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Guns and roses

Every time there was a knock at the door, Aswati Dorje would reach out for her gun. The Indian Police Service (IPS) officer who was once in the thick of anti-Naxalite operations spent considerable time target practising. “The AK-47 was my constant companion,” says the former superintendent of police (SP), anti-naxal operations, Nagpur, and assistant superintendent of police (ASP), Gadchiroli, Maharashtra.

Aswati, who is filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s daughter, and her husband Chhering Dorje, a strapping young IPS officer, have had their share of living dangerously. Chhering was posted to Jammu and Kashmir and the Naxalite zones in Maharashtra for several years. But nothing prepared him for the ordeal that he faced when he went back to Gadchiroli, where he was posted as an ASP, after a deputation in Nashik during the Kumbh Mela in August 2003. He returned to find that five commandos had been blasted to death by Maoists in Etapally in Gadchiroli.

“I knew all the boys personally and we worked together,” says Chhering. “All of them were young and their wives were either pregnant or had small babies in their arms,” he recalls.

On Tuesday, 26 members of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were killed in an alleged Maoist attack in Bastar in Chhattisgarh. The death of security forces would once again act as a grim reminder to the Dorjes — now deputy commissioners of police in Mumbai — what the operation against Maoists in large swathes of India entails. In a movement that seeks to annihilate the “class enemy”, the first in the Maoists’ line of fire are policemen and other security forces.

And statistics show that the number of security forces killed by Maoists has been increasing. If 121 security personnel were killed in Chhattisgarh in 2009, 130 have already been killed in the first half of the year. In Maharashtra 52 men were killed by Naxalites in 2009 while 67 died in Jharkhand. Bihar had 25 casualties and Orissa 31. In West Bengal, where 11 security men were killed last year, 32 have died in the first half of the year in Maoist attacks.

“When we join the police force, we are obviously aware of the fact that we are taking up a profession that involves perilous tasks,” reasons Praveen Tripathi, SP, Jhargram, West Midnapore, West Bengal. “We are pretty clear about the kind of danger we face in the jungle areas or what is known as Jungle Mahal these days. And the police are ready to face any kind of threat.”

For the police officers, these postings can be traumatic. On the one hand, many senior cops feel the pain of fighting poor tribesmen who are often in the ranks of the Maoists. But the death of colleagues and juniors — to say nothing of the danger to their lives — reminds them over and over again how real the battle is.

In some cases, the police have their hands tied. It takes them a while to know the terrain, and more often than not the locals are hostile. To top it, the forces are not adequately armed or trained either. On April 6, when the CRPF lost 76 of its men in an ambush by Maoists in Chhattisgarh, there was widespread outcry about how ill-equipped the security forces were.

In contrast, the home ministry assessed in a report five years ago that the Naxalites had increased their strike power and influence. According to the ministry, the movement had a cadre of 9,300 hardcore underground militants. “They hold around 6,500 regular weapons besides a large number of unlicensed country-made arms,” said the ministry. Their weapons and gadgets include Kalashnikov rifles and Claymore landmines, modern wireless equipment and electronic gadgets.

But this doesn’t deter the unsung heroes. And curiously, many of the top cops in Naxal-hit areas seek to fight the rebels not with arms, but by reaching out to tribals, a majority of whom they believe would have been drawn into the Naxalite movement mainly because of sheer poverty.

Way back in 1991, when officer Hemant Karkare — killed by militants two years ago in Mumbai — was posted to Chandrapur, then a hotbed of Naxal activity in Maharashtra, he preferred to work for socio-economic changes in the area to counter the Naxalite argument that the government did nothing for the poor.

He told The Telegraph in an interview before his death how he held meetings with villagers and convinced them that blowing up roads would harm rather than help them. How would they carry sick people to the hospital, he asked. He also helped tribal boys join the police force. When Karkare, who used to read the works of Mao to counter the rebels, left Chandrapur he had managed to reduce the Naxalite presence considerably in the region.

“The Naxals keep looking for fault lines in society. Once they find issues they marry them with their cause,” Karkare said. “Since the poor cannot discern motives, they end up believing the Naxals.”

Aswati Dorje’s aim too was to change minds. She was once in a remote village called Devdha in Maharashtra. A youth had killed a man suspected of being a police informer and was in hiding. She met the boy’s mother and wife and offered biscuits to the accused’s six-year-old child. That night she camped at a distance of 12km from the village in a rural outpost. Earlier in the day she had spoken to the village chief about the problems the people faced. The villagers said they wanted borewells and in return they promised they would get 12 village boys from a Naxal outfit to surrender. The next day the village chief gave her another surprise — he got the murder-accused to surrender.

For Aswati, it was a major step forward because the village was considered “anti-police” and had 13 boys in the Maoists’ militant ranks. Later she ensured that the villagers got their borewells.

In Maharashtra, many police officers have tried to combat Naxalism by combining stringent policing with what they call a humane approach. Chhering Dorje, who spent five and a half years in Gondia, Gadchiroli and Chandrapur, says the police used to conduct pre-recruitment training among the tribals. “We selected 28 boys in Chandrapur for the police force,” he says.

He would regularly organise health camps, tournaments and meetings and deal with people’s grievances. If the villagers complained about lack of teachers or non-availability of seeds, Dorje would communicate the problems to the respective departments and get the job done.

A cop’s job in such troubled areas, clearly, is not only about policing. When villagers complain about not getting their old-age pension, about difficulties in getting an irrigation pond dug or about not having access to proper roads, SP Manoj Verma steps in. “We move quickly to ensure that the work is done,” he says.

Verma, who has been in West Midnapore — another area besieged by Maoists — since February last year, also hopes to bring about a transformation in the people’s mindset by discussing and resolving their problems. He has been interacting with administrative departments to effect changes in his jurisdiction.

Sometimes, though, the efforts backfire. The Dorjes remember a particular incident. A jan jagran mela — where villagers and administration representatives as well as the police from a particular area gather — was being held in Gadchiroli. This was an exercise that was particularly popular with the people, because it gave them a platform to air their grievances, which the administration had to address.

Aswati saw Chhering talking to a young boy at the mela and went up to them. Chhering introduced her to the boy, who was a local villager. The boy told them that he hoped to leave the village and go to nearby Chandrapur to look for work — and carve a life for himself. The boy then shook hands with the two police officers and left.

A few days later, his dead body was found. Informers among the villagers had told the Maoists that the boy had been talking to the police — and he was killed as a warning to the others who were responding to the state’s friendly overtures. “His death affected me very badly,” says Aswati.

Despite such incidents, the cops carry on with their battle — and some stress that the adrenalin keeps them going. “I would rather work here than anywhere else,” says Verma, who recently nabbed eight Maoists in Duli village and is now hunting for Maoist leader Kishenji. “For me working here is a passion. It is a big challenge. I have to take this to its logical end.”

Verma says that fighting the “unknown” is a problem. “Sometimes you have to make a split second decision. Is that innocent looking person a Naxal? Is he carrying a weapon? For both, the police and the person on the other end, it is a question of life and death. If we are late by a few seconds in judging, perhaps we will die and if we judge wrongly, some innocent life could be lost. So we need policemen who have to be fit mentally and physically.”

Some of the cops in the troubled areas believe that the hold of the Naxalites over the people is slipping. “Naxalism is thriving not because the people support it but because of the fear of the gun,” says Chhering.

Verma, in fact, is convinced that the battle against the Naxalites is bearing fruit. “Until November 2008 the Maoists would gather 30,000 people on the beat of a drum. But now the people come in support of the Maoists only at gunpoint. That is a very visible change and I am very happy about it,” he says. In a region where death stalks, even a thin glimmer of light is a sign of hope.

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