The Telegraph
 
CIMA Gallary

Why they won’t vote today: A hamlet that’s off Bihar’s map for 27 years

Surviving after taking a bullet in the head should give you a philosophical outlook on life. But Tapsi Yadav, 67, blows a gasket as soon as he hears the question.

“The police say this village boycotts every election. Why is that?” The Telegraph had asked innocently.

Aap to pagal aadmi hain (You must be daft)!” Tapsi explodes in a shower of expletives. “How can we vote if we are not on the voters’ list? Find out… we are treated neither as citizens nor as voters.”

Chhotki Chhechhani has no votes, no roads, no hospitals, no electricity, no administration. No election campaigner has visited this settlement of 40 Yadav families in Aurangabad’s Madanpur block, 160km south of Patna.

No chief minister — not even Yadav “messiah” Lalu Prasad — has set foot here for almost three decades.

Time forgot Chhotki Chhechhani after the bloody morning of April 17, 1987, when 200 and odd Rajputs from nearby Anjan raided it with guns and kerosene cans.

Local history remembers that day’s bloodletting as the trigger for years of war between the upper caste landlords and the Maoist-backed backward castes across Aurangabad and neighbouring Gaya, Jehanabad and Arwal.

Naurani Devi, now 100 years old, remembers it too: her husband Musafir Yadav, daughter-in-law Sheela Devi and a three-year-old grandson were among the seven people butchered. Tapsi was a shade luckier.

The retaliation took just six weeks. At Baghaura-Dalelchak, a village of Rajputs barely 5km away, hundreds of armed guerrillas mowed down 54 men, women and children on May 29, 1987. Then followed Shankarbigha, Narayanpur, Bara, Senari, Laxmanpur Bathe… milestones in a history of mayhem that claimed 368 people in the 1990s.

All this is burnt into Bihar’s memory, but the village where it started seems to have fallen off its map.

“Seven chief ministers have ruled Bihar since then; the Grand Trunk Road has added several lanes; Aurangabad town (30km away) is dotted with new hotels. But we are still trapped in 1987,” said Vijay Yadav, a relatively articulate 36-year-old among mostly illiterate, rough-tongued people.

‘Maoist’ tag

Soon after the massacre, a few angry young villagers had bombed the local police picket. Since then, Chhotki Chhechhani has been a “guerrilla zone” in the government’s book.

No one, therefore, comes to the village to enrol voters. Officials claim the Maoists don’t allow the government to function here and that the villagers “boycott” all elections.

Even the CRPF, deployed in the “Maoist” belt, keeps watch from the safe distance of Raniganj town, 7km away. But skirmishes with the rebels keep taking place in the area, and often the security forces come visiting in their aftermath.

Satendra Yadav’s memories of the April assailants who killed his father Raghuraj are hazy — he was barely nine then — but he remembers seeing several groups of raiders at the village since then.

“The only outsiders I remember seeing since I grew older were armed policemen raiding my home and looking for guns,” the 36-year-old said.

“In 10 night raids on my home they have not recovered even a knife but they keep coming. Other than the police, no one ever comes here.”

During every raid, the cops take away a few villagers, says Satender’s friend Vijay. None has so far been convicted but at least 12 young men from the village are in various jails as undertrials.

“They treat us like criminals. They invariably come at night breaking into our huts and houses, abusing us, catching us and sending us to jail,” Vijay said.

He adds: “We have no way out other than dealing with them the way they deal with us.”

It’s the only hint any resident of Chhotki Chhechhani would drop about the village’s Maoist links.

Nowhere land

One can reach Chhotki Chhechhani only on foot, walking on rough, winding pagdandis (footpaths) covered in thorny bushes.

Asked about the route, a group of CRPF troops, their buses parked by a roadside school at Raniganj, grew visibly alert.

“Don’t go to that village; it’s a dangerous place. You may encounter landmines or gunshots coming from the huts. Dreaded criminals and shooters live in these areas,” a jawan warned.

A mud road, full of craters and impossible to drive on during the rains, branches off Grand Trunk Road near Raniganj and takes you to Bisunpur. From there it’s a 45-minute walk along the pagdandi to Chhotki Chhechhani.

What The Telegraph encounters at the village are not gun-toting criminals but affable residents and an offer of sattu dissolved in water and salt.

“We are very happy to see you. No one visits us. Please stay the night; we’ll sing to entertain you,” Vijay said.

At night, the tales of poverty and discrimination pour out. There’s not a single graduate among the villagers, who raise cattle and grow paddy, wheat, onions, potatoes, lentils, mustard oil — everything needed to keep the home fire burning.

They don’t step out, even to migrate for work elsewhere, for fear of arrest by the police.

“We don’t know the meaning of a BPL (below poverty line) card or old-age pension,” says Radhe Yadav, 80, whose daughter-in-law Shanti Devi was slaughtered by the 1987 marauders.

The only visitors apart from the police are the government teachers attached to the middle school that stands in the village, but they don’t come regularly. This correspondent saw children playing with marbles in the school courtyard — the teachers had played truant on a Wednesday.

Moonlit nights

Poverty and exploitation, however, has been a permanent feature of Aurangabad’s history. The area was once known as “Chittorgarh” — after the legendary medieval Rajasthan kingdom — because of its feudal society, headed by Rajput landlords who forced the backward castes to work on their farms and at their homes at low wages.

It was the Maoists’ efforts to organise the lower castes that led to the 1987 attack. The only political leader to visit the village since then was the then chief minister, Bindeshwari Dubey.

None of Dubey’s successors — Bhagwat Jha Azad, Satyendra Narayan Sinha, Jagannath Mishra, Lalu Prasad, Rabri Devi and now Nitish Kumar — have ever dropped by, probably because of security concerns.

The other carnage sites are better off — Laxmanpur Bathe, for instance, has a proper road, a school, a health centre and electricity. Chhotki Chhechhani has just seven stone memorials in its southern corner, the names of its “martyrs” etched on them in fading letters.

Humke pata na ho hum kahela jeet hi, moonh mara ei jindagi se (I don’t know why I am still alive; damn this life)!” Naurani, the centenarian, wails in the local Magadhi dialect.

Vijay laughs mirthlessly as he recalls the standard advice the village receives from the security forces — sometimes from politicians delivering speeches at a distance.

“They ask us to join the ‘mainstream’. We can’t figure out what they are talking about.”

A younger man, recently freed from jail on parole, betrays neither Naurani’s sorrow nor Vijay’s perplexity.

“Our farms and fields are our world and our cattle our companions; we live under the canopy of heaven,” he says, turning his face up towards the dark night sky. He laughs and shakes his head as a sudden thought seems to strike him.

“We love moonlit nights,” he says, his voice devoid of sentiment, “for we can then easily see our enemies (security forces) coming for us.”