This republic day wasn't like the earlier ones. At least for the fellows who came to know that one of the Giridih fellows have been abducted on the eve before. All those minds travelled to Giridih to imagine the situation of Vamsi, the abducted PMRD fellow of Giridih. It was January 25th evening when the news reached some of us. After confirming from official sources and most importantly from Jechonia, the other fellow at Giridih, we became sure of the abduction. In the PMRDF group, the stories of abduction were listened to with surprise and curiosity. But the thought of this happening to someone amongst us sent shivers deep down. Slowly, the news settled and the reality sank in our hearts.
More disturbing was a recently published news piece, which claimed that Maoists have changed their abduction policy and they wouldn’t go for any negotiation. It was terrifying and rendered us worrisome. Several doubts and insights surfaced at that moment and we communicated that to people who we thought could impact this case positively. It was hard to close eyes in bed that night. On 26th January, the Republic Day, media-offices were to be closed and it was a source of relief that the media frenzy wouldn’t disturb the sensitive course of official communications and actions. [The first news-report we received was from THE HINDU on 26th January night.]
By 26th morning, we had few details. A camp to collect applications for social security scheme was organized in Nokania village of TUIO panchayat of Peertand Block (of Giridih District of Jharkhand) on 25th January. And it was around 4:00 P.M when Vamsi has been taken hostage along with three government staffs. The other three were: Gram Rojgar Sevak, Village Level Worker, Panchayat Secretary. There were 12 Maoists and they have taken them to the adjoining hills of Parasnath.
At the same time, Vamsi was encountering something 'unforgettable' that would impact him for the rest of his life. He is here to share his experience of those two days in captivity, which impacted him greatly and changed something inside him in such a way that others says he is no longer the person he was.
Aman: Tell us how it all started.
Vamsi: Pension scheme is a hit scheme in underdeveloped areas and we constantly heard that several people were being denied its benefits for past many years. This year, to meet new targets, we planned to take District Administration to far-fetched villages by organizing JANATAcamps. In PIRTAND Block, we decided to organize these camps in every panchayat with high ST population percentage. To leverage advantage of this unique opportunity, we converged two other programs:
a) Kaam Maango Abhiyaan under MGNREGS and
b) Skill development initiative under IAP.
b) Skill development initiative under IAP.
Jechnoia and I prepared the plan under the guidance of District Collector. Eight JPSC probationers were also taking part in monitoring and implementation. The dates decided were from 22nd to 25th January but just a day before i.e. on 21st Jan, TUYYO panchayat building was blown off by Maoists as the same building was being used by the CRPF as a shelter during their anti-Maoist combing operations. Jechonia and I revealed our apprehensions to District Collector about this but he relieved us by assuring that Maoists won’t cause any problem to us and they blew off the building because police stayed there few days before.
The camps witnessed huge participation on 22nd, 23rd January. The collected forms were in thousands and we were jubilant with the success in our endeavours to take district administration to these far-flung areas.
Pic 2: Satellite image of TUYYO Panchayat
On 24th, one of the camps was to be organized at the TUYYO panchayat building, which now lay there in shambles. None of the JPSC probationers were ready to attend that camp, so we decided to organize that particular camp under our own observation. That afternoon, Jechonia and I sent off all other 6 teams to their allocated camps with all the necessary forms (Application forms for pension, Work demand form, Skill training application forms and other daily reporting formats) and departed for TUYYO village.
Our vehicle reached PIRTAND block office by 12:30 P.M and we started our journey to TUYYO panchayat along with Shambhu Pandit (Gram Rojgar Sevak, TUYYO Panchayat), Maksood Ansari (Panchayat Secretary, TUYYO Panchayat),) and Chandra Deo (Village Level Worker, TUYYO Panchayat).
Ever since I joined this fellowship, I talked about Maoists, read about them in books and newspapers but seldom I sensed their presence in areas they were said to be present. My curiosity attempted to uncover the mystery whenever it got a chance. I wanted to verify if they lived, dressed and believed in their ideology the same way as told in books (Hello Bastar, His name was Vasu etc.).
We had been to TUYYO a number of times during our need assessment project of tribal villages but we felt different that day, as if our familiarity was incomplete. The Maoist attack on the panchayat building had snatched away the comfortable sense of familiarity. Now, the dense forests which had looked beautifully green till now, emitted waves of fear and an unknown presence.
I couldn't resist my curiosity and asked the VLW "Do Maoists still believe in ideologies? I mean, is their struggle still based to defend 'the poor and the weak' and they don't harm people who work for betterment of poor people."
“Sir, the days have changed; now, it has turned into a business, a business of levy and fear.” VLW said and was endorsed unanimously by the GRS and the PS. It was a cliché we had been hearing since our first day in the district. Many other listened stories with some of my theoretical knowledge acquired through newspapers and books pushed aside their views for a moment. There are some questions which torture curiosity as there are no definite answers to them. This question was one amongst them. I felt as confused as I was when I joined the district.
Soon, the forests passed and our vehicle stopped at TUYYO panchayat building. Jechonia and I inspected the demolished building closely and were astonished. Few days back, I had taken the National Level Monitoring team of the Rural Development Ministry, GOI there and the building stood new and shining. There lay only a mess of bricks, sand and cement patches.
It reflected clearly that they wanted to destruct it to pieces and accordingly they carried out two blasts - one at the foundation of the building and the other at the stair case in order to break down the first floor of the building. Posters asking people to refrain themselves from joining the armed forces were found thrown off around the site.
Though the plan was to organize the camp at TUYYO panchayat building, demolition of the same made us organize the camp under a tree in the middle of the village. People and some PRI functionaries were already gathered over there waiting for us. Very soon our GRS, Mr. Shambhu Pandey explained the application forms and asked people to collect forms in a queue. I got some young boys and PRI members agreed to fill these forms and the camp formally started.
Pic 4: Vamsi collecting application forms in TUYYO Village
For a moment, I felt good as I was serving the real cause of joining the fellowship: to help people who are caught in conflict. Also surfaced in heart, a silent pride of camping in the village where any district and block official wouldn't have dared to. Everyone who said it will draw attention of Maoists; we assumed them to disguise their inactivity under the garb of Maoist presence.
Though the camp functioned smoothly, somewhere at the back of my mind the building explosion made me cautious and all of us remained alert to avoid any argument there. We collected every filled application form even if they didn't satisfy the eligibility criteria. "No denial" remained the unspoken code.
The Nukkad Naatak team on MGNREGS, which came with us, performed and left the place as soon as they could. Such was the fear of the incident. The camp concluded smoothly and we returned to PIRTAND Block office by 5:00 P.M.
The next day's camp was to be organized in Nokania, a village just down the hills and one of the remotest villages of TUYYO. It wasn't an easy place to reach and GRS doubted if our four-wheelers would be able to make it. I asked him to arrange three or four bikes, each bike for two persons.
We handed over the reports and the pictures of demolished panchayat building to Collector. Necessary stationery was arranged for the last day camps (25th Jan Camps) and we left for our residence.
On 25th morning, I phoned all probationers to check if they have started to move to their designated villages. The lady probationer was ill and so she dropped for the day. Jechnoia volunteered to replace the lady probationer and I went to Nukania.
After abduction, when I was walking with the Maoists in the jungles, a thought crossed my mind and I smiled. If the lady probationer wouldn't have fallen ill, Jechnoia would have been walking by my side.
I became disappointed after reaching block office and finding no bikes arranged. GRS said he knows a road by which we can reach Nukania using our Tata Sumo. All of five: Me, My driver, Village Level Worker (Chandradeo), GRS (Shambhu Pandit), PS (Maksood Ansari) began our journey to Nukania which was to become the most unforgettable experience of our lives.
Less sure of travelling by a four-wheeler to Nukania, a village in the foothills of Parasnath Hills, I proposed to park the Tata Sumo at KHUKHRA police camp and then go by motorcycles. The reason of my doubt was a small stream which the vehicle may not cross. Everyone said we can go by vehicle till KHUKHRA police-camp and then Mukhiya of that panchayat will send some people to pick us up. But before reaching the camp itself GRS assured me that this four-wheeler can cross the steam and so we can go by the vehicle itself. We all complied.
Just few hundred meters after crossing TUYYO village, a CRPF Policeman dressed in camouflage waved his hand as an indication to stop. We stopped and presented to him a letter issued to us by District Collector. He insisted us to speak to his Assistant Commandant first.
CRPF Assistant Commandant was already aware of this Abhiyaan as DC had spoken to him about it. He allowed us to go and assured us that the four-wheeler would be able to cross the stream.
Though we faced some difficulties to get the vehicle to the other bank of stream but soon we reached the village. We reached Upgraded Middle School (Utkarmit Madhya Vidhyalaya), Nukania at around 1:30 P.M. Government functionaries ASHA, AWC Sevika, Teachers, NRLM CRPs, Mukhiya and Upmukhiya were waiting there. After I entered inside school premises, my gaze started fixating on Maoist posters urging youth to join them in their struggle against government oppression and to restrain from joining the ruthless armed forces which are being used by the government to fight against the poor. Meanwhile GRS took the duty of briefing up the gathering over there and formed two queues, one for men and the other for women to collect the application forms from me.
I brought my mind back to the work at hand; distributed different kind of applications, explained the process of filling them and sat there to oversee everyone’s work. A little later, at around 2:30PM, I started collecting the filled application forms.
As this village was just down the hills, I had premeditated to leave the place before 3:30 P.M. My mind always went to the cell-phone clock. The clock turned 3:30 P.M and I asked Gram Rozgar Sevak if we should return. He assured me of the safety of the village and others joined him in assuring me. I solemnly replied with an “Ok” and checked the forms in hand. Some forms had a few mistakes, which might lead to their rejection. I separated such forms; called for Mukhiya and handed them over to him to get them corrected quickly.
When the Mukhiya returned and I was looking at the filled application forms, a bike stopped at a few meters from school. The time would have been around 3:45PM. The young man, clad incamouflage carrying a big gun moved fast towards us shouting "KHUKHRA me police camp lagaaya hai soch ke thum log yaha gram sabha lagaoge??"
In a village, 30 KMs far away from town and downhill, it was impossible to ignore someone clad in olive-green and most importantly with a gun. I tried looking for the registration number of the bike but there wasn't any. Very swiftly, 12-15 more people arrived there running; all dressed olive-green dress, and armed with guns. I thought them to be one of the CRPFs who met us in our way to the village.
Like a lightning a thought flashed. Had any operation taken place between police and Maoists? Had any police died in that operation? The rumors about the fake encounters began striking in my mind and I saw a danger looming over our heads.Villagers were afraid of Maoists and police forces both. No one in this area would stand against them to stop from doing what they intend to do. People are feared of everyone carrying guns.
Everyone became very present and alert at that moment and all heads turn towards the man who was shouting. He was a wheat-skinned man, around 25yrs, with a round-face and broad shoulders. He wore boots and aimed an SLR at us while ordering us to gather at a place. He swivelled his head to survey the area and movements. Everyone stilled and stood on their feet. I observed their dresses. The bottom-ends of their shirts were not tucked into their pants and their faces didn't shine with glow of nourishment. He then shouted "Bharatiya Communist Party (Maovaadi) Jindabad!" which turned my thoughts towards an opposite perspective.
He (hereafter would be referred as M1) declared himself and his team as Maoists and ordered us to raise our hands up and repeat his words - "Inqalab Jindabad....Maovaadi Jindabad.... Bharat Sarkar Murdabad." We followed without any objection. While he shouted with fervour and energy, our hearts, squeezed with fear stroke didn’t let us speak in resonance.
The cloud of doubts had cleared and a stroke of fear seemed to squeeze the heart. I became sure that they weren’t CRPFs. While we stood there unmoved, one person aged around 45 yrs moved around the school premises to check out their safety. Meanwhile M1 noticed Maksood (PS) trying to run away; aimed his gun at him and warned him not to take one step further. Afraid of his life, PS came and joined us. My driver who was sleeping in our vehicle was also made to join us.
The Maoist who was around 45 yrs (hereafter would be referred as ML) told M1 not to be harsh in dealing with people. Villagers identified themselves as ‘public’. The clarity in identifying themselves using the word ‘Public’ indicated the old acquaintance of villagers to such meetings. Those who identified themselves as ‘public’ were allowed to go while we five (Me, My Driver, Rozgar Sevak, Panchayat Secretary and Village Level Worker) stayed with our eyes down, occasionally moving it up to answer their questions. All the other Maoists took their positions aiming at the gathering.
ML called VLW and took him a little away to speak. My mind kept guessing the organizational structure among them. He was the only one giving instructions. Probably, he was their leader. VLW dressed in formals was mistaken to be BDO. VLW was asked to reveal who are all present here for which he pointed to GRS and PS.
ML called GRS and PS and asked the gathering if BDO or DC were present here. Their ignorance of DC/BDO surprised me. Don't they really know the DC of my district? I mean, I heard they are quite well-informed. ML announced that those three panchayat staffs are being taken in his custody and that no one should inform police or anyone about this; everyone should switch off their mobile phones. “We are taking them into our custody, we want to take some information from them, we want to discuss something and we will release them in an hour or two.” The leader spoke and they started moving towards the hill.
They left me and my driver and took GRS, PS and VLW with them. At the thought of being left behind I felt safe in my heart but the guilt of being an inactive superior soon took over my conscience and I didn’t know from where a compassionate human voice emerged from my throat. I asked my driver “They are doing it wrong. They should take me first.” The dry throat could’ve hardly made more than a whisper but it drew a response. The leader turned back and his team stopped. “Who is from District here?”
I raised my hand spontaneously with the response - "Mein hoon!! Mein hoon !! " and joined them. They didn’t ask the driver to join us. I was not afraid now. Briefly, I felt like a leader and joined them.
ML came to me and took me along with him with his hands around my shoulders and asked me my designation. I replied I am a fellow pursuing my fellowship. He did not understand it and told me that he cannot understand English. I tried in my poor Hindi "Dada! Mein DRDA me ek contractual employee hai."
Pic 5: Satellite image of Nokania Village
It all happened in just 15 minutes and it seemed the scenes were from a fast-action Telugu movie; it was around 4:00PM when we started our journey into the jungle along with BHAAIs. ('Brother' - they asked us to call them.)
Within 5 minutes of walk, the plains merged into hills and I saw a young boy grazing cattle looking at us. Shrubs replaced the grasses and nothing was audible except the bird's chirp, the footsteps and my breaths. We had been to this village many a times but had never thought the deep forest is this much near.
They took our mobile phones and returned our respective mobile SIMs. The journey which was to be the most unforgettable experience of our lives had just begun.
This is one of the five parts of the series "48 hours in Maoist captivity." This has been jointly developed by Aman Bhardwaj, the author in close communication with Vamsi, Giridih PMRD fellow. The other parts of this series are in pipeline and would be updated as soon as they are finished. Please give your valuable feedback and post your queries, if any, in the comment boxes. Vamsi would be more than happy to answer it. Stay tuned for future posts!