Increased rebel activity made it impossible for anyone to commute outside Jagargunda unless they left permanently, as the original inhabitants and the new entrants were marked as Salwa Judum supporters, and overtly boycotted by the Maoist-controlled villages surrounding the enclave.

In Jagargunda, a large village in south Chhattisgarh, the villagers have been waiting for their winter rations for more than two months. Ordinarily, this would not be news but Jagargunda is no ordinary village. A paramilitary officer, witness to the delivery of rations, terms it a “gigantic security effort.” The single biggest event in this part of the world was nearly 60 trucks carrying food and construction material, followed by another 15 with security escorts, said Jeetender Kumar, the paramilitary officer in charge of the village. The sight of the convoy along the 54-kilometre road peppered with landmines, numerous security camps and mobile Maoist squads would have been a spectacle if one were to make a film. The ration is delivered twice a year — in summer and winter.

Following Vietnamese strategy

This “gigantic effort” was started after a few local newspapers reported that there was shortage of food in a village that was reasonably prosperous a decade ago. Investigations revealed that a population transfer programme of the government, called “strategic hamleting,” was used — a process of isolating the rural community from the resistance force that was earlier used in South Vietnam in the 1960s. The government of Chhattisgarh tried this aborted Vietnamese model to isolate villagers from the Maoists, even as officials denied its existence. Jagargunda was one of the first few villages where the population of four other adjacent hamlets — Milampalli, Kunder, Tarlaguda and Kodmer — was transferred, resulting in a shortage of food. Madkam Masa, the sarpanch of Milampalli, explained the impact of “strategic hamleting.” “We were in a thriving village (Milampalli) with our share of land but moved to the Jagargunda enclave even though we had no land or jobs in the enclave.” Initially, some work became available through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, but the programme stopped eventually.

Milampalli, a few kilometres north of Jagargunda, resembles an abandoned graveyard. As one enters the village from the western side, a hand pump is the first visible object apart from the tall grass and dead shrubs. The pump, like in the rest of the village, was land-mined soon after the whole of Milampalli had left for Jagargunda, locals said. “We lost our village but who gained from this displacement?” asks Bhima Madkam, a neighbour of Mr. Masa.

Maoists, however, had a free run outside the new enclave as the villages nearby were evacuated. They began controlling about 900 sq.km of the area surrounding the village. Now, about 150 Maoist cadres with nearly 50 gun-laden fighters control the area. The team is headed by Pappa Rao, one of the most skilled fighters of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army.

Locked in

Increased rebel activity made it impossible for anyone to commute outside Jagargunda, unless they left permanently, as the original inhabitants and the new entrants were marked as Salwa Judum supporters, and overtly boycotted by Maoist-controlled villages surrounding the enclave. The population of Jagargunda trebled. To protect the residents, concertina wiring fenced the village. Several companies of police and paramilitaries were introduced, thus completing the polarisation of Jagargunda, which was hoping to upgrade itself as a block headquarter a decade ago.

Even today, two companies of central paramilitaries and one company of the Chhattisgarh Armed Force (CAF) with about 50 personnel are stationed in the village with several posts along the barbed wire. According to official sources, paramilitaries carry “area weapons” like 51-mm mortars, under barrel grenade launchers and even rocket launchers which are normally used in international conflict. In this case, the Muria Gonds and Telegu communities are protected from another set of Muria Gonds and Telegus settled in the area for centuries.

“We are in a strange island,” laughed the chief of CAF’s Jagargunda camp, R. Kujur, whose camp is in what was once a busy office of the Public Works Department of a flourishing village connected to Dantewada in the east, Bijapur in the west and Bhadrachalam (Andhra Pradesh) in the south. A mid-level leader of Salwa Judum, Vijay Jaiswal, now the head teacher in a local day school, sounded depressed. “Such a prosperous village ruined so fast,” he said with regret.

“Now, the ration has been stopped. But even when the ration was arriving on time till last June, it was generating problems. We receive six months’ ration at one go, so it rots. We periodically spread it in the sun to keep it fresh. Storing, while avoiding rats, was another headache,” said Bhima Madkam of Milampalli, who is settled in the enclave. Each family, irrespective of its size, received 1.5 quintals last June. Managing space to store six months’ ration is another problem for the displaced people, as the houses have reduced floor space.

The forces have their share of problems in bringing ration. “Copters which get our ration cannot fly between July and September due to the monsoon and we reduce our food intake,” said Mr. Kumar.

The gates of the enclave close at 6.30 p.m. and open at 6.30 a.m., just as in no-man’s land on the India-Bangladesh border in the Barak Valley of Assam, while the residents normally avoid travelling to their native villages or to the next big village, Chintalnar, about 12 km north of Jagargunda; this stretch is considered to be the most dangerous and is dug up in at least two dozen spots with no security camps, while nine camps are placed between the 44-km stretch between Chintalnar and Dornapal.

The 12-km stretch is manned by junior Maoist militias who are aware that forces never take the mined road unless on a search operation. The militias verify the photo identity cards of the journalists and ask “why reporters are reluctant to report Maoist movement.” Assuming that they may be unfriendly, Jagargunda’s residents avoid going to Chintalnar, the nearest big market, a move which denies them the Minimum Support Price and bonus given on paddy sales. As a result, 600 quintals of paddy (mainly belonging to the Telegu community) rots in collective godowns.

“Rats are feeding on them as we cannot take it to Chintalnar (for sale),” said Saktibabu Naidu, a farmer of Jagargunda. The villagers will lose several lakhs this season if they fail to take the produce to Chintalnar.

To add to this, there is a Maoist embargo on vehicles like tractors or pickup vans from entering the enclave. So, goods carriers, run mostly by residents of pro-Maoist villages, carry household items of Jagargunda till the small aqueduct at Kottaguda, about two kilometres north of the enclave. “We get carts to carry goods from Kottaguda to the village. Maoists relaxed the embargo over years and now carriers can reach Kottaguda,” said a neighbour of Mr. Naidu on condition of anonymity.

Outside the enclave, a series of dilapidated, shrub-covered single-storied buildings are visible, some rented out, the rest, residential. The student’s hostel has collapsed. The children have been shifted to hostels at Dornapal, about 56 km north of Jagargunda and rarely visit their families in the enclave.

“First the land was taken and families [were] separated … now the food has stopped,” said the teacher of the local day school which is just about functioning.

A livelihood with problems

As the Salwa Judum movement started easing up in 2009, the Maoists figured out that people inside the concertina wires are not essentially class enemies but victims of the country’s bloodiest conflict. They started allowing the villagers to come out of the enclave to work in their respective villages like Kunder or Tarlaguda, which are about a kilometre away.

Now, some members of the “gated community” work on their farm in the morning and return by sunset. However, farmers of Milampalli, who are quite far away from their village, work as landless workers on other’s farms. On our way back from Jagargunda, we saw two vans ferrying Muria tribals to Andhra Pradesh to pluck chillies. They were stopped at the Chintalnar camp to verify their identities. The driver of a van said this business has increased substantially once the Jagargunda enclave was set up. “We carry more pluckers now than before to Andhra Pradesh.”

What he did not mention was that many of the chilli pluckers had lost their agricultural land outside the concertinas. They have all become seasonal migrant workers ever since they were shifted to the enclave.

However, every one believes that Jagargunda will regain its pride and economy some day. Till then, the village will have to depend on government handouts, which are yet to arrive this year.

suvojit.bagchi@thehindu.co.in

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