In Chhattisgarh, informer killings reveal grim side of information war
On May 16 this year, adivasis, attending the weekly Sunday bazaar at Unchapur in Chhattisgarh’s Rajnandgaon district, found six corpses stretched out on the main thoroughfare of the village. In a note placed on one of the bodies, the CPI (Maoist) took responsibility for executing the six villagers for succumbing to “the lure of money” and serving as “police informers”.
The Rajnandgaon killings are a manifestation of the escalation of the confrontation between Maoist cadres and security forces in Chhattisgarh. As the scope of the conflict has widened from purely armed engagement to the disruption of intelligence networks, the Maoists and security forces have both enlisted civilian support for intelligence gathering. This has made the adivasis targets in a war being fought in their name.
Human intelligence, or information gathered through a network of trusted ground-level sources, is crucial in any conflict and is often more effective than information gathered through technological means. Metal detectors, for instance, are of no use in locating Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) planted under tarmac-surfaced roads. “We can reduce IED-related casualties only once villagers pass on the information to the police,” said a senior police officer.
However, by sharing such information, villagers could put their own lives at risk.
Given the secretive nature of intelligence work, informants are rarely acknowledged by their handlers. The brief biographies of those killed on May 16 reveal six people who faltered on the fine line between “Maoist sympathiser” and “police informant”.
In early 2009, the district police here had built an information network that they were looking to leverage in their battle against the Maoists. “Superintendent of Police V.K. Choubey had done a commendable job in building a network,” said a senior police officer, “He found a thread and followed it until he unearthed jewels.” The “jewel” in question was a Maoist urban network in Raipur that, according to the police, was uncovered by Choubey’s sources.
There is little public information on the existence or subsequent elimination of the Raipur urban network; however Maoist sources told The Hindu that Choubey’s actions had earned him a place on their hit-list.
On July 12 2009, the Maoists struck with deadly force, killing 26 policemen including Choubey in a two stage ambush. In the confusion that followed his death, his information network was presumed to have unraveled.
“We found S.P. Choubey’s mobile (phone) at the site of the ambush,” said Ravula Srinivas, alias Ramanna, Secretary of the South Bastar Regional Committee of the CPI (Maoist). “The phone had about 500 numbers … including those of police informers.”
According to Mr. Ramanna, the CPI (Maoist) used the phone numbers as a starting point. “All the ‘main’ people were thoroughly investigated,” he said, “Twenty five to 30 people were targeted, the rest were warned.” Since they found the phone, the CPI (Maoist) has executed at least 11 supposed ‘informants’ in Rajnandgaon and another 21 persons across Chattisgarh.
The whereabouts of Choubey’s phone remain contested; while Ramanna and senior intelligence officers confirmed the loss of the phone in the ambush, a senior police officer in Rajnandgaon said that the phone was recovered from the ambush site the next day. A third officer said that Choubey was not carrying the phone at the time of the ambush. “They (Maoists) claim to have found the phone to frighten our actual informers,” said the officer speaking on the condition of anonymity, “The Maoists are killing the wrong people.”
Unfortunately, in the shadowy world of informants and handlers there are no “right people” or “wrong people”, there are only dead people. The brief biographies of those killed on May 16 suggest that the mere suspicion of supporting one side in this conflict brings swift retribution from the other.
Dugga Mehruram of Pugda village was first arrested by the police in 2006 and charged with being a member of the Maharashtra Dalam of the CPI (Maoist). “The police picked him up at about 2 AM on night after Holi,” said his father Dugga Sankuram, “He was kept in prison in Dhanora, [Maharashtra] for three years.” In October 2009, Mehruram was found innocent of all charges and released.
In January 2010, he was made into a Special Police Officer at the Maanpur police station in Rajanandgaon. His father says he was forcibly recruited, the police at Maanpur say he signed up on his own. In April this year, he ran away from the police camp and returned to his village where he hoped to restart his life as a farmer. On May 16, he was killed by the Maoists for being a police informer. Mehruram was twenty four.
Durung Sai Tulavi was a 25 year old clerk in charge of monitoring tendu-leaf collection in the neighbouring village of Gattegahan. Five years ago, suspected Maoists killed his father in a village dispute. “Durung would occasionally go down to the police station,” said his uncle Mansingh Tulavi, “But he was constantly talking on his mobile [phone].” Mansingh says he told Durung not to use his cell-phone as the Maoists would suspect him of passing on information to the police. “But he never listened,” said Mansingh. At 4 am on May 16, Maoists killed Durung Tulavi and confiscated his phone.
Rajesh Salame of Unchapur was a 22 year-old salesman of household items. It is suspected that he was killed because his brother, Rohit Salame became a SPO in January this year. It is unclear why his friend Lal Kumar Mandavi was killed, except that the two of them were sitting together when the Maoists came for Rajesh Salame.
Another victim, Manuram Netam’s, family has left Unchapur for the relative safety of the police station in Maanpur. The fifty year old villager was probably targeted because his son Rajendra Netam became an SPO this year.
Bir Sai Ghawde of Teregaon bought himself a cell-phone when he won the gram-panchayat elections in February this year. “The Maoists killed him and took away the cell-phone and our landline,” said his widow Sanarubai, “He was the Sarpanch; so he often met the police on official work.”
The police claims to cultivate only those willing to risk being informers. However, The Hindu has reported on ‘collective-punishment’ attacks conducted by security forces on villages like Mukram and Chintalnar in Dantewada, to pressurize villagers into passing on intelligence to the police. In Chhattisgarh today, a misplaced whisper could prove fatal.