In Gundurvahi, a remote Gadchiroli hamlet situated 18 km from Bhamragad town, residents were unable to decide if they could ensure the protection of two fellow villagers, if and when they return, from Maoists.
Brothers Vishnu and Sadhu Doke Lekami, sons of Gundurwahi village Patil Doke Lekami, are in contact with police. But they have not been seen in the village following an encounter between police and Maoists on April 27. Ramko Narote, a member of CPI (Maoist) Gadchiroli divisional committee, and Shilpa Dhurva, had died in the encounter just outside the village. While Vishnu (24) disappeared that day, Sadhu (26) disappeared around 10 days later.
The villagers did not blame the brothers for the encounter. “Ramko and Shilpa had come to Kishor Podadi’s (a villager) house to take medicine and money. After the two were killed, Kishor disappeared from the village. A few days later, his parents also left. The police came later to retrieve their belongings,” the villagers said, adding that Ramko and Shilpa were not carrying weapons.
When the villagers were asked why they would not plead with the Maoists for the security of Sadhu and Vishnu, when they believed that Kishor had probably tipped off the police about Ramko and Shilpa, they had no answer.
The police claimed that the names of Vishnu and Sadhu figured as suspects in some Maoist banners after the incident.
Vishnu and Sadhu said they left the village fearing Maoists, who may see them as probable informers. “They have viewed us with suspicion earlier,” the duo told The Indian Express in their first media interaction since their disappearance.
The Maoists have alleged that the encounter was fake. The police have rubbished this, saying a proper panchnama of the spot led to recovery of a .303 gun, an exploded pressure cooker bomb and empty rounds of AK rifle.
The encounter was followed by a Maoist ambush on May 1, in which 15 police commandos were killed. The rebels claimed in pamphlets and banners that this was revenge for the “brutal cold-blooded murders of the two women by police”.
Recalling that day, Vishnu said, “I was going to Fulnar village to collect mahua flowers. A little further from my village, I heard a blast and firing. I saw Maoists on a hillock. I got scared, dropped my bike and started running back to the village. But the police caught me. I tried to explain to them I am not a Maoist. But the police took me to Kothi police station and questioned me. Later they let me go.”
When asked why Maoists would suspect him, Vishnu said, “I am a carpenter and go to many villages for work. Maoists always suspect those who step out of the village frequently. They think such people work as police informers. Two years ago, they questioned me after a firing incident.”
A police officer, who is in contact with the two brothers, said, “Maoists zero in on those who go out for work. They have killed many on this ground, though they were not informers. This trend has increased after they suffered the biggest casualty of 40 cadres April last.”
Sadhu said, “At a meeting after the April 27 incident, I came to know that Maoists named me as a doubtful person. So I left.”
Last year, Sadhu was taking a Maoist cadre, Ashok Pallo, for medical treatment to Bhamragad when police caught them. While Sandhu was allowed to go, Pallo was arrested and jailed. “Maoists suspected I failed Pallo,” said Sadhu.
The police, however, slapped preventive sections against him and he was taken to Bhamragad for a court hearing, the officer said.
Vishnu spoke to his family on mobile phone despite poor connectivity. “The police had brought the two to Bhamragad, where his wife Chhaya spoke to him. A few days ago, the two also spoke over phone to us, seeking protection from Maoists. We said he should reveal the real story of the encounter,” the villagers said.
The police officer said, “By all means, we can facilitate their return to the village. But the villagers also know how the Kasnasur villagers had to leave after Maoists killed three innocent persons in January for last year’s loss of 40 cadres.”
Vishnu and Sadhu, meanwhile, seemed almost certain that they would not be able to return to Gundurwahi village.
Asked about his wife and nine-month-old daughter Vaishnavi, Vishnu said, “They will come here to be with me.”