Lon Varratu. This is the name of a new campaign that has been launched in Bastar’s Dantewada district to affect the surrender of Naxals. 'Lon Varratu' means 'Return Home' in Gondi, the language spoken by the tribals in the region. While this is not the first drive to get the extremists to surrender their weapons— many such campaigns have been run in the past with mixed successes— this time the administration also has some other objectives in mind.
“Whether it was the judiciary or the inquiry commissions, nobody had a clear idea of exactly how many Naxals are there in Dantewada. This is the first district in which we have clearly identified close to 1,600 Naxals from 40 villages. This was the first objective of Lon Varratu,” said Abhishek Pallava, a 2012-batch IPS officer, and the superintendent of police in Dantewada.
Pallava then explains the second objective of this campaign. Whenever police took stringent steps against the red extremists, it was accused of violating the human rights of innocent villagers.
“After the death of Naxals, many large-scale protests would take place. All this used to be terribly embarrassing for us…But now information about the identity of the Naxals has been shared with the villagers. Pamphlets containing information about Naxals, with an appeal to lay down their arms, are being pasted outside the homes of the extremists and receipts are being taken from their family members. So now whenever we take any action against Naxals, we cannot be blamed for hurting innocent villagers,” Pallava added.
These pamphlets contain the name of the alleged Naxals, the bounty on them, the weapons they are alleged to be handling and information on the person who should be contacted if the extremists wish to lay down their weapons, in which case the Naxals get the bounty put on them as their reward. Of the “identified” 1,600 Naxals, the police has set itself the task of getting at least 500 to surrender by the end of the year. The local administration says 68 Naxals have already surrendered since this campaign was started.
“The primary objective of this campaign is to encourage people who are foot soldiers or sympathisers of Naxals in the LWE [Left Wing Extremism affected] areas to get into the mainstream. The district administration is doing all that it can within its remit. To help them begin a new life, we are running skill-development programmes for them. We are making efforts to get them enrolled into schemes such as MGNREGA and creating self-help groups (SHGs) for them,” Deepak Soni, Dantewada district collector, told News18.
Some human rights activists who have seen the conflict in the area unfold closely over the past nearly 15 years express reservations about the legality of the Lon Varratu campaign.
“The police’s job is only to catch the criminals and hand them over to the honourable court to pronounce the verdict on them. Who is a Maoist and who isn’t is the question before the honourable courts. I don’t know if the administration has taken clearance from the judiciary for the campaign,” said Himanshu Kumar, a well-known human rights activist.
He even expressed fears about the possibility of the lives of people being put under threat because of Lon Varratu.
“The people who are surrendering, and we don’t really know about their claims yet, will now be in the cross hairs of the Maoists. Not only will their 'surrender' cause a social upheaval for such families, this campaign has the potential of causing a great deal of distress among people in the coming days. The honourable courts should take cognisance of this,” Kumar added.
Meanwhile, pamphlets with names of “Naxals” are being put up in villages, at prominent places including sites of weekly markets. Police officials say that the 266-page list of the 1,600 alleged Naxals has been compiled over time based on interrogation reports of captured red extremists.
“Still, to eliminate the chance of a person with no Naxal background featuring in this list, we have made a mechanism in which such people can get in touch with their local representatives, who in turn could send us the names. After verification, if we find that the person has no criminal antecedents, we will make the necessary changes to the list,” Pallava said.
Of the 68 Naxals who have surrendered, police officials say many used to be high-ranking commanders. Jagdish, who used to have a Rs 3 lakh bounty on his head, was one of them.
“I saw a Lon Varratu pamphlet in a village and decided to lay down my arms. I was thinking of finding a way out of the life of violence and this campaign gave me that chance. I wish an Aanganwadi health centre is set up in my village because people here face a lot of troubles for the want of basic health facilities,” said Jagdish, who used to live and operate around the Abujhmaad area.
Health centres and schools were the first institutions in Bastar to be destroyed in the crossfire between Naxals and security forces. Many Naxals who have surrendered before the administration claim to have been involved in instances of destroying health facilities and schools, essential institutions which they are now in the process of putting back together. Santu is one of them, who upon receiving orders from his superior, blew up a school in Bhansi village. He is right now working to construct that very school, earning a daily wage of Rs 200.
The administration has also promised a tractor to a village where 10 or more youths, whose names feature on the list, surrender. Around a week ago, nearly a dozen youths, all surrendered Naxals, from Badeguda village had posed with photos of one such tractor.
Hidma Sodhi, father of surrendered Naxal fighter Budhra, is one of the people who is using one such tractor on his fields. He told News18 that he has already tilled 4 acres of his 7-acre farm, but now that he’s received a tractor, he is planning to till the rest of the land with it.