Monday, 26 April 2010

'Why are we being tortured?'

The day after I returned to Mumbai from Chintalnar in Chhattisgarh, I was still in a deep slumber at 7am when my phone rang. A hoarse voice on the other side greeted me and said that I had met him at the CRPF camp in Chintalnar where I had gone to find out more about the 76 jawans who were killed in the Maoist attack on April 6. I sprang up and asked, "Are you one of those jawans who asked me for my phone number when I was leaving your camp?" He said "yes", and asked me if I could keep my lips sealed about him calling me up. I did not know what was coming next, but I took the plunge and said, "Yes, you can trust me." And then he blurted out his story and asked me to save him and his colleagues from the 'concentration camp'. Two weeks later, such calls are still coming in from his colleagues.

At first, I thought it was just a joke. The phone number of a young woman could open up several options for these many men stationed in the barracks. I tried to sense slimy hints in their conversations, but I found none—instead there was anguish about the hellish life they were leading in the jungles. "I had completed my higher secondary education. My two sisters had to be married off. There were no rains and we could not grow anything on the farm. I saw the ad for recruitment to the CRPF in a newspaper and applied. We had grown up thinking it was a good job—after all, it was a matter of pride to die for the country. But now, after nine years in the CRPF, being posted in Dantewada is worse than getting killed by Maoists. We have to walk 50 km to buy something as trivial as a matchbox. There is no gas cylinder for us to cook food—we have to pick firewood. Does the government even bother about us?" said one of the jawans, letting out his anguish in a single breath.

Several of them have since given me varied information about the events preceding and following the attack on April 6, information which never appeared in the media. "The men who were sent to patrol had been transferred from another camp just a day earlier. They obviously would not know the terrain. How can anyone then accuse the CRPF men of not being well trained?" asked one jawan angrily.

"None of our jawans sleeps in the camp till 6am, let alone while patrolling. It is insulting to see media reports that say our colleagues were killed in their sleep. Besides, why was reinforcement sent only at 9am when the attack took place around 6.30am and lasted only 30 minutes?" revealed another. One of them went to the extent of saying, "A CBI inquiry should be ordered. It is not as black and white as it has been made to seem."

The gravity of the situation is slowly sinking in. These phone calls are from men whom we like to call 'soldiers'. Young, confident, robust—these are the images fed into our minds about a soldier ready to die for the country. But the phone calls that I have been getting say quite the opposite. No, these men are not weaklings who are scared of being blown up by land mines. These are men who have been sent into the jungles to fight their own countrymen, the Maoists. Yet, the government forgot about them until 76 of them were killed at one go. "The government thinks we are some rock statue which is best kept in a temple high up in the mountain where nobody can go," said another jawan over the phone.

My phone number seems to be the last vestige of hope for them. "We have no water, no proper food, no medicines—why are we being tortured like criminals? Please get our voices heard in Parliament. You are a journalist after all," yet another jawan said.

I recollect that one single minute under the sun near the CRPF camp, when I was getting into the car. As I was politely ushered out and glad to be entering the airconditioned car to escape the scorching heat, I heard the call, "Madam! Madam! Give us your phone number. Don't trust what our senior has said. We know the hellish life here. We have to tell you the truth about what really happened on the day the Maoists attacked."

I shouted out the digits of my phone number one by one, as the layers of barbed wire fences between us was quite a distance. At that minute, I did not realise what I had given to those men—the singular hope to make themselves heard, and lead a dignified life as a soldier of this nation.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

'Save Us From This Hell'

(This is an article that appeared in DNA Sunday on April 18, 2010.)

A square strip of aluminum with the words, "Welcome to Chhattisgarh. Welcome to Konta" informed us that we were about to cross over from Andhra Pradesh to Chhattisgarh. Till this signboard, the road was smooth. Enter Chhattisgarh, and it develops severe acne, with large rocks alternating with deep potholes. However, compared to the roads elsewhere in the state, as I was to realise later, these represented the pinnacle of driving comfort and safety — at least they weren't mined.

I was on my way to Chintalnar, a village in the Dandakaranya forests that has been in the news since April 6, when 76 jawans from the Central Reserved Police Force (CRPF) were killed by Maoists, and another six injured. Chintalnar is an adivasi village 90 km from Konta, the town bordering AP. Five hours of back-breaking drive later, we reached the village late in the afternoon.

The CRPF camp — the one to which the killed jawans belonged — was right outside the village. It looked formidable to my untrained eye — three layers of barbed wire fencing, and guarded by heavily armed men clad in bullet-proof jackets. For a moment, I felt I was standing outside the sets of a Hollywood war film. 

I was jolted back to reality by an authoritative voice from the other side of the fence, asking me in Hindi what business I had standing there peering into the camp. I told him I was a journalist. I could make out he wasn't thrilled to hear that. He glared at me in silence. He was dressed in military fatigues, and beads of sweat had formed on his brow. I had read somewhere that the daytime temperature here had crossed 43 degrees. Perspiration trickled down my spine beneath the loose kurta. I shifted uncomfortably in the heat.

Another man, dressed in a white vest and shorts came over. He asked me the same question in English. I again introduced myself, explaining that I was a reporter come to get an idea of the situation on the ground after the April 6 attack. He gave me a long, appraising look, and finally said, "Come."

I made my way into the camp through the zigzag maze of fences. Once inside, the scene didn't exactly match with the military camps of my imagination. I saw five half-naked men washing themselves at a hand pump. Some were boiling water on firewood. In one corner, boys — who couldn't have been more than 20 years old, with hardly any signs of moustache or beard, and little more than five feet in height — were eating rice from a huge plate. A middle-aged soldier was getting his moustache shaved by a younger man. Some men who had just bathed at the hand pump were toweling themselves.

Part of the camp area was wet and water from the pump had gathered in pools. On one side, to my left, was a large, green tent, patched up with bits of cloth and tarpaulin. Inside, some men — boys — were talking quietly among themselves. They wore vests and pyjamas, no slippers. I counted 10 of them, but there weren't that many trunks or mattresses. Shirts and trousers in fatigue print lay scattered around. I turned my face away, and walked on.

A Tata Sky dish sat on a rickety bamboo stool. On the inner stretch of barbed wire fence, and on a clothesline improvised between banana plants, trousers, shirts, vests, and towels had been hung out to dry. As I neared the other end of the camp, I spotted a solar panel glinting in the sun. 

My tour of the camp done, I was invited to have tea with men from the Combat Battalion for Resolute Action (COBRA) force of the CRPF. In crisp English, they told me they had been airdropped on April 6 to counter the Maoists who had attacked their colleagues. 

I asked one of the officers about the morale of the entire force. "The morale of the boys here has gone down. They lost too many of their colleagues in one go."
"Do you think your enemy is smarter than you?" I asked. "None of their men were killed." 

"The Maoists are not smarter," he countered quickly. "They are cowards. They attack from the back. The jawans fought bravely and laid down their lives for the country. We regret their demise but we are proud of them." 

I had heard this line too many times — whenever a soldier breathed his last on the battlefield. I wondered why these suave men referred to their dead colleagues as 'jawans' and not as 'our men.' One of them, who seemed eager to talk but hadn't opened up till then, presumably intimidated by the words of his politically correct colleagues, finally spoke. 

"You see the barbed wire fence," he said. "Do you think they can offer any protection against bullets? Look at the way our men are living…" Before he could complete the sentence, he was cut off by his colleagues. 

After I had downed the tea, I decided to take another tour of the camp. A senior officer followed me. I spotted some men standing near a stove, sharing a joke as they cooked. They became serious the moment they saw us. 

"There are more barracks being built now," the officer informed me. "This place was originally a police post, then it became a police station, and for the past two years, it has been a CRPF camp. So yes, positive changes are taking place." 

The officer then summoned fifty of his men and instructed them, "Speak to her about your living conditions. But nothing about policy."

I asked them: "How is it to live here?" Silence. Then I heard someone say, "The government has forgotten us. We are made to rot here and die." The voice had come from the back, and the tense senior officer strained to locate the 'rebel'. Another voice piped up, "One of our colleagues lost his mother today. He has been crying since morning because he cannot go home." 

A third voice joined in, "There are just two hand pumps for us 400 men. And in this heat, no electricity for the fans. Is this the way a country treats its soldiers?" 

The senior officer looked horrified. The men were now charged up and wanted to say more. Many started speaking at the same time. I couldn't grasp all that they were saying, but their anguish was palpable in the chorus. 

Finally the officer stood up and decided enough was enough. He told me it was time for me to leave. I wished the men, and stood up. As I was making my way outside, along the perimeter of the camp, I heard a jawan yell, "Will you take our grief to those in Delhi? Tell them that this is the worst posting ever. Ask them why we were sent here to become sacrificial goats!" 

The senior officer told me to hurry up. "Our men fought bravely," he said. "These jawans may have some complaints, but everything is being taken care of." Even as I nodded my head, I heard him instruct a fellow officer, ""Find out which company they are from. I need to have a talk with them."

He escorted me all the way out, till the last fold of the barbed wire fence. I thanked him for the tour. He gave me a half-hearted smile and rushed back in. 

As I walked out of the entrance, a jawan posted there caught my eye. "Madam," he said, in a barely audible voice, "Save us from this hell."