They call themselves the ‘Tangiya Group’. A name that gives them another identity by nightfall. A name that has also opened up an old, ferocious debate.
In the villages of Nama and Sautenar flanked by the Maoist-affected Jagdalpur and Sukma, like in the rest of Bastar, tangiya is the local name for an axe. By day, the axe is used for odd jobs in every house around here. By night, the tangiyas, along with traditional bows and arrows, are the “weapons” the two villages wield in their battle to keep the Maoists out.
On May 20, Nama and Sautenar’s nightly vigil became national news when a group of visiting activists from Delhi was accused of trying to persuade the villages to “support the Maoists”. As the state administration, that has been accused of strong-arm tactics in Bastar, said the charge would be looked into, the activists said what was happening in Nama and Sautenar was similar to the beginning of Salwa Judum.
Villagers, who distance themselves from the controversy, say they organised themselves on their own due to the terror unleashed by Maoists. Says Aita Karma of Nama, “There is a lot of anger against the Maoists here. They came to our villages around a decade ago, and began holding jan adalats. They said they would work for us, but nothing happened. We have no roads, no electricity, no bridge. The Maoists would hit anybody who raised a voice against them. My father died, never recovering from an assault by Maoists. We have had enough.”
So three months ago, Aita says, they held a panchayat in Sautenar village.
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Fellow villager Santram Baghel says that at the meeting, they resolved to stop Maoists from entering their village. “We decided we would use the weapons we have — axes and bows and arrows — and patrol the villages at night. When we began, we were only around 20. But in the past three months, not once have the Maoists tried to come inside, when they would earlier come twice a week. Now there are 80 of us.”
Initially, the men patrolled the village from 10 pm onwards. Now they split up and head out to four designated places across the two villages, where they sleep with their weapons close.
Santram admits they are afraid, but that the only answer is “ekta”. “We have to ensure we are united. How many will the Maoists kill? Yes, they have their guns, but we have our bows and arrows. Goli maarenge to nikal bhi jayega, lekin main ek tir maroonga to shareer se niklega bhi nahin (A bullet can still be taken out of the body, but my arrow can’t even be extricated),” says Santram.
Laughing as he grounds red chillis for a feast, he adds, “Where will we go? We are happy in the village.”
It is this unity, Nama villagers say, that will prevent them from the fate of neighbouring Kumakoleng, that has seen many flee for fear of Maoist reprisal. In March this year, 51 of its villagers surrendered to the police. Villagers in Nama say many of them did so as they were afraid, others to get money or government jobs. “The village got divided. Days after they surrendered, the Maoists held a jan adalat again, and thrashed 13 villagers,” says Santram.
Over the past month, as word of the Tangiya Group has spread, Nama and Sautenar have been getting many visitors. A “police shivir” was held where officers of Jagdalpur and Sukma district praised the villagers. For the first time in six years, a patwari visited the village recently.
“Officials told us we were doing a good thing. Senior officers said we were heroes. They even said that the next time vacancies arise in the local police force, we would be considered,” says Aita.
It is official assurances such as these that the activists who visited on May 14 — Nandini Sundar of Delhi University, Archana Prasad of JNU who belongs to the CPM, CPM leader Sanjay Parathe and the CPI’s Vinit Tiwari — find suspicious.
Says Sundar, “If you look at the early photos (of the Salwa Judum), the tribals were armed only with bows and arrows, which later became small arms. Nobody is denying that there is a history of Maoist violence in these villages. But the point is what is the long-term solution. This is an exact replication of the beginning of the Judum, and everyone knows what happened after.”
An anti-Maoist militia force comprising villagers and backed by the Raman Singh government was disbanded in 2011 after severe strictures from the Supreme Court.
The Darbha police station claims to have received a complaint from Nama and Kumakoleng villagers saying the activists had asked them to “support Maoists”. While senior officers clarified no FIR had been registered on the complaint, on May 18, Home Minister Ram Sewak Paekra held a press conference to say the charges would be looked into, adding “anti-national elements do try these things”.
On May 20, a protest in Darbha, again ostensibly by the villages, sought the arrest of the activists, charging them with fuelling Naxalism. Three days later, Bastar Collector Amit Kataria received a memorandum, addressed to the President of India, by “villagers”, seeking action against the four activists, calling them “the urban network of the Naxals”.
Villagers deny either filing the police complaint or being part of any protest. While they did not agree with everything the activists said, they say “nobody told them to join the Maoists”. “We told them we had asked for a police camp, but the team said both the Maoists and police were not good for us. Nobody ever told us that we should side with the Maoists,” says Santram.
Shown a copy of the police complaint, Nama villagers did not identify any names as their own and said the signatures “could be of those from Kumakoleng who surrendered”. They also claimed that they had been called by the Darbha police station to attend a protest, but had refused to go.
Police say not everything must be looked at through the Judum prism, and that they will only support the villagers “within the legal framework”. Admitting that they are happy to see people opposing Naxals, Santosh Singh, ASP, Anti Naxal Operations, Sukma, says, “If they are using force, that is not acceptable. They must take the help of police.”
Singh also hopes that Nama “being united like this” could encourage other villagers to do so. “They are the actual sufferers. Police are here only to help maintain law and order.”
Asked about a possible Maoist backlash, the ASP says “the chances are remote”. “In Darbha division, the Maoists are on the backfoot. There is a sense of security among people because of increased operations and surrenders. There is a remote possibility that Maoists may try to attack the village, but if what is happening in Nama happens in nearby villages as well, the Naxals will not dare enter.”
Singh repeats that police would offer all the help it could. “They have asked for a camp twice, and if it is feasible, we will see. For now we have increased operations in that area.”
On their nightly rounds, Aita says, they often come across police. “We tell them we are the Tangiya Group. They wish us well, and leave us to do what we are doing.”
Aita is sure though that the answer isn’t a life of constant vigil. When offered jobs in police by officials, he says, he told them, “We want development, and a police camp nearby.”