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.