Fire with Fire

Ten years of the Chhattisgarh school of counter-insurgency

Founded in 2005, the Jungle Warfare College in Kanker trains troops in counter-insurgency tactics. GARIMA JAIN
Founded in 2005, the Jungle Warfare College in Kanker trains troops in counter-insurgency tactics. GARIMA JAIN
01 August, 2015

ON A LATE-FEBRUARY AFTERNOON THIS YEAR, 44 young women, dressed in khaki T-shirts and olive-green fatigues, sat in serried rows in an open-air classroom in Kanker, Chhattisgarh. They were newly recruited sub-inspectors of the Chhattisgarh Police, now in the last week of training at the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College. In their early twenties, and strikingly fit, the women sat ramrod straight and poker-faced, listening attentively to the person whose presence had dominated the past six weeks of ceaseless instruction.

Yeh toh commando ki factory hai,” Basant Kumar Ponwar, the director of the college, said—this is a factory for commandos. He stood trim, in polished black army boots. The military campaign ribbons on his chest provided the only flash of colour on impeccably creased camouflage fatigues. A former brigadier of the Indian Army, Ponwar now carries the civilian rank of an inspector general of police and runs the college, which he founded in 2005.

Strategically located at the northern tip of the troubled Bastar region, the college’s sprawling campus lies on the outskirts of Kanker town. The deeply forested Keshkal Ghats begin not far south of it, and beyond is a zone that is usually described by the government as Maoist “infested.” It’s a vast area, which covers what are today the seven southernmost districts of Chhattisgarh, and extends into the dense forests of Abhujhmad, a region that abuts neighbouring Maharashtra, as well as parts of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.

Every six weeks, the college puts around 400 trainees through a gruelling “jungle warfare module,” which is meant to prepare them for deployment in the decade-long war of attrition with the Maoists—the cadre of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). In ten years, the college has trained more than 30,000 men and women of the police, as well as others of the Border Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Central Industrial Security Force and the Sashastra Seema Bal.

Ponwar, who founded and has run the college since 2005, is a former brigadier who now holds the rank of inspector general of police. HARIKRISHNA KATRAGADDA

“The government modernises the police, and we modernise the policeman,” Ponwar declared to his audience of what he unfailingly calls “lady commandos.” “We convert the policeman into a fighter. Am I right?”

“Yes, sir!” the women hollered back.

“I don’t differentiate between man and woman,” he said. “Once I teach you to fire an AK-47 rifle, man or woman, 25 or 55, your bullet is not going to go any slower.”

The young sub-inspectors had spent that morning with visitors from the press, striking postures of fearless aggression for a photographer, and they looked tired but happy. For many of them, the new job and this course both offered a sense of liberation from their earlier lives. “We learnt to walk in the dark, that was the first thing,” one woman told me when I asked about the training. “As women, we were never allowed to walk in the dark,” she said. “But we’re not scared of the jungle anymore,” said another.

“Nothing is impossible,” a young commando said in fractured English towards the end of the meeting, a giggle on the edge of her voice. “Im-possible abh I-am possible ho gaya hai”—impossible has become I-am-possible.

When that morning’s pictures appeared in print a few weeks later, it was under the headline “Rambos ready for the Reds.” The title was provocative, suggesting that government troops had the upper hand in the fight. The reality is that the campaign to dislodge the Maoists and their armed wing, the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army, has already cost the lives of more than a thousand policemen and paramilitary soldiers. And, despite the deployment of an estimated 50,000 troops today, many of whom have been honed in the Jungle Warfare College, large swathes of Bastar remain under the Maoists’ sway. Government forces are largely contained in their highly secured camps, stepping out occasionally for patrols, and then too always in very large, visible numbers. The Maoists shelter in the forests, emerging only for sporadic attacks that assert their control.

Barely a month after the “lady commandos” graduated, the bravado was brutally punctured, as it frequently is. Over a week in mid April, 13 government soldiers were killed in three separate Maoist attacks. A patrol of the elite Special Task Force of the police was ambushed in Sukma district, with seven killed; a Border Security Force head constable was shot dead near a BSF post in Kanker district; and five men of the Chhattisgarh Armed Force were killed when their mine-protected vehicle, or MPV, was blown up near the town of Kirandul.

The attacks were part of the Maoists’ “tactical counter-offensive campaign,” timed for the onset of dry weather every year. “Maoists would like Chhattisgarh to be the Yan’an of India,” Prakash Singh, a former senior police officer warned in a commentary piece in the New Indian Express shortly afterwards, referring to the Chinese city that served as the fulcrum of the Chinese Revolution in the 1930s and 1940s. “The battle being fought in Chhattisgarh will decide the fate of the Maoist movement in India,” he wrote.

EARLY THIS MAY, Narendra Modi travelled to Chhattisgarh, on his first visit to the state since being sworn in as prime minister. Two “gifts” for Bastar were announced ahead of his arrival: an integrated steel plant at Dilmili, and the extension of the Rowghat–Jagdalpur railway to Dantewada. Both were aimed at speeding up the industrialisation of the region. The prime minister, the Times of India said, was “taking his Make in India battle cry to the war zone of Naxalite violence.”

The railway extension would allow the people of Bastar new opportunities in education, health and trade, the prime minister promised. The plant, meanwhile, would allow the region to reap the benefits of its mineral wealth. “We have been slow in processing our own iron ore,” Modi said in Dantewada on 9 May. “The time to export our iron ore is gone.” The state government signed memoranda of understanding worth Rs 24,000 crore that day, for projects expected to create employment for 10,000 people.

A Salwa Judum member watches over a village in Bhairamgarh. The state-backed militia has now been disowned by the government. DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

There are major industrial projects underway in the Bastar region already, and they have had well-known consequences for its people. The most significant of these is the “mega” steel plant promoted by Tata Steel in Lohandiguda, on which work began in 2005 with an estimated total outlay of R19,500 crore; and, at Nagarnar, a “mega” steel plant promoted by the National Mineral Development Corporation, with an estimated outlay of R15,525 million, which is due for completion in 2016.

The Lohandiguda project was stalled in its early stages over the acquisition of land—2,000 hectares from ten villages. Around 20,000 people, mostly adivasis, stand to be affected. When villagers in the area first resisted the land acquisition—initially asking for no more than full information about the project, and the fulfilment of proper procedures—they became targets of furious repression. Protesters were brutally thrashed by the police, and there were reports of women being sexually assaulted.

Wary of the new projects planned for the region, locals protested ahead of Modi’s visit. “We will not part with our land. The land is our god,” Shibbu Madkam told NDTV in the days leading up to Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Dantewada. A local adivasi, Madkam was part of a padyatra, or protest march, under the banner of the Adivasi Mahasabha, led by the veteran Communist Party of India leader Manish Kunjam. “We have faith in forest, water and land,” Madkam said. “These trees are our god—how can we give it up?”

As if on cue, at the first murmurs of protest, a man named Chhavindra Karma announced in Dantewada that he would lead a counter-rally—a “peaceful march” through the villages of the area, to persuade adivasis to accept the government’s development programmes and reject the Maoists.

The launch of what Chhavindra Karma called the Vikas Sangharsh Samiti was an eerie reprise of a “peace march” of a decade ago. Chhavindra is the son of the late Mahendra Karma, the adivasi leader who launched the Salwa Judum in the summer of 2005. Official reports at the time described the Salwa Judum as an adivasi “uprising” against the Maoists, and a reaction to “Maoist oppression.” But it was not long before the Judum was exposed for what it was: a civilian vigilante group, created, armed and patronised directly by the state. Mahendra Karma, who led it from the front, was an elected legislator from the Congress party at the time, and was also known to have a comfortable relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Chhattisgarh.

Training at the Jungle Warfare College. Ponwar claims troops have been cured of heart ailments and tuberculosis at his centre. GARIMA JAIN

From June 2005 onwards, disturbing reports trickled in of terrible excesses committed in the course of the Salwa Judum’s joint operations with security forces. In the crosshairs were organisations the Maoists had established and nurtured in the area over almost two decades. Entire villages were set on fire, and foodgrains, livestock and poultry were routinely destroyed. Killings and rape became common.

In less than five years of the Judum’s existence, 644 villages were razed to the ground. The number of people displaced was estimated at 350,000. Almost 47,000 adivasis were moved into overcrowded, unsanitary roadside camps, and another 40,000 fled across the state border, some into Andhra Pradesh and some into Odisha.

A grisly cycle of violence and counter-violence played out. The Salwa Judum sought to contain the dominance of the Maoists. The Maoists responded by escalating their attacks. That, in turn, was met with the launch of Operation Green Hunt, as the massive paramilitary operations that followed were called. With each oscillation in the conflict, the adivasis found themselves further ground down.

BRIGADIER BASANT KUMAR PONWAR arrived in Kanker in 2005, after a stint as commandant of the Indian Army’s Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School in Vairangte, in the north-eastern state of Mizoram. The Vairangte school had been helping the Chhattisgarh government out by training small batches of policemen at its campus. But that was an informal arrangement, Ponwar said, a response to a “friendly request” from the then governor of Chhattisgarh, Krishna Mohan Seth, a retired lieutenant general of the Indian Army and a veteran of its anti-insurgency operations in Nagaland.

The day after the highly decorated Ponwar retired from Vairangte he was on a plane to Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. A strategy had been put into motion by the government, he recalled with some admiration: “Let’s have one of our own, they said. After all, we’ve got everything. We have the jungle. We have the land. We have the people. And we have the problem.” The problem, of course, was the Maoist movement, which has its roots in the peasant uprising that broke out in the north Bengal village of Naxalbari in 1967. Its ideological offshoots include People’s War, the Telangana-based movement which crossed over into neighbouring Bastar in the early 1980s, and over the next twenty years established itself in the forested region traditionally called Dandakaranya.

When he arrived in Kanker, Ponwar’s first task was to shape the landscape to meet his vision. For many weeks, Ponwar trekked through the jungle in the surrounding hills, imagining endurance tracks, firing ranges, obstacle courses and campsites. “I had to go around like a sculptor who looks for rock surfaces,” he told me unselfconsciously, “to see on which rock he can make the statue of Jesus Christ, and on which he can make the statue of Hanuman.” For ten years now, he has personally supervised the building of the college, as bulldozers, tippers and excavators have pushed through the undergrowth and blasted away rock faces.

Hu-ba-hu maidan-e-jang kay jaisay hee prashikshan kendra banana hai,” Ponwar recalled in a well-rehearsed introduction when I met him in late Februarythe training centre has to be just like a real battlefield. It has to have jungle terrain and very little population, and must be close to the actual theatre of battle. But “it had to be reasonably secure too,” he explained. “I can’t have Naxalites attacking my camp. If it had been in Dantewada or Jagdalpur”—where the threat of attack is more proximate—“that would have well happened. And I would have to confine myself to the indoors.” He turned around to a gigantic map that covered almost the entire wall of the presentation room at the college. “Whereas now I have a training area of 20 by 20,” he said, as his laser pointer carved out a massive square on the wall. “That’s almost 400 square kilometres.”

By September 2005, the first group of trainees had passed out of the college, wearing the qualification badge of the “commando”—three golden arrows crossed in an X. “That’s when blue corner started fighting back,” Ponwar said, using the boxing metaphors he much favours. The Jungle Warfare College also acquired a motto: “Fight the Guerilla, Like a Guerilla.”

Ponwar is particularly proud of the helipad he created by what amounted to beheading a hilltop. “Now they all want to use it,” he said with a satisfied grin. “During the elections they all wanted to land here, because the Naxalites were shooting at their helicopters, and they were worried.” The hilltop is almost a kilometre from the college’s secure perimeter, he pointed out, and so faces little danger from rifles or light machine guns. During last year’s election campaign it became the safest place around to land. “The bullet will just get tired, and fall somewhere there,” he gestured expansively. “And you can’t shoot down a helicopter with a tired bullet.”

“Hillocks are lovely things for firing ranges,” Ponwar said to me a little later, almost wistfully. We had stepped out of his four-wheel-drive Gypsy to take in the view of a horseshoe-shaped range from atop a plateau. “Twenty-four commandos can come, cross the water obstacle there,” he said. “Targets will come up from all around, here, there, here, there,” he continued rapidly. “And he fires and fires and fires, improving his reflexes. This whole counter-terrorism warfare is a two- to three-second battle. You have to be very quick in your reflexes—half-a-second response.”

“That’s going to be an ALG”—an advanced landing ground, for small aircraft—Ponwar shouted over the sound of the Gypsy, as we once again bumped over rough ground on my guided tour of new developments at the campus. We moved along a “confined canal,” a kilometre-long waterbody that begins and ends within the college’s grounds. A hundred feet wide, it was being readied for commandos. To make it deep enough to train in, it had been dug 18 feet deep. The excavated earth was used to lay the ground for a short runway running parallel to the canal. “The ALG will eventually be 1,800 metres,” Ponwar said. “I’m getting some more land there. Then even the home minister’s jet may be able to touch down.”

We drove close to the perimeter fence, and beyond lay agricultural fields, bright green with young wheat. A little further away I could see Gadh Pichwadi, one of the 64 villages around the campus, to which the college lays some claim. That’s the 400 square kilometres where the commandos train, patrolling it with the intent to “dominate.”

When the college first took over this area, Ponwar said, and the bulldozers and excavators arrived, people from Gadh Pichwadi (“pichwadi” means backward) and other nearby villages came to him. “We come here to do potty, they said, and you’re taking over our land,” he told me. “This is broken land, why do you want it?”

“Exactly, because it’s broken I want it! Broken land is gold for my training,” Ponwar recalled replying.

Once the land was taken over, Ponwar said, “the villagers were very satisfied, because they got tremendous amount of compensation. I had villagers coming to me and saying, sahib, take my land also. All their boys got new bikes, so they were happy. Paisa mil gaya, they got money. Public toilets were made for them.”

The process may not have been as smooth as Ponwar described. In October 2007, an article in the magazine Down to Earth raised questions about how this land had been acquired. Titled “Illegality in an anti-insurgency college of Chhattisgarh,” it quoted a senior official in Raman Singh’s office advising the chief minister against attending an event at the college, since it stood on “illegal land.”

The Jungle Warfare College was only the most visible appropriation of a large tract of land, Kamal Shukla, a journalist in Kanker pointed out to me. Across Bastar, land has been taken to set up hundreds of camps for police and paramilitary forces; for housing “special police officers,” as former members of the militia Salwa Judum are known; and for surrendered Maoists retained as gopniya sainiks, or secret soldiers. At many places, Shukla said, funds meant for social welfare schemes, schools and community works end up creating infrastructure that will eventually be used by security forces.

The afternoon after Ponwar showed me the “broken land,” I had a visitor in my hotel room in Kanker town. He was not unexpected: I had asked Shukla to help arrange a visit to one of the villages near the campus. The man at my door was Tarendra Bhandari, from Gadh Pichwadi, and had served as the sarpanch of his village for more ten years, between 2000 and 2010.

The 2010 ambush in Chintalnar, in which 76 troops were massacred, was, and remains, the deadliest Maoist attack. AP PHOTO

Bhandari said he had led a fight against the college’s takeover of village land, so he had numbers on the tip of his tongue. Gadh Pichwadi has a population of 2,300 people, he said, most of them Dalit agriculturists. The college appropriated about 129 acres of village land in 2005, but the villagers had received compensation, totalling Rs 1.26 crore, only in 2013.

This was a pittance, Bhandari said. Most villagers spent their money on improving their houses, and some bought motorcycles. The compensation was all spent very quickly. That’s when the problems began. The “broken” land around the village, which its women traditionally used as an open-air toilet, was gone. Women had also used the community pond to bathe in, but with a counter-terrorism training field now across the fence, it had lost its privacy. Gadh Pichwadi’s access to other villages was also suddenly blocked off.

Bhandari was categorical in refuting Ponwar’s claim that public toilets had been built for the villagers and that they were happy. “No toilets were built for Gadh Pichwadi,” he said. “Not by the Jungle Warfare school, not by anybody else. We’re now building toilets through a regular sarkari scheme, in 2015.”

Did he ever meet with the brigadier, I asked? Bhandari smiled drily.

“I was sleeping at home one morning, very early, maybe around six, when my daughter ran in to say there is a man to see you—and he’s on a horse,” Bhandari said. He roused himself to find Ponwar outside, mounted. Shadowing him at a short distance were two other riders.

Humsey dosti karo bhai, dushmani kyon kartey ho?” Ponwar reportedly said—let’s be friends, why do you bear us enmity?

Bhandari was not impressed. “Aap toh suljhey huey ho, aisa nautanki kyon kar rahe ho?” he said he replied. You seem like a reasonable man, why indulge in these histrionics?

“All of this land comes under PESA,” Bhandari said, referring to protections offered by the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, which allows the village gram sabha, or council, control over its natural resources. “But no one, not the patwari, the subdivisional magistrate, the district magistrate”—government officials who oversee land use—“could stand up to the takeover of the village land.”

Paramilitary forces on patrol in Dantewada. Troops in the district have been accused of serious violence against the local population. MANPREET ROMANA / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

“I am not aware of any issues regarding the land,” Ponwar had said in 2007, about the allegations of illegality in acquiring land for the college. “I stand by what I had said,” he declared, when I asked him about this again recently. “Villagers are very happy with us. They come to work here in the buildings under construction. In any case, my task is combat training, not land or other administrative matters.”

THE RUGGED CAMPUS of the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College often feels like a vast stage where a performance is being choreographed, a grand tableau where everything is designed to convey a sense of invincibility. Walk into the main building, and every available wall surface is plastered with huge blow-ups of commandos in what Ponwar called “action pictures”—leaping through flames, jumping from heights, and firing from moving motorcycles. (One puzzling image, which shows up frequently in the media, has the director pointing to a rock face with a slogan painted on it: Mission Janbaz Commando Banana, the mission is to become a fearless commando. His audience is a pack of fairly attentive sniffer dogs.)

Each morning on campus begins with a ceremony of some theatricality. On an earlier visit, in 2009, I watched at daybreak as a flattened hilltop pulsed with what appeared to be scores of bodies, bobbing about in a sort of uncoordinated wave. As the sun began to break through, on a rocky outcrop at the edge of the grounds a young policeman—the name tag on his khaki uniform identified him as an adivasi—raised a brass bugle to his lips. The sounds of the reveille, every note an ironic echo of a colonial past, poured over the grounds, then bounced back from a nearby hill. As it faded, the clip-clop of horse hooves cut through.

Ponwar rode in with almost perfect timing, dressed in a scarlet jacket and black riding boots, on an immaculately groomed horse. A step behind him came two other riders, the pennants on their ceremonial lances dancing in the early morning breeze.

Once the spectacle was assembled, there was not much to follow: some brief announcements, an exhortation to the trainees to do their best, then orders to dismiss the parade. The ritual itself was the point. The trainees rapidly fell out, running downhill for the start of a grueling endurance race.

“It was said in the years gone by that if a collector can control a horse, he can control a district,” Ponwar said to me when we met this year. “For it develops a tremendous amount of leadership qualities.”

But the horses aren’t just for show. “I’ve got horses for another reason,” he added, “which is to use them for armed mounted patrolling.” The plan was to patrol the outskirts of towns such as Bastar, Dantewada and Jagdalpur on horseback, bypass the roads and tracks, and go cross-country. “And be able to give a picture of total confidence as far as the Naxalite is concerned,” Ponwar explained. “Because horses galloping, and firing from horseback—it gives a total fear to the other side.

“In this war there is something also of a psywar,” he added after a pause, referring to the popular term for psychological warfare. “To make the other side think that your end is near—you’ve adopted the wrong doctrine; you’ve taken up arms against the constitution…” He trailed off.

Ponwar claimed that the effects of his training regimen for his charges went beyond physical fitness. “I’ve had people getting cured of diseases here,” he told me. “Diabetes. Low-back ache.” When older policemen show up for training, Ponwar said, “I tell them, don’t worry about this so-called old age.” He asked an assistant to fetch a list of people whose ailments had been healed by the course.

The closely typed log ran into several pages, listing those who had been rid of coughs, colds and allergies, lost weight, and overcome chronic backaches and knee pain. Some had reported improvements in their gastric function and blood pressure. These were not unexpected consequences of a rigorous physical regimen.

Lower down the list, I saw that some had claimed that the training resulted in better eyesight, improved hair growth, and reversed greying. Trainees had reported recoveries from gallstones, heart ailments, even tuberculosis. “All this got cured,” Ponwar said.

A major challenge with working with policemen, Ponwar continued, was overcoming their “thanedar” training. A man who has joined the police expects to sit in a thana—police station—where work starts after a first-information report is lodged, he said. Offensive counter-insurgency operations and combat skills are very far removed from their idea of life in the force. “So he’s got to get converted from normal, law-and-order duty, into a combat soldier. And it’s a mid-course correction, which is even more difficult. Because he’s got used to a different life—lethargic, slow-moving, and, if I may say so, corrupt.

“Every day there is news about police making money, or policemen beaten up, or villagers unhappy with them, all sorts of things. Look at this—” he tapped a newspaper on his desk. “Policemen battered by villagers. Tell me, has a London Bobby ever been battered?”

Traditional police also know little about the guerrilla’s battle tactics, Ponwar said. In the initial years of the insurgency, Chhattisgarh police were thrown off balance by the widespread use of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs—a relatively simple skill that the guerrillas quickly perfected. The security forces learned through experience that just about every motorable road in Maoist-controlled areas had been quietly laid with mines, to be triggered to deadly effect.

In the college’s air-conditioned presentation room, Ponwar impassively called up a series of grisly slides, of newspaper clippings from his first year in Kanker. He paused on one from 3 September 2005: “Naxals blow up police vehicle—20 martyred.” A patrol had squeezed into a mine-protected vehicle, Ponwar explained, assuming it would be safe. “They’re not,” he said emphatically. “The MPV protects you from conventional mines, the kind that you find laid out on the western border against Pakistan, which will only blow off your legs. But not these IEDs, these are 40 kg, 50 kg, 80 kg.” In the recent bombing, in April, the Maoists reportedly used an IED weighing between 80 and 100 kilograms, tossing a 50-tonne MPV right up into the air. Ponwar claimed it left behind an 18-foot-deep crater. “These,” Ponwar added with a dry laugh, pointing to a slide of the blast site, “these can blow a hole in the Titanic.”

In his early days in Chhattisgarh, Ponwar recounted, he asked around among policemen about how IEDs could be detected. “One of them thought for a while, and then said: sahib, when a vehicle goes over it, and it blows up—that’s when we get to know.” They had no clue, he said, and added, with condescension: “They only knew how to die, and then pick up the dead and wounded.”

Ponwar emphasised the importance of the kind of rigour that the army instills in its soldiers. “We start with the aspects of devotion to duty at a very young age,” he said. “As cadets, we are taught leadership traits—integrity, loyalty, devotion to duty, discipline. And very strict on discipline. Showing cowardice in the face of the enemy is a very serious offence. That’s 34A of the Army Act: you can be shot by a firing squad. Quitting the post—if you’re a sentry on this post, you cannot leave it. If the sentry goes ten feet away and he’s sleeping, he’s quit his post. Those kinds of things are ingrained very young in life.”

Ponwar is himself strongly shaped by his army experience. He joined the National Defence Academy as a Gentleman Cadet at age 16, and has been in uniform ever since. That’s 52 years without a break, he pointed out, “probably the longest-serving man in military uniform.”

“I had started studying for the entrance examination when I was in Class 8—longest river, tallest mountain, that sort of thing,” he said with a laugh. His mother was the daughter of an army colonel, and his father a major in the 1st Maratha Light Infantry. Ponwar went on to command this prestigious unit. “The greatest compliment,” he said, in an uncharacteristically personal moment, “was that my sons also joined the army.” Both his sons eventually served in the 1st Maratha Light Infantry, just as their father and grandfather had.

Ponwar spoke with disdain of poorly planned operations and, especially, of lack of discipline in the field. “When I say you will not use the road—period, you don’t use the road,” he said. During the April 2014 election, in the Darbha region of Bastar, CRPF soldiers and polling officials returning with electronic voting machines had chosen to travel in an ambulance, against specific orders that forbade them from riding in vehicles. The Maoists triggered an IED, killing five CPRF men on the spot, and injuring six others. An ambulance technician succumbed to his injuries a day later. “When you are lethargic, you say, chalo sadak sey chalen, let’s take the road. Like those fellows who went in the ambulance. They had no business to get into it, they had no business to be even walking on the road. But they did. And they were blown up.”

A bus destroyed by a blast in 2010. Attempts to find a long-term solution to the conflict have, so far, failed. STRINGER / REUTERS

It was the contravention of orders that also led to a horrific ambush in Chintalnar in 2010, Ponwar said, for “it has never happened in the history of counter-insurgency operations that, at one go, 76 security-forces personnel have been killed like this.”

“If you recollect when those 76 people got killed—here is Chintalnar, here is Tarmetla, where they were supposed to be, and here is Murkam,” Ponwar said, sketching a map of the three remote villages on a notepad. “They were to go all around for 48 hours, they were to dominate the battlefield. To dominate it, you have to actually be in the battlefield. But they rushed through all the villages they were supposed to go to in 24 hours, whereas they were supposed to spend a few hours in each village. That’s how you dominate, like a tiger dominates his area of responsibility.”

The troops had disobeyed instructions, Ponwar said. “They were told that you were sent out for 48 hours, you stay out. So they went to Tarmetla—actually they claimed they went to Tarmetla, but they went to Murkam, which was closer, thinking that we’ll poodle-fake here and get back in the morning. They gave a report that they were at Tarmetla at night. It was a blatant lie. And they’d told the villagers in advance that we’re going to come and spend the night here. They even told them that we’ll get a goat cut, and have a nice picnic lunch, and stay.”

Meanwhile, a column of Maoists, reported to be several hundred strong, was tracking the patrol. They were aided, no doubt, by the fact that this particular CRPF unit had a reputation for ill-treating villagers—“doing all sorts of funny things,” as Ponwar tactfully described it.

In May this year, Chhavindra Karma announced the formation of the Vikas Sangharsh Samiti, a successor to the Salwa Judum. ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ/ EXPRESS ARCHIVE

In the early hours of the morning, when the soldiers had just begun their morning tea and bath routine, the Maoists opened fire from three directions. “They were on a height,” Ponwar said, “while these poor fellows were on the plains area. And they really had it: 76 people killed.

“The first news that was flashed said Tarmetla mein ambush ho gaya”—there’s been an ambush at Tarmetla. “It was a blatant lie, and see what it led to. People were wanting to send help to Tarmetla. But they said, we’re not there, we’re at Murkam. How did you get there? We moved in the early hours of the morning. Another blooming lie. How many lies will you tell?

“These are things that are so essential in the battlefield. That you please speak the truth. You, me, and generally in civilian life, we get into the habit of giving wrong answers. If the wife rings you up in the evening and says, where are you, you say, I’m in the office. Actually you’re sitting in the bloody bar. Whereas in private life it won’t make so much of a difference, or cause damage to relationships, but here these kind of character qualities…” Ponwar shook his head to suggest the consequences.

As someone who has spent the best part of his professional life training other soldiers, Ponwar’s passion for his craft is almost evangelical. But his memory is most sharp when he relives the boots-on-ground experience of counter-insurgency.

As a freshly minted lieutenant with the 1st Maratha Light Infantry, Ponwar said, his platoon ran into an ambush in Yankele, Nagaland. “Tenth July 1971. It was laid along almost a kilometre and half, along an absolute jungle track, on a spine ridge-line, a narrow road with dense jungle on both sides,” he recounted. The admiration for the military prowess of the Naga and their “well-laid out” ambush was obvious. “And they have a dah party waiting,” he added, referring to the machete that Naga warriors traditionally carry with them. “So they can cut the legs and take the weapon away.” Ponwar recounted that seven soldiers under his command were injured in the ambush—“two bullets each”—and that three of them died later that day.

The view from the window of the director’s first-floor office, where we sat, is dominated by a grand avenue that shoots off straight as an arrow till it strikes a highway outside the college at a right angle. Ponwar likes to remind his students of what might await the careless soldier just outside the college. “I tell them—see, there the dead bodies are going, on that road,” Ponwar said, pointing in that direction. “Those 76 men went by that road. It’s the greatest motivation, when I speak to 600 people. There is pin-drop silence, nobody is coughing, nobody is scratching himself. They’re imagining themselves in that situation. Kay hum mar na jayen”—that we should not die.

IN ANNOUNCING the formation of the Vikas Sangharsh Samiti, or VSS, in May this year, Chhavindra Karma was not shy of drawing a connection to the initiative his father had led. “The Salwa Judum part two will be peaceful,” he told The Hindu. “Our main aim is to finish Maoism in Bastar and bring development. Already, more than 18 village panchayats have banned the entry of Maoists in their villages.

Salwa Judum was eventually disowned by the Chhattisgarh government, not least because of a 2011 Supreme Court decision, which struck down the entire arrangement as unconstitutional, and a violation of the right to equality and right to life. The court was responding to a public-interest litigation filed in 2007, which drew attention to the Judum’s gross violations of human rights, and to the lack of legal sanction for arming and training “special public officers.” Forced into a corner, the state government followed the Supreme Court’s orders to close the Judum down, but only in letter: the SPOs were absorbed into the state police as sahayak arakshaks, or auxiliary constables. Many of these young men were “re-trained” at the Jungle Warfare College, and later presented as “Koya Commandos,” to be deployed alongside the CRPF.

Meanwhile, the Maoists had singled Mahendra Karma out as a prime target. He was killed in 2013, with 27 other people, in an ambush on a cavalcade of cars returning from a Congress rally in Sukma. Almost the entire top leadership of the Congress in Chhattisgarh was wiped out that day in Jiram Ghati.

Given the bloody history of the Salwa Judum, it is understandable that politicians from across the spectrum kept away from Chhavindra’s attempts to launch a new iteration of it. The one person who stood by it in public was SRP Kalluri, the inspector general of police for Bastar. “We could not put up proper defense for Salwa Judum in the Supreme Court,” he told The Hindu. “It was an unarmed effort to bring peace to Bastar.” Kalluri described the new initiative as a potential “via media between the villagers and the administration.” The “development” that the VSS aimed at, he said, should not be confused for “bringing multinational companies here.”

“Salwa Judum was an epoch-making event, it started a new era,” he said when we spoke in Jagdalpur in February. “Everyone has their own version, it’s a very controversial thing, but being associated with anti-Naxalite operations since 2004, and from a policeman’s point of view, we look upon Salwa Judum as a spontaneous uprising of tribals against the oppression of outsiders.”

In a career that has ranged from Surguja in Chhattisgarh’s north to his current position as the most senior police officer in Bastar, Kalluri has built a reputation as tough, blunt cop. “I look after seven districts in what is the toughest police range in the country, if not in the whole world,” he said. “The scale at which people die here is not witnessed anywhere else. I’m at the cutting edge, I’m at the focal point.”

Except for a robust pair of walking boots, there was little in Kalluri’s appearance that afternoon to confirm his image as a tough cop. He was dressed in a pale pink shirt and blue jeans, and his forehead bore a tilak. Kalluri is known to be a deeply religious man, and the smear of sacred ash is an essential part of his public persona, even when he is in uniform.

Though he is from Andhra Pradesh himself, Kalluri is deeply suspicious of outsiders in the Bastar region. “The think tank and the brain is from Andhra,” he said. “These people”—adivasis—“are only load carriers, they cook their food, the menial type of work.” In his view, the local Maoists are “bereft of intellect, they do not know what is what. The show is run by the likes of Prashant Bhushan, Arundhati Roy, Colin Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Gaddar, the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Cell here.”

It was an odd list: from Delhi, two public-spirited lawyers of the Supreme Court and a writer; from Hyderabad, a revolutionary poet and a fiery balladeer; and a Jagdalpur-based collective of five women lawyers.

Kalluri is no stranger to controversy. Early in 2011, as the senior superintendent of police for Dantewada, he accused two international humanitarian organisations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières, of providing Maoist cadres with medical prescriptions and treating rebels injured in police ambushes. “They come in the name of the poor,” he told local news channels, but “help the Naxalites.” His superiors in Raipur seemed unimpressed with his allegations, and no further investigations were ever reported.

A few months later, in March, forces under Kalluri’s command were accused of burning 300 homes, raping several women, and killing three villagers. This came after a botched operation in the Chintalgufa area of south Bastar, where several hundred men of the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action, or CoBRA, a specialised unit created to counter the Maoists, alongside more than a hundred Koya Commandos, responded to a tip-off. The Maoist “arms factory” they were looking for was never found, and the mission seems to have subsequently spun out of control.

The problem escalated when district authorities attempted to deliver food and blankets to the affected villages. In an unprecedented act, the assembled forces turned their fury on a group of social activists led by Swami Agnivesh, and on civil administrators and journalists present. This resulted in a judicial inquiry, and Kalluri’s transfer from the region.

Three years later, Kalluri was back, with a promotion. When we met, on the lawns of his official bungalow in Jagdalpur, he said that he believed in a two-pronged strategy. The long-term goal was the “development aspect”—reaching out to people through building roads and schools. “But just like you first have to get the temperature down by giving paracetamol,” he said, “the immediate militarisation, and the teaching of guerilla warfare to the police, is what you have to do immediately.”

The training at Ponwar’s Jungle Warfare College was about essential survival skills and building an acquaintance with the forest, he said. “That is of great value to us. But you may have already understood that I’m personally toeing a different line, not emphasising much on the military line.”

When I met Kalluri late in February, the collapse of the Salwa Judum was already in the distant past. He was grappling with a more current problem. In his first six months in Bastar, he had pushed for an aggressive new “surrender policy,” which he described as “beautiful.” Under it, low-ranking rebels, as well as their village-level sympathisers, were to be prised out of the Maoists’ hold. Those giving themselves up were assured that they would not be killed, that there would be no “witch-hunt,” and that they would get low-level government jobs.

“We thought we will start this, we will give it the pace and momentum of a movement,” Kalluri said. “We were getting very good press and media coverage, there was a hype, and we were actually creating an artificial bubble sort of thing—bhai, there is a disgruntled-ness, and people are crossing the fence and coming over.”

The numbers put out by the police pointed to a major success: six months after Kalluri took over in June 2014, a total of 377 alleged Maoists surrendered. In the 30 months before this, Bastar had seen only 29 hand themselves in. That November alone saw 155 surrenders, 63 of them on a single day. In Delhi, the home minister, Rajnath Singh, cited the record as a measure of Chhattisgarh’s successful anti-Maoist policy. On 30 November, in Raipur, the chief minister, Raman Singh, announced, “The day is not far when the state and centre will together wipe out the Maoist menace and succeed in making a Naxal-free Chhattisgarh.”

The very next day, a massive column of 237 CoBRA soldiers, accompanied by men of the district police, out on an “area domination” and “combing” exercise near Kasalpara village in Sukma district, were ambushed. Fourteen of them were killed, including two officers, and 13 were grievously injured.

Things then changed drastically for the “surrender policy.” Not everybody believed in winning hearts and minds, Kalluri said. Many in the government saw the insurgency as just a military problem, a law-and-order issue. Extremism cannot be solved by development, they said, and to curb extremism you have to use extreme methods.

Kalluri, on the other hand, presented himself as a moderate. “Being the guardians of tribals, killing is not an answer,” he said. “Suppose my son is doing something like not going to school, which is not palatable to me. That does not mean I kill him. I have to first understand what is his intellectual level. I may have passed the UPSC”— the Union Public Service Commission, a requisite for entering police service. “He may not have.”

About what he saw as the errant adivasi he said: “His mental make-up, his genetic make-up—I don’t know whose genes have gone into him. I say that we have to establish a dialogue, let them come, and let us speak to them. Government spends so much on so many things, let them spend a few crores. Even if it does not yield anything, what does it matter?”

Soon after the ambush, the Indian Express scrutinised the police figures on Kalluri’s surrender programme. It turned out that at least 270 of the 377 people who “surrendered” between 1 June and 28 November last year were ordinary villagers, or “routine criminals not eligible to be termed ‘surrendered Maoists.’” “Not one of the 377 surrendered with a weapon,” the reporter Ashutosh Bhardwaj wrote. “Over 80 per cent of those who surrendered continue living in their villages, the remaining ones in police camps.”

Kalluri admitted that controversy had led to a scaling down of the programme. “The way press and media reacted, the way our own officers reacted, this school of thought—of officers who prescribed to the surrender thing—we thought let us go a bit slow on this,” he told me with still palpable regret.

AS NATIONAL HIGHWAY 43, which connects Raipur to the port of Visakhapatnam, approaches Jagdalpur, the roadside is marked by elaborate, stainless steel bus shelters, each one crowned with a strap-around flex-banner acknowledging the generous contribution of “development” funds by local politicians. The government bus service on this route, though, had been discontinued, a local told me. “Sumo-taxis” and private buses that plied the road did not stop at the shelters, but wherever they saw passengers.

Less prominent but more frequent than these unused shelters were new, saffron-coloured boards at each end of almost every village on the highway. Mounted on expensive steel frames, they all carried the same text: “Vishwa Hindu Parishad–Bajrang Dal welcome you to Bastar,” and below that the name of the settlement.

This new aggressive visibility of Hindutva groups is most apparent around Jagdalpur, where Christian missions have made inroads into the adivasi population, particularly in setting up and running schools. In 2014, after several months of sporadic attacks on Christian communities in the region, these schools finally gave in to pressure from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—Catholic missionaries in Bastar agreed to put up photographs of the goddess Saraswati in the 20 or so schools they run in the area. They also issued a written submission of collective regret on behalf of the Catholics “if any community, religion or society was hurt by our community.”

No sooner had they done this than the VHP demanded that the tradition of students in Christian institutions calling principals and vice-principals “father” be stopped. In its place, they put forward the terms “pracharya” and “up-acharya.”

“Father means pita,” a local VHP leader was quoted as saying. “We have only one father, how can we address a teacher as father?” Calling the goddess Saraswati “maa,” on the other hand, was no contradiction, he claimed, because it was a term of respect, and such usage a common practice.

These interventions have also been accompanied by a simultaneous attempt to “rationalise” education across the state, and make the state’s school system more efficient. In July this year, Scroll reported that the Department of School Education had passed an order shutting down 782 schools in Bastar, “to be executed with immediate effect.” This was part of a statewide compliance with the pupil-teacher ratio enshrined in the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. (The “defaulting” schools had a lower ratio—that is, fewer students per teacher—than mandated by the law, usually considered a positive attribute.) In Lohandiguda block alone, where the Tata steel plant is to come up, the government shut down 25 primary schools, 12 middle schools and three high schools early in June.

As village schools are closed in the interior, adivasis are being encouraged to move their children to the new residential schools housed in pre-fabricated structures that have conveniently come up on the highway. Schools in this area will eventually feed into the gleaming new “education hub” at Jawanga, in Dantewada district, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated during his visit. Supported by the corporate social responsibility corpus of industrial groups, the plans for this “world class” educational facility include a Security Guard Training Institute. The playground in the hub’s secure campus also doubles up as a helipad.

Processes like this are eroding what Kalluri, with barely concealed irony, called the “glorious isolation” of adivasis deep in the interiors of the state: “The sort of philosophy where no one wanted to touch the tribals, let them live their own life, let their culture be preserved, so that they are on the brink of extinction.” The violence inflicted by the Salwa Judum and Operation Green Hunt in the past decade; the recent policy of aggressively seeking surrenders; the pressures of industrialisation; the cultural assaults—each of these had played a discernible part in making the adivasis more vulnerable.

One particularly damaging manifestation of this is hidden from the world: the overcrowding of the region’s jails. Chhattisgarh’s jails are already crammed full, with occupancy at 253 percent—that is, they hold around two-and-a-half times more inmates than their stipulated capacity. That is more than twice the national average of 112 percent. The figure for Jagdalpur is 255 percent, for Dantewada 409 percent, and for Kanker 428 percent. These data, for the period between 2005 and 2012, were compiled after innumerable visits to courts and jails and hundreds of Right to Information requests by a group of researchers at the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, who provide legal assistance to prisoners under trial in southern Bastar.

“In Bastar, you are probably better off once you are convicted,” Shalini Gera, one of the JLAG’s founders, said when we met at her office. “Because the situation for undertrials is really bad.” Overcrowding is so severe, especially in the men’s wards, that inmates sleep in shifts, she told me. Bathing is difficult. There are frequent epidemics of diarrhoea, and fights over the use of the inadequate toilets.

The numbers reveal a grim picture of the local population’s experiences with the legal system. In 2012, across India, a little over a third of prisoners were convicts. In Dantewada District Jail, only 3 out of 613 prisoners had been convicted; the rest were all awaiting trial. Kanker District Jail had 7 convicts out of 278 inmates.

The judicial process encountered by the undertrials seemed to barely move in this period. According to JLAG, in 2005, 89 percent of cases in Dantewada judicial district, which covers Dantewada, Bijapur and Sukma, were disposed of in their first year; by 2012, that figure had dropped to 19 percent. Meanwhile, the number of cases dragging on for more than six years went from zero to 18. Ironically, most of the prisoners who do receive a verdict emerge innocent. The JLAG’s data showed the rate of acquittals over this time hovering at around 95 percent.

A Maoist camp in Bastar. The guerrilla fighters retain shelter in the forests, emerging for sporadic attacks that assert their control. EXPRESS ARCHIVE

The conclusion that adivasi society is being slowly twisted on the rack of legal procedure is borne out by JLAG’s experience in navigating the system. “The Dantewada jail is bursting with people,” Gera told me. “But you should see the court. It’s always deserted.” She came to a chilling conclusion. “The whole point,” she said, “seems to be to keep people behind bars.”

AT THE JUNGLE WARFARE COLLEGE there is a list of 48 directions that every commando is supposed to learn.

It begins with the obvious: “Lead an honest life,” “Speak the truth,” and “Should not be in debt.”

Lower down, its focus sharpens: “Remember soldier is the weapon,” “Population is the center of gravity,” “Fight the guerrilla like a guerrilla.” At the very end comes number 48: “Resolution of Naxal problem is your mission.”

“If you have to fight the guerrilla, you have to be like him, and superior to him,” Ponwar said. “In terms of jungle warfare, in terms of living off the land, in terms of firing, endurance, leadership qualities, in terms of guts and courage, and continuous operation in the jungles.”

The guerrilla comes with an ideology, I said. How do you fight that?

“I have a quote painted on a rock at the helipad,” he said. “We are the revolution to eradicate the Naxalites, it says. They are the revolution to bring about a classless society and establish a communist rule in the country. We are the counter-revolution against that.

“Naxalites are questioning the very organisation of India. Sixty-seven years after Independence, we’re still looking for our two meals a day, they say. This is not the India we want. They question the very freedom of India—we are yet to get freedom, they say. Why should we not have a classless society, they say.”

As he spoke, Ponwar riffled through the many drawers of his vast desk, until he found what he was looking for.

An aerial view of the Jungle Warfare College and the surrounding land, where troops train and learn to dominate territory. SAFED HAATHI

“Here’s Mr Mao,” he said, waving Mao’s “Little Red Book.” He began reading aloud: “The ruthless economic exploitation and political oppression of the peasants by the landlord class forced them into numerous uprisings against its rule. It was the class struggles of the peasants, the peasant uprisings and peasant wars that constituted the real motive force of historical development in Chinese feudal society.”

He put the book down with a conclusive thump. “They are questioning the very democratic process of India. They want to have a communist India.”

A FEW DAYS LATER, just as I boarded a plane at Raipur, my phone buzzed with a Whatsapp message from Ponwar, containing a photograph. “Spotted a Panther just below CT,” the text said. “Looked at me for a while.”

CT is Cheetah Top, a pointed summit in the Jungle Warfare College campus that has been levelled to accomodate the director’s bungalow. With its magnificent view of the low hills around Kanker, CT dominates the campus. The edges of its boundary wall, whichever side you look, say: “Fight the guerrilla, like a guerrilla,” over and over again, like a mantra.

At first glance the photograph looked to show only rock and undergrowth. Zooming in to its centre, I saw the unmistakeable shape of a large cat, its head turned to look towards the camera. The spots on its coat were clearly visible, and with a slight stretch of imagination, I could even see two eyes gleaming brightly through the foliage.

Perhaps I thought, with a thrill at the nape of my neck, the wild creature had still not been run out of his domain in the forests of Bastar, not yet.

Sanjay Kak  is a film-maker and occasional writer, whose recent work includes the documentary Jashn-e-AzadiHow we celebrate freedom (2007) about the conflict in Kashmir. He is the editor of the anthology Until My Freedom Has ComeThe New Intifada in Kashmir (Penguin India 2011).