Under a rebel moon
It is half past three in the afternoon in the hamlet of Mandal,
encircled within a confounding region of east-central India where war
waxes and wanes like a lunatic moon. Lalu’s tea shop and a clothing
store run by a Sikh family are the only establishments open on Mandal’s
high street of packed earth. A pup snoozes nearby as I sip laal chai—tea
without milk—a welcome refreshment after several hours of walking
through forest and along the dry-season flow of the North Koel river.
This is near the tri-junction of the three north-western districts of
Jharkhand—Latehar, Garhwa and Palamu that once freely welcomed tourists
to nearby wildlife sanctuaries.
It’s time for patrols of the Golf and Echo companies of the 112
Battalion of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to return to camp at
the edge of Mandal, area-domination duties done for the day. They do so
as a stream of motorcycle riders followed by a line of walking troopers,
both lots festooned with ammunition packs, AK-series assault rifles,
some fitted with under-barrel grenade launchers and two-inch mortar
barrels slung on the shoulder. A couple of troopers carry Tavor X95
assault rifles, the preferred weapon of CRPF’s special forces called
CoBRA, or Combat Battalion for Resolute Action. Created to fight
left-wing rebels, CoBRA are often mixed in with regular CRPF.
And so it goes. This area of my childhood vacations is today part of
the arms and personnel pipeline of the Communist Party of India
(Maoist). It runs through coal-bearing forest, linking Bihar to the
north with Orissa to the south; the ragged boundary of Chhattisgarh is
to the west. Thing is, in these parts, it’s sometimes difficult to
figure out which Maoists, exactly. CPI (Maoist) lives in Jharkhand with
deadly splinters. These half dozen or so groups are all quite violently
against CPI (Maoist) even as they act violently against one
another—caste equations, ego and nudges by the state aiding the slicing
and dicing of India’s pre-eminent left-wing rebel conglomerate that
preaches equality of class and caste. This chaotic battle is as much for
turf as recruits and revenue—levies that grease rebel gears.
One such group is the Tritiya Prastuti Committee (TPC), which in the
first week of February had a surprise run-in with the convoy of
Latehar’s superintendent of police along a hilly stretch of National
Highway 75 that winds south-east to the state capital of Ranchi, just
over a 100km from Latehar town. This encounter, during which bullets
were fired to no harm on either side, was unusual. TPC, a largely
low-caste grouping, has for long been suspected of being leveraged by
state security against CPI (Maoist). The police convoy and TPC movement
simply happened to chance upon the other.
Then there’s People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI), a Maoist
breakaway largely comprising those of the Yadav caste. PLFI is believed
to be in a waxing phase. A shutdown call by them, apparently triggered
by police arresting family members of some PLFI cadres, slowed commerce
and passenger traffic in this area for three days ending 25 February.
The muscle-flexing, riding on the release of some PLFI leaders this past
year-end, is away from the usual PLFI geography in south-central
Jharkhand and comes at the cost of CPI (Maoist). It’s tricky for CPI
(Maoist), squeezed as they are into a few pockets of Jharkhand, from
having a run of the state till 2007. They have evidently decided to
brazen it out to counter dwindling numbers—pressure from the state and
splinter groups—and protect the pipeline.
CPI (Maoist)’s Bihar, Jharkhand and northern Chhattisgarh special
area military commission has offered no apology for booby-trapping some
security personnel killed in an ambush on 7 January in the Katiya
forests of Latehar. “We have no difficulty in saying that PLGA (People’s
Liberation Guerrilla Army) fighters placed time bombs in the stomach of
dead government troopers,” declared the commission’s spokesman, who
goes by the name of Toofan, in a mid-January statement handwritten in
Hindi and faxed to the media. “If this is a matter of indignity then
every doctor performing autopsies commits similar indignities.” The
statement also asserted that Maoists would attack government forces
“whenever we get the opportunity”.