The Palamau Chronicles--- "A Tryst with Maoists" (1995)

Posted by: Raza Kazmi on

 I came across this roughly 15 year old write-up by Dad on the Old WII Newsletters website. This narration was written at a time when the fight for Palamau's future (a fight which as it seems today is all but lost) was at its peak and wherein support came from lets say "Unexpected Quarters". The following is one such 15 year old incident which still gives me goosebumps:

 

 A Tryst With Maoists

                 S.E.H. Kazmi

        

One will agree that 4.00 a.m. is an annoying time to receive a phone call. Especially if you had a late night movie on Doordarshan and your sleep has been disturbed by incessant rains and thunder. I pretended that I do not exist for the caller and hoped secretly that my wife would get up to receive the call. The phone stopped ringing and I was relieved. Oh no! The caller was persistent, it started ringing again. I had to get up. "Yes"? "Sir, I am Rawat speaking. I had been trying to call you for quite some time. There has been a dacoity in the Nature Interpretation Centre and the dacoits have looted four elephant tusks and a leopard skin from there. The chowkidar is badly injured". He spoke in one breath. Many thoughts came to my mind together which can be summed up as ‘To hell with you'. But I said "OK" "Come here to pick me up and let us go to Betla." I explained every thing to my wife and started getting ready.

Rawat came after about 10 minutes. He was the Deputy Director, Project Tiger, Palamau. He was a worried man. The cause of his worry lay in the fact that since Mr P.K. Sen the Director had been promoted as Chief Wildlife Warden, Bihar, the Deputy Director was supposed to be the person in-charge.

It is pertinent to give a background of the Project Tiger, Palamau here, so that the readers can get some idea about the land and the people I am writing about. This might deviate from the main story, but this background is essential to appreciate the sequence of events, especially for those who are not familiar with the set up in Palamau.

The Project Tiger Palamau is situated in the state of Bihar. Legally it is a sanctuary. The world's first tiger census took place here in 1932. Palamau was one of the first eight reserves to be identified for inclusion under Project Tiger in 1973. Lying on the northern edge of the Chhotanagpur Plateau the sanctuary has an undulating landscape with miles and miles of uninterrupted Sal and Bamboo forests. The Koel River and its tributaries like Auranga and Burha, dry up during the summer and water acts as a limiting factor for the wildlife. The area of the project is about 1026 sq kms out of which 213 sq kms is declared as core and the rest is buffer. The project is headed by a Field Director (Conservator of Forests), who has a Deputy Director (Deputy Conservator of Forests), Two Assistant Director (ACF), four Range Officers and other field staff to assist him. The core area is under the direct control of the Field Director. About 500 sq kms of buffer area of Palamau Tiger Reserve is under the territorial control of Divisional Forest Officer, Daltonganj South.

Betla, a small village, is the headquarters of Betla Range. This place has been developed for tourists with a number of hotels and a fine network of all season roads. The Betla forest is very rich in wildlife. With a little luck, a tourist can see cheetal, sambhar, bison and elephants in a short drive of about 1 to 2 hours. It is one of the most popular place for budget tourists from West Bengal. It is situated at a distance of about 25 kms from Daltonganj which is also the most convenient rail head.

Going back to the story I had begun, Rawat and myself started our journey for Betla. Rawat drove silently and we covered the distance in about 30 minutes. We reached N.I. Centre at about 4.45 a.m.

The N.I. Centre had been built with the funds provided by Project Tiger, Government of India and was completed last year only. The building is really magnificent. The compound is spread in an area of about 2-3 acres and it includes life size models of wild animals, a small artificial water-way and interesting sit-outs to attract the tourists. The main building has a lounge, a museum, a conference hall, a library and an office room. On entering the lounge one can see two big doors, one door leads to the museum and the other, to auditorium. The four tusks were fixed on either side of these two doors at a height about 8 feet from the floor. The N.I. Centre was inaugurated only last year by Mr A.R.Kidwai, the Hon'ble Governor of Bihar. Since then we made it a point to show it to all the V.I.P's and I must say that they left the centre more educated. We were really proud of it.

But in the twilight of 27th July, 1995 the Centre presented a very gloomy scene. The whole campus had an eerie silence except the sobs and grunts of the chowkidar - Khamir Ansari. The lock of main gate that leads to the lounge was broken. The dacoits had pulled a table, climbed on it and removed the tusks from the wall. There was concrete dust and rubble on the floor.

Khamir, the chowkidar told us that, he was sleeping in the verandah, because it was too hot inside the lounge, when at about 1.00 a.m. 5-6 people woke him up at gun point and demanded the key to the entrance. He was tied to his charpoi. He resisted, but he was beaten up and the keys were snatched from him. The channel gate which leads to the lounge was opened and the tusks were taken out from the wall. The lock of the museum was also opened and the leopard skin which was displayed there was also removed. The dacoits left the scene after about an hour or so. He waited for some time after the departure of the dacoits and then shouted for help. But nobody came out of the nearby forest guard's quarter. The help came only after the residents of the colony had made it sure that the dacoits had left. He could not recognize any one because of the darkness.

After knowing the details I informed the S.P. Palamau on telephone. He remarked that to him it seemed like an inside job. Meanwhile the Officer Incharge of Barwadih police station had also arrived. An FIR was formally lodged. It was during the drafting of the FIR that I came to know that the looted ivory had been transferred from Singhbhum Division. Its total wt. was 136 kg and it was insured for Rs 5 lacs.

Now let us have a quick look at the scene of crime. I saw there were four types of foot prints - pug marks - on the dust covered floor. One was of a hunter shoe, which is used by field men; the second foot print was of a cheap plastic shoe, which is quite common in this area. The third foot print was, of synthetic sole - a very specific pattern of lines and dots, which are not so common in the area. The last gentle man could not afford a shoe hence his naked foot print - pug mark - was clearly visible on the dust.

By now the news of the dacoity had spread in Betla and nearby villages. All the trackers of Betla Range had collected outside. They are local villagers who are expert in tracking the movement of wild animals. They have been working with us on casual basis since inception of the Project Tiger. Khamir Ansari, the chowkidar, is also a local man and his brother Jamir is also an expert tracker. All the trackers were quite agitated by the treatment given to their colleague by the dacoits. I also gave them a severe tongue lashing. I told them that the dacoits had looted the government property, beaten up their friend, and still they did not come out of their houses. They should also not come out when their women- folk are being kidnapped by dacoits and calling for help. I used very nasty and provocative language. The idea was to make them angry and shameful of their cowardice, so that their collective anger was focused on the dacoity. I told them that if they had any pride or self-respect left in them they should see the tracks of these animals and follow them. They should lead me to them. I must see these animals dead or alive. I threatened to kick them all out from the very same date, if they failed.

The abuses, and the challenge put up before them had the desired effect. They were on the job immediately. They started to follow the trail that was visible because of the wet ground. Soon Jamir, the elder brother of Khamir, told me that Abul and Seraj, two other trackers wanted to have a word with me in private. I called them aside. They told me that they had seen Hadis Ansari of Kuchila and two others loitering around the centre on 25th July in the afternoon. They had asked him about the purpose of his visit to which he had replied that he wanted to show N.I. Centre to his friend. They did not pay much attention to him or his friends. They told me that Hadis was a notorious dacoit who was involved in all sorts of crimes and that he was out on bail. They also said that Hadis was wearing fashionable jazzy high ankle white shoes. They suspected that the "dots and lines" shoe print belonged to him. The other trackers came and told me that the tracks were leading towards Kuchila village via road number-3.

I started walking with them and reached Kuchila which is about 6 kms from Betla. We searched the house of Hadis Mian and detained his father Qurban Mian. He told us that Hadis had not come to the house and he does not have any relationship with him. We did not believe him and brought him to Betla for thorough questioning. During the search of the house we found a pair of high ankle white shoes, the sole of which had a different pattern than found in the N.I. Centre. So, high ankle white shoes were his weakness. While searching the house I saw a framed photograph of a youth of not more than 22-23 years. He was wearing a pathan suit and his head was covered with a scarf. A young boy of about 10-12 years was also there in the photograph which was taken in the back drop of a mosque. There were some more people in the background; probably it was taken on Eid day after the Namaz. The most prominent feature in the photograph was the eyes of the youth - intense, deep set and penetrating. The eyes were challenging the camera or may be the whole world beyond it. I did not like it. I was about to ask for the identity of the youth when Abul mentioned casually that it was Hadiswa. I looked at the photograph again and asked him to remove it from the wall.

One of my tracker Bageshwar Yadav of Kuchila told me that his people had seen and heard Hadis at around 10.00 p.m. last night. They were 7-8 persons and were going towards Betla Forest. Another source, the Station Master of Chhipadohar Railway Station, who also doubles up as ticket collector, at times, told me that he had seen Hadis and five-six others getting down from local train coming from Latehar, at about 9:00 p.m. When he asked them about the tickets Hadis simply told his name and said that the others with him were his friends. He allowed them to go.

By the evening of 27th July, we were almost certain that it was Hadis Mian and his gang who had committed this robbery. We contacted his relatives, his enemies, his friends and anybody who had any thing to do with him. A large number of copies of his photograph were made and distributed. His friends and relatives were questioned and interrogated by the police and forest officers. At places, people were taken to the police station for finer questioning by the police, but there was no trace of Hadis. In the night of 28th, 29th and 30th July, 1995 we raided and searched almost 20-25 places. The idea of raiding all the possible places was to make the area hot for Hadis so that he did not get easy shelter.

On 29th July, 1995 the responsibility of recovering the lost ivory was formally given to me by the Director. The formal order was necessary because I happened to be the territorial Divisional Forest Officer. Betla and N.I.Centre were out of my jurisdiction.

I really took it as a challenge and just wondered "Can I do it?"

We pressed all our resources in tracing Hadis Mian and the ivory. We searched houses, stores, shops, tanks, wells, waterholes, caves and all the places any one could think-of. I told my men that they should put all their might in tracing Hadis and the lost ivory. Every evening I would go to Betla and review that day's progress, I would question or interrogate the persons on whom we had the slightest suspicion. We kept on searching and raiding for Hadis but he had simply vanished. There was lot of wild goose chase. Hadis was supposed to have been seen at Barwadih, Chhipadohar, Latehar and lot of other places, at times, simultaneously.

I cannot forget those ten days of hectic activity and tension. There was a target to be pursued. I was on the move. I was active. I was alive. It was just like old times.

On 8th August, I woke up by the telephone call at about 7.00 a.m. It was Mr Sen, my Chief at Ranchi. He told that the ivory was with M.C.C. "How did he know that?" I asked incredulously. He said that perhaps I had not seen the newspaper. He read the news on the phone. In its press release the MCC (Maoist Communist Centre) had announced that their Red Squad had recovered 4 elephant tusks and the leopard skin from Khairatanr Village of Latehar from the house of one Ibrahim Khan, father of one Atif Khan, a notorious dacoit of Latehar. The ivory was buried in the mango orchard in the backyard of the house. The press release mentioned that Hadis Mian, Atif Mian and then others had looted the ivory from Betla. They had stopped a goods train near Kuchila, loaded the ivory and took it to Demotanr Station near Latehar. The Dacoit duo had given 65,000 rupees to other gang members. But some of them were not happy with the amount of money received as their share and they passed the information to the MCC. The Red Squad of the MCC seized the stolen ivory from Atif Khan's house. They also alleged that the ivory was looted at behest of a local police officer. It was the major news story with photographs etc., showing ivory in possession of Naxalites.

The press release was leaked to the local journalists from a place called Balumath about 125 kms away from Daltonganj. I decided to contact the journalists, personally. I went to Balumath to meet the correspondents on 8th August itself. They told me that they had received a sealed envelope in their letter box and they did not know any MCC activist. I spent the day in Balumath and tried to contact the local MLA and the Police but, did not receive any encouraging response. In the evening I told the journalists that they should convey my message to MCC, that I would like to get the Government property back and I will not pay them any ransom. The MCC must return it if they are the real Naxalites. Otherwise, the people of Palamau will treat them as a band of criminals who had misappropriated the government property. With this message for the MCC, I returned to Daltonganj in the evening.

I gave a detailed account of that day's development to Mr Sen in the night. All the newspapers had published this news in headlines and there were all kinds of conjectures and speculation about the motives of MCC and the chance of recovering the ivory from them. We kept on trying to establish a contact with the party through various sources. Initially there was no positive response from any one. On the evening of 27th August, I received a phone call from one of my local friend. He told me that the MCC was ready to discuss about the ivory, provided, I was ready to meet them at the place of their choice. I told him to give me time to think. I accept that, I was really afraid and nervous because, MCC is the most dreaded Naxalite outfit active in Bihar. One can remember the carnage of Dalelchak Bhagaura in Aurangabad, Tekari and Baran in Gaya and many other places. Photographs of my senior colleague Mr. Srinivasan who was lured by Veerappan with the offer of surrender and killed subsequently, flashed in mind. I did not want to meet the same fate. My contact phoned me again on 29th of August and asked about my decision. I enquired about my safe return. He said that the MCC knows me and I would be absolutely safe. He will accompany me if I trust him. Again I told him to give me more time to think. He said that I must tell him next day otherwise the party would move away and I might forget the whole affair for ever.

I could not discuss this issue with anybody, because of the secrecy and sheer madness involved in the whole operation. What happens if I am taken hostage? What happens to my family if I am simply killed?

After lot of hesitation and thinking I decided to meet the Naxalites. I reasoned that in 4 years of my tenure as Divisional Forest Officer, Daltonganj (S) division, I did not do any thing for which the MCC might be annoyed. I had always tried to help the poor and had acted impartially - without fear or favor. My conscience was clear. And finally if that was the will of the god, that my end should come in this way then let that be. I told Mr Sen about my decision who gave me the verbal clearance to go ahead.

Next day, I told my contact that I was ready to meet the party. He said that he had already promised to MCC that he will bring the DFO to them. On 1st September at about 9.00 a.m. we started our journey in my jeep. I was not told about my destination. We drove for about one hour and reached a village and stopped at a school. After some time, my contact met some villagers and one person came to us and requested me to follow him. We walked in the Maize fields for about one hour and reached the nearby forests. We were stopped by an armed guard; he was wearing a Khaki dress with a red shoulder badge. My contact introduced me, there was a Lal Salaam and we were guided further. Again we were stopped by another guard and the same story was repeated. Thus after being stopped at three places we reached a small clearing of forest where the Naxalites were waiting for us. One comrade came forward and greeted us with Lal Salaam. Apparently he was the leader. As I saw around there were 40 of them. All of them were heavily armed with all kinds of weapons. They sat under the Mahua tree in a semi circle. I was introduced to all of them by their pseudonyms ending in Ji's "Kamal Ji, Vimal Ji, Prakash Ji and so on". All of them told me their names but I know that I was the only person who had told his real name that day.

After the introductions were over, we sat down and discussed the problems concerning the local people, Mao's philosophy, Marxism, Capitalism, Various Naxalite Groups and their differences. They told me that their aim is to have an exploitation free society where poor people have a chance to live with dignity. They emphasized the need of the armed struggle. I heard them patiently - I had to. They told me the details of their getting hold of the ivory. They knew me and my style of functioning. In brief they extended a friendly hand to me and assured that I would get their cooperation and no harm will come to me or any staff of the Project Tiger. By now it was lunch time and I felt hungry. They enquired if I will have lunch with them. I said "Yes".

I looked at the watch. It was 2 p.m. After being with them for 4 hours I left the place with the promise to meet them again somewhere else. The leader said that he will return the ivory to me on 14th September in one of their Jan Adalat. He did not tell me the location. He also requested me to maintain absolute secrecy otherwise----

In the evening Mr Sen phoned me to know about that day's events. I narrated the whole story and told him that he should come to Daltonganj on 12th September; I did not tell him the actual date. The period between 1st September to 13th September was passed in anxious waiting. Will it happen! Can I really do it? I will dream about those dark elusive armed men in khaki who were dreaded terrorists in the eyes of law--So disciplined, cruel and dangerous, yet so cooperative and friendly. Why do they want to do it? Why did they choose me?

On 12th Mr Sen arrived. On the morning of 14th September we left Daltonganj at about 9.00 p.m. with our contact. We started driving on Daltonganj - Ranchi highway and after about an hour we were directed to take a kutcha road in the forest. We were stopped at three places by armed guards and finally we reached a village which had a festive look that day. We were escorted to a meeting ground which had about 5,000 people. There were children, boys & girls, youth and elderly people. I could see the four elephant tusks and the leopard skin on the dais. There was a large podium on which we were requested to sit. The programme included revolutionary songs by girls and boys, speeches on the philosophy of Naxalism. We were also asked to speak a few words. We spoke briefly about the need of protection of forest and wildlife, eco-development project and requested for cooperation in protection of forest and wildlife. Then few old villages handed over the ivory and the leopard skin to us. We returned to Daltonganj at about 4.00 p.m.

So, WE had done it. Next day it was big news in all the newspapers. The press was quite harsh on the police. Naturally, my friends in the local police were very upset. There were veiled and not so veiled threats of using TADA against me on charges of harboring, dealing and sympathizing with a banned terrorist outfit. I waited for them to make their move. I am still waiting.

My friends in the civil administration and in the department helped me a lot by way of moral support. Specially Mr P.K. Sen, my CCF who stood like a rock behind me and saved me from lot of uncomfortable questions, Mr U. K. Sangma, Commissioner of Palamau and K. P. Ramaiah, Deputy Commissioner, Palamau and many more whom I can not name, scolded me for putting my life in danger. I tried to mollify their hurt feelings by giving explanations but some of them including my wife are still angry about it.

A lot of people ask me why did I do it? Why did I take such a risk? Why this criminal disregard for personal safety?

Well, it is very difficult to explain.

I am not a daredevil nihilist motivated by the thrill of challenging death, but, a time comes when you ask certain questions to yourself. You want to know what you are made of ? You challenge yourself by setting targets - at times almost impossible ones.

Then there is a moral issue also. If you cannot risk your life in performing your duty, do you really have any moral right to ask someone else to risk his life?

I hope you have got my answer.

PS:

I did not lose the sight of Hadis Ansari. He was continuously pursued by the trackers - tracked and finally we got him arrested by the police. He was taken on remand. I asked him how did he do that. He told me that it was his third attempt. On the first attempt they were chased by wild elephants of Betla. On the second attempt they entered the wrong building (a private hotel). He told me that they were offered 11 lacs for the ivory by a Ranchi based party. But they were not ready to sell it for less than 15 lacs. Atif Khan, Satya Narayan Sao alias Sattan were the leaders. It was one of Harwaha (farm labourer) of Sattan who over heard the negotiations about the price of the ivory and informed the MCC. Sattan has been shot by the police in an "encounter" near Betla. Hadis is alive and safe in jail. Atif is still running for his life from MCC, Police and Trackers of Palamau Tiger Reserve.