Dandakaranya (or DK as bureaucrats and Maoists prefer to call it) lives up to the reputation it acquired in the days of the Ramayana—remote and forsaken. Then it was home to demons who spread terror all around, forcing the meditating rishis to seek Lord Rama’s help during his exile (which he did only to come to grief; demon king Ravana kidnapped his consort Sita). Now it is the Maoist heartland. If you are chasing the leftwing extremists, you end up in DK.
It is tough to go there. One major railways line passes through Raipur but the Bastar region (which forms the largest chunk of DK) is virtually untouched by the Railways. A minor line runs from Visakhapatnam to Bailadila mines in Dantewada. National highways have a better presence than the railways, but only just. The state has no transport service. So, the only way to reach Jagdalpur, divisional headquarters of Bastar, is to take a back-breaking journey of seven hours in a private bus. Even the 'luxury' buses don’t have push-back seats and ACs. The only consolation is that if one takes an overnight bus, there are sleepers, just like in the trains, above the rickety seats. Some have only sleepers and no chairs. Mosquitoes hum in your ears, as if singing lullabies to put you into sleep.
It is even tougher to move around in Bastar. The civilization exists only in dusty little district towns or faraway block and tehsil headquarters. Very few private buses connect them. There are private vehicles that can be hired but the choices are limited. You can move out of Jagdalpur in day time, but not far enough not to return before sundown. In Dantewada, two hours drive from Jagdalpur, it is worse. NH 16 that roughly bisects Bastar horizontally and connects Jagdalpur to Bijapur, is motorable for less than half-way through to Geedam in Dantewada. The Border Road Organisation is building the rest of the road for close to a decade but hasn’t progressed much because of constant attacks from the Maoists. Now under the CRPF presence the highway is dug up. Everyone advises you not to travel further.
Don’t ignore the advice. I did, travelling nearly 35 km of dug up road to reach Abujhmar-- Maoists’ main base in Bastar and spread over Narainpur and Bijapur districts -- only to abandon it because it became too painful for the back. A TI (SHOs are called Town Inspectors in this part of the country) warmed up to show the Salwa Judum camps that dot the road and road building work under security cover, only after surrounding himself with four commandos even in the broad daylight.
Venturing into the interior areas of Dantewada is equally daunting as one finds a few existing roads dug up at every few yards. Some of these have been levelled by the police but not tarred and are thus a virtual death trap as landmines can still be planted without anyone spotting them. There is no traffic, except for an occasional motorcycle rider or a few tribals walking to their destination, home or a weekly haat. There are hardly any villages in the sense you know it. A cluster of four or five huts, separated by miles of jungles, is all you get in the name of a village. (The area SP says it works to the advantage of Maoist militia who can easily melt into the forests and make it difficult for cops to keep a tab on their movement.)
The SP promises to provide a local guide to visit some of the bigger villages around which have pucca buildings (that house schools, hostels and aanganwadis), some of which have been destroyed by the ultras, both to prevent local youths studying beyond the primary level and security forces to set up camps. It turns out that the civilian is a commando carrying a revolver. The local TI says it is just to risky to travel unarmed into the interiors as it is swarmed with the Maoist sympathisers and the dalams.
It also turns out that the driver of the Bolero hired to move around was once a member of a dalam in Bijapur district. He narrates how once he attended a meeting addressed by Ganapathi, general secretary of CPI (Maoist), at the dead of night near his village a couple of years ago and insists that he speaks better English than I do. He also narrates how secret jungle meetings are a great party with dance performances and plenty of chicken and mutton curries.
It is too risky to travel with government officials, especially cops, in Bastar. Cops are risky in Malkangiri, the Orissa district that borders Dantewada and is part of DK, too but not the civil officials. In fact, one is safe with them as they have been co-existing peacefully with the Maoists for close to four decades. (District Collector Dr Nitin Jawale says Malkangiri has been the “resting place” of Maoists who moved around freely, even walking into police stations and sharing meals with the cops. It is only in the last decade that cases of looting armoury and violence were reported.)
No place is safe in Malkangiri, not even the district town. The Maoists had plastered notices threatening to blow up the biggest tribal fair of Orissa held here every year right at the fair ground little over a year ago. The fair ground is bang in the middle of the own and adjoins the Collectorate. The roads are fewer and worse than those in Bastar. The only partially motorable road into the interior areas leads to Chitrakonda (where 36 Greyhound commandos had been mowed down by the Maoists in mid-2008) on the Andhra border. Renting out a vehicle to go to Chitrakonda is a herculean task (no state transport here either). It takes nearly two hours to find one who agrees, but with the condition that we must return Malkangiri before sunset and that he be paid Rs. 1,000, though it is just 60 km away.
Bhubaneswar, the Orissa capital, is 650 km away. The nearest rail-head is at Jaypur in Koraput district (part of the starvation death land), which takes three hours of taxi drive. From there, if you miss the train, it takes 17 hours by bus through the heart of Orissa to reach the capital city. Only those on the Moon can rival the road that takes you from Malkangiri to Bhubaneswar.
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