:05. Jagdeesh along with his helper runs towards the camp and as we sit waiting inside a CRPF officer comes in to check our identification cards. On a calm weekday like today it is hard to image the sort of violence this place has seen.

The deadliest attack on Indian security forces happened in the village neighbouring Chintalnar. Walking distance from where we're sitting. On April 6, 2010, at the peak of operation Green Hunt, 76 CRPF officers were killed by Naxals in Tadmetla.

Though there hasn't been another Tadmetla since, the soldiers here see gun battles almost every other week. According to a local journalist, just two years ago a gunfight between soldiers in this camp and Naxals continued for four days straight. Just last November an IED planted by Naxals went off a few meters from here, injuring two paramilitary soldiers.

On April 6, 2010, at the peak of operation Green Hunt, 76 CRPF officers were killed by Naxals in Tadmetla.

Jagdeesh returns in 10 minutes with his helper. Seeing four hands carrying a bottle each is a big relief. Onward we march. The next stop is Burkapal. The site of the recent big Naxal attack in which 25 CRPF soldiers died - the second biggest loss to the paramilitary force since 2010.

The April 24 incident wasn't the first of its kind. Naxals have been blowing up IEDs near the camp and firing on it for years now. But CRPF loses more than half of its men in road opening exercises, such as the one on April 24, not in active battle.

There is an increasing frustration among the soldiers at how so many of them are dying for so little.

"We risk our lives to get this road built but the sort of response we get is pathetic. That day also so many of us were spread out on all sides trying to secure people who were building roads here. And what were we risking our lives for? Just 13 labourers and one mixture machine. That's all. Dozens of us have died here and not an inch of road has been laid," said a senior officer posted here.

Just as a thought exercise, one could actually find out the number of soldiers that have died for every km of road built on this stretch.

There is an increasing frustration among the soldiers at how so many of them are dying for so little.

A total of 51 security officers, including those from state forces and paramilitary, have died on this stretch in the last three years. And according to the Sukma collector's office, just 8 km of road has been laid in the meantime. That's more than six soldiers per km.

48 more km are left.

A FEW steps ahead lies the village Burkapal itself. It is deserted. On the day of the attack all the men, including the Sarpanch, fled the village and haven't returned so far.

A woman in the village whose husband was picked up by the police said, "Police and CRPF took all men away and beat them, that's why they went in hiding. They're not far. They're hiding nearby only. But they fear that on their return they will also be beaten away and shot dead. My husband was also picked up. I have never heard from him since."

Back at the identification parade, one passenger finds that he forgot his ID card at home. He is too far from his home to go back and fetch it. He pleads with the CRPF soldier, who after carefully scrutinising the passenger lets him go. We are all in the bus again. Our next stop - Chintagufa.

The place was in news earlier this month when a 15 years old girl filed a police complaint alleging gang-rape by security forces. But days after she filed the complaint, she mysteriously went quiet.

Chintalnar - Burkapal - Chintagufa, has traditionally been the most attacked stretch of this road. These 10 km are also the most beautiful on the road. There is a lake right outside the Chintagufa camp and even an untrained eye can spot bird species like storks, mynah and woodpeckers around the lake.

One day when all this ends, I will return.

— CRPF soldier

During my previous visit to Bastar, about two years ago, a young CRPF soldier at Chintagufa camp had in a rare, emotional moment told me, "One day when all this ends, I will return. I might be old by then but I'll definitely return. I'll come with my family. We'll all go boating in this lake and I'm sure when I tell my children about the chaotic, violent past, they won't believe me."

A WEEKLY market is on at Chintagufa, and as we walk down to display our identification at the picket, some of us stop over at stalls to find if there's anything worth their while. Some local tribals have walked down here from villages far away in jungles to exchange mahua for rice. Some are exchanging Tamarind for spices.

Jagdeesh, who's chatting up with a soldier at the picket, is given a list of things to get on his return trip. He accepts the piece of paper with an ear-to-ear grin. It falls flat as soon as we both turn towards our bus. "Yaar this is not our job. Where will I find time to buy a kilo of lemon?" he asks rhetorically.

But just as we board the bus I find more people are standing in the bus than are sitting. It is the weekly market, I realise. The driver isn't pleased with the sort of time people are taking to get inside and settle. Progressively the time he allows his passengers to get in the bus reduces.

After Kankerlanka, Chintu refuses to even apply brakes. We cross village after village at great speed and from our windows we see people flapping their arms to signal the bus to halt for them, albeit unsuccessfully. Chintu is sending stray cows and birds flying off the road. The road is still quite bumpy. And we at the rearmost row are flung up repeatedly like rice in a winnowing fan.

Brakes are finally applied at Dornapal at about 11:30. That's where I beg my leave. Jagdeesh offers me a free ride the next time I board this bus. I bid farewell to all passengers. Madvi and the boy next to her are still sitting quietly looking at their phones.

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