Raipur,Parivesh Mishra (FIRSTPOST): Villages in Bastar are quiet and tranquil in the evenings. People go to bed early and all activity ceases a few hours into darkness. Friday was not normal though. There was an undercurrent of tension in Marenga and nearby villages, Tikanpal, Tahakwada, Junapanli and Litiras, all located in a radius of about three km from Chhindgarh block of Sukma district. This cluster of villages is situated at a distance of one-and-a half km from the police station at Tongpal.
Vehicles at the site of Maoists' ambush on Sunday in Bastar where the Congress party's Parivartan Yatra was attacked . PTI
It all began at 10.30 pm. Marenga was the first to be targeted by the Maoists. Dhameshwar Kashyap of Patelpali part of the village tried to recall the sequence of events to Devsharan Tiwary, the Bastar Bureau chief of Deshbandhu, the Hindi daily from Raipur thus: "They came in a strength of around 500 and started banging at each and every door in the village. When I refused to open mine they broke open the door with the rifle butts. The villagers including women and children were taken out of homes and thrashed mercilessly before being herded into the forest. Those that marched off included the sarpanch of Marenga Panchayat Mahadai and the village Patel Maniram Nag. The same was repeated in other villages.
“After making us walk for some distance, we were made to sit in the forest where the next day the enactment of a ‘Jan Adalat’ took place to identify and punish those responsible for allowing the reconstruction of a bridge."
This is where the back story begins. The river Baru zigzags and intersects these villages. A bridge was built over this river over a year back. The bridge not only connected these villages but also made access possible for the police search parties. It was blown off by the Maoists. The villages were threatened against allowing reconstruction. The threats increased when the reconstruction work started a month back under ‘police protection’.
Police protection, however, did not have much meaning for the villagers here. Tongpal police station, near the border between Sukma and Bastar districts, has been in news often. This place has witnessed ambush of the CRPF petrol in March 2014 by Maoists near Tahakwada. 16 people including 11 from the CRPF and 4 from the district police were killed in this incident in which the patrol was trapped and struck by heavy firing and landmine blasts. The encounter had lasted for over three hours near a road construction site.
This happened in March last year. A truck, in another incident was burnt by the Maoists in front of the Tongpal police station in another incident. The fact that the police chose not come out of the heavily secured police station did not add to the confidence of the people of the area. This place is some 15 km from the spot where the Maoists had carried out the attack on the convoy of Congress leaders killing their state president and others, two years ago.
The reconstruction was taken up with the active assistance of the villagers. A fact not liked and approved of by the Maoists who made their displeasure known more than sternly. The threat was overlooked and the price was paid on Friday night.
Dhameshwar, however, did not witness the “court proceedings’ as, taking advantage of the darkness, he managed to escape with his six-year-old daughter in arms leaving his wife Sukal Dai and sister Sukri behind at the mercy of the Maoists. In the dark and the melee no one is sure of the number of people who were taken hostage. Devsharan Tiwary, after talking to those who returned, puts the figure at 500. According to Kawasi Lakhma, the Congress MLA from Konta in Sukma district, the number is 1200. The police, not surprisingly, have no clue at all. D Shravan, IPS the police superintendent of Sukma is on record having admitted this much.
The ‘court’ pronounced Sadaram Nag guilty. Sadaram was the brother of the village Patel Maniram and was responsible for the work of the ‘Munshi’ at the construction site. He was beaten to death on the ‘court premises’ after extracting a ‘promise’ from others that they would not co-operate in the construction in future. The rest - tired, hungry, bruised, and exhausted mentally and physically - were allowed to return to their villages around 8.30 Saturday night.
The official version lasting till the prime minister left the district was that there was a dispute between a couple of people and the other villagers had gone there to sort it out. The police made no apparent or claimed attempt to reach the villages or to become a part of the negotiations. The Chief Minister, Raman Singh, immediately after the PM flew off, confirmed the abduction, which everyone else by then had come to know of.
Kawasi Lakhma points out to the sad co-incidence that the whole tragic drama lasted for almost 22 hours on a day when 10,000 policemen were deployed in Bastar to ensure that Narendra Modi’s visit goes off peacefully. After Rajiv Gandhi, he was the first prime minister to visit Bastar region of the Maoist-troubled region of Chhattisgarh and the police had to be extra vigilant.
The deployment was intense in the three southern districts – Sukma, Dantewada and Bijapur. Drones were in place. Air force put in a few more helicopters for improved monitoring. Yet, nearly a thousand Maoists managed to storm a cluster of five villages in Sukma district a day before the visit, rounded up an equal number of villagers and took them to the forest and held them hostage for 22 hours.