Soft spoken, about 5 feet 10 inches tall and with a neatly trimmed moustache, Deva is dressed in an olive green uniform and has an AK 47 slung on his shoulder. The area commander of the Darbha division of the Maoists extends his hand to greet me.
Not high in the ranks, but the king of his area, Deva lords over a 100 men and played a key role in the lethal attack on top Congress leaders in Chhattisgarh on May 25 last year.
Mahendra Karma, V C Shukla and Nand Kumar Patel were among the Congress leaders killed by Deva and his team months before the state went to the polls. The attack crippled the Congress and reflected just how life-threatening it can be to keep democracy alive here. But the sympathy wave helped the Congress in the assembly elections even though they lost the state. They won eight out of 12 seats in the Naxal zone of south Bastar.
We met Deva in the midst of the mega Lok Sabha election somewhere in the Dandakaranya forest in Sukma, close to Tulsi Dongri that lies on the border with neighbouring Malkangiri in Odisha, also Maoist dominated.
"Abhi meeting chal raha hain, baad main (we are in a meeting currently with the villagers, let's talk later)", he told us.
Deva had summoned village headmen from 15 adjoining villages for updates. Under the shadow of the gun, it's a discussion on how to and who to sell forest produce and also to gather local intelligence.
As Deva left us to conduct his business, we turned to his juniors in the Darbha division.
Under the trees in the middle of the forest, men and women lie on blue and yellow jhillis (a plastic sheet), clean their INSAS and SLR rifles, comb their hair and read party literature. All they own is packed in a tiny bag.
Ramesh, 20 years old I reckoned, offered us the recent party brochure that called for boycotting the general elections, denouncing various political parties as corrupt or revisionist or both. Even the Aam Aadmi Party was dismissed. The CPI(Maoist) - the banned Naxal outfit that propagates left-wing extremism -- says AAP only talks about fighting corruption and inflation. All it wants to do is change the face of the people in power, not their policies.
AAP's candidate in Bastar was Soni Sori, a tribal. She was incarcerated on the suspicion of abetting Maoists. She alleged police atrocities and is currently out on bail. Soni lost.
Many had hoped that the Maoists would support Sori. Neither she nor the Maoists accept her as one of them. She claims to be a victim of police atrocities and said she would fight for the tribals. Some intellectuals expected Sori to be the go between and facilitate a dialogue with the Maoists, with the hope of bringing them into mainstream politics.
Destroying any such notions, the comrades challenged Sori in the brochure - Would she be able to throw out the security forces from the forests of Bastar? Would she get major deals for the resource-rich state -- signed between the government and companies like Essar, Jindal and Tata -- cancelled?
Chhattisgarh suffers from the resource curse. On one hand is the abundance of minerals like iron, coal, limestone and bauxite and on the other lack of basic development. The two are intricately linked.
"I will give up my life for the welfare of my people". Young Ramesh's conviction lies in the state's failure to provide for its people.
Jamila has been with the Maoists for over 15 years, along with her husband. She explains why the elections should be boycotted.
"We are against electoral politics, it works for the rich. Our people are dying of malaria and snake bite".
In a state that has resources worth billions, why are Jamila's friends dying of malaria?
(In the second part of this series, we discuss Chhatisgarh's 'Invisible Dead'.)
(Also Read: Part 3 - Meeting the Maoists: Deva's Argument)
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