Dhaneshwar Gope and father Phulchand Gope stand at the edge of Banpur village in Gumla district, watching women harvest the maduwa crop in their 2.5 acre field.
It would have been just another sight in Jharkhand this season if it weren’t for the .315 rifle slung across the son’s shoulder, a 12-gauge gun across the father’s and a bullet-ridden Mahindra Marshal vehicle being washed down of blood and brain matter within Banpur.
When the banned left wing extremist organisation PLFI ambushed the Marshal at 4.40 PM on November 3 on the 6-km stretch between Banpur and Redwa villages of Kamdara block, it had only two individuals in its sights. To murder Madan Sahu and younger brother Karampal Sahu, the PLFI was willing to sacrifice the five others who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Madan (30) and Karampal (27) were Dhaneshwar’s colleagues: Special Police Officers, like father Phulchand. Together, the four of them were the only ones who owned licensed guns in Banpur. The brothers’ attackers made off with their 12-gauges. This was the second attempt on their lives in under a year, but villagers say the likes of Madan had kept the peace. The police deny its existence, but the villagers of Gumla have a name for this organisation of SPOs — they call it the Shanti Sena.
The years between 2005 and 2009 seemed to have coagulated in the violent history of South Chotanagpur. In districts like Gumla, Khunti, Simdega and Ranchi, “about five years back” is when everything changed — this includes the formation of the Jharkhand Liberation Tigers, its renaming as the PLFI and the murders of civilians by PLFI over levy collection and accusations of being Maoist as well as police informers.
“We never had the Maoists trouble us in this village. That’s because we drove the MCC (Maoist Communist Centre) away before they became the Maoists, ” chuckled Dhaneshwar (21). Villagers say Dhaneshwar’s family turned against the Maoists over a land dispute. “An MCC leader invited his father to discuss the issue, but when he got there, he was tied up and beaten,” said a relative of Madan who did not want to be quoted for the story.
The incident drove the family close to the police, which encouraged them to pass on information about the rebels. Then, when “about five years back” when a young Yadav man from the nearby Lapa village in Khunti’s Karra block started a new gang to fight the Rajputs, Dhaneshwar turned his ire against him. This makes for a unique rivalry — Yadav against Yadav.
That young man from Lapa was Dinesh Gope, now infamous as the Supremo of the PLFI. The PLFI came after Madan, a Teli by caste, and his brother by chance. “Madan had bought a new mobile phone. One day, as a PLFI squad went past, he happened to be on his phone. They assumed he was a police informer and asked him to surrender the device the next day,” said the relative.
Madan had made up his mind to give up the phone, but his relatives dissuaded him. The PLFI had made a habit of punishing mistakes like his with death. He joined Dhaneshwar’s cause and even began sleeping at his house. They had an unlicensed double barrel 12-gauge given to Phulchand by the police, after all.
The double barrel came in handy one night. “Dinesh came home. We made him run away,” was all Dhaneshwar would say. Madan’s relative explained: the PLFI Supremo had come down with about 25 people, surrounding the house. Phulchand, drunk on the local brew, began firing. “He was drunk senseless, but he kept away the squad for hours. Finally, they managed to inform the police. The PLFI retreated when they heard the sound of police vehicles,” the relative said.
However, Madan took a bullet to his right arm. This led the police to fast-track the arms license applications on behalf of the four. Meanwhile, Madan was given an unlicensed weapon. He had of late handed it over to Lalmohan Sahu, a relative he was grooming for the job. Lalmohan was in the Marshal with Madan on Monday.
As of September this year, the PLFI is responsible for 33 per cent of LWE violence, according to the Jharkhand police. It is the main reason why Jharkhand has topped the country in terms of LWE incidents as well as deaths since 2012: of the 69 civilians killed this year, 40 died in the hands of splinter groups while 29 were killed by Maoists.
“This is where the PLFI was born. Suresh, Dinesh and Martin were close friends. We have now pushed them back. Give us six months; Dinesh will be no more,” said Dhaneshwar. Suresh was the PLFI chief’s elder brother who allegedly encouraged him to take up arms. Martin Kerketta is now a PLFI area commander. He hails from Redwa and has been the Banpur SPOs’ immediate enemy for a while now.
“Officer in-charges at the Kamdara police station would call at odd hours and Madan could be seen rushing out with Karampal. I don’t think they fought much. But they were always in the line of fire, acting as guides to the police,” said Madan’s relative.
The Shanti Sena spread chaos in the PLFI ranks by informing the police about their positions and strategy — Dhaneshwar claims he led the police to area commander Charka Munda’s hideout late last year. All this for a pay of Rs. 3,000 per month, which was increased to Rs. 5,500 over a year back. The men are yet to be paid since then, however. They even bought the guns and bullets on their own. The brothers’ spouses were given a lakh rupees each as compensation on Tuesday by chief secretary Sajal Chakraborty.
Dhaneshwar has now offered his 2.5 acres for the construction of a police picket. It helps that unlike the Tritiya Sammelan Prastuti Committee, another anti-LWE group established by the police, the Shanti Sena has remained an unorganised group of armed villagers who have not been ranked.
The PLFI hit back last year and Madan, who had become the most prominent SPO of the area, had the most Bollywood of escapes. “They were on their way back from Redwa in a Tata Magic when it got stuck in the sand,” said the relative. Little did they know that a PLFI team was lying in wait ahead. “When the vehicle stopped, the PLFI assumed they had been spotted. So they started firing. This gave Madan time to escape,” said the relative.
The district police’s technical cell, which tracks the rebels’ mobile phones, warn SPOs if a squad enters their area. “We are advised to avoid markets, fairs and public occasions,” said Dhaneshwar. The PLFI has taken a penchant for killing in public: it sends out a message.
According to Dhaneshwar, Madan should not have taken his vehicle to Redwa on Monday; he should have walked. Madan and Karampal had taken four labourers to the village in the morning to take firewood back to Banpur. They took their guns and Lalmohan along for protection.
The PLFI couldn’t have chosen a better ambush spot. “It is an incline with rocks on either side. Shots came in from three sides; the rocks enabled them to even fire on the roof of the vehicle,” said an officer of the State Auxiliary Police who examined the vehicle. Karampal, who was driving, was shot first.
Gumla’s Superintendent of Police Bheemsen Tuti refused to divulge the number of SPOs in his district. “It is a confidential figure. Also, since we also hire SPOs who work for the Special Branch, the numbers are not available,” he said. Tuti denied the existence of Shanti Sena, saying it was just an umbrella term used by villagers to describe people who fight LWE groups. “The funds to pay SPOs are released intermittently. When it comes, the SPOs will be paid,” he said.
Randeep Acharya, who used to run a network of SPOs in Khunti, where a Shanti Sena does not exist, has told The Indian Express that there were 380 men working under him at one point. He has since largely disassociated himself from the practice. “There must be 20 active SPOs in Khunti now,” he estimated in an interview given to this newspaper in July this year.
Those like Madan exist on the fringes of The Thin Blue Line, ensuring the blue doesn’t have to get its hands dirty by wading into the darkness. It really is a fine balance, though. Dhaneshwar, for example, does not blame Dinesh Gope — of his same caste — for his actions. “Do you think Dinesh gives these orders to kill?” he asks, shortly after claiming the PLFI Supremo led the attack on Madan. “These adivasi boys with him do stupid things. Then Dinesh has to go and do something about their mistakes,” Dhaneshwar reasoned.