Field Notes: A Cat-And-Mouse Game With The Chhattisgarh Police


Bijapur district (Chhattisgarh): It was about 11 am on 23 January 2024 when I reached the Chhattisgarh town of Bijapur, a smooth three-hour, 159-km drive on my 220 cc Bajaj Avenger motorcycle, cruising along a shiny blacktop from my home in Jagdalpur in Bastar district.

It is relevant to mention these seemingly mundane travel statistics because when I travelled this route seven years ago, the journey took at least six hours, especially an 87-km stretch after the town of Geedam in the heart of what was once firmly Maoist territory.

Back then, the Maoist writ was stronger than today. Scared for their lives, contractors did not dare violate a Maoist diktat to stop building roads. In any case, they found it hard to hire local workers, who had also been warned against joining road-building crews.

From Geedam, you had to navigate through at least six police security checkpoints before reaching Bijapur, the headquarters of the district of the same name.  The drive is quite smooth now. The checkpoints are gone, although the police will stop you any time they want, and security camps, with distinctive green, camouflage netting are still around.

When I drove in Bijapur and called my contact, a young man, he appeared anxious and spoke with urgency, “Didi jaldi hi aana, aur intezaar karna mushkil hoga. Shareer phul raha hai, badboo bhi aa raha hai aur log bahut aa rahen hai (Please come soon, it will be difficult to wait any longer. The bodies are bloating, there’s a foul smell and people are gathering).” 

He was referring to the bodies of two women and one man, whom villagers claimed were aam grameen or civilians, but the police in a press statement on 20 January declared as ‘Maoists’, shot during a firefight. 

As the State pushes in, the rebels resist. Caught between security forces and the Maoists are the people, mostly Adivasis. Six had been killed in January alone—most by police, locals alleged, while the police blamed the deaths on the Maoists. My journey, I hoped, would allow me to judge for myself.

I took an Adivasi guide, a young man whom I knew. He clambered onto my pillion seat, and we started off on the 35-km journey to reach the site of the alleged firefight, a village called Bellam Nendra. 

“Should we take the main road?” the young man, who I will call J, asked me.

He answered the question himself.

Rokenge, jaane nahin denge (they will stop us, will not let us go ),” said J.

I suspected he was right, but if we had to reach on time, we would have to stick to the main road. The alternative was to plunge into rough, rocky paths through the forests, but neither of us knew which one led to Bellam Nendra, and in any case there wasn’t enough time.

So, we set off on the asphalt road, also one of the newer ones built to bring security forces and other markers of government into these once-remote areas, still covered by dense forests, under which lie some of India’s richest coal and mineral deposits. 

Our first destination was the village of Awapalli, about 45 km from Bijapur.  Awapalli is about 25 km from Bellam Nendra, and a staging point of sorts for our destination. We soon ran into two successive barriers at a checkpoint manned by the Chhattisgarh police. 

A Chhattisgarh police checkpoint in Bijapur district/ MALINI SUBRAMANIAM

An armed policeman flagged us down and asked me—as most drivers are in these parts—for my details. I told him I was a journalist.

As he wrote down my name in a register, he nodded to another policeman nearby, who whipped out his phone and walked away to make a call. The first officer asked where I was headed. Basaguda, I said, which was not exactly a lie because Bellam Nendra was in the jurisdiction of the Basaguda thana or police station.

He smiled and asked me to bring my motorcycle to the side. 

“Can we go?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Awapalli TI sahab aa rahen hai, bas unka wait kijiye    (The Awapalli thana incharge is coming, just wait for him).”

Both J and I looked at one another. 

That was the end of our journey—on this route.

Soon, a tall man with greying hair and sprightly gait joined us. The others stood to attention. It was TI sahab. His name was Manoj Banjare and he launched into small talk: where did I stay, which newspaper did I represent, what time did I start from Jagdalpur?

In between, he yelled at some of his men to get us chairs and some tea. We knew then that we were definitely not going to be allowed to proceed.

I politely declined the tea and asked if we might leave.

Of course, he assured me, but “in a short while”, as soon as he heard from his team that the route was clear. His troops, he said, had “gone on road opening”, a security forces euphemism for clearing the route of Maoists and bombs.

They had information, the officer said, that Maoists had planted IEDs, improvised explosive devices. In other words, roadside bombs. 

“Once they diffuse them, you should be free to proceed,” he assured me.

I looked at my watch and said it had already been more than 30 minutes since we had been detained. In another 10 minutes, I said, we would like to leave.

The officer then said he would have to speak to his superiors. Anticipating that I might force my motorcycle through, he walked to the side and motioned to others. Two policewomen walked up and stood by me.

I was in a dilemma. I certainly did not want things to escalate to a point where he would file a case against me under section 186, obstructing a public servant “in discharge of his (sic) public function”.

I noticed J was comfortably lying on a cot nearby. He was fast asleep. I woke him up and told the TI that he had succeeded in stopping us. We would return.

He was plainly relieved and wished me a good ride back.

We drove back about 5 km, as my phone buzzed. The calls were from Bellam Nendra, asking when we were arriving. J had an idea. He had a relative in a nearby village, perhaps we could ask him about the forest route.

We drove back  10 km to the village and met the relative, an important functionary in the village panchayat or council. He was happy that we were headed for Bellam Nendra, offered us tea, made a few phone calls, summoned a few more young men and said they would lead us through deep forest.

The main road is over 40 kms, while the forest route is half of that, he smiled. Then, he took one look at my bulky Avenger and shook his head.

Ye gaadi se dikkat hogi,” he said. This vehicle will find it difficult to navigate the forest path.

Taking a turn off the main road, we rode an hour-and-half ride through a rough forest path, passing at least three villages.  At the last village, as the forest got dense,  we abandoned the Avenger and picked up a lighter motorcycle in the village, riding the last 6 km to Bellam Nendra. 

It had taken us nearly four hours to cover 34 km. It was 4 pm when we reached, and we heard the sound of women wailing. 

Read Malini Subramaniam’s full story here.

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