Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Man Who Went Behind Enemy Lines


The Indian State claims it cannot enter Maoist territory. But a Deputy Collector in Gadchiroli district dared. TUSHA MITTAL brings back Rajendra Kanphade’s astonishing story

Maverick The villagers’ pressing needs won’t cost more than the salary of two constables, says Kanphade

Maverick The villagers’ pressing needs won’t cost more than the salary of two constables, says Kanphade


ON 23 AUGUST, a Deputy Collector in Maharashtra’s Naxal-affected Gadchiroli district tied his long white hair into a ponytail, wore the only pair of sneakers he owns, and set off on a forbidden journey. Rajendra Kanphade, 57, left his spartan government quarter in Gadchiroli town to travel more than 250 km towards the dense forests of Abujmarh. Spread across Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, these forests — believed to be the stronghold of the CPI (Maoist) — have been untouched by the State for decades.

But Kanphade wasn’t going to Abujmarh. He was going into forests that have, in a sense, become no man’s land — into villages trapped between the non-existent Indian State and the almost mythical hold of the Naxals.

‘I am against violence, whether it is from the Naxals or the legalised violence of the State. The Naxals do targeted killings, but the violence of the police is random. It seems the villagers are more afraid of the police than the Naxals’RAJENDRA KANPHADE

Kanphade’s colleagues refused to accompany him. “You can’t predict where the mines are,” they said. The police warned of grave consequences. Gadchiroli SP Viresh Prabhu said he couldn’t provide protection or guarantee his safety. “It is my fundamental right to go anywhere in the country,” Kanphade says. “Just because the police can’t discharge their duty doesn’t mean I won’t do mine.”

Kanphade and seven volunteers left for Beenagonda, a village located 100 km away from the last police outpost on the Maharashtra border, forbidden because of the perceived threat of Naxals.

Kanphade emerged from his journey to challenge this very notion. He emerged more critical of the State than the enemy. “The quantum of the Naxal threat and terror has been exaggerated by the police,” he says. “The Naxal bogey is being used to get more funds and higher salaries.”

After almost a year-long lull, Gadchiroli has seen two Naxal attacks in the past week — four policemen were killed in Perimelli and a police jeep was blown up near Sawargaon. The last major attack was in October 2009 when 14 policemen were massacred in Laheri village in the district’s Bhamragad division. But, look at the larger picture and some of that exaggeration becomes apparent.

Sources in the Gadchiroli police’s Naxal cell said that there are about 300 uniformed Naxal cadres in the district. The combined strength of the state and paramilitary forces for the district alone is around 9,000 — including four CRPF battalions, 11 SRPF companies, the local state police and the C-60, a commando force.

‘In the so-called Naxal area, nobody pointed a gun at me. On coming back, my own police did,’ says Kanphade

A report on left-wing extremism by Gadchiroli’s District Planning Committee, accessed by TEHELKA, puts the figure of “armed assault by Naxals on police, resulting in death (blasting/encounter)” in the district for the 1980 to 2010 period at an alarmingly low 57 incidents — that is less than two fatal incidents per year for the past three decades.

Ever since the launch of a joint offensive against the Naxals last year, voices against the government’s operation have been gathering steam. Typically, these voices have been labelled as activists, Naxal sympathisers or manipulative politicians — not patriotic enough to support valiant soldiers fighting inside the country’s hinterland. But this time, it is a bureaucrat calling the bluff, showing that Naxalism doesn’t have to preclude development, asking for the paramilitary forces to be withdrawn — that is why what Kanphade says is significant. And perhaps that is why, two months after his expedition, he faces the prospect of a departmental inquiry.

The son of a headmaster, Kanphade grew up in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh. He studied in government schools, graduated from Nagpur University with an MSc degree in mathematics and physics, and began teaching at a Nagpur high school. He remembers his first encounter with the government: collecting a teacher’s certificate from a district office in 1984. “They asked me for a Rs. 2 bribe. It made me angry. I refused to pay,” he recalls.

In 1985, he joined the Civil Services to “mend the system”, but soon discovered that “honesty is the worst policy”. As a Deputy Tehsildar in 1988, he learnt of illegal tree felling on 22 hectares of forest land. He hatched a plan to catch the culprits. “If this is how you want to behave, why don’t you go back and teach,” the Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) told him.

When he took over as Deputy Collector in March this year, Kanphade already had the reputation of a maverick who cannot be bribed. Perhaps, that is why when Collector Atul Patne asked 30 officers to check on ashram schools in the district, Kanphade was allotted the most inaccessible one, Beenagonda, a place officials believe is a Naxal stronghold. “It was given to me by ill-intention because there are no roads to get there,” Kanphade says. “I decided to not let that stop me.”

On 25 August, Kanphade and his team reached Beenagonda after walking for 20 km, trekking across hills, and wading through flooded rivulets. One team member almost got swept away by the current, but they saved him in time. It was pouring when the team arrived in Beenagonda. The village has 35 huts and 219 residents. Of the two wells, one is always dry and the other is clogged with rainwater. This monsoon, the villagers have been drinking water from muddy canals. There is no electricity and the nearest market is 57 km away. Two decrepit buildings are the only face of the State — the ashram school funded by the Tribal Welfare Department and a rural health centre, which has neither doctors nor medicines.

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