A ride into the jungles of Chhattisgarh uncovered stories that were as terrifying as the remoteness of the region
TEN MINUTES was all it took. Ten minutes of conversation with Adivasis who had walked out of Chhattisgarh and into the relative safety of neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, and we knew that we had to follow their trail back into Chhattisgarh. That was Ground Zero. And that was where the story would begin if we wanted to know why Adivasis were leaving all that was familiar behind and walking for days into the unknown.
A string of text messages later and we had a go-ahead from our editor. I looked at my photographer, Tarun. “We have got to go in,” I said. He only grinned in response. In the last two months, this was our second assignment together. The first time around we had headed into the conflict zone in Narayanpatna, Orissa, where the police had shot down two Adivasis. Now it was going to be Chhattisgarh where the State-supported Salwa Judum was on the rampage targeting Adivasis.
We walked into our host’s office and told him we wanted to cross the border into Chhattisgarh. A minute of silence. He then began telling us why we shouldn’t venture in — the police and the Salwa Judum would not tolerate our presence in the area. And we would meet the ‘Annas’ — the Telugu word for brothers that has become synonymous with Maoists. To us, it seemed all the right reasons to go in.
A day later, Tarun and I accompanied three others on motorbikes. A two-hour ride later we reached our first village – the burnt houses were easy indicators that the Salwa Judum had struck here. As we lingered over conversations, three armed Maoist cadres walked out to the clearing. I was sitting a few steps away and could see that the three people accompanying us had sprung to attention. They were nervously explaining their presence to the leader of the trio. Gesturing to Tarun, I said we were journalists from Delhi. I asked the leader if he would introduce himself. No response. No smile either. I asked to interview his leader. Meet us here at 8 am, he said before leaving. One look around, and we knew that the three people accompanying us would not guide us in again the next day. For Tarun and I, not returning was not an option. On our way out of the village and the forest, I left a paper trail — bits of paper strewn along the way to lead us back to the village.
BITS OF PAPER STREWN ALONG THE JUNGLE PATH WOULD BE THE ONLY WAY WE WOULD FIND OUR WAY BACK IN
Over dinner, when we asked about the motorcycle for the next day, more silence followed. Hadn’t we seen enough? The story in other villages would be the same, they told us. Finally, we were handed a motorcycle stripped of its license plates and registration papers. If the Salwa Judum or the police caught us, we were to leave the bike in the forest and pay the owner the market value. We left at 4 am the next day — with enough petrol in the tank to last us a week.
As we went from village to village, we did not think of what would happen if we did meet the Salwa Judum or the police. Flat tyres, a 10 kg camera backpack, long treks, cold nights in the forest and the flood of stories left us with no time to think of how far away we were. It was only later when we were out of the jungle and saw our phones light up with logjammed messages that we remembered. It had been quite a ride.
This article was originally published in Tehelka, a leading independent news magazine in India, known for its investigative journalism.