Two days before the first phase of polling on April 11 in Chhattisgarh, an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded at Shyamgiri hills in the heart of Dantewada district in South Bastar, killing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA Bhima Mandavi and four others, including his personal security officer, driver and two security personnel. An escort vehicle following their car came under fire from Maoist guerillas. Less than 400 metres away, the children of the Balak Ashram Shyamgiri were playing and saw the car being flung high above the trees before being tossed several meters away, according to Pankaj Singh Bhadoriya, a local reporter.
On the day of the election, on April 11, all that remained at the spot was a gaping hole, a pair of shoes belonging to the dead and mangled auto parts. The road was being widened and the IED might have been planted during the construction, surmised local people. Even as the sun beat down ruthlessly on the Nakulnar-Bacheli road, villagers marched to the Shyamgiri polling station to cast their votes amidst tight security.
A security personnel told Frontline how the sarpanch of the village, Joga, arrived at the polling booth in the morning, encouraging other villagers to come. By 5 p.m. that day, the polling station, which had a booth for Khutepal village as well, recorded a turnout of 77 per cent. Whether the villagers arrived of their own free will or were brought by security forces was unclear. When this reporter asked the kotwal (police officer), Kunjami Boti, which party held sway in these parts, he quietly raised his hand, indicating support for the grand old party of India.
While left-wing extremists had not specifically called for an election boycott in that village, the tension in the air was palpable. An old man from northern India, settled in Nakulnar for the past few decades, took great pains to convince this reporter to turn back. “Do not go into the interior area. They do not spare their own brethren, we are outsiders. And, to top it off, you are a journalist,” he said. His fears were not unfounded.
This particular township of Dantewada was no stranger to armed conflict between the government and Maoists. In 2010, guerillas had stormed the house of a Congress leader, Avdhesh Gautam, in Nakulnar, injuring his wife and killing his brother-in-law and an employee. Since then, an armed force battalion has been permanently stationed at the entrance to the township.
In 2016, seven Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men were killed in an IED blast between Mokhpal and Mailawada villages. Earlier, armed guerillas used to kill only security forces, but then they started targeting politicians. The murder of Mandavi has shocked many villagers as he was an Adivasi, whose cause the Maoists claim to uphold.
The People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) took responsibility for the attack and justified it by saying that Mandavi was an extremist cadre who belonged to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). Villagers across Bastar, which is considered the nerve centre of the conflict, told Frontline how, in the past few years, Maoists had been targeting and killing Hindu right-wing extremists. Frontline could not verify these claims independently but found that there was a popular resentment against the penetration of the right-wing forces in the Adivasi heartland through Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams, Gayatri Parivar and Saraswati Shishu Mandirs.
Whether a coincidence or not, Mandavi was an MLA from the reserved Assembly constituency of Dantewada that used to be held by Mahendra Karma, the founder of Salwa Judum, from 2003 onwards. In an eerie similarity, Karma was killed just before the elections in the infamous Jeeram Ghati massacre of 2013. After his death, his wife, Devti Karma, held the seat from 2013 until December 2018, when Mandavi wrested it from her. The Communist Party of India’s Manish Kunjam, too, had contested from the seat in 2008 but lost to Mandavi by a huge margin.
The migrant population in the townships could not understand why Mandavi was killed. “Apart from being a kattar [hardened] RSS cadre, the poor chap did not harm anybody,” they said. No matter which party sends its representative from Bastar to Delhi, it cannot escape a separate and more fierce battle with the Maoists in the forests.