Karan and Arjun are not their real names. But the names have a star value. For the anti-Naxal security forces in this part of Chhattisgarh,Karan and Arjun are stars in their own right.
The two boys barely out of their teens are prize possessions of the police in the Manpur block of Rajnandgaon district. Both boys were once platoon commanders of the Naxalites; they are now Special Police Officers or SPOs,and live inside the police station.
Karan and Arjun assist the police in hunting down their former Maoist colleagues. They accompany police teams on anti-Naxal operations and help with information on the usual routes and hideouts of the rebels.
Their new names are part of the polices efforts to protect their identities from the Maoists and their sympathisers in the area. Both of them say they like their new names.
Protecting their identities is very important. If the Naxalites get to know who they are,they will harass,and probably even kill,their family members who are in their villages, says Hemprakash Naik,in charge of the main police station in Manpur. Needless to say,Karan and Arjun cannot be photographed.
But their identity is probably the least that these boys,and several SPOs like them,have lost in the battle between the Naxalites and the security forces. Caught in the crossfire,these people belonging to villages in which Maoists have some influence have served both sides,mostly reluctantly,and are,sadly,mistrusted by both.
So the lives of Karan and Arjun are restricted within the premises of the police station,where they live in small tents. Both are married,and have brought their wives to live with them,but not all SPOs are as fortunate. Most of these men have been living away from their families,wives and children for several months now. They cannot step out of the compound except in the company of policemen.
Jantua not all of them have been given fancy names like Karan or Arjun learnt a few days back that his eldest daughter he has five children had been very sick and had to skip her Class 6 examinations. The news travelled through some people from his village who had come to Manpur market. Jantua,whose only association with the Naxalites had been to cook and carry food for them when they came to his village,wanted to visit his daughter he hasnt seen her for five months now but was reminded of the huge risk. He restrained himself.
For the government,the SPOs are living proof that the Naxalites lack popular backing in the villagers,that the local support for them owes more to fear than to sympathy,and that given the choice,ordinary people would definitely side with the police in this battle.
They have all come here of their free will,though their routes have been different. They did not want to surrender,because the Naxalites would then have gotten after their families. So they sent out hints through intermediaries that they were willing to be arrested at a certain location. We then went and arrested them, says Naik,a well-regarded police officer.
Suggans case was different. His father handed him over to the police four months ago after he ran away from the Naxalites because he thought Suggan would be safe there.
I was made to carry heavy weights for endless distances by the Naxalites. I would be out with them for days,and guide them through forests in our area. When I got an opportunity,I ran away,back to my house. But my father feared the Naxalites would kill me. Besides,my name was already on the wanted list of the police. He thought I would be safer in the company of the police, says Suggan.
Like Suggan,most SPOs have only worked as porters or cooks for the Naxals,and done other menial jobs,mostly under duress. Karan and Arjun,however,held ranks in the Maoist hierarchy,and fought the police.
Only once, says Karan. And I did not kill any policeman.
Yet,there is almost a sense of pride when Karan talks about the days when he commanded a group of 30 youngsters. Were there any girls under his command?
Yes, he says with a smile. He had an AK-47 and the glamorous designation of platoon commander. I was the leader,the boss, he says.
Then why did he switch sides?
Karan says he realized the futility of this war. When I was fighting the police I realized how close I was to getting killed. I could have been dead any day,any moment. So he got his arrest stage-managed.
Arjun,hailing from a neighbouring village and,like Karan,also a platoon commander,switched over a few days later. But he was the rare case who decided to actually surrender to the police.
Isnt the fear of getting killed still there? Yes,but not that much, says Arjun,with confidence.
What Arjun and Karan and all the rest are less confident about is the future. How long they are going to remain with the police,and what their status would be once the war is over. The state government has said it has plans to rehabilitate all of them. As SPOs,they get a monthly stipend of about Rs 2,100. Some are likely to be absorbed as regular employees in the police.
So is the idea of working full-time with the police exciting?
I dont know, says Sohan,another SPO who was supposed to get married this year. Maybe I would like to return to my village and my family first.