A few days in Naxal-dominated Bhamragad or the story of 70 years of Independence!


A few days in Naxal-dominated Bhamragad

Bodhi Ramteke

bodhi ramtekeThe excruciating pain of Roshni and the loss of Jaya's life were both heartbreaking, and the concern for both of them and their family took me several miles away from my house to theirs.

It was the month of July. Roshni was nine months pregnant then and had gone into labour. The nearest hospital from her village was at a distance of 23 km. This journey was only possible through foot as the village was isolated from any modern means of connectivity or infrastructure. So there was no choice but that of walking on your own two feet. Then came the big question, for Roshni, “Should I do it?”

With her baby on the way, Roshni began to walk alone through the forest. She walked alone for a very long distance and could not even see the Asha Worker who was with her. The road was full of rocks. She continued on, crossing two hills along the way. If her foot had slipped off a rock, she would have fallen into a deep trap where any help would have been impossible. But, left with no choice and a long route ahead, she kept walking.

Crossing the Pamulgautam river and small nallas on the way, she finally reached the sub-center of Laheri. Her total walking journey was of 3-4 hrs. From there she was taken to Bhamragad by ambulance. Despite all her ordeals, she gave birth to very cute baby on the same day.

On the next day,  four month pregnant Jaya had gone to the farm. When she came back home, she suddenly collapsed. The rush to get her to the hospital began. But there was no bridge over the river near the village and the water level was so high that no vehicle could go. So the family put her (on a bed) and walked/carried her 7 km through the forest. The river was raging with flood waters. But without thinking for a moment, her family took her across the river where the water was waist deep. According to her husband, no treatment was given on arrival at Laheri Hospital and directly she was taken to Bhamragad. There was no doctor with her and she died before she reached the hospital. Her husband visited the hospital 2-3 times but has not received any  post mortem report yet.

Me and my colleagues lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission. The Collector submitted a fact finding report to NHRC from their side but I found errors in it and I decided to go to the villages of Jaya and Roshni.

I went to Bhamragad many times but this journey was very different. The day was November 26, 2020, 'Constitution Day'. The distance from my village to Bhamragad is 140 km. I reached the village at about 11 p.m having travelled for 4 hrs. The atmosphere in the area was fearful because the Naxals had cut down trees and blocked the road. When I arrived, I realized that something similar had happened on the road I came from. I was planning to go to Roshni and Jaya's house. But i didn't find anyone who will accompany me. It started raining at the same time and then people said that it would not be possible for you to go to Roshni's village now and you should not go as the atmosphere is scary. Such words were disheartening, but I was determined that I would reach out to her. On the day I arrived, there was a discussion session of activists of an organization named Srujan on forest rights' law under the guidance of my friend Avinash Poinkar Dada. People from many villages had participated. I stayed with them. A dinner was held at Chinu Mahaka's house at night and we had great discussions with the people on forest rights' law and other issues. I met Ramesh Pungati, China Madavi and other activists.

bhamragad bridgeThe next morning I set off for Laheri from Hemalaksha. It was raining on the way. I reached Laheri and left for Gundenur with a colleague. Modern road just ends without warning at Laheri. The only course of action is to go through the forest and the Pamulgautam river has to be crossed. This is the same river from which Jaya was brought out by her family. There was no bridge over that river till Jaya’s mishap. But now the people of Gundenur village have built a beautiful wooden bridge. We crossed the bridge and reached the village. The village has a total of 27 houses and is covered by hills and forest on both sides. When I went to Jaya's home, they respectfully offered tea and water. Then I came to my topic. I asked them the details of the incident. I assured them that I will try my best to get them compensation. Had discussion for a long time. I found things contrary to the report submitted by the Collector. They didn't have a clear idea about what I was doing for them but they did understand that I was doing something good and they were optimistic that I could be able to make a fitting case for them. I asked to go further to the village where Roshni stayed. Then everyone stumbled and refused. Because that village is very sensitive and falls in the area of ​​Abujmad. The government has not yet succeeded in setting up a police outpost in the area. Anyway, I explained to them how much it meant for the entire course of events to meet Roshni. This convinced Jaya's husband Ravi to accompany us. The distance from Gundenur to Turemarka is 18 km. I thought I would go and come back soon but when he said it would take us three hours just to get there, I was shocked. But I wanted to go, more so, we had to. So he forced me to have lunch with him and cooked special chicken and treated me with humble hospitality.

After the lunch we left for Turemarka on my bike. Ravi told me that there could be inquiries from the Naxalites on the way through forest. The thicket of the jungle began. We kept going. I could only begin to contemplate how Roshni’s pains must have felt. Now, the first mountain was to be climbed. The road was full of rocks. So it was impossible to travel by our two wheeler . So, Ravi drove on and I walked a long way.

On the way I met 2 old women. They were also going to Turemarka with about 15-20 kg bags. Despite the desire, I could not help them.

On the way we crossed two nallas. The forest was so dense and magnificent that one could not have imagined ever. I saw many peacocks and various birds on the way. Now it was time to climb another mountain. We both fell off the bike as the bike was absolutely unsuitable for a hilly terrain. On the way up, we fell down from bike 2-3 more times.

After crossing this big range, we reached Binagunda village. We went to the ashram school there. 3 teachers were on duty. They were very surprised when we told that we came double seat. They said, "It's been four years since we have been able to get on a bike,". Ravi was driving with huge risks. (Sidenote: If there are some competitions like 'Rock Bike Riding' then Ravi will definitely win.)

Our journey was far from over. Now we had to travel another 5-7 km. I could not see the road ahead from Bingunda. Then Ravi opened the gate of the compound next to a house and said there is a way to Turemarka i.e., Jaya's Village. There was not even a road for one person to get there, but we took my bike and finally reached Turemarka.

Very few people in that village understood Marathi. Even Ravi did not know much Marathi. We went to Roshni's house. I was speaking in Marathi and Ravi was translating it into Madiya. She answered all my questions. I met her baby. He is very cute. I gave him some money as part of an unwritten ritual. She was so happy that I had traveled so far to meet her.

I can't put into words the difficulty I had in getting to her house. If my own experience is so troubling, think of how much she must have endured to secure one of her basic rights, that of dignified childbirth.

Later, when we got out of her house and seat on the bike to go, we noticed that the accelerator wire was completely broken. The bike could not move forward. In an instant the whole road I came across stood in front of me. I knew the bike will only be repaired in Bhamragad. This meant that I have to push the bike for the entire 50 km road that I had travelled. This thought made me very anxious. Then Ravi calmed me down and said that he would come up with some solution. Immediately, he collected knives, axes from nearby houses and started to open the part of the accelerator. When it was opened, it was seen that the wire was completely broken as the bike was brought to the first gear for a full 23 km. Ravi immediately took a bamboo from the side and started making a small nut bolt out of that bamboo. When it was over, he brought a fishing net from a nearby house. He tied the rope to the bamboo nut and tied the broken wire to the rope. The bike did not start for a long time. Then it started after a lot of effort and the accelerator of the bike started working with the help of rope. I was very surprised by Ravi. I did not think at that time that such a thing could be done. Ravi has never been to school and he doesn't even have a bike. But his innovative idea saved me a lot of trouble.

bhamragad childrenAn invitation for tea came from one's house. As we were going, 2-3 gunmen (Naxalites) came. They talked to Ravi in Madia language. I was unable to understand much. Then we went for tea. Raju said they were asking who was he and why did he come here. So I explained everything to them, he said. After drinking tea, I chatted with the children. I took my phone out to take photographs. The children were looking so surprisingly at the phone. As they never ever came into contact with such device called a 'Mobile Phone'.

Eventually, we had to start our journey back to Bhamragad. I wanted to see if my bike could complete the return journey with the help of that rope. When we reached Bingunda, some people gave us letters. Because there is still no network or power connection in that area after 70 years of Independence, if they want to convey some information, they give a letter to someone like that.

We took the letter and started going back. There was not much trouble due to the slope. However, it took us an hour and half to reach Gundenur. Ravi insisted on staying at their house but I started my return journey for Bhamragad. After 9 pm we can't go to Bhamragad as the Police close the roads. Now in this return journey I was fully dependent on that rope. There was no companion with me and it began to get dark. If something happened to the bike, I had no choice but to push the bike. But that rope accompanied me to Bhamragad. As soon as I arrived, I drove straight to a mechanic. He said that there is no problem in showing him the accelerator. Then I told him the whole story. He opened the part and was literally amazed that so much travel was possible with the help of this rope.

I met the tehsildar after the bike was repaired. He was my senior from Navodaya Vidyalaya. He is very active to social issues and most of my travel was discussed with him. He is doing his best to do what he can.

Yes, and also the whole road I travelled from Gundenur is repaired by the villagers every summer. But they didn't get any compensation from the government. In many villages beautiful wooden bridges like Gundenur are built in summer. During monsoon, these villages got disconnected with the entire world for 3-4 months. During that time they have to deal with health and many other problems.  I couldn’t help but Compare their life with ours. There are great struggles in their daily lives. But they are happy in their beautiful world. They are blissfully ignorant about a pressing need to avail of roads, bridges and a right to healthy living as their basic constitutional needs. But we have to work hard to get their Constitutional Rights from which they are been consciously kept deprived for decades. It is equally true that there will be many challenges to work there. If we want to go on a very long journey and fight for the rights of Dalits and Tribals, we should continue the work without thinking whether we will succeed or not!

Finally, I reached my home, but still I couldn't imagine the trouble faced by Roshni. Salute to this heroic mother. Her 23 km journey gives me energy to work more.

 I'm in love with the people, the forests, the mountains, the rivers ❤

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This article was originally published in Marathi at Round Table India Marathi.

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Bodhi Sham Ramteke is from Chamorshi, Gadchiroli. He is a final year law student at ILS Law College, Pune. He is a recipient of Samata Fellowship of CORO India and is working with HR Activist Adv. Asim Sarode, Pune.