Rambati Baghel’s cell phone rang early on the morning of 14 September 2015. The call came from the Darbha thana, about five kilometres from her village Kakkalgur, in Bastar district in Chhattisgarh.
“Come to the police station at once,” the person on the line told Rambati, the sarpanch of the Kakkalgur gram panchayat, created barely eight months earlier. “Two people have been arrested from Bhadrimau.” The para—neighbourhood—of Bhadrimau, where the two men had been arrested, came under the jurisdiction of the Kakkalgur panchayat. As sarpanch, the caller told her, she was required to come to the police station.
Rambati knew that five days earlier, on 9 September, paramilitary personnel had beaten up the residents of Bhadrimau with sticks at a weekly market in a neighbouring village. She also knew that on 10 September, people had been picked up from Bhadrimau: unexplained detentions are a part of Adivasi life in Bastar.
Rambati wasted no time after the phone call. She called her son, 17-year old Somaru, an eighth standard dropout, to take her to the station on a motorbike. About half an hour later, after a treacherous journey along the dirt track through the forest, they reached the thana—only to be told that Rambati was required at the police station in Jagdalpur town, 30 kilometres away.
The police offered to help. A policeman would take her to Jagdalpur on his bike, and her son could follow. The two motorcyles left for Jagdalpur at around 11 am but Somaru couldn’t keep pace. “I had learned how to ride a bike only recently, and was too slow to keep up with the policeman,” Somaru told me later.