On a late-February afternoon this year, 44 young women, dressed in khaki T-shirts and olive-green fatigues, sat in serried rows in an open-air classroom in Kanker, Chhattisgarh. They were newly recruited sub-inspectors of the Chhattisgarh Police, now in the last week of training at the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College. In their early twenties, and strikingly fit, the women sat ramrod straight and pokerfaced, listening attentively to the person whose presence had dominated the past six weeks of ceaseless instruction.
“Yeh toh commando ki factory hai,” Basant Kumar Ponwar, the director of the college, said—this is a factory for commandos. He stood trim, in polished black army boots. The military campaign ribbons on his chest provided the only flash of colour on impeccably creased camouflage fatigues. A former brigadier of the Indian Army, Ponwar now carries the civilian rank of an inspector general of police and runs the college, which he founded in 2005.
Strategically located at the northern tip of the troubled Bastar region, the college’s sprawling campus lies on the outskirts of Kanker town. The deeply forested Keshkal Ghats begin not far south of it, and beyond is a zone that is usually described by the government as Maoist “infested.” It’s a vast area, which covers what are today the seven southernmost districts of Chhattisgarh, and extends into the dense forests of Abhujhmad, a region that abuts neighbouring Maharashtra, as well as parts of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.
Every six weeks, the college puts around 400 trainees through a gruelling “jungle warfare module,” which is meant to prepare them for deployment in the decade-long war of attrition with the Maoists—the cadre of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). In ten years, the college has trained more than 30,000 men and women of the police, as well as others of the Border Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Central Industrial Security Force and the Sashastra Seema Bal.
“The government modernises the police, and we modernise the policeman,” Ponwar declared to his audience of what he unfailingly calls “lady commandos.” “We convert the policeman into a fighter. Am I right?”
“Yes, sir!” the women hollered back.
“I don’t differentiate between man and woman,” he said.
“Once I teach you to fire an AK-47 rifle, man or woman, 25 or 55, your bullet is not going to go any slower.”
The young sub-inspectors had spent that morning with visitors from the press, striking postures of fearless aggression for a photographer, and they looked tired but happy. For many of them, the new job and this course both offered a sense of liberation from their earlier lives. “We learnt to walk in the dark, that was the first thing,” one woman told me when I asked about the training. “As women, we were never allowed to walk in the dark,” she said. “But we’re not scared of the jungle anymore,” said another.
“Nothing is impossible,” a young commando said in fractured English towards the end of the meeting, a giggle on the edge of her voice. “Im-possible abh I-am possible ho gaya hai”—impossible has become I-am-possible.
When that morning’s pictures appeared in print a few weeks later, it was under the headline “Rambos ready for the Reds.” The title was provocative, suggesting that government troops had the upper hand in the fight. The reality is that the campaign to dislodge the Maoists and their armed wing, the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army, has already cost the lives of more than a thousand policemen and paramilitary soldiers. And, despite the deployment of an estimated 50,000 troops today, many of whom have been honed in the Jungle Warfare College, large swathes of Bastar remain under the Maoists’ sway. Government forces are largely contained in their highly secured camps, stepping out occasionally for patrols, and then too always in very large, visible numbers. The Maoists shelter in the forests, emerging only for sporadic attacks that assert their control.
Barely a month after the “lady commandos” graduated, the bravado was brutally punctured, as it frequently is. Over a week in mid April, 13 government soldiers were killed in three separate Maoist attacks. A patrol of the elite Special Task Force of the police was ambushed in Sukma district, with seven killed; a Border Security Force head constable was shot dead near a BSF post in Kanker district; and five men of the Chhattisgarh Armed Force were killed when their mine-protected vehicle, or MPV, was blown up near the town of Kirandul.
The attacks were part of the Maoists’ “tactical counteroffensive campaign,” timed for the onset of dry weather every year. “Maoists would like Chhattisgarh to be the Yan’an of India,” Prakash Singh, a former senior police officer warned in a commentary piece in the New Indian Express shortly afterwards, referring to the Chinese city that served as the fulcrum of the Chinese Revolution in the 1930s and 1940s. “The battle being fought in Chhattisgarh will decide the fate of the Maoist movement in India,” he wrote.
Early this May, Narendra Modi travelled to Chhattisgarh, on his first visit to the state since being sworn in as prime minister. Two “gifts” for Bastar were announced ahead of his arrival: an integrated steel plant at Dilmili, and the extension of the Rowghat–Jagdalpur railway to Dantewada. Both were aimed at speeding up the industrialisation of the region. The prime minister, the Times of India said, was “taking his Make in India battle cry to the war zone of Naxalite violence.”
The railway extension would allow the people of Bastar new opportunities in education, health and trade, the prime minister promised. The plant, meanwhile, would allow the region to reap the benefits of its mineral wealth. “We have been slow in processing our own iron ore,” Modi said in Dantewada on 9 May. “The time to export our iron ore is gone.” The state government signed memoranda of understanding worth R24,000 crore that day, for projects expected to create employment for 10,000 people.
There are major industrial projects underway in the Bastar region already, and they have had well-known consequences for its people. The most significant of these is the “mega” steel plant promoted by Tata Steel in Lohandiguda, on which work began in 2005 with an estimated total outlay of R19,500 crore; and, at Nagarnar, a “mega” steel plant promoted by the National Mineral Development Corporation, with an estimated outlay of R15,525 million, which is due for completion in 2016.
The Lohandiguda project was stalled in its early stages over the acquisition of land—2,000 hectares from ten villages. Around 20,000 people, mostly adivasis, stand to be affected. When villagers in the area first resisted the land acquisition—initially asking for no more than full information about the project, and the fulfilment of proper procedures—they became targets of furious repression. Protesters were brutally thrashed by the police, and there were reports of women being sexually assaulted.
Wary of the new projects planned for the region, locals protested ahead of Modi’s visit. “We will not part with our land. The land is our god,” Shibbu Madkam told NDTV in the days leading up to Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Dantewada. A local adivasi, Madkam was part of a padyatra, or protest march, under the banner of the Adivasi Mahasabha, led by the veteran Communist Party of India leader Manish Kunjam. “We have faith in forest, water and land,” Madkam said. “These trees are our god—how can we give it up?”
As if on cue, at the first murmurs of protest, a man named Chhavindra Karma announced in Dantewada that he would lead a counter-rally—a “peaceful march” through the villages of the area, to persuade adivasis to accept the government’s development programmes and reject the Maoists.
The launch of what Chhavindra Karma called the Vikas Sangharsh Samiti was an eerie reprise of a “peace march” of a decade ago. Chhavindra is the son of the late Mahendra Karma, the adivasi leader who launched the Salwa Judum in the summer of 2005. Official reports at the time described the Salwa Judum as an adivasi “uprising” against the Maoists, and a reaction to “Maoist oppression.” But it was not long before the Judum was exposed for what it was: a civilian vigilante group, created, armed and patronised directly by the state. Mahendra Karma, who led it from the front, was an elected legislator from the Congress party at the time, and was also known to have a comfortable relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Chhattisgarh.
From June 2005 onwards, disturbing reports trickled in of terrible excesses committed in the course of the Salwa Judum’s joint operations with security forces. In the crosshairs were organisations the Maoists had established and nurtured in the area over almost two decades. Entire villages were set on fire, and foodgrains, livestock and poultry were routinely destroyed. Killings and rape became common.
In less than five years of the Judum’s existence, 644 villages were razed to the ground. The number of people displaced was estimated at 350,000. Almost 47,000 adivasis were moved into overcrowded, unsanitary roadside camps, and another 40,000 fled across the state border, some into Andhra Pradesh and some into Odisha.
A grisly cycle of violence and counter-violence played out. The Salwa Judum sought to contain the dominance of the Maoists. The Maoists responded by escalating their attacks. That, in turn, was met with the launch of Operation Green Hunt, as the massive paramilitary operations that followed were called. With each oscillation in the conflict, the adivasis found themselves further ground down.
Brigadier Basant Kumar Ponwar arrived in Kanker in 2005, after a stint as commandant of the Indian Army’s Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School in Vairangte, in the north-eastern state of Mizoram. The Vairangte school had been helping the Chhattisgarh government out by training small batches of policemen at its campus. But that was an informal arrangement, Ponwar said, a response to a “friendly request” from the then governor of Chhattisgarh, Krishna Mohan Seth, a retired lieutenant general of the Indian Army and a veteran of its anti-insurgency operations in Nagaland.
The day after the highly decorated Ponwar retired from Vairangte he was on a plane to Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. A strategy had been put into motion by the government, he recalled with some admiration: “Let’s have one of our own, they said. After all, we’ve got everything. We have the jungle. We have the land. We have the people. And we have the problem.” The problem, of course, was the Maoist movement, which has its roots in the peasant uprising that broke out in the north Bengal village of Naxalbari in 1967. Its ideological offshoots include People’s War, the Telangana-based movement which crossed over into neighbouring Bastar in the early 1980s, and over the next twenty years established itself in the forested region traditionally called Dandakaranya.
When he arrived in Kanker, Ponwar’s first task was to shape the landscape to meet his vision. For many weeks, Ponwar trekked through the jungle in the surrounding hills, imagining endurance tracks, firing ranges, obstacle courses and campsites. “I had to go around like a sculptor who looks for rock surfaces,” he told me unselfconsciously, “to see on which rock he can make the statue of Jesus Christ, and on which he can make the statue of Hanuman.” For ten years now, he has personally supervised the building of the college, as bulldozers, tippers and excavators have pushed through the undergrowth and blasted away rock faces.
“Hu-ba-hu maidan-e-jang kay jaisay hee prashikshan kendra banana hai,” Ponwar recalled in a well-rehearsed introduction when I met him in late February—the training centre has to be just like a real battlefield. It has to have jungle terrain and very little population, and must be close to the actual theatre of battle. But “it had to be reasonably secure too,” he explained. “I can’t have Naxalites attacking my camp. If it had been in Dantewada or Jagdalpur”—where the threat of attack is more proximate—“that would have well happened. And I would have to confine myself to the indoors.” He turned around to a gigantic map that covered almost the entire wall of the presentation room at the college. “Whereas now I have a training area of 20 by 20,” he said, as his laser pointer carved out a massive square on the wall. “That’s almost 400 square kilometres.”
By September 2005, the first group of trainees had passed out of the college, wearing the qualification badge of the “commando”—three golden arrows crossed in an X. “That’s when blue corner started fighting back,” Ponwar said, using the boxing metaphors he much favours. The Jungle Warfare College also acquired a motto: “Fight the Guerilla, Like a Guerilla.”
Ponwar is particularly proud of the helipad he created by what amounted to beheading a hilltop. “Now they all want to use it,” he said with a satisfied grin. “During the elections they all wanted to land here, because the Naxalites were shooting at their helicopters, and they were worried.” The hilltop is almost a kilometre from the college’s secure perimeter, he pointed out, and so faces little danger from rifles or light machine guns. During last year’s election campaign it became the safest place around to land. “The bullet will just get tired, and fall somewhere there,” he gestured expansively. “And you can’t shoot down a helicopter with a tired bullet.”
“Hillocks are lovely things for firing ranges,” Ponwar said to me a little later, almost wistfully. We had stepped out of his four-wheel-drive Gypsy to take in the view of a horseshoe-shaped range from atop a plateau. “Twenty-four commandos can come, cross the water obstacle there,” he said. “Targets will come up from all around, here, there, here, there,” he continued rapidly. “And he fires and fires and fires, improving his reflexes. This whole counter-terrorism warfare is a two- to three-second battle. You have to be very quick in your reflexes—half-a-second response.”
“That’s going to be an ALG”—an advanced landing ground, for small aircraft—Ponwar shouted over the sound of the Gypsy, as we once again bumped over rough ground on my guided tour of new developments at the campus. We moved along a “confined canal,” a kilometre-long water-body that begins and ends within the college’s grounds. A hundred feet wide, it was being readied for commandos. To make it deep enough to train in, it had been dug 18 feet deep. The excavated earth was used to lay the ground for a short runway running parallel to the canal. “The ALG will eventually be 1,800 metres,” Ponwar said. “I’m getting some more land there. Then even the home minister’s jet may be able to touch down.”
We drove close to the perimeter fence, and beyond lay agricultural fields, bright green with young wheat. A little further away I could see Gadh Pichwadi, one of the 64 villages around the campus, to which the college lays some claim. That’s the 400 square kilometres where the commandos train, patrolling it with the intent to “dominate.”
When the college first took over this area, Ponwar said, and the bulldozers and excavators arrived, people from Gadh Pichwadi (“pichwadi” means backward) and other nearby villages came to him. “We come here to do potty, they said, and you’re taking over our land,” he told me. “This is broken land, why do you want it?”
“Exactly, because it’s broken I want it! Broken land is gold for my training,” Ponwar recalled replying.
Once the land was taken over, Ponwar said, “the villagers were very satisfied, because they got tremendous amount of compensation. I had villagers coming to me and saying, sahib, take my land also. All their boys got new bikes, so they were happy. Paisa mil gaya, they got money. Public toilets were made for them.”
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