In June 2019, 13 years after it was demolished by Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres using IEDs, a school in Jagargunda in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district has reopened. Apart from being a centre of learning for tribal children in the area, the school has come to represent the end of 14 years of isolation. The decade and a half-long history of the village is a fascinating read in the annals of counter-extremism in general and counter-left-wing extremism (LWE) in India in particular.
Jagargunda has had a tumultuous past. Once a thriving and reasonably prosperous village and a market for traders from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh to sell their products, it became a hub of extremist activity in 2005. A counter in the form of the state-sponsored vigilante group, Salwa Judum, started to take the fight to the Naxals. The tribal villagers were caught in the crossfire. Three access roads to the village were cut off by the Maoists who blew up bridges and culverts on the roads connecting the village with Vijaypur, Aranpur via Dornapal, and Chintagufa. Jagargunda could only be accessed via a 100 km detour from Kuakonda to Dornapal via Sukma along National Highway 221.
Many villagers abandoned their houses in the village. For those who could not, the village was fenced by barbed wire from all sides and protected by about three companies of security forces. Gates to the village still remained opened for 12 hours a day, from 6.30 in the morning to 6.30 in the evening; for the villagers to move out, work in their fields, and return to their homes. However, declared a ‘Salwa Judum pro-government village’ by the extremists, life outside the village perimeter was always fraught with danger. Media reports spoke of a team of 150 extremists lurking around the area and dominating many neighbouring villages around Jagargunda. Life in the village, cut off from rest of the district, had become unsustainable.The Hindu termed the village a “militarised atoll” and India Today, “a land-locked and inaccessible island.”
Sometime in 2012 and 2013, the state government took two important decisions to improve the living conditions of Jagargunda’s inmates.
First, it started secretly moving people from neighbouring villages to Jagargunda. Building cluster villages is an old counter-insuregency (COIN) tactic employed with varying degrees of success in Malay, Vietnam, Mizoram, and Tripura. A tightly held secret until the local media revealed it, these coerced population transfer schemes were implemented in many villages across the state. Villagers from CPI-Maoist dominated Milampalli, Kunder, Tarlaguda, and Kodmerwere moved into Jagargunda. Some of these villagers had to leave behind their land, homes, and livestock. The net impact of abandonment of the nearby hamlets was a sudden surge in Maoist influence. An area of about 900 sq km around Jagargunda was now available to them. Inside Jagargunda, this sudden population surge led to an acute shortage of food, and therefore, the second policy decision.
The government started transporting ration to Jagargunda. Since the roads were not safe even with security force deployment, such transshipment of ration for people using trucks was limited to twice a year, once in summer and once in winter. Each of the 538 families in the village, irrespective of their size, was given 1.5 quintals of food items in one go. This made the task of storage and safekeeping a logistical nightmare. It also meant that the families had to manage with reduced floor space in their small homes in the initial months. On most occasions, supply remained erratic. In November 2014, the scheduled bi-annual arrival of ration was delayed by two months. There were local media reports of incidents of rampant hunger in the village. The security forces guarding the village were marginally better. They received their ration by choppers. When the choppers did not arrive in time, due to inclement weather and other logistical issues, they reduced their food intake or borrowed from the villagers.
Although Sukma continues to be one of the few LWE-affected districts of the country, the security situation in Chhattisgarh has improved significantly over the years. Most of it is due to the implementation of New Delhi’s plan to reduce extremist influence in the Bastar region. Road development and an infrastructure push are key elements of this strategy to end the security and governance vacuum in the area. Among several ongoing projects is the 56 km concrete road being built between Dornapal and Jagargunda at enormous cost. IED explosions and encounters have claimed the lives of several security force personnel. Once completed, it will end Jagadurga’s isolation to a large extent.
The school’s opening has been described as a new ray of hope in media reports. Construction began in April 2019 under the new government of Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel of the Congress, and was completed in three months. So far, 80 students have been admitted to the school. Students are being shifted from other schools to increase numbers. Jagargunda is also set to get a five-bed hospital and sub-tehsil office. The village hopes to get electricity soon. If official policies are implemented well, Jagargunda can hope to go back to its pre-2005 days. For thousands of people, the darkness finally appears to be lifting after 14 years.
Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray is Director of Mantraya and a Visiting Fellow and columnist with IPCS.