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Gaya Days

Gaya Days

Sanctuary’s Lifetime Service Award winner of 2016, S.E.H. Kazmi is synonymous with Jharkhand’s Palamau Tiger Reserve. However, in the early days of his career, he served in the Gautam Buddha Wildlife Sanctuary, a little-known wildlife sanctuary now split between Bihar and Jharkhand. Here, he narrates charming and thrilling anecdotes from those initial years in Chotanagpur's dense forests, to his son Raza Kazmi.

A file picture of S.E.H. Kazmi from when he was posted as an Attached Officer at the Barachatti range, Gaya Division. Courtesy: S.E.H. Kazmi.

My career started with a posting as an Attached Officer at the Barachatti range, Gaya Division in erstwhile united Bihar. Rather than taking residence in an official quarter in Gaya town, I chose to live at the Bhalua Forest Resthouse in the Gautam Buddha Wildlife Sanctuary. At the time, naxals had become formidable non-state actors in the region, and consequently most officials avoided places like Bhalua (and certainly nobody wanted to be stationed there). I loved being in the forest, naxals or no naxals, and so I could think of no better place to base myself out of than this beautiful old forest bungalow with the Mohane river flowing past it, and the dense forests surrounding its environs. I would eventually end up living there for almost one and a half years (August 5, 1987 to Jan 12, 1989). A year into my stay, I got married and my wife, an amazing lady who despite having never  been to a forest before marriage, was perhaps even more eager and excited than me when it came to living in this obscure, godforsaken forest resthouse. Without her love for the forest, wildlife and the outdoors, I would have not been able to do whatever I managed to do, nor would have my children learned to love and appreciate the outdoors and the wilds as they do.

In many ways Bhalua, my range Barachatti, and Gautam Buddha’s wilderness were what shaped me as a young officer and sealed my future course. In those days, wildlife thrived in the place. I never tire of telling people how I have never seen anywhere in India sambars as huge as the ones I used to see in Barachatti, and consequently I have never seen dhole packs of the size I would see here,  a testimony to how copiously stocked with wildlife the forests of Chotanagpur were back then. Interestingly, I was the first officer to officially put on record the presence of elephants in this forest, though the discovery was to the credit of my then forest guard Kamta Singh and the local villagers.

An Ode to Kamta Singh

When I joined Barachatti, like all good probationers, I scanned through the Working Plan and Management Plans of my landscape to read up on the officially recorded fauna of the area. Elephants were conspicuously absent from all these records. But one fine day, soon after my joining, Kamta Singh came to tell me that elephants had been troubling him quite a bit in his area over the past few weeks. Elephants in Gautam Buddha? I immediately balked at the idea and like all naive greenhorn officers trusted the "official records" as my Bible, the sole record of the only truth! So I dismissed Kamta's story and told him that I would only believe him if he brought me evidence. In the meanwhile, I nonetheless informed my superiors at Gaya that my forester had reported elephants from the area. Now it was my turn to be balked at, and disdainfully dismissed by my superior.

However, a few days later Kamta came to me with something in his hand. "Here is the proof sir!", he said, and placed a small piece of broken tusk on my outstrecthed palm! I was astounded, and asked Kamta how had he got hold of this ivory. "One of the elephants was trying to upturn the water uplifting machine and got one of his tusks stuck in the machine. A small portion of it eventually broke off in the machine, I collected it and brought it to you as the proof you had asked for", the guard calmly replied. I asked him where the pachyderms had come from and how long had he known of the presence of elephants in these forests. Kamta told me that a few villagers had guided him to the elephants a few days ago. While this was the first time he had seen elephants here, the local villagers had over the years told him of the seasonal migration of elephants into these forests from Chatra district and that they moved along the banks of the Mohane before eventually crossing over into the forests of the neighbouring Hazaribagh division. Congratulating my forester for his good work, I went straight to Gaya to present the evidence to my superiors. My seniors were flabbergasted as well, but rather than being elated at this first officially recorded presence of elephants in this landscape, seemed to be more worried about the kind of recovery head under which this piece of tusk would fall, and if it should be recorded as a seizure or not. I, in the meanwhile, filed an official report on this incredible record, thus adding a new and very large mammal to the official checklist of the fauna of the area. However, the credit for this discovery goes entirely to Kamta Singh and the nameless villagers who guided Kamta to these gentle giants.

With this incident, I also learned one of the most valuable lessons of my career - that as an officer you must always trust your field staff's word over any official report and manual - a lesson that served me well till the day I retired.

The Sleeping Makna of Mohane

Talking of elephants, a few months after this discovery, Janeshwar Singh, a forester, came up to me one day and curiously asked if I had ever seen elephants sleep on the forest floor like us humans. Elephant presence was one thing, but this story of elephants sleeping like humans? Despite my skepticism, I told Janeshwar that I would believe this incredulous claim of his if he could show such a sleeping elephant to me. A couple of days later, he suddenly turned up and in a hushed tone asked me to accompany him to the nearby riverbed. Soon we approached an elephant herd on the banks of the Mohane. At first I couldn’t make out any sleeping elephant, but then, post a few nudges and pointing from the forester, I could finally see it clearly. And oh what a memorable and moving sight it was! A full-grown elephant sleeping peacefully, lying down on the ground, and rumbling every now and then like a snoring human! We watched him for quite some time, till he slowly got up and then began doing “elephant things” like the rest of his herd. We would see this particular elephant often, and the way he seemed to enjoy every moment of his existence and the elements of his home always made him stand apart from the rest of his brethren. I often wonder what happened to him, especially in light of the Chatra-Gaya-Hazaribagh area turning into a hotbed of human-elephant conflict by the first years of the 21st century, with mining ravaging the entire landscape.

The Nullah Tiger

Another memorable wildlife experience at Bhalua went something like this. Fresh out of the academy in Dehradun where we would jog everyday, I had continued doing so in Bhalua as well. And so I would jog every morning on the forest road leading further into the forest. On this one day, I had jogged not more than 200-300 m. from the rest house when I smelled the putrefying odour of a rotting caracass. I stood still and started sniffing around. The inexperienced novice that I was, I casually followed the smell, which took me off the road, into the forest vegetation and eventually into a dry nullah bed. As I was moving along the bed, the smell becoming more and more acute, I heard a few low grunts from the dense foliage on the banks of the nullah. However, I could not see anything. Like a true amateur, I decided to keep prodding. But then, no sooner had I moved a few yards ahead that I was suddenly greeted with the full blast roar of an angry tiger. Boy! What an effect it had on me - and those few who have been roared at by a tiger from close proximity while on foot will attest to this - I froze for a second in sheer terror, then turned, stumbled, staggered and finally ran like I had never before. Panting and sweating, I reached Bhalua. A couple of hours later, I returned to the spot, this time with 'backup' in the form of my staff with their lathis and axes. There, in that dense shrubbery on the nullah bank, we found the carcass of a cow and the huge pugmarks of a tiger. We never saw that tiger, nor did I ever see a tiger in Gautam Buddha, but I still rate that encounter as one of my most memorable tiger experiences.

A Leopard at Teatime

As I list the most exciting wildlife experiences I had in Gaya, I must tell this story. The rest house had a resident mongrel, an affable little fellow who had been practically adopted by all the staffers, and would hang around in the rest house campus or the staff quarters. Everytime I had tea, I would offer him some biscuits and so he used to punctually arrive at the rest house verandah for his morning and evening snacks. On one summer evening, I was having my tea in the rest house verandah, and Janeshwar, the forester, had just come in for some discussion. Everything was normal - the orchestra of the forest was at play, and I was throwing a biscuit for the dog every now and then. As I was discussing a few things with Janeshwar, suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge leopard leaped out of the bushes to my right and grabbed hold of the dog, less than 10 feets away from me. The dog struggled and howled, and I was completely dumbfounded.  Instinctively then, since I couldn’t think of anything else, I threw the tea I was drinking at the leopard.  A splash of hot tea was the last thing the poor leopard had expected, and it was his turn now to be startled. As soon as the tea showered down on the big cat, he involuntarily dropped the dog who ran howling for dear life towards the staff quarters! The leopard bolted in the direction he had come from. I was trying to wrap my head around what had just happened when I glimpsed Janeshwar who was standing at the edge of the verandah. The poor man, scared out of his wits, fumbled and  stuttered before he finally blurted out the obvious: “Sir, leopard, leopard tha sir!” and I can remember almost chuckling to myself when he said so. The entire drama lasted barely 15 seconds. The mongrel was so scared thereafter that he never returned to the resthouse campus and restricted himself to hanging around the staff quarters.

S.E.H. Kazmi with Prosenjit Dasgupta (right, behind Kazmi) and trackers Yasin Miyan (facing) and Salim Miyan in Betla, Palamau.
Courtesy: S.E.H. Kazmi.

The Poachers and the Painted Aangan

Gaya was also where I had my first encounter with poachers. A local village youth came to me one day looking for a job with the department. Though there were no vacancies at the time, I nonetheless offered him an ad-hoc job as an informer, which he readily agreed to. A couple of days later, he came to me with the news that a sambar had been poached and brought to his village, around 20 km.  inside the forest. Yet again, the inexperienced me immediately got on my Rajdoot bike (in those days we did not get any official four wheeler), with the informer and a guard as my pillion and drove straight to the village, a bumpy two hour ride away. When we came to the village, situated right in the middle of the forest, the informer pointed me to the house where the sambar was supposedly kept. He hung back a few hundred metres since we did not want his cover to be blown. I, on the other hand, without thinking it through, impulsively barged into the house through the open door. And there it was. Inside, in the aangan, was a huge sambar laid out near the well, in the process of being skinned and chopped. A few men were working on the carcass, while the women of the house and some other men, either relatives or potential buyers of the meat, were standing around. As soon as I walked in, everyone stood up in shock, and to be honest I was pretty taken aback by the sight myself. I had not thought this move through, and certainly had not expected to be facing a dozen odd people comprising the poachers and their kith and kin. I mustered courage, introduced myself and asked them what they were doing with a dead sambar in their house.

The men fumbled and stuttered, but then I noticed that there was some gesticulation between them using their eyes and a few of them started moving behind me in an attempt to block the door, my only way of exit. As I looked back, I realised that the guard who had accompanied me to the village was nowhere in sight! I had casually assumed that he was standing behind me, but the poor man had never entered the house! At this moment, my instincts told me that these men sensing me to be a lone junior-looking officer were planning to bump me off right there and that my body would probably end up in the well. I looked around and saw an axe nearby. I immediately grabbed hold of it, and this took the men by surprise. Without a word, and wielding the axe, I managed to get out through the door. There was not a soul outside the house, just my red bike. I hurriedly revved up the bike, collected the contrite guard whom I found a few hundred metres away and I decided to drive straight to the Gaya thana to get police back up and return to this place. It took me around three hours to reach the thana, where as usually happens in these parts of the country, I was sheepishly informed by the thana incharge that while he was completely ready to allot some of his force to accompany me, there was no vehicle to carry them. I eventually hired a matador (a type of village trekker) to transport the forces and after another three-hour ride we were back at the scene of the crime.

However, the only problem was that now the place looked like anything but a crime scene. There was no trace of the sambar, and the entire aangan and surrounding walls had been freshly plastered with cow dung. However, a few dogs were sniffing the spot where I had seen the carcass a few hours earlier. All the men had disappeared, except for a handful who confidently told us that 'sir has mistaken our house for someone else's’ and that they know nothing about any sambar. I nonetheless had the men arrested and hauled to jail at the time, though due to the obvious lack of evidence, there was no conviction. Many weeks later, another informer of mine would tell me that not only were those men well-known local criminals, but also that my hunch that day about them readying to bump me off was correct and some of them had confessed in front of their friends on planning to do exactly that but had to abandon the plan when I unexpectedly grabbed that axe. Moreover, he also reinforced my guess that the well had some role to play in the sambar's disappearance. The informer apprised me that as soon as I had left, the poachers had chopped and then drowned the entire carcass and the entrails in the well in the aangan. I asked him how he knew this, to which he chuckled and replied: "Sir, us din ke baad se ghar mein kuiyaan hone ke bawajood uska aurat log mahina bhar paani ghar se bahut door se kahin se laata tha. Poochne pe bolta tha ki kuiyan mein kutwa kood gaya tha isliye paani bahar se laa raha hai!" (Sir, ever since that day, despite having a well in their house, the women of that house used to fetch water from a great distance for a whole month. On being asked, they would say that a dog had jumped into their well!).

Of Bamboo Smugglers and Naxals

And finally, it was in Gaya where I first contended with naxalism and encountered their cadre. A particularly interesting encounter was when my guards and I were lying in wait of a few bamboo smugglers in the dead of the night. In those days the forest department still bore arms in Bihar, even if the guns were beyond antiquated. As we were heading out for this raid, one of my guards insisted, almost like a child would, that he was very keen on carrying his rickety .12 bore rifle along, even though all of us knew it was no good. Another guard joined the chorus, and I finally relented. On that night, we, the raiding party, had concealed ourselves in the forest vegetation along the kutcha forest road, almost a kilometre from the village of Tetariya. At around one a.m. in the night, we heard the rumble of the tractor with smuggled bamboo heading towards the village. We intercepted the tractor and things started to escalate. The guard with the gun, who was flustered by the situation, lost his nerve when he saw a few of the smugglers getting down from the tractor holding axes. The smugglers in fact were, in my opinion, not coming down with the axes to attack us, but merely looking to escape with these axes that they’d have used to hack down the bamboo. Nonetheless, this nervous guard fired his flimsy rifle. The bullet, as expected, and thankfully so, didn’t go in the intended direction, but there was pandemonium. Another shot was fired in the confusion. Thankfully, there were no fatalities, but in the ensuing melee all the smugglers escaped into the forest and disappeared into the night. I regrouped and calmed my men down and instructed them to seize the tractor and the bamboo, only to be told that none of my staff that day knew how to drive a tractor. And so I drove a tractor, for the first time in my life, and somehow managed to bring the over-loaded vehicle to the Bhalua rest house without turning turtle on the forest road.

By the time we returned, it was almost four a.m. and all of us retired to our beds. A few hours later, around eight in the morning, I was woken up by frantic activity outside. The local thana incharge had turned up to inform us that last night, sometime around the same time that we were busy apprehending the smugglers, a large, armed squad of MCC naxals (Maoist Communist Centre or MCC had by then won the fratricidal wars among the three major naxal groups in Bihar) had descended down to the village and hacked Tanak Singh, the village Mukhiya and a brutal landlord, along with two of his henchmen who had been exploiting the villagers for years, to death. While I refused the officer’s offers to see the mutilated bodies for myself, what I witnessed as I accompanied him to the scene of crime - smoke billowing from the Mukhiya's house and granary, wailing women and relatives, and a deserted village – prepared me for many such violent scenes, unleashed both by the oppressors and the oppressed on each other, that I would see over my years of service in this conflict landscape.

However, what I also realised that day was that unknown to us, a large, armed squad of MCC was possibly hiding in the same forest vegetation around the village as us. And yet, they did not interfere in our job, even when there were a couple of shots fired (which would surely have alarmed the naxals). Later, I was informed by my sources that the squad that day was well aware of our position, as well as the fact that I was leading the raid, but since they believed that the department was doing the right job with sincerity here, they chose not to interfere. I was also told that apparently in the few months that I had been there, the naxals had heard good things about me and my style of work from the locals and thus approved of me as on officer, which further convinced them to let us do our job that night. A few months later, the squad finally descended at my resthouse for some ‘chit-chat’. While the armed members held back on the fringes of the forest, a couple of their leaders came unarmed to see me at the rest house. They sat with me on that very same verandah from where I had thrown the tea on that poor leopard. Sipping on fresh lemonade, our discussions went on for over 90 minutes, covering many issues ranging from them explaining their ideology and movement to discussing ways to conserve forests and wildlife, and then veering onto the “Party’s” stand on the forest department, village and social problems in the area. It was here that I heard from the horse’s mouth, the leaders themselves that they approved of my work and me. I was surprised when they told me that they knew of my entire background, my village in Uttar Pradesh, that I had a red Rajdoot bike that I rode around on while doing my rounds of the forest, and so on and so forth. They offered the forest department and me full cooperation of the Party as long as the department did not harass innocents.

I still distinctly remember how as they were bidding me farewell, one of the leaders who had been mostly quiet throughout our discussions, saw two magazines on my table: The Week and the The Times. His eyes lit up and hesitantly, he asked me – speaking in impeccable English, which admittedly I found surprising - if I could lend him those two magazines. I said that rather than lending, he should take them away as gifts from my side. I never saw them again, and soon I was transferred out of Gaya to the then summer capital of Bihar, Ranchi, with a completely different profile, that of the Publicity Officer of the Information and Extension Division, Social Forestry. Little did I know then that as fate would have it, it would be an assignment while on this post that would introduce me to the place that would not just become central to my career but my life as well: the forests of Palamau Tiger Reserve.

Frozen in Time

Much water has flown down the Mohane river since then. The forests of Gautam Buddha have been silent for decades now. Gone are those ubiquitous large sambars, the chital and the dholes, and leopards. The forest has thinned out, and it’s been decades since the roar of the tiger was last heard here. Bhalua FRH is no longer the isolated eden it once was, and now stands almost on the edge of the National Highway, so thorough has been the forest loss around the rest house. I've never gone back to Bhalua though, for I want to remember Bhalua, its forests and the people I befriended there, both locals and my staff – all of whom are either now long gone or counting their final days – the way I left them in 1989. For me, the calendar of my Gaya Days never turned after January 12, 1989.


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