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Chhattisgarh: In Maoist Ground Zero, a death brings out the Tricolour on Independence Day

On June 13, the Chhattisgarh police had said that Hidme, a woman Maoist according to their records, was killed in an encounter in the jungles around Gompad, in Sukma’s Konta block.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Gompad (sukma) |
August 17, 2016 2:48:13 am
Naxals, Naxal attack, Chhattisgarh Naxal, Sukma naxal encounter, Naxal Chhattisgarh police, naxal encounter, Sukma naxal issue, AAP Soni Sori, Independence day, indian flag, maoist issue, india news The Tricolour is hoisted in Gompad, Monday. (Express Photo: Dipankar Ghose)

There was silence. The kind only broken by the faint sound of crying. About 50 people stood in a circle inside a forest, their heads bowed. In the middle was an upturned cot on a bed of rocks. To its left, three empty steel vessels. Hanging from the tree above were some clothes and a tattered umbrella. Buried in the earth was Madkam Hidme’s body. Around her, all that she used to call her own. Rice and flowers were placed at the site in remembrance. Nearby, two young adivasi children stood with small tirangas in their hands. In Gompad, deep in what is considered a “liberated zone” by Naxals, August 15 was a day of many firsts.

On June 13, the Chhattisgarh police had said that Hidme, a woman Maoist according to their records, was killed in an encounter in the jungles around Gompad, in Sukma’s Konta block. In the days that followed, Hidme’s family and AAP leader Soni Sori alleged she was an innocent villager, picked up by police from her hut, possibly raped and killed in a fake encounter. They pointed to the neat Maoist uniform on Hidme’s body, which seemed to suggest few signs of a struggle.

An AAP team led by Sori and representatives of the Congress attempted to reach Gompad, but said they were prevented from doing so by the administration. Madkam Lakshmi, Hidme’s mother, eventually stepped out of Gompad for the first time in her life, appealing to the Bilaspur High Court for

An exhumation of her body was ordered, and a second post-mortem was conducted.

The two post-mortems did not suggest rape, but defence lawyers pointed to doubts that emerged on the authenticity of the encounter. Taking the investigation away from police, the high court ordered a probe by the Dantewada district judge.

In the latest chapter in the Madkam Hidme story, some AAP leaders and activists travelled 180 km on foot from Dantewada to Gompad between August 9 and 15, taking out a tiranga yatra across Bastar’s Naxal affected zone.

At 8.30 am Monday, as the two-minute silence around Hidme’s grave was broken, AAP leaders Sori and Sanket Thakur spoke. They said Hidme had become a symbol, and that her “fight for justice would be fought till the end”.

“We have come here today to Gompad, on this Independence Day, to appeal to the country and the government that justice must be delivered to Madkam Hidme. The adivasis of Bastar are part of our country too. Hidme was a sister and a daughter of Bastar. She will not just fade away,” Sori said.

In the hours before the small remembrance meet, as the group readied itself for the day and mingled with villagers of Gompad, where they had spent the previous night, the day of Hidme’s killing was recounted several times over.

She had been married for eight days, but had fallen ill. On the morning of June 13, some police personnel arrived. “Some spoke in Gondi, others in Hindi. Hidme was sleeping at home because she was ill. She had never been a Naxal and we protested as they took her away. But the police threatened us and dragged her into the forests. Villagers from close by told us they heard screams. The next day, her body was returned to us in a plastic bag. We know some of the people that took her away. They used to be Maoists and used to beat us then. Now they work with the police and do this. Our lives are trapped in between,” a villager, who did not wish to be identified, alleged.

After the remembrance meet, at around 9 am, those who had gathered walked back to an open field next to the village, where a solitary pole stood waiting. For many an Independence Day, the pole had only seen a black flag flutter, hoisted by Maoists against the state. But on Monday, Gompad saw a sight it had not seen in over a decade. The Indian national flag was placed on the pole. Locals, many from nearby villages, holding small plastic Tricolour flags in their hands, watched as it was unfurled.

Many placards were held up. Some read ‘Bastar mein shaanti lao’, others read ‘Samvidhan amar rahe’. The speeches that followed focussed on what the flag meant for this part of the country. Sori and Thakur both spoke about the flag being a symbol of peace.

But the most powerful speech came from Hidme’s mother Lakshmi. She spoke in Gondi, her words translated by Sori and the few villagers adept at Hindi. She said the flag was a symbol of peace, that they were citizens of India, too. She said they deserved attention from Chief Minister Raman Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and that money from government schemes was being siphoned off, with no benefits reaching the poor in the jungles.

There was no hospital and no pension for widows, she said. As she spoke, villagers in the crowd shouted in approval. Gompad has no electricity, no road, no school and no healthcare within a 25-km radius. “The government thinks we live only to die or be killed,” a villager said.

Later, speaking about the death of her daughter, Lakshmi said, “Even when a dog goes mad, we think a great deal before ending its life.”

Not just Independence Day, but the entire yatra has seen a subversion of what is considered normal in Bastar. Police and pro-establishment groups have constantly labelled Sori and anyone who speaks against the Bastar administration as “Maoist sympathisers”. But this time, the Tricolour seemed to be their security shield.

When the yatra was first announced, there were threats of protests against it, and even of an “aamne saamne” by AGNI, a group largely comprising people that belonged to the now disbanded Samajik Ekta Manch, and are considered to have police backing.

But over the last few days, their stance shifted. On several social media platforms, they took the position that while they would continue to oppose any “pro-Maoist activity”, there could be no protest against “people carrying the Tricolour”. Which is why, on Monday, even Gompad rang with chants of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’.

Maoists, too, made a departure from the norm by allowing the yatra to go through without incident, despite national flags being carried in an area they call their own. Maoist spokesperson Vikalp released a voice note in the days leading up to August 9, backing the issues of fake encounters, arrests and surrenders that had been raised by the Bastar Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti, the umbrella body that organised the yatra. But he also exhorted them to refrain from carrying the Tricolour, calling it a symbol of state suppression. And yet, on Monday, it flew.

By 2 pm, those who were part of the yatra started to leave Gompad. There were whispers that the Naxals were on their way, that they would fly their own black flag. The flag that was hoisted was brought down after much deliberation, “with respect and after following all norms”. “We cannot afford that they do something to the flag, or fly their black flag next to it. That would be disrespectful,” an organiser said.

But the small plastic flags and one larger Tricolour remained in Gompad. It was one that Lakshmi had asked for. As she held it in her hands, she was asked if this could attract the wrath of Maoists. “I am not afraid of them. If this flag will bring peace, I will fight for it.”

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