White Flag, Black Flag: Independence Day in Bastar

Gompad is a village in the Bastar region of South Chhattisgarh that is a grey zone in India’s republic and among the country’s most highly militarised regions, with one paramilitary guard for every 31 civilians. It has been the site of a decades-long conflict between the Indian state, armed Maoist and other armed vigilante groups, including the dreaded Salwa Judum. India’s “greatest internal security threat” is an unacknowledged civil war that has lead to the mass uprooting of Adivasi families, who are routinely subject to beatings, rape, arbitrary arrests and arson, besides quiet, extra-judicial “encounter” killings in the forest.

It is here in Gompad- where the CPI (Maoist) holds sway- that activist Soni Sori chose to end a week-long march to mark India’s 69th year of independence. As part of her tiranga yatra (tricolour march), the Indian flag would be unfurled for the first time in a region where it is not the tiranga, but a black flag that is traditionally flown. 
 
The easiest way to get to Gompad is a six-hour jeep ride from the town of Jagdalpur, if you can find a driver willing to take you. It was August, and the forests and fields were a shade of audacious green that could easily grow under one’s skin, broken up only by the orange of a CRPF road block and stretches of road festooned in barb-wire ribbon that signal a camp for security forces. Three hours in, you reach the outpost of Dornapal, the site of a relief camp for thousands who were internally displaced, as the conflict reached its peak. From here, it’s another three-hour stretch of bone-rattling road until you get to Konta, the block headquarters of the district of Sukma.

At Konta, you must make it past a final CRPF gate, which may or may not open to you- depending on the season, the violation you’ve chosen to investigate or your allegiances. If your ID cards and name-dropping inspire enough trust and you’re allowed in, you walk barely 500 m and sight a deep trench where the road ends and the dominion of the janatana sarkar begins. Clim over the tree barrier, and now begins the 30 km walk on a narrow forest path before you reach Gompad. On our journey there, some of us were lucky to be able to hitch a ride on motorbikes for a short part of the distance. Unlike us, the tiranga yatra made this entire journey largely on foot after 6 days of walking over a 100 km from Dantewada, stopping at every village to talk about the violations in the region.

Journalist Kamal Shukla and researcher Bela Bhatia pause at a makeshift barrier before they begin their trek to Gompad.

In August, 2016, the collective conscience was aghast at the story of Dana Majhi, an Adivasi man from Kalahandi, Odisha, who was forced to carry his wife’s corpse for 10 km because he was refused a hearse. But the villagers of Gompad have another story to tell- of how they’ve made the 40 km journey through this forbidding forest, carrying the bullet-ridden body of Madkam Hidme not once but twice over.
 
Hidme was a 23-year old Adivasi woman from the village of Gompad. On the morning of the 13th of July, she was shot dead by CRPF paramailitary forces as an alleged Maoist in what they claim was a fierce gunbattle. According to police records, accessed by Scroll.in journalist Malini Subramanium, security forces claim that Hidme had worked her way up from a being a member of the CPI (Maoists) women’s wing, its cultural wing and finally to the military wing of the Kistaram area platoon. According to Hidme’s parents, she was abducted from her home in Gompad, raped and then killed. On the 14th of July, Hidme’s body was found dressed for death in brand-new Maoist fatigues, not a bloodstain on her uniform, despite multiple bullet wounds. Despite rape allegations, no vaginal swabs were taken during the post-mortem conducted that day. Her body was sent back to the village of Gompad.

“No ambulance could go up, and no police official would bother dropping a body back to the village- that is the onus of those who’ve lost,” said Bela Bhatia, a researcher and activist who has lived and worked in Bastar, helping Adivasi women file complaints of sexual assault by security forces. “Only those who have lost must carry that weight.” Regardless of police blockades, Bela found a way in to ensure that Hidme’s body had reached the hospital without incident.

On the 21 of July, following an appeal by Hidme’s parents, the Chhattisgarh High Court ordered another post-mortem. Hidme’s body was exhumed on 25 July, and sent to Jagdalpur Medical College. The post-mortem, besides other things, revealed that the bullet wounds on her body did not correspond to the tears in the uniform. Hidme’s body, in an advanced state of decomposition, was finally sent home to rest.

On this Independence Day morning in Gompad, Soni Sori and her nephew Lingaram Kodopi lead everyone assembled to a tiny patch of forest. An upturned spring cot, balanced on a bed of stones, marked the spot where Madkam Hidme was finally laid to peace. People took turns to pay tributes to Hidme- her aunts, her friends, the children she played with, the village chief, her grandmother who loved her most, weeping near the leg of the spring cot.

The two-minute silence was broken alternately by the sounds of the forest canopy and the clicking of cameras. Travelling with the tiranga yatra were journalists in the region, many of whom have reported extensively on stories similar to that of Hidme’s, and have suffered huge personal and professional setbacks for not toeing the official line. Somaru Nag, sitting at the back of the jeep was quiet, but determined to make it for the march. Somaru, an Adivasi journalist and stringer with the Rajasthan Patrika, was released and acquitted of all charges in July after nearly a year of incarceration, after he was falsely charged with helping Maoists destroy a crusher plant engaged in road construction.

Prabhat Singh, released on bail on June 2, was far more outspoken. “Why not? I’m tasting independence personally today,” he said, when asked why he’d chosen to dress in the colours of the flag. Prabhat was arrested on 21 March for having posted an obscene message on a Whatsapp group which made fun of a senior police official IG Kalluri. While in jail, he was allegedly tortured by the police. “Solitary confinement is a luxury, the jails in Chhattisgarh have no space to even think. There were so many stories of people in jail who were arrested on false charges, but I had no access to pen and paper to write them down,” said Prabhat, who was finally released on 2 June. “Independence as a journalist means being able to speak to both sides, to verify facts and not just be expected to carry one version of the story. But that is what is expected of you in Bastar.”

We walked back towards the clearing where the flag hoisting was to take place. Lingaram Kodopi, sporting a Che t-shirt, was fussing with the flag’s problematic rigging. After much heaving, it caught wind. My eyes strayed from the flag to the grey bank of monsoon clouds on the horizon, the tall toddy palms and the bauxite hills behind us. The residents of Gompad slowly lined up, holding a paper version of the flag before Soni’s speech.

“I thought it was important to hoist the tiranga in Gompad, to remind everyone that Adivasis are also citizens of India, that they are entitled to rights and should be allowed to breathe freedom,” said Soni Sori in her address in Gondi and then in Hindi. “Let us have independence from violence, from arrests, from rapes and threats on both sides. Let the law reach here as well. Why must only we be labelled Maoists?”

Very few, except the outsiders gathered, knew the words to the national anthem as it is sung. But they listened intently as Hidme’s mother, Madkam Lakshmi, speaks. “The government is a thief. It steals our children away from us, but can’t give us even a school.” It is true- there are no schools for miles in these parts, or hospitals. However, instead of expanding schools in the area, at least 3000 schools are being closed down in Chhattisgarh, a quarter of which lie in conflict-affected Bastar. The only schools around Gompad are the porta-cabin schools near the CRPF camp in Konta, and a few inside these margins that we’re told are run by the Maoists.

Madkam Hidme’s mother, Madkam Lakshmi, addressed the crowd gathered in Gondi and urged women to speak up against sexual violence committed by security forces against them.

Not everyone was happy with the need to hoist the flag and the connotations of state occupation that it holds. It was therefore a huge relief for everyone that the flag march went off peacefully. This is a red zone, and while the Maoists did not oppose the march, they were not as welcoming of the flag. This did not deter Soni or the marchers, even after harassment she reported from other quarters. Others point out that security forces have let down their guard. “For once, we haven’t been stopped. I can’t ever recall a journey to these parts that has been so smooth,” said Kamal Shukla, a senior journalist and founder of the Bhumkal Samachar, even as our vehicle is checked thrice, our photographs taken and names registered and re-registered.
 
After the last revolutionary song was sung, and sticky-sweet toffees distributed to the kids, another gathering congregated under the abundant canopy of a tamarind tree. Over 200 people from neighbouring villages hiked for hours to get to Gompad. Buoyed by the developments in Hidme’s case, some of them begin opening up- about loved ones lost to encounters and Maoist jan adalats alike, beatings and sexual violence that have gone unreported. “We found at least 18 cases where people would like to approach the courts- the work will be figured out, but people are now finding the courage to speak up,” said Soni.

Communities here have had to engage with the law for years together and have seen little finality. In the Tadmetla encounter in 2011, where it is alleged that 300 homes were burned, women raped and three persons killed, villagers came standing on pick-up trucks, giving up their wages for a week to give testimony as part a CBI enquiry, several times over the last five years.

Researcher and activist Bela Bhatia in her home in Jagdalpur. In January 2017, a group of 30 people threatened that they would burn down her house and kill her dog if she failed to vacate her home in under 24 hours.

There is no shortage of existing cases, but there is an acute shortage of those who can take the work forward. “Again and again, it is the same bunch of people who show up at the district court to file cases and monitor them,” said an activist from Raipur on her way down from Gompad. She was frustrated, as meetings she attends to drive attention to Bastar draw solidarity, but no real support for overloaded lawyers in other parts of Chhattisgarh. Even those numbers are thinning, as the district administration continue to engage in an open war on neutral witnesses. Lawyers from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group were forced to leave the region in March 2016, following threats from the Samajik Ekta Manch, a local vigilante group that was in cohorts with the local police. Journalist Malini Subramanium was similarly threatened, her car windows smashed and stones hurled outside her home.

Researcher and human rights activist Bela Bhatia was the next inconvenient witness for the police and vigilante groups to hound. In 23 January, over 30 men reportedly entered her home at night, threatening to burn it down unless she vacated the premises. The timing of her persecution is telling. Bela had recently accompanied a fact-finding team of the National Human Rights Commission, which in a rare admission, stated that security forces in Chhattisgarh were guilty of perpetrating sexual violence against 16 Adivasi women in Bijapur district.

It is sobering that it takes a second post-mortem to instil faith that justice might just possible in a place like Gompad. It is that certainty, and not merely a battle of flags, that will give people who live in India’s heartland a Constitution-abiding republic to believe in.