(This is an article that appeared in DNA Sunday on April 18, 2010.)
Priyanka Borpujari visits the CRPF camp in Chintalnar — where the 76 jawans killed by Maoists on April 6 were based — and discovers that the current lot there are quite conscious of their status as 'sacrificial goats'
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."