Even after Maoists released him earlier this week, Oyami Podiyami, a constable, has not got back all his freedoms. About 500 Muria Gond tribals of Pinnabheji village in Sukma district follow him everywhere — even to his soirées.

“In case I step out, the entire village will follow me,” says the 36-year-old. However, Mr. Podiyami has no option but to get used to the entourage. The villagers have not left his side, since the Maoists set Mr. Podiyami free after warning him against fleeing the village. If he manages to give the slip or joins forces with the police again, the rebels will grill the villagers. The Muria Gond tribals are escorting him to spare themselves this ordeal.

Mr. Podiyami and Barse Ganga, former Special Police Officers, were kidnapped in November 2013. In Maoist custody, they were made to walk several hundred kilometres through forests. However, after two months, the duo was set free and handed over to the villagers of Pinnabheji. The release has come as a surprise to Mr. Podiyami. “I never thought they would release us. Collectors were released earlier, but SPOs were always killed as we are the sworn enemies of the Maoists,” he said.

A few years ago, SPOs like Mr. Podiyami and Mr. Ganga were selected from tribal villages, trained and armed by the State government. They were named Koya Commandoes and placed under an adept fighter — the Commander. These Commanders, four in Sukma district, formed their own gang of local boys. The Surya group was led by the dreaded and skilled fighter Kartam Surya, Kiche Nanda spearheaded the Nanda group and Mudraj and Ismail headed two other groups. These gangs were trained to fight Naxals, but they ended up torturing tribals. Many gang members were accused of rape and murder. The Maoists swore to kill the gang members.

Soon, Surya and Ismail were murdered, Mudraj was suspended for allegedly selling arms to the Maoists and Nanda was promoted to the district police.

Mr. Podiyami joined the Surya group about six years ago. He was promoted to the constable rank after the Supreme Court disbanded SPOs in 2011.

“I was one of the top fighters, and perhaps killed many,” he said.

While in Maoist custody, he confessed to vandalising villages, but claimed he never raped a woman. They interrogated him for several days and then said, “… we have changed our policy of killing villagers. We will release you, but after certain conditions are fulfilled.”

A sarpanch of South Bastar, on condition of anonymity, said there was a reason why the Maoists had put a hold on killings.

“The party has realised that killing people, especially locals, is no longer helpful. We told the Maoists that killing constables or informers will not help as people are getting alienated,” said the sarpanch, who has witnessed the Maoists change tactics several times in last four decades.

“May be it is a good time for the government to initiate talks with the rebels.”

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