Sitting in his mud hut, atop a hillock in the Bangali camp of Kirandul in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada, Unga Mandavi said his five-year-old son has recurring nightmares of his grandfather hanging from one of the trees in the forest back in their village.
Two months ago, the Mandavis, along with five other families from their village, had fled their homes in Gumiyapal, 20 km from this camp, to escape Naxals who were alleged targeting families of those working with the police and other security agencies.
“My father Lacchu Mandavi was one of the village elders, respected by one and all. The Naxals used to beat him up in front of the whole village after one of my brothers joined the police,” said Unga, Mandavi’s eldest son. “We would request them to let us be. Our brother joined the police of his own free will and wasn’t even in the village. But they would force my father to attend their jan adalat and beat him up. He ended up feeling very hurt and insulted.”
Then one day, during last year’s monsoons, the 65-year-old took his youngest grandson for a bath in the stream and an hour later, was found dead, hanging from a tree using his gamcha.
But even after Mandavi’s death, the ‘torture’ continued. “They would still come and beat me. They demanded that my brother leave the force. But how could we tell him? He hasn’t kept in touch since he left. Finally, in September, we were told to either give up our lives or our homes. So we left and came here,” said Unga.
Security officials say that as a sort of domination exercise, Maoists in Chhattisgarh have been targeting “soft targets”, especially family members of police and DRG recruits. “There’s an instant distrust the minute someone visits the police. All their threats and torture stem from the fear that families may leak information to the police,” said a senior IPS officer.
Among the 20 people from six families who had to flee Gumiyapal village are the ailing parents of Ajay Telam, a constable posted at Kirandul police station. Telam’s parents Lacchu and Vijjo, both in their 60s, were alleged abducted by Naxals in July and released after 14 hours, after the villagers of Gumiyapal pleaded for their release at a ‘Naxal court’, said Telam.
In September, the couple, along with their daughters, were given the same option: leave or get killed. They now stay with their son in Kirandul and share the house with another family from Gumiyapal – relatives of a constable posted in Dantewada.
Back in Gumiyapal village, 380-odd km from state capital Raipur, villagers talk of the sudden departure of the six families. Seventy-year-old Aite, who lives next door to the Mandavis, said, “They were not even allowed to take their clothes or their utensils. All that they had collected over the years was left behind and later stolen.”
The Mandavis had a mud house, nine cows and several goats, and an outhouse for guests. Sprawled over half an acre, the family grew rice and vegetables. “They could never harvest their rice. But when the crop matured, it disappeared overnight,” said another villager.
Some distance away stands the house that constable Telam’s parents left behind. A plaque outside the house declares his father Lacchu as ‘para samiti adhyaksh’. “All that is the past now; presently, everyone wants to save their lives. So here we are, staying in this dingy house on rent,” said Telam.
Dantewada SP Abhishek Pallava insisted Maoists were losing ground and their attempt at terrorising villagers was a sign of their desperation. “The six families who were forced to leave their village in September are now all living safely in Kirandul. They will go back once we start a camp in Gumiyapal,” he said.
Tribal activist Soni Sori, however, said, “Today there are six families, tomorrow there will be more. Eventually, the villages will become empty. I want to ask police and the Maoists, once these innocent villagers are thrown out, what happens to them? Who is responsible for their situation now?”
For now, while the six families hope to go back to their village, they know the chances are bleak. Lachmu Mariami, whose younger brother-in-law is posted as DRG (District Reserve Guard) in Dantewada, had to flee with her husband and five children, the youngest barely months old. “We could take nothing, just left with the clothes we were wearing. I had a handpump a few feet away from my house in the village; now, I wake up at 4 am and queue up for water,” she says.
Lachmu has been working as a domestic help, while her husband Unga is a daily-wager. “My daughters were registered in school in our village, our ration cards are also there. Will we ever go back?,” she wondered.
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