It is easy to know when you have crossed the Andhra Pradesh border to step into Chhattisgarh. An apology of a road that connects to Sukma town takes three hours to traverse a distance of 75 km. The southern part of the state, just like the border areas in Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh, is forest area, where the police stations are heavily fortified posts, protecting themselves more than protecting the local population. Because more often than not, the cops look at anyone who is not in khaki, as an enemy, a Maoist. And if not a Maoist, most definitely a Maoist sympathiser.
And when the law looks at everyone else as an outlaw, they invariably cross the line. Like the policemen from Andhra Pradesh reportedly did on 12 January when they allegedly crossed the border to take away two tribal women - 21-year-old Madvi Parvathi and 15-year-old Kovasi Somidi - from Nimmalagudem village. Home to some 30 tribal families, the village is in Konta block of Sukma district, 3 km inside Chhattisgarh from the border. The tribals engage in farming for their livelihood, growing paddy, millet and chillies and migrating to areas in Andhra Pradesh during the summer to work as labour.
The Human Rights Forum (HRF) team that visited the village four days later, was told by the villagers that an police party, around 100 persons strong, assaulted villagers, including children before taking away six of them into the forest. They were taken to a spot, about half a kilometre from the village, near a hillock where there were remnants of a camp set up by the Maoists a couple of days back. The security personnel accused the six villagers of providing food and help to the Maoists and allegedly beat them.
It was after repeated pleading that four of them were let off but Parvathi and Somidi were taken away. Parvathi who is three months pregnant, was also allegedly partially disrobed by the all-male contingent of cops.
For days after the `official abduction', the villagers kept combing the forest areas in search of the two women, or perhaps their bodies. Finally they walked nearly two hours by foot to Cherla, a mandal headquarters in Khammam district and narrated the events to local reporters. They also met the Bhadrachalam sub-collector Narayana Bharat Gupta to plead for help in locating the duo. He offered them hope but since yesterday, has been pleading that Nimmalagudem is not part of his jurisdiction.
For the villagers, to be caught in the crossfire between the police and Maoists is nothing new. They say every time there is movement of Maoists in the area or any incident involving the Maoists, the Andhra Pradesh police targets and harasses them. VS Krishna of HRF recalls an incident in Nimmalagudem in 2008 when two men were picked up from the village allegedly by security personnel, taken to Cherla and shot dead. A petition was also filed in the State Human Rights Commission in the case.
After messages sent by fax to the Chief Justices of the Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh High courts seeking their intervention did not yield any result, a habeas corpus petition has been filed in the Andhra Pradesh High court today, to get the police force to come clean on Parvathi and Somidi.
Almost at the same time as the petition was filed in the High court, Gajarao Bhupal, ASP of Khammam police denied having picked up the women, claiming no police party visited Nimmalagudem on January 12.
"There should have been at least a case of missing persons filed in Kishtaram police station under which Nimmalagudem falls but there is no case there. The Chhattisgarh police too has not enquired,'' he said.
In an ironical twist, the villagers plan to travel to Khammam district today to physically mount pressure on the administration came unstuck because the North Telangana unit of the Maoists has called a bandh in the area on some other issue.
That human rights are violated both by security personnel and Maoists is not new. For years, villagers in Naxal-affected areas of north Telangana faced either police harassment or Naxal kangaroo courts, just because they did not have the courage to say no to a man with a weapon. But if India's "greatest internal security threat" is to be fought by the state making several innocents in the geographical 'Bharat' pay the price, it would be a war that would only widen the divide that already exists between the two Indias.
Meanwhile, the state needs to answer : Where are Parvathi and Somidi?