Be a guerilla to beat the guerillas.
It was this simple strategy that inspired Paaklu Ram Mandavi to escape from the Maoist clutches in the uncharted swathes of Abujh-Maadh right in the heart of Bastar.
For almost two days and two nights, hungry and thirsty, the 17-year-old primitive Maadia tribal trudged through a hilly and forested terrain unknown to the outside world to come out unscathed after being picked up by the rebels.
But for the risk he took, Paaklu would be dead.
“The choice,” he recounts sharing his little-known escape story, “was between sure death and a possibility.”
If he were to be produced before a kangaroo court (people’s court) by Maoists, he thought he would be executed. But if he tried escaping, it was a risk worth a try.
“I would be killed anyway,” he says. He chose the latter option and, succeeded.
It’s a hot summer evening and Paaklu, a shy but confident teenager, is just back home from his newly-found menial labour job in a non-descript corner of this highly-sensitive district.
He’s clad in a yellow T-shirt and a track, his volley-ball dress. About six feet tall he’s a potential national player in the making. Last year, he says, he played for his school at the state and national events.
He’s just appeared for his SSC and wants to continue his studies – something that his teacher Kamlu Ram Wadada would have wanted, he says. “But I want to make a career in sports.”
Not many here know his escape saga yet. The police have advised him to lie low. The danger still lurks. Once a target, he says, always a target. The Maoists never pardon their targets.
“For him it’s not a big deal,” says the Narayanpur superintendent of police Mayank Shrivastava. But in the season of abductions (of the two Italians and an MLA in Odisha) and killings (of the civilians and local political leaders all over the red zone), his escape saga is a rare exception.
“I haven’t heard of any such escape before,” says Irfan Khan, a local Hindi journalist.
Maadh, a living puzzle, an un-surveyed swathe of over 5,000 square km in southern Narayanpur, is said to be a liberated zone of the Maoists where their diktat reigns. There are no roads or lights. For the first time in the history of independent India, about 4000 security troops last month ventured there in a coordinated operation, with a lot of technological and logistical support, and after months of planning.
And yet they could not yet fully decipher the ‘Unknown’.
“I wanted to see my mother,” Paaklu says.
He hadn’t been home in Mathbeda village in Maadh ever since he shifted to Narayanpur for studies in May 2010, after completing his eighth class.
On March 26, the Monday, he wrote his final SSC examination paper and left for Orccha, a tiny block headquarter at the foothills of ‘Maadh’ with inconsequential but some official State presence. In the rest of the hills, the State has virtually no stamp. People from all over ‘Maadh’ unfailingly come to the weekly market of Orccha every Wednesday, to collect their rations and buy the essentials.
Paaklu was sure his mother would come too, so he could see her there on March 28. He’s the only child of theirs to be in school. Two of his brothers died of snake bite in the village. The oldest sibling lives with his wife in Mathbeda. “I thought I will meet my mother and return to my school campus the same day.”
What he didn’t anticipate was that he was on the Maoists’ radar.
Tuesday, March 27, 11 pm: Paaklu and his friend Jailal Kowachi were preparing to go to bed at one of his uncle’s houses, a small but beautiful hut adjacent to the cremation ground in Orccha, when 25-30 male and female Maoists, a few of them armed, suddenly barged in and ordered the two to follow them.
They came from the forests behind the hut, when the town had fallen asleep. Three-four of them had rifles hung on to their shoulders; all of them were in plainclothes – none in the olive green fatigue.
“I was nervous,” he recounts. “It looked like the end of life.”
They had to leave in a hurry in whatever clothes they were wearing. There was no light anywhere, but he gauged they were heading westward – into the ‘Maadh’. “When the rebels felt they were at a safe distance in the forest, they enquired about my friend,” he says. “I told them he is my school-mate and had come with me to meet my mother; they left him unharmed and let him go.”
Kowachi returned and conveyed the news of Paaklu’s abduction to his uncle. The same night, the Orccha police lodged a complaint – but it was now a wait and watch game for his relatives.
“Once my friend had left,” Paaklu remembers, “we began our walk through the forests.” No word was spoken. They seemed to know the pathways. “I kept thinking I am going to die.”
For, he knew of how the rebels executed those who were perceived as “traitors”. At some point, he says, he thought his best chance to live was to escape. He must escape quickly, before the dawn.
After about two hours of walking his abductors decided to cook their dinner and halt there that night. It was, he recollects, a small rocky plateau with an open sky.
“That was the first time they asked me why I spied for the police,” he says. “I pleaded it’s not true; I am studying in Narayanpur; came here to see my mother after my exams.”
They wouldn’t believe. How could the police not utilize the services of a native youth who knows Maadh all too well? “They chained my legs and locked it with a wire,” he says. They had already folded his hands behind his back and tied them with a rope above the elbows, when they picked him from Orccha.
One of the female cadres told him that he would be taken to the higher-ups the next day and produced before a people’s court for his punishment. “It could be death,” he says.
After dinner, they gave him a blanket to cover himself from the cold. The days are very hot but nights on Maadh are mighty cold, even in summers, Paaklu informs.
Two rebels took turns to stand guard with their rifles while others slept, he recounts. On a piece of paper, he draws a sketch to show us how and in which position the Maoists slept surrounding him.
“I was here, in the middle,” he says, pointing a dot in the middle of a circle that represented the rebels. The guerillas were probably among the village-level militia groups that knew him well, he feels. “They would flash torch-light on my face from time to time to keep a check on me.”
In his mind though, Paaklu began to plot his escape. “I managed to untie myself.” First he loosened the knot to free his hands. “Since I was under the blanket they could not see it.”
Then, he quietly unraveled the chain from his legs. “They had not locked it; it was tied with a small wire that I could easily break.” His legs and hands were free, so now he could run.
“I heard a girl cadre say to her comrade that it’s about 4 am and that in some time they will move again before it dawns; that was when I decided to take the risk,” Paaklu says. He held his nerve, mustered all his courage, remembered his mother, and began to count in mind: “One, two, and three…”
The armed guards kept vigil on the other side. He removed the blanket, deftly got up, jumped over the cadres sleeping behind him, and vanished into the forest, even before his abductors could react.
“I ran as fast as possible,” he says. “I was being chased by them but I did not look behind.”
While running he removed his white half-trouser and T-shirt so that they could not see him and then ran and ran until he saw the first rays of Sun, he recollects. “I was heading west but I needed to turn around so that I go back east to Orccha.” For some time he sensed the rebels chasing him; after a while he knew he had left them far behind. That was the dawn of March 28, the day he ought to have met his mother.
Paaklu took shelter in a rocky cave overseeing the valley. “I was feeling the pain in my stomach.” But his mind hovered on his next move. First, he must assess where in Maadh he was.
“I think I must have been about 30-35 km from Orccha to its south west,” he says. He decided to move up the higher ridges, and walk against the sun’s direction east-ward. “Going up was safer.”
He needed to make sure no one saw him. So he used his innate primitive instinct: hide in the light, walk in the dark. He climbed up the hills and hid himself by sunset in a small rocky burrow he’d located.
When it was dark, he began his descent with stars and the moon keeping him the company.
Perched atop a hill earlier, he had sighted a structure in the valley with tin shade. He realized it was the school of Mandali, a hamlet near Orccha. If he reached there, he could hit a forest way to Orccha.
“I walked several hours; it was cold, and I had no clothes on.” As the luck would have it, he saw a forest fire (usually the villagers set forest floor on fire during the Tendu plucking season). “I stayed close to it to keep myself warm,” he says. March 28 was about to end. It had been over 24 hours that he had given the Maoists a slip. He was thirsty – and hungry. But he was not yet safe.
“I had to hide myself until I would cross Mandali,” Paaklu says. He began his trek, this time much slower, at the crack of the dawn. When the sun was overhead on March 29, he says, he could see Mandali. “It has a water pond; I was thirsty, but did not drink water,” he recounts. “I feared being seen.”
Paaklu hid himself beneath a wooden structure near the water pond; to escape from the day’s heat and waited for the evening to set in, telling himself that his ordeal would soon end.
When the second day’s dusk fell he gathered his energy, he says, for the last leg of his escape.
Paaklu crossed Mandali, and hit the pathway that would take him to Orccha. The distance between the two villages is five-six km. After a walk for an hour, he saw a hand-pump – he was almost there.
When he saw the first hut, he went there, and took a towel to cover himself. “The woman gave me rice gruel – I had had something for the first time in two days,” he says.
He rushed to the police station, which is fortified with barbed wire and armed troops keep vigil round the clock. An armed constable couldn’t identify him when he knocked the gate.
“I had turned black; dust and mud was all over my body,” he says. “I am Paaklu, I told the constable; he was surprised. He helped me inside. I was tired; but totally relieved.” He stayed there for two days. The district police airlifted him to Narayanpur on March 31, where he reunited with his school friends.
On April 8, Maoists issued a pamphlet, branding Paaklu as a police informer, like his mentor Kamlu Ram Wadada, a teacher who they had killed in late 2010 on suspicion.
Shrivastava, the Narayanpur SP, insists neither Kamlu was an informer, nor Paaklu is.
Kamlu was Paaklu’s mentor in the Durbeda tribal residential school, one of the few primary and middle schools in ‘Maadh’ that is functioning. It was he who helped the boy secure admission in a government school in Narayanpur to do his SSC. That was the transition from one world to the other, Paaklu says.
Leaving ‘Maadh’ for higher studies in a town is a breach of trust in the eyes of the rebels. So he is now a la comprador for them. He can’t return home; in fact he’s to be on the guard forever.
“Once here, we can’t go back,” says Paaklu’s uncle. “Those who try usually fear execution.”
He’s sad that he could not meet his mother – perhaps he never will be able to see her. Paaklu says it is a reality he must accept. “I am in a different world,” he says. “Maadh is now behind me.”