Our third hour in Naxal area. For us city-dwellers, this night is unlike any other we have seen. The darkness is near total. The disorientation frightening. In this nowhere land we wait for our contact. Outside a tribal hut.
A kerosene lamp hangs in the doorway. Its small circle only adds to the darkness. But there's enough light to see each other.
We are four. R, a short, stocky middle-aged hack, is from a Marathi newspaper. G and H, like me, come from Bombay and represent the national press.
My glow-watch reports 2030 hours. The journey from Nagpur, I realise, has taken more than six-and-a-half hours. "Tum baith ke rahena," ("Just wait") consoles the villager whose hut and light are keeping us anchored in this wilderness. Another helpful soul, who met us on the road to the village, borrows H's pen-torch and disappears into the night, looking for our contact, I presume. He has been our only guide thus far.
The owner of the hut, I will call him X, is in G's words "piss drunk". He takes G aside, ostensibly to establish our identity, and in the process tries to extract money.
"Is there a chance we've missed the contact?" H wonders.
"No, we are early." G is confident. "This man is not the key person. His job is only to make us wait. Anyway, he is too drunk to be of any help to anyone. Luckily, our guide seems to know what he's doing."
Twenty minutes go by as we wait for the uncertain to take shape. I revise my backgrounder on the outlaws I am to meet:
I am here to gather material for an article on the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People's War. The revolutionary party made famous by the media as the People's War Group. But those closer to their reality prefer an austere PW.
The genesis of PW can be traced to Comrade Charu Mazumdar, once of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, and the 1967 uprising of peasants against landlords in Naxalbari, a remote village in North Bengal.
Two years after that first fight against feudalism, the revolutionaries in the CPI-M broke away to establish the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) that has its ideology rooted in the Maoist school.
The movement, by now dubbed Naxal after the village where it all began, spread like wildfire through the campuses of West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Bombay and Delhi, sucking in thousands of students and youth, mainly from the middle class. By 1969, the CPI-ML was operating guerrilla squads in many rural areas of AP, UP and Bengal.
So much so that the central government had to move in paramilitary forces by October 1969.
In 1972, Mazumdar, who by then was the most wanted Naxal, was arrested by the police. Following his death in custody, the movement was thrown into disarray.
Out of this emerged the People's War.
The PW's agenda, like that of most communist parties, is to establish a classless society. The group, which is a banned organisation today, believes that the way to power is by winning over the rural folks.
It has, in the last decade, established two guerrilla zones, an area where neither the state nor the outlaws have complete control: North Telengana in Andhra Pradesh and Dandakaranya (click for map), or DK, which includes parts of Maharashtra, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.
The guide returns. Our contact is waiting at some other place. For the time being, our luggage is to remain near the hut. We set off in a single file along a mud-path bathed in the stench of cow-dung. Barking dogs mark our progress for 10 minutes.
Then appears another hut. Suddenly a piercing beam of light blinds us more than the night could. The party freezes in its tracks.
The guide picks our names. Next, he is behind the light, whispering into the torch-shiner's ear. A satisfied click turns off the torch and my straining eyes make first contact with a PW guerrilla.
He is a slight man, this one. When he signed up, the PW called him Ganesh, put him in olives and slung a .303 over his shoulder. For the next few hours, we will put our lives in his hands. There are two outlaws with Ganesh. He dispatches one to watch the road and asks our names once again.
"Karan ne beja hai (Karan has sent us)," he proclaims after double-checking our identities. "Let's talk."
Karan, I know from past discussions, is the secretary of the Gadchiroli Division. He's also one of the seven members of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee.
DK, once it was declared a full-fledged guerrilla zone, was granted the status of a state by the party. Its special zonal committee is directly responsible to the 12-member central committee, the PW's apex body.
Ganesh places a cot in the open, away from the hut. We sit huddled together and the outlaw produces a sealed letter that he hands over to G. It's from Karan, asking us to come with his men. He would meet us the next day.
"We will have to go on foot from here," Ganesh says, "It's a two-and-a-half-hour march."
G asks him whether we can stay the night and set off early in the morning. Ganesh says no. They have been waiting in the village since morning. "We have to leave now," he insists. "It is not safe to stay any longer."
We collect our backpacks and return to where Ganesh is waiting. X, who has been watching the proceeding, gets into his drunken brain that we are being kidnapped and need rescuing.
He rushes to Ganesh, telling him not to take us, that it would give him, X, a bad name. The outlaw assures him that we are willing travellers and he must not worry.
We are to move directly into the jungles, which are very close, and join up with two others in Ganesh's gang. Then we double our tracks and cross the same road that has brought us to the village at a higher point. It's 2200 hours.
We walk in a single file. Ganesh and a couple of villagers show the way. R falls in. He's followed by G and then H. I begin the tail with the other PW men bringing up the rear. H has his pen-torch out but all I can see is his jeans-clad legs. I make sure that I follow in his footsteps, literally!
It is a bit unreal, this whole atmosphere. Here we are, four city-breds, in the jungles, moving in darkness, not talking, making as little sound as we can, bar the eerie owl screech which Ganesh uses to communicate. In our minds, the fear of a police encounter lurks to the fore...
There's the smell of rain in the air. Far away, the heavens rumble. But Ganesh is keeping up a grim pace. We are sweating profusely. My backpack is beginning to weigh a ton. I had thought I was pretty fit but this trek is proving me wrong. No stamina, I tell myself miserably, and keep plodding on.
Twenty-five minutes later our eyes pick up a small fire. "Lal salaam," (Red Salute) comes a greeting from the general direction of the camp. This is Vishwanath, who, I am to find out, is the deputy commander of the Ahiri dal, or dalam, meaning squad.
We halt. Ganesh tells us there's mutton for dinner. The mutton, it turns out, is a euphemism for lizard meat. Ghorpad is a massive lizard famous for its fantastic grip on rock faces. In fact, legend has it that Shivaji's troops tied a rope around it to scale the walls of the impenetrable Pratapgarh Fort.
Ghorpad is a delicacy that the tribals in these parts greet honoured visitors with. I am not fond of lizards for dinner, but, surprisingly, it turns out to be the tastiest, tenderest meat I have ever had!
It is 2247 hours. Dinner over, we are made to fall in once again and pick up the trek we had abandoned. There are no visible tracks but the villagers seem to know the way. They take us over two dry streams, a couple of hillocks and countless fallen trees till we reach a tarred road. Here the villagers take leave. Now there are nine of us. Re-entering the jungles across the road I find myself on a forest trail, one of the many that are used to transport bamboo from the woods.
Another 20-minute march and Vishwanath, who's now in command, calls for a halt. I lower my backpack and take a few grateful swigs from somebody's waterbag. "Life in the jungles is like this, bhaiyya (brother)," one of the outlaws smiles. "Thoda takleef to hota hai!" (There's bound to be some discomfort) he taunts.
Seeing our sweat-streaked, tired faces, Vishwanath finally calls it a night. We will move another 10 minutes into the jungles before we sleep, he announces. We lug our backpacks and stumble on in the darkness to the left of the road. A little later, the guerrillas stop at a clearing. Plastic sheets are unrolled and spread on the ground. This is where we will sleep tonight.
No sooner do we sit down than an army of mosquitoes descends on us. These are nothing like those I have fought in Bombay. The country cousins are a bloodthirsty mob. Probably tasting urban blood for the first time, their attack is unrelenting. H dives for his Odomos repellent cream that all of us hurriedly apply on every inch of our exposed skin.
Vishwanath has, meanwhile, arranged for a sentry. The outlaws take the duty in turns of normally an hour and a half in the night and two hours in the day. We sleep, sticky and sweating and continuously at the mercy of mosquitoes a little before 2400 hours.
Page design: Dominic Xavier
|DAY 2: They shoot first; ask questions later|
|DAY 3: Women make better guerrillas than men|
|DAY 4: We will meet again. If I live...|