The Dark Side of the Iron Hill

Abujhmad is not alone. Naxal presence has pushed another little-known region in Chhattisgarh deeper into darkness by making all visitors suspect, as Tehelka finds out on a trip to the other side of the Bailadila hills, the side without the iron ore mines Report: Anil Mishra Photos: Vijay Pandey

Iron Hill

“I go to school. It is run by the Naxals. They also decide the syllabus,” said 10-year-old Bhima from Karka village, not far from the National Mineral Development Corporation’s (NMDC) Bailadila mines in south Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district. The Bailadila hills are known for having India’s richest deposits of iron ore. While the mines are on one side of the hill, the Naxal writ runs large on the other side, where children like Bhima live in a world bereft of any sign of development. Tehelkavisited this area inhabited by Gond tribals, where no one had ventured before.

Karka is one of the nearly 80 villages on the little-known, un-mined side of the Bailadila hills — a densely forested region that may be called the ‘other Abujhmad’. We had used the NMDC’s free bus service for the 22-km uphill stretch from Bacheli (400 km to the south of Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur) to Akas Nagar on the hilltop. It was Wednesday, the day of the weekly market in Bacheli, which the tribals from the other side of the hill depend on for nearly all their needs. It’s on this side of the hill that the trappings of development are visible, while the other, ‘unseen’ side is where the waste generated by mining activity is dumped.

Among our co-passengers was Madkam Mangal, 16, who was returning from the market to his village Karka. Every Wednesday, Mangal goes to Bacheli market with a few bottles of sulfi (an alcoholic beverage extracted from a local species of palm tree) to sell, and buys rice for his family. Since it was impossible to find our way through the forests on our own, we decided to accompany him on the four-hour downhill trek to his village. Though Akas Nagar, the hilltop, is in Dantewada district, this side of the hill is in Bijapur district.
When we reached Karka, some young men surrounded us asking, “Why have you come here? Have you taken the Naxals’ permission?” They were scared to talk to mediapersons without the Naxals’ permission, and asked us to write a letter to one Santosh, a Maoist area commander. “Our names are not on the voters’ list and no one in these parts has ever cast a vote,” they said.

There is a total lack of basic facilities for education and healthcare on this side of the hill, although it’s not very far from the mining site. In 2003, the government had opened a primary school in Karka, and a teacher from Bijapur town used to come there occasionally. But the school shut down in less than three months. Villagers also remember that once a doctor from Akas Nagar had conducted a health camp in Karka. That was the only time a doctor was ever seen in the village.

The villagers admitted that the Naxals visit them often, and said that “when we buy anything from the market, the police suspect we are doing it for the Naxals”. Bhima revealed that the Naxals run their own schooling system and sometimes send teachers to the village. The teaching is in Gondi and the lessons relate to historical figures like Bhagat Singh and events like the 1910 Bhumkal rebellion in Bastar.

At the nearby Mudem village, we were asked to sit on cots in a hut, while a few metres away, behind the trees, there was a stage set up with blue plastic sheets, and we could hear a group singing a Gondi song. The few words we could pick up were Bailadila, kranti (revolution), punjivad (capitalism), and after every line, ‘PLGA Zindabad’. The programme was organised by the Naxals’ cultural front, the Chetna Natya Manch (CNM). When we wanted to take photos of the stage, the programme was stopped.

This is one of the villages controlled by the Naxals’ jantana sarkar (‘people’s government’). “The Naxals don’t want us to take any favour from the government,” said 50-year-old Kawasi Hunga. “For the government, we are all Naxals, but that is not true.”
Madvi Soni had gone to Bijapur with two other women some time back to demand ration cards for the villagers, but they were sent back with mere promises. “We don’t have schools, but we know importance of education,” said Soni. “Some of our children are studying in Gangalur. But if any of the men go there, they will be caught and charged in Naxal cases.”

When we reached Elmagunda, there were men in every hut, but the village was eerily silent — a clear sign of Naxal presence. We tried talking to two young men who were carrying bows and arrows, but they ignored us first and then seemed really annoyed. “How and why did you come here? Who gave you the permission?” they asked. When we asked if we could meet any Naxals at Pedia village, they insisted we must go back as no one had permission to go there. “Last year, the police had arrested a few villagers here, and we don’t want to be in trouble again.”

It was getting dark when we returned to Mudem. The villagers were still suspicious of us. When we asked for some locally brewed mahua liquor, they said the stock had been sold out at the weekly market. The Naxals have banned the drinking of alcohol, and alcohol is brewed only to be sold in the market.

Veko Bhime, a 22-year-old woman, recalled that two years back, when she was returning from Bacheli market with her brothers Veko Samaru, Kunjami Rambati and Kavasi Bela, they were picked up from the bus and charged with a bus blast case. “They kept us for five days in the police station before taking us to Bacheli court,” Bhime said. While the two women (Bhime and Rambati) were sent to Jagdalpur jail, Veko and Bela were taken to Dantewada jail. “We have to attend court hearings twice every month,” added Bhime, who spent a year in jail before getting bail.

“Last March the police raided Mudem, Elmagunda and other nearby villages. As it’s tough even for cops to trek down the Bailadila hills, they came from Bijapur. We had to flee into the forests,” said Kawasi Hunga.

We waited for the Naxals to arrive, but they did not turn up that night or the next morning. To avoid having to walk in the forest after dark, we decided to start back immediately, accompanied by two teenagers, Masa and Hurra. We had to be careful to avoid stepping on the ‘pressure bombs’ that the Naxals had planted on the forest paths. When we reached Karka, an old woman told us that everyone was attending a meeting at a nearby village. From there it was a five-hour uphill trek to Akas Nagar, and then we took the bus back to Bacheli.

At Bacheli, we learnt that the Naxals had blocked the road from there to Dantewada the previous night while we were searching for them inside the forests. We realised it was risky to enter this area without the Maoists’ invitation. This is indeed the other Abujhmad — and so close to India’s biggest iron ore mines.

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