Villagers in the Maoist bastion of Sarkeguda face the wrath of the CRPF’s Cobra forces unit

Apka Lakmo sits on his haunches, and he pushes a pinch of tobacco down his lip. He is smiling; it is afternoon and the smell of mahua wafts through Sarkeguda.

The drink he has just swilled down has put the smile on Mr. Lakmo’s face. Otherwise, there is not much to smile at. Especially when he is squatted, facing his friend’s hut built on a clearing that leads to the neighbouring hamlet of Kotteguda. The hut’s thatched roof has crashed.

No cheer, only fear

“He died that night,” Mr. Lakmo says, “my friend.” The smile is there, but it is jettisoned suddenly by the pain in his eyes. Mr. Lakmo was there when his friend and 16 others were shot down on the night of June 28, 2012.

Since the 1990s, Sarkeguda, and other villages around it, has remained a Maoist stronghold. Many senior rebel commanders have worked in this area.

From 2010, Maoists came under pressure on account of security operations. But Sarkeguda and its neighbouring hamlets such as Kotteguda and Rajpenta, were still frequented by Maoist squads operational in the area.

It is not clear if some Maoists were there on that fated night when a group of the CRPF’s Cobra force surrounded the clearing outside Sarkeguda. Villagers of three hamlets had assembled there , apparently, to celebrate Biju Pondam — a tribal festival of worshipping seeds. The Cobra force then opened fire.

“Those who managed to lay flat on the ground or those who took cover were saved,” says Mr. Lakmo. He himself took cover behind a tree as bullets flew all around him. By the time the sound of gunfire ceased, 17 people were dead, all of them villagers. Life has been unkind to the people of Sarkeguda. In 2005, at the peak of the Salwa Judum, their houses were burnt down, forcing them to flee to Andhra Pradesh.

They lived there for four years, working as labourers in chilli plantations. In 2009, the local CPI leader, Manish Kunjam, tracked them down and brought them back.

“We had just begun to breathe freely when tragedy struck again,” says Apka Cheenu, the deputy sarpanch. His house is the only one in Sarkeguda to have a string cot. A man called Korsa Manu has come to see him. His younger brother Korsa Chinu was killed by Salwa Judum goons in 2005.

“We were told they smashed his head with a brick,” says Mr. Manu. They could not even recover his body. A month after the 2012 killings, a CRPF camp came up outside Sarkeguda.

No leader, no campaign

No leader has come so far to campaign. The villagers have no idea when the voting is and who the candidates are. Ganpat Irpa, a resident of Kottaguda, says he and 54 others were collectively offered Rs.1,000 in the last election to vote for panja chhap (hand symbol).

Irpa Narsi, who lost her husband in the 2012 incident, says she cast her vote for kamal chhap (lotus symbol) because Raman Singh (BJP leader and Chhattisgarh’s Chief Minister) made rice available for them at Rs. 2 a kg.

But many others say they simply pressed any random button on the voting machine because Guruji (teacher) asked them to. “He said press any button but do it quickly,” says Mr. Lakmo.

Hard times

Today, the people here find it very difficult to manage their lives. “We cannot venture into the forest. The moment we do, the Cobra people catch hold of us and give us a thrashing,” says one villager.

The nearest health centre is in Basaguda. The lone hand pump in Sarkeguda has been non-functional for five months. “We informed the official,” says Mr. Cheenu, “but he hasn’t bothered to visit so far.” On the way out, a CRPF jawan in the camp offers this correspondent water. “Have the Maoists gathered inside?” he wants to know.

More In: National | News