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How do you win back 11 villages from Naxal control? Check with these 75 policemen

How do you win back 11 villages from Naxal control? Check with these 75 policemen

Author: Vivek Deshpande
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: February 28, 2008
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/277968.html

"One number sentryiiiiiiii..., hoshiyaaaar hai".

The loud, long-winding call in the dead of night breaks the silence in this village situated perilously close to the thickly-forested Naxal dreamland of Abujmad. Twelve hard-hit bangs of tolls rippling out of an iron bell, denoting the time, follow. And barely have the echoes died, there's another one: "two number sentryiiiiiiii..., hoshiyaaaar hai" followed, this time, by a solitary toll. Then another one. And then yet another one. And then the call-toll combo is fired one last time by the fifth sentry.

Spending a night in the vicinity of Jaravandi's fortress-like police station not only unsettles a stranger, but also keeps the village of 3,000 alert, if not awake. Remaining alert should ideally be the name of the game here because Jaravandi as police station has been dealing with Naxalism for 17 years now.

Until four months ago, the area under it was a Naxal hotbed. The Janatana Sarkar bid by the Naxals had policemen hurrying on a "goodwill" mission to the villages and ultimately 28 Naxal workers laid down arms on January 12.

Seventy-eight km from Gadchiroli town and 55 km from the tehsil headquarter of Etapalli, Jaravandi is one of the 44 outposts in the district that has 3,000 policemen for 10 lakh population. The 75-strong posse here, including 32 State Reserve Police (SRP) men and 43 regular state policemen, can't afford one lax moment, what with the Naxals trying to form a Janatana Sarkar (people's government) in 11 villages within the police station's jurisdiction.

"The alert calls ensure that our men remain alert," says Sub-Inspector Sudhakar Dede, 30, who commandeers the police station. Dede, who has been around here for 19 months, has two probationer PSIs Nilesh Gaikwad, 29, and Rajesh Rathod, 26, to assist him. In all, there are four Assistant PSIs and four Head Constables. The rest, including five women, are constables.

Situated inside the village, the police station has five sentry watch-posts along its tall walls mounted with rounds of barbed wires. Being surrounded by the village along three of its watch-posts, the police station has to be extra alert. "One never knows if the enemy is watching you from one of those houses," Dede says.

The two posts at the back face the thick forests, with a beautiful lake silhouetted against it. Just 12 km away lies Kanker, another Naxal bastion and a Salva Judum battlefront, in Chhattisgarh.

"Most of our men are in their 30s. Only the ASIs are 45," Dede says. Indeed, Dede's men do look fit.

Incidentally, Dede belongs to Tuljapur in Marathwada and had never seen Gadchiroli before being sent here on his first posting. The same goes for Gaikwad from Nashik and Rathod from Satara.

"Most of our constables, however, are local tribals, who know the area very well," Dede says.

Unlike many other police stations, 90 per cent of Jaravandi staffers have their families staying with them, but in the village. There is an Ashram School up to Std XII and a private one up to Std X. The village is a marketplace for surrounding villages and has a post-office too.

The policemen have tin barracks as living quarters. "They do get very hot in summer, but despite funds we can't get contractors to build permanent structures - nobody wants to risk coming here. Finally, we have got one and are constructing staff quarters."

Jaravandi's day begins with a roll call, with uniformed policemen doing the drill with their weapons. "We have all necessary equipment - SLRs, walkie-talkies, telephone, a wireless tower, abundant water, etc. And we now also have a TV," Dede says.

A lone jeep stands in the police station's forecourt. "We can't use it. It's risky with the area being strewn with old landmines. We have to walk or use a State Transport bus to go to Gadchiroli or Etapalli," Dede says.

The daily routine of the cops includes going on Short Range Patrol (SRP), a 5-10 km walk in jungles. "We strictly follow the standard operating procedure (SOP). We undertake long range patrol (LRP) spending and camping inside the forest for 2-3 days, 3-4 times a months," Dede says.

While the Additional Superintendent of Police and the DySP visit the police station once a month, the SP also pays surprise visits and calls once every 15 days on wireless. Dede has to attend a review meeting at Gadchiroli every month.

Yet, till four months ago, Jaravandi PS had little to show in terms of control over its area. Eleven of the villages had lapsed into Naxal control and were helping the bid to form a people's government. The Naxals, led by North Gadchiroli Divisional Committee member Joganna, had weaned the villages away from administrative control and had involved them in setting up various committees that would run their government.

"Till October, 2006, the area on the two sides of Jaravandi-Kasansur road was home to intense Naxal activities like road blockades, ambushes, etc. We had great difficulty going to those villages which were completely with the Naxals," says Dede.

"When Kasansur Dalam commander Bharti Akka surrendered in September, she spilled the beans about Janatana Sarkar. Since then, we started an intensive Gram Bhet (village visits) campaign. We told the villages that they are free to help Naxals, but then should anything go wrong they would have themselves to blame for it. We asked them about their developmental needs and assured them to get the demands met from the administration. We persuaded them tirelessly and they finally deserted the Naxalites and surrendered," he says.

DSP Rajesh Pradhan, 30, admits they didn't know about Janatana Sarkar as such, but were aware of the villages following Naxal diktats. "But finally, they have come out of it," he says, adding, "since October, we haven't had a single incident in the area, clearly indicating that the villagers are with us now."

The government has sanctioned about Rs 22 lakh for the development of the villages. But shall the reversal of fortune stay long with the police?

"We will try everything to get these villages what they want," says Pradhan. But going by the government's poor record about building on the gains of Gram Bhet or Jan Jagram Melawa (awareness rallies), it won't be long before Jaravandi villages are again wooed by the Naxalites.

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