The government in Chhattisgarh state opted for a softer approach to weaken the Maoist insurgency, but locals allege the police is forcing civilians to surrender as insurgents.
RAIPUR — In July 2020, as the Covid-19 lockdown eased off in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, police summoned 48-year-old Shyam (name changed), a resident of the Dantewada district, which has been a hotbed of deadly Maoist insurgency for several decades.
Shyam appeared in the police station the following day and much to his surprise, he found his name on the list of 1,600 men whom the police suspected of being the members of various Maoist insurgency groups.
He also recognised the names of several of his neighbours who lived in Gamawada panchayat, a village council, in the Dantewada district.
A few hours later, Shyam found himself standing in a row. A policeman gave him a white t-shirt with ‘Lon-Varratu’ written on its front.
Lon-Varratu means 'come back home' in the local Gondi dialect. It is a surrender policy launched by the government of Chhattisgarh state in June last year.
Starting off as a pilot project in the Dantewada district, Lon-Varratu offered a range of incentives to encourage Maoist insurgents to abandon their fight against the Indian government and clear their names from police records.
Many villagers from Dantewada district however allege that the police pressured them to surrender under the Lon-Varratu policy while they had never been involved in the insurgency.
"I neither helped Maoists nor took part in any such activities in my life, yet I was made to surrender as one,” Shyam told TRT World.
Shyam's village is nestled in one of the remote areas of Dantewada district, where villagers often cross paths with Maoist insurgents, who live in hideouts built in the nearby deep forests.
There are times, Shyam said, when the insurgents show up in his village to preach the "Naxal ideology", which is rooted in Marxist-Leninist thought of defeating capitalism and bringing a revolution in India through protracted guerrilla warfare.
India's Maoist insurgency originated in 1967 in a village named Naxalbari in West Bengal state, where peasants led an armed revolt against the powerful landlords who were backed by the Indian state. The event marked the beginning of the Naxalite movement, which spread in several other states and in the past few decades gained a foothold in the Chhattisgarh state.
Amnesty, but for who?
On April 3, Maoist insurgents ambushed Indian security forces, killing 22 of them in Chhattisgarh's Bijapur district.
Entrapping an entire battalion of the Indian paramilitary forces is the insurgent group's most demonstrable tactic.
In 2010, at least 300 Maoist insurgents encircled a convoy of the Indian paramilitary forces and gunned down 76 soldiers in a matter of a few hours. The macabre incident shook the entire nation since it revealed the sheer potency of the Maoist military machine.
For civilians who live in places like Dantewada, life comes with different kinds of challenges. Caught in the conflict, they say they have been victimised by both sides — the Maoist guerrillas as well as the Indian state.
Shyam became a suspect in the eyes of the police because he attended public meetings hosted by the Maoist guerrillas. If a villager refuses to participate in such meetings, he says, the guerrillas demand cash and subject them to the Taliban-style public lashings.
Sometime in 2015, Shyam missed one of the meetings because his mother-in-law was gravely ill. The guerrillas gave him a brutal public lashing. Humiliated and hurt, he tried to commit suicide by hanging himself by a tree, but survived because the branch could not carry his weight. He fell down, suffering minor injuries.
“I paid 5,000 rupees ($67) to dadas (Maoists) after I failed to kill myself. I sought their forgiveness and they forgave me,” he said.
Much like Shyam, another villager Subhash (name changed) claimed that police forced him to surrender irrespective of the fact that he was never part of any Maoist outfit.
“On the last week of July 2020, I was informed to reach Bhansi police station because my name is in the list of suspected Maoists,” said Subash.
Speaking to TRT World, Subash said the police gave him two options: either to surrender under the Lon-Varratu policy and clear his name or to continue to be under police investigation.
“Thinking of my family and to avoid further police harassment, I followed their instructions and gave thumb impressions. Later, they made me pose for a group photo with the SP (Superintendent of Police) and Collector (a magistrate),” he said.
TRT World reached out to Abhishek Pallav, Superintendent of Police in Dantewada district, to enquire about the amnesty policy and criticisms around it.
Pallav rejected the widespread allegation that the police were branding civilians as Maoists and forcing them to surrender under the Lon-Varratu scheme.
He said the list of suspects was prepared after a "thorough interrogation of captured Maoists and inputs from our informers."
“The police not only counsels them (the surrendered Maoists), but also helps them to get back to their normal life by offering jobs, aiding them to open shops, agriculture work etc,” Pallav said.
After the counselling sessions, Pallav said, the suspects have two options — either to go back to their villages or join the police force.
There is a cash reward for surrendered militants, too, according to Pallav. As per the policy, a Maoist insurgent gets $167 (10,000 rupees) after he calls it quits and lays down arms. The money comes from the district collector's office.
Every Superintendent of Police in each Maoist-hit district receives an unaudited fund for "informers and sources" and according to Pallav, the police department takes the liberty of giving another cash reward of $167 to a surrendered militant. In total, each capitulated rebel receives $334 (20,000 rupees).
Many surrendered militants, according to Pallav, refuse to take the money fearing the Maoist reprisal once they go back to their villages.
“This is the most transparent scheme to date and has gained much success in terms of reduced conflicts, deaths, injuries and the number of Maoist face-offs has decreased significantly,” Pallav added.
Out of 1,600 people, 320 have surrendered between June 2020 to February 2021 under the rehabilitation policy. Nearly 250 people have returned to their villages, while 70 have stayed back to work as police informers or to join the police force.
Between a rock and a hard place
Soni Sori, a school teacher-turned-social activist, who has been working for tribal rights for nearly a decade in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region refuses to believe the police's version, however.
“Lon-Varratu which was launched to transform lives of Maoists has become a tool of the police to score names for themselves by making the innocent villagers, farmers, informers surrender as Maoists,” Sori told TRT World.
Sori, who contested the 2014 Parliamentary elections, said: “There are dozens of examples where police put up the names of innocent villagers in the list. Those who are literate raise objections over it, but those who do not know about their names in the list were made to surrender, branding them as Maoist or Maoist connection,” she said.
The scheme has also drawn criticism for other allegations including custodial deaths, enforced surrenders and the misuse of public funds.
On February 19 this year, a 20-year-old Pandey Kawasi 'surrendered' under the policy, but four days later she allegedly committed suicide in police custody. The police in the Dantewada district claimed Kawasi was a member of the Chetna Natya Mandali, a cultural outfit of the Maoists, and had voluntarily surrendered under the Lon-Varratu policy.
Her mother, however, strongly denies her daughter's association with the Maoist movement. She instead accused the police of forcibly taking her daughter away and making her surrender.
“When police handed over the body, it bore marks of physical and sexual assault,” said the deceased girl's mother, Somdi Kawasi.
She filed a petition in the Chhattisgarh High Court, seeking an investigation into her daughter’s death.
To silence mounting criticism over Kawasi's custodial death, the police arrested a well-known tribal rights activist Hidme Markam, a day after International Women’s Day. She was accused of leading the area’s Janatana Sarkar, the village-level parallel government set by a banned communist party outfit.
Markam had gathered tribals in early March this year to protest against Kawasi's death in police custody.
Before her fellow activists could have responded, Markam was taken to Dantewada town, about 45-km away from her village named Sameli. She was presented before a magistrate, who sent her to Jagdalpur jail.
Chhattisgarh state is ruled by the Congress Party, which sits in the opposition in the Indian parliament. Between 2003 and 2018, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is currently ruling India at the federal level, governed the state with an iron fist.
To defeat the Maoist insurgency in the state, the BJP gave a free hand to a private militia named Salwa Judum, which remained active between 2005 and 2011 until the Supreme Court of India declared it an 'illegal' force. The court found Salwa Judum involved in setting tribal hamlets on fire, killing civilians and passing them off as the Maoist insurgents, and using rape as a tool of control.
Out of power in Chhattisgarh for 15 years, Congress won the 2018 state elections and came up with a different strategy to deal with the Maoists. The Lon-Varratu amnesty policy is a part of it.
But the reports of enforced surrenders have become a cause of concern for the party. Senior Congress leader Arvind Netam criticised his own government for failing to keep track of the police's handling of the policy.
“Every tribal above eight years is associated with some Naxal outfits in Bastar in the police’s view and they make them surrender,” Netam told TRT World.
“Police do not want to end Maoist insurgency in the region because it paves the way for siphoning funds from the Central as well as State government. Lon-Varratu is one such scheme. The budgets approved under such schemes go unaccounted and there is huge scope for the misuse of funds."
By keeping the Maoist insurgency issue alive, the police can justify staged gunfights and surrenders and receive promotions while the government can use the police's data on surrenders for its own PR campaign, he alleged.
"It’s true that villagers attend the mandatory meeting call by the Maoists or sometimes are forced to serve food to them at gunpoint, but it does not make them Maoists,” says Human Rights Activist, Himanshu Kumar, adding that the police publicises the surrender of poor people for their own promotion.
Jaya Kashyap, a former village head in Dantewada district, said the people in Maoist-dominated regions of Chattigrah are caught between a rock and a hard place.
“We tribals are voiceless in this endless fight between the security forces and the Maoists," Kashyap said.
"If we oppose either of them, there are chances we would be either killed or put behind the bars. It’s an endless vicious cycle and we are part of it.”
NOTE: The victims' names were changed for their safety.