A dirt track winding through sal-covered hills of Porahat forest give way to a trail deeper into the forest. The steep trail, accessible only on foot for several kilometres, goes past hamlets scattered over the ara serang, red hills, as the tribal villagers refer to the iron-rich earth of Porahat. It opens into a valley where two squads of the banned CPI (Maoist) halted for the day.
The Maoists have frequently used Porahat, a fragmented forest contiguous with Saranda forest, as a shelter since the Centre launched Operation Anaconda in 2011 to flush out Maoists from Saranda, which served as their eastern regional bureau headquarters and where several training camps were held. The paramilitary operations went on several months, and ten Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camps were set up in Saranda as part of a Rs. 250-crore Saranda Development Plan, pushing the Maoists to move northwards into Porahat.
The Maoists who called for an election boycott in late February have pasted public notices in villages in several districts. Singhbhum constituency reserved for Scheduled Tribes, where former Chief Minister and Independent Madhu Koda is the sitting MP, will go to polls on Thursday. Mr. Koda’s wife Geeta Koda is contesting in his place. The Congress and BJP candidates are campaigning at a hectic pace in Chaibasa, and other towns. There is little sign of the approaching elections in the villages.
In one remote forest village in Porahat, the squads’ leaders addressed villagers to propagate an election boycott. “They wish to elect a Lok Sabha for the 16th time, but has any election changed gareebi (poverty), mehngaai (price rise), atyachaar (repression)?” Mahesh Pahan, in his early 30s with a short athletic build, who led both squads, began. “Why did they think of Saranda Development Plan now, decades after independence? Because 90 per cent of villagers there had started supporting the party (Maoists). Villagers do not have even five dismil land, why is government giving land in excess to industries?” he said, as men and children listened attentively sitting on a platform, and the women listened from afar.
Mr. Pahan recounted he spent three years in jail but resumed his role after the cases against him were dismissed a few years back. He has since been in the “technical side” he said, alluding to training in making explosives. He comes from a family of tribal priests from Khunti, and is one of five brothers of Bihar Jharkhand North Chhattisgarh Special Area Committee member Kundan Pahan, top among the list of ‘most wanted’ Maoist leaders in Jharkhand.
The Porahat village is among the few the party counts among its base here. After Mr. Pahan had finished addressing the meeting, the village elders came and discussed village matters with the rebels, and children played in the vicinity. Mr. Pahan, however, admitted that it was becoming more difficult to find area where the rebels still had a committed base, where the people thought of the party “as their own.” He explained this as both a result of intensified paramilitary operations and attacks by People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI), a splinter group. In December, the CPI (Maoist) had offered yuddhviraam, ceasefire to PLFI citing both parties’ cadre were from the same socio-economic class, but the latter rejected it, say the Maoists. So far, the poll boycott too has had limited success. Palamu, Chatra, Lohardaga constituencies which went to polls on April 10 saw an increase of nine percent in turnout.
“In Saranda, 30 villagers came to meet us and said they will encourage the poll boycott in their areas, but we are not sure how effective this will be. We should have put up more posters, distribute pamphlets. But the CRPF have been carrying out operations even at night, we are unable to hold longer public meetings or long training sessions,” said Mr. Pahan.
As the evening drew near, the squad prepared to leave. Sukru Munda, who accompanied this reporter to the village, said he expected the people to back the boycott.