Chandameta (Chhattisgarh): A Maoist bastion until fewer than two years ago, Chandameta in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar division, will witness an event for the first time on November 7 – its residents will cast the ballot in their own village.
But, more than the prospect of the presence of a polling booth in their village, villagers are celebrating the arrival of electricity, roads, mobile phone connectivity and water supply for the first time, 75 years after India’s independence.
In the interiors of the Bastar division which has significant Maoist presence, Chandameta is the ‘last village’ in Chhattisgarh, and lies below imposing mountains behind which is the neighbouring state of Odisha.
Bastar division includes seven districts and has 12 of the 20 assembly constituencies which will vote in the first phase of two-phased elections on November 7. Chandameta is one of over 120 villages in Maoist-populated Bastar division that will see voting take place for the first time in the villages itself.
Earlier villagers in Chandameta had to walk about 6 kilometres to Chindgur to cast their votes. As many as 337 voters are scheduled to vote in the village on Tuesday.
Of the 80 families that live in the village, almost all have a member who has joined the Maoists at some point. About 10 members of the village are still lodged in Jagdalpur Central Jail for allegedly helping Maoists in the region.
Pardesi Sori, 35, was released from jail on October 27 after being incarcerated for nine years on suspicion of helping Maoists. When Sori went to jail, his village had not metalled roads. There was no electricity, water pump or mobile phone towers.
“The whole world has changed now. We have all of this,” he says to The Wire.
The uphill road leading to Chandameta was built only six months ago. Prior to that it was a mud road, full of boulders. Electricity in the village has also come only last month. However one of the seven sections (paras) of the village are yet to be electrified. Mobile phone towers have been installed and villagers go to designated spots in the village to ‘catch’ the signal and make calls. A water tank was installed last year in April and is connected to four taps, from where villagers fill their vessels for daily needs. Other borewells have also been installed near the river streams in various parts of the village.
Children in the village would earlier travel 5 kms to the next village to go to school. A school has now been set up in Chandameta just opposite the CRPF camp which will serve as the polling booth.
Dhannu, a villager who could not say how old he is, is one to note the changes as welcome ones.
‘My whole youth has been wasted in jail’
Chandameta saw a massive security crackdown in the aftermath of the killing of Congress leader Mahendra Karma in a Naxal attack in 2013 in nearby Jhiram Ghati in Sukma, which wiped out the entire top state leadership of the party.
Sori was arrested in January 2014 from the local market.
“I had gone to the bazaar and the police suddenly turned up there and arrested me and claimed that I was helping Naxalis as an informer. I was doing no such thing but they did not listen to me,” he said.
The terms ‘Naxali’ and ‘Naxal’ are used interchangeably to mean ‘Maoists’ here.
His case dragged on for years in court as witnesses, who he said were largely villagers from Chindgur and police officials, rarely turned up to provide any evidence of his involvement with Maoists in the area.
“If I was Naxali then something would come out, wouldn’t it? But nothing ever came out and finally the case was dismissed and I was released,” he said.
When Sori went to jail his daughter was just born. Nine years on, Sori has met his daughter twice after being released from jail.
“My whole youth has been wasted in jail. Now I want to work hard on my farm to educate my daughter. This is like a new birth for me,” he said.
When asked about what he feels about the prospect of having a polling booth in his own village, Sori said: “Earlier they (police and security forces) would look at us with suspicion, now they are urging us to go and vote. What can I say?”
A shadow on Chandameta’s development
While Sori has been released, about 10 other villagers who were arrested on suspicion of being aids to the Maoists like him, are still lodged in jail.
“We want those who are still in jail to be released as early as possible,” says 21-year-old Shyam Kavasi.
Kavasi said that his family had to leave the village for nine years at the height of Maoist activities in the area and only returned to the village two years ago when a CRPF camp was set up.
“We left out of fear. Even if we had to go to the bazaar we had to get their permission. If we didn’t take permission they would accuse us of going to meet the police,” he says to The Wire.
Kavasi and four others are the only ones in the village who have studied till Class 12. With basic amenities now available in the village, Kavasi said that he wants his village to develop like other areas.
“Electricity has just come at the end of last month but not to the entire village yet. One para still doesn’t have electricity. When we see other villages they are well developed, we also want our village to be developed,” he said.
“If the government had developed our village earlier then this place would not have become Naxal dominated. Several villagers have been killed. Many villagers would see police and run away and the police would shoot them out of suspicion. I know of at least two such cases. The villagers have lost out between the government’s security forces and the Maoists.”
Harish Mandavi, 21, says that villagers often did not have any option but to help them.
“They would come and point a gun to our heads and ask us for rice, dal and other rations or to cook food for them. We had no option but to do as they said,” he says.
Mandavi who has studied till Class 5 say that his father left him and his mother and two sisters in 2013.
“He did not want to live under this kind of pressure anymore. But I never thought of leaving this village. I always thought that if I have to die then I will die here itself,” he says.
Several villagers in Chandameta are still involved with Maoists, say current residents.
Kavasi said that the Maoists would hold political discussions in the village and convince the villagers about not joining hands with the security forces.
“It’s just like political parties hold rallies in which they give speeches,” he says.
“If the government had brought development earlier then maybe Naxals wouldn’t be so entrenched here,” he adds.
Basic amenities of development came to Chandameta only after a CRPF camp was set up in the village about two years ago. Maoist influence in the village has also receded.
Raju Wagh, assistant commandant, CRPF, who is in charge of the camp in Chandameta said that it was not easy for the villagers to trust the security forces when the camp was just set up.
“We built trust over time and made them understand that we are here to help them. When we had just started they would see us and run away because they were scared. We started by teaching the village children in a tent near the camp. We participated in their festivals, pujas, held discussions, and invited them to Diwali celebrations in the camp. We distributed soaps and clothes and blankets. If anyone fell ill and needed hospital care we would send them to the nearby hospitals. None of them had Aadhaar cards or voter ID cards. We got that done as well. It has taken time but now the villagers have come to trust us,” he says.
Villagers The Wire spoke to say they are keen to work with the security forces.
Along with other youth in the village, Kavasi is trying to organise the villagers as a collective to bring more development to the village. Government officials including the Jagdalpur collector have visited the village a few times recently and promised to listen to their demands.
“We are trying to bring everyone together so we can make more demands to the government and bring more developmental work here. Development has come so suddenly here with roads, electricity that villagers themselves cannot understand how these things have happened in a day,” says Kavasi.