“There is no balance on my cell connection and I don’t have any money. Can you please call me back?”
This was Gudsa Usendi, Maoist spokesperson of the Dandakaranya Special Zone Committee, calling my colleague Uma Sudhir, apparently from somewhere in Chhattisgarh. It sounded amusing that this man representing the biggest internal security threat to the country, presumably flush with funds from extortion and other criminal activities, should be short of cash to top up his Sim card.
But when the same group carries out a dastardly attack like the one on Saturday, you obviously realise Usendi's talk was just a smokescreen, and that the Maoists indeed have enough 'talktime' left. And what's more, with decibel levels loud enough to make Lutyens' New Delhi, which is otherwise deaf to what happens in Chhattisgarh, sit up and take notice.
After the manner in which the shoot-at-sight was carried out by the Maoists at Darba Ghat between Sukma and Jagdalpur, it would be naive to conclude that their firepower is on the wane just because they are occasionally silent. For those who understand how the Maoist mind works, this tactical counter offensive campaign was just waiting to happen.
On the face of it, the attack is a colossal failure on the part of the Chattisgarh police. The National Investigation Agency which has been entrusted the case, now has the task of finding out :
* Who cleared the decision of the Congress leaders to move together to Jagdalpur from Sukma in a convoy of 25 cars? And when?
* How many people were aware that many top leaders would be travelling together? Because it is obvious that even the Maoists would need sufficient time to mobilise more than 250 cadre. It certainly raises suspicion whether someone from inside the Congress or the police camp had leaked precise information about the tour plan well in advance. The Maoists knew Congress leader Mahendra Karma - the founder of the anti-Naxal Salwa Judum movement and at the top on the Naxal hitlist - was part of the group and according to eyewitnesses, even came asking for him. And after killing him, reconfirmed that it was indeed Karma.
* Bastar is Red territory and fraught with risk. And here was a route which included forest area with a hilly terrain with a height ideal for Maoists to take positions and attack. Moreover, it is a single lane stretch, which should have ideally had deployment of security personnel at the time of the convoy passing through it.
* Mahendra Karma, who had survived half a dozen attempts on his life, was provided with Z plus security. But what is the quality of this Z-plus security that runs out of ammunition?
Yesterday, the Congress party's spin doctors ensured Sonia Gandhi's anger at what the party thinks was not foolproof security for its leaders, was broadcast on electronic media. While her concern is understandable, Mrs Gandhi would do well to realise that looking at death in the face is pretty much a way of life for the thousands of tribals, as well as security personnel deployed in Chhattisgarh. In these parts, neutrality is not a virtue you can flaunt. You are either dubbed as a Maoist sympathiser or a police informer, and dealt with accordingly by either of the two gun-toting groups.
Just last week, a CRPF team killed eight villagers, three of them minors, in Bijapur district, while engaging with a Maoist group that was presumably hiding in the village. The killing created a furore in the area, with angry villagers demanding the CRPF go back. In many of these parts, the CRPF is seen as an alien creature, speaking Hindi (as opposed to the local Gondi language) and it is easy for the Maoists to dub them the 'enemy'.
Jairam Ramesh can call the death of his colleagues a "holocaust", but he ought to know Chhattisgarh sits on a ticking time bomb every single day. I recall this conversation I had with a constable from Giddam police station, 15 km from Dantewada town two years ago. I asked him if he feels safe when he is travelling to and back from work.
“We are always in mufti, Sir. Not in uniform,” he replied.
“But in this small place, everyone including Maoists would know you are a constable, wouldn’t they,” I probed.
The veneer of bravado crumbled. “Yes they do and that makes me an easy target. In fact, when I came here first, I would look at just about everyone with suspicion, thinking any one of them or all of them could be a Maoist,” he said.
Do you hate the Maoists, I asked. “There is no such feeling,”, he said. “We represent the state and they have vowed to overthrow the state by using the gun. So if I come face to face with a Maoist, whoever pulls the trigger first will live to fight another day. Simple.”
The fact is that while the top brass of the Congress is indulging in chest-beating over the killing of its own, it has never quite bothered beyond routine condolence messages when Adivasis, CRPF or Koya tribals appointed as special police officers on a stipend, were killed. I have seen bodies of the 76 security personnel who were killed in the Chintalnar massacre in April 2010, lying even 18 hours after their death outside the primary health centre in Sukma in the blazing sun. A long was time taken to fill their details in government forms before the bodies were taken away to perform the last rites. Sensitivity wasn't shown even after they were no more.
Amresh Mishra, who was then SP of Dantewada, told me that the first thing he did when the bodies arrived, was to order bulbs for the primary health centre. Four days later, when we visited the injured at the health centre, they were lying on blood-stained bedsheets. How come there was no chest-beating then? Rahul Gandhi should realise that the killing of those 76 people and numerous others after that, including through fake encounters, were as much an attack on democracy as this one on his party men.
While he is in Chhattisgarh, Rahul Gandhi would do well to visit a CRPF camp and talk to the jawans there. If their superiors allow them to talk freely, they will tell him if there is a hell on earth, it is there. Where life is all about thinking how death will reduce them to a mere statistic in the state's glorified war against Naxalism.