Chhattisgarh’s first Maoist recruit and the lessons the Indian state needs to derive from his story
When former Maoist commander Badranna is not tending to plants at the public park in Chhattisgarh’s Jagdalpur town, he likes to spend time with his ten-year-old daughter Manisha and her pet parrot at their small house. Badranna’s wife, Latakka, once a Maoist guerrilla herself, works with the State police after the couple surrendered in the year 2000.
Badranna, now in his late forties, was among the first batch of men to be recruited in Chhattisgarh by the Maoists. He is from the Dorla tribe and comes from Bijapur district’s Pamed village, close to Andhra Pradesh.
In 1980, after the formation of the CPI-ML (People’s War), its Andhra-based leader Kondapalli Seetharamaiah sent Maoist squads to four areas in the State’s Telangana region: Khammam, Karimnagar, Warangal and Adilabad. Three other squads went across the Godavari river, one of them to Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, while two of them went to Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region (then a part of Madhya Pradesh). The idea was to create a rear base where safe guerrilla zones could be created.
One of these squads reached Badranna’s village. Badranna, a teenager then, recalls how the villagers would initially run away upon spotting the guerrillas. “We were all scared of them. Elders would caution us not to go near them; it was rumoured that the Maoists carried some potion that could make people follow them,” says Badranna.
Badranna’s family and others lived a difficult life. Most of them earned a pittance by collecting tendu leaves, used in the manufacture of beedi. For a pack of 100 leaves, the contractor paid them a few paise. “We would put the leaves in a string and the contractor used his head’s circumference to measure it,” says Badranna.A change in strategy
After their inability to approach the young, the Maoists changed their strategy. They instead sought to communicate with the elders, or prominent people in the village — like the Sarpanch (village-head) or the Patel, a police informer of sorts. “The Maoists befriended them,” says Badranna. Gradually, the young became comfortable around them as well.
The Maoists would buy food from villagers and sometimes request them for an odd meal. “To test us, the people sometimes offered us stale food, that would almost be on the verge of decay,” says Badranna, “but we would eat it with a smile.” Around the same time, the Maoist cultural troupe, Jana Natya Mandali began extensive tours in the area. The troupe adopted local folk forms to revolutionary themes that Badranna says galvanised the youth.
Badranna was the first one to join the Maoist fold, along with two other men, Bimanna and Deva. The Maoists were keen to recruit women as well but decided to go slow and not approach them immediately. First, Badranna says, they chose to fight for better wages.
In those days, the Maoist guerrillas had access to few rudimentary firearms like the Bharmar (muzzle-loading gun). But they were enough to scare tendu contractors and forest guards who often exploited tribals, threatening to jail them under archaic forest laws, looting their chicken and goats. The Maoists began confronting them. Many were caught and beaten up. The contractors were forced to pay better wages.
In the next stage, the Maoists targeted landlords and distributed their land among the landless peasants. By this time, the Maoists had won the trust of the people. They no longer required the help of a Sarpanch or a Patel.
Once entrenched, the Maoists found a cause that would enable them to find support among women. In tribal societies, menstruation was considered some kind of curse. Once their menstrual cycle commenced, the women were forced to stay in a separate house on the outskirts of the village. They were required to hide and not show their face to a man in case the men happened to pass by. The other custom was to get women married to men much younger. This was to ensure an extra hand for work. Once the woman grew old, the man, still young, would remarry. The Maoists gradually convinced the village elders to discontinue these practices.
These struggles made the Maoists extremely popular among the women. Many joined them to escape the patriarchal and feudal setups.
In 1987, the Maoists burnt down over a dozen houses belonging to upper-caste Thakurs in Chintalnar, who had settled down in this area from western Uttar Pradesh. According to Badranna, there had been cases of ill-treatment of the tribals at their hands. This led to another surge of recruitment, especially of women. It was from here that Badranna’s future wife Latakka joined the Maoists.
By the 1990s, the Maoists had intensified their movement in the whole Dandakaranya forest. The entire Bastar region and Gadchiroli in Maharashtra had become their stronghold. Today, this area forms the main guerrilla zone of the Maoists, the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee (DKSZC).
In 1995, Badranna led a group of 30 Maoists to attack the Thalagudda police station in Bhopalpatnam block. The attack was a failure since Badranna could not properly study the map made by the local Maoist squad. The policemen retaliated, and Badranna had to retreat. One policeman and five Maoists died in this attack, including Badranna’s old friend Bimanna and a woman guerrilla called Kamalakka.
But soon enough, Badranna’s squad was launching many audacious attacks against the police. In Golapalli, Badranna laid an ambush for a police party that resulted in the death of 19 policemen. In 2000, another ambush executed by Badranna in Basaguda block’s Tarem village killed 16 policemen.
It is Basaguda that remained Badranna’s operational area from the mid-1990s till his surrender in 2000. It is here that the Maoists undertook many developmental works in villages. Under Badranna’s guidance, people from nine villagers worked together to dig a large pond and construct a check dam. “I am extremely popular in Basaguda area,” says Badranna, smiling.
In 1999, Badranna says he met a fair-complexioned woman who had come from the city and spoke in English to a few other senior Maoist leaders. Her party name was Jankiakka. “She was extremely brave but suffered immensely because of some illness,” says Badranna. While travelling once along with her, Badranna’s squad came under fire from the police. “I provided cover fire, enabling all of them to flee to safety,” says Badranna.
Jankiakka was senior Maoist leader Anuradha Ghandy, who later died of malaria in April, 2008.Fourteen years later
I decide to check Badranna’s claim of popularity. It has been 14 years since his surrender. I land up in Sarkeguda, under Basaguda police station. It was here in May 2012 that the Central Reserve Police Force’s Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) troops opened fire on a gathering of villagers, killing 17 people. There is a CRPF camp right at the beginning of the village.
I speak with many about the events of that night in May. On the clearing outside the village, where the killings took place, an old man stops upon seeing me and sits to converse. He is scratching deep marks on his thigh that are bleeding now. “I hate the force,” he says, referring to the CoBRA troops. “They have beaten up so many of us; we are unable to go to the forest anymore.” Gesturing with my hand, I ask him to stop scratching. He does not; he looks at me puzzlingly.
“Badranna, do you know him?”
The scratching stops. “I know him,” he says, getting very excited. “Idhar bohot aata tha (he used to come here very often).” The man recounts how Badranna and his men built that pond. “I worked in that project, too.” He is still excited. “Mere ko jaanta hai Badranna (Badranna knows me),” he says loudly.
In 2000, Badranna decided to surrender along with his wife. “I am almost illiterate and it was causing an impediment in my way up in the party ranks,” he says. He got his vasectomy reversed to become a father.
After his surrender, the police would call Badranna over sometimes to acquaint themselves with the Maoists’ strategy. “I always told them: don’t study Maoists. Study yourselves first. Study your weakness.”
“They do not call me any longer.”