Villagers enjoy a game of volleyball at a CRPF camp on Monday, three days before voting in Digha. Picture by Prashant Mitra
The change most palpable in Saranda forests today is people’s faith in the security forces, primarily the CRPF. And if the former Maoist hub turned out in large numbers to vote on Thursday, it is largely because of this new-found trust in these men who are being seen as agents of change at a time when the Centre is trying to implement an ambitious development plan for one of the most neglected regions of Jharkhand.
Following the year-long Operation Anaconda to flush out rebels from Saranda in 2011, the security forces were at the receiving end of numerous human rights cases.
Now things have turned around. And how.
The CRPF was the “unsung hero” of Thursday’s vote as The Telegraph’s special correspondent A.S.R.P. Mukesh and photographer Prashant Mitra found out while travelling through the jungles
We were camping in Manoharpur and Digha from Tuesday, two days before the vote. The hills of Saranda, a mute witness to several bloodbaths in the last decade, seemed calm.
Villagers no longer feel torn between Naxalites and the armed forces. Today, each jawan seems to relate to each villager, in happiness and in sorrow, in their own way.
We met Sailai Cherwa (21) while walking through Inda-Gandu valley from Tirilposi and Thalkobad, two of the remotest parts of Digha panchayat. The three-and-a-half- kilometre meandering pathway through sal and sesame trees has seen a lot of Maoist violence. The surrounding hills were under rebel control till a few years back.
Yet, Cherwa wasn’t afraid to walk alone. “Earlier, I used to get scared. But not now,” he told us. “Moreover, there isn’t any other way to come home. In case of danger, I will run towards a CRPF camp.”
He was talking about the CRPF 174 battalion, one of three that is stationed in the West Singhbhum forest 24x7. On polling day, over 6,000 security personnel were deployed across the Saranda forests.
So, have the jawans stopped harassing villagers like you?
“It was the CRPF that helped me get enrolled in a government-run professional course at Chaibasa by talking to the deputy commissioner a year back,” Cherwa revealed.
How things change. CRPF camps are now the favourite haunts of villagers. Be it for food, medical assistance or counselling, the camp is where they feel they will find answers to all their problems.
“Sir, canteen mein khana hai kya (Sir, is there food in the canteen)?” Karampada Topno, a villager, asks Manoj Kumar, the commanding officer of the battalion. “Vote bhi de diye. (I have given my vote too),” he adds with a chuckle.
Manoj tells him to check out the canteen himself. “Aaj kal bahut badmaas ho gaye ho tum. Ja ke dekh lo (You’ve turned quite mischievous. Go check yourself),” he adds in jest.
Suddenly, everyone seems to love you guys?
Manoj admits that the shift in people’s attitude towards them was key to restoring normalcy in Saranda. “It took us a very long time to strike a chord with them. Today, the situation is such that people consider us their guardians. Women come to us with petty complaints about their households. There are times when youths ask us for help with their homework. Whoever comes, we don’t allow them to leave without treating them to a snack or a cold drink from the canteen. People seem to be looking for an opportunity to visit us. And we love to interact with them as it breaks the monotony.”
Septuagenarian George Jhorai interrupts our conversation. “Sir, ek problem hai. Mera wife ka BPL card nai bana hai. (Sir, there is a problem. My wife hasn’t got her BPL card).”
Manoj promises to have a word with the BDO.
The bonding seems to have taken hold. For, another CRPF officer in Anandpur told us how they were able to prevent a major ambush attempt on a J&K company on poll day with the help of local villagers.
“I got a call from a commanding officer of the J&K company around 3pm on Thursday. Villagers told him about the presence of around 20 Naxalites a kilometre away. Initially, I was confused. How could that be, we had cleaned up the entire area? What if it is a trap, I thought.
“Still, I sent another company from another side (of the forest) as backup and asked the J&K company to stay put. As our backup zeroed in, they found no one. The rebels had dispersed. We see this positively, a sign of the villagers’ implicit trust in our abilities.”