At 8.15 pm on August 12, a private bus carrying six passengers and the driver was making its usual 6-km journey from the district headquarters of Narayanpur to Kondagaon. Near Kakodi, two men signalled it to stop.
The men then climbed in, threatened the driver, switched off all lights and asked the passengers to get off the vehicle. They had weapons and the passengers believed they were Maoists.
They gave them their mobile phones and whatever money they had. The two men then sprinkled petrol on the bus and set it on fire.
Most believed it to be a case of Maoist arson, not unusual in Bastar. The police have now arrested three men in connection with the incident while a fourth is on the run.
Two of them are police personnel and one is a former policeman.
Narayanpur SP Mohit Garg told The Indian Express that such incidents had taken place earlier. But on this occasion, he said, police immediately tracked the looted phones, leading to the arrests. “On Monday night, they torched the bus. I immediately formed a team and went there. They had looted some mobile phones. We started tracking them down and found two locations in Kondagaon. We zeroed in to them and found three people,” Garg said.
“The accused tried to make it look like Naxals had done it. They have done this before. They have looted people in the garb of Maoists in at least seven-eight places in different parts of Bastar. We have recovered two air pistols from them. Obviously, people could not make out that these were air pistols,” the SP said.
The three arrested have been identified as Madhav Kuldeep and Hirdu Kumeti, who are with Kondagaon police, and Dholendra Baghel. Omkar Kureti, a former Gopniya Sainik of Kondagaon Police, is on the run. Gopniya Sainiks are informers of state police who are often absorbed into the force as constables.
“One of them is a suspended constable, who came out of prison on bail less than a month ago after he was arrested under sections of cheating. The other constable also has some departmental cases and was absentee from work for the last one month. The third accused is a brother of one of these two and the fourth, who is absconding, is a former Gopniya Sainik,” he said.
Senior police officers said that several recent incidents across the districts of Bastar region had a modus operandi similar to the one employed by Maoists, but had some key differences.
“I have been in Bastar for the last three years. Naxalites do not generally loot like this. They beat people up, murder people, torch buses but they don’t do this. In previous cases, these people were asking for Rs 5-7 lakh. This was unusual. They would tell people they accosted, like drivers of pick-ups, that they were Maoists, and have taken a hit during demonetisation. Then they would point guns at them, so whatever money poor people would have they would give,” Garg said.
Senior police officers said they had recovered cash worth around Rs 40,000, two air pistols, mobile phones, multiple sim cards, raincoats and combat fatigues.
“We also found a material for a cooker bomb from Madhav, who has been absent from work for the last month. They had become constables from Gopniya Sainiks. Madhav, who was the brains behind the operation, would plant IEDs and then recover and diffuse them to gain praise from senior officials,” Garg said.
Cases have been registered under sections of arson and loot and the Arms Act and further investigation is underway.