A 32 year old Maria Gond woman was killed on the night of the 8th of May in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra.
Raje and Birija, the septuagenarian parents of slain Naxalite commander Rajita Usendi.
‘They threw six-seven grenades to kill her’, ‘it’s the longest encounter in Gadchiroli history’, ‘her body was burnt beyond recognition’, were some of the comments one heard about the gunbattle that took place in Gadchiroli district on the 8th of May, 2016, when the police returned with the burnt corpse of an unidentified woman, found in a house on the outskirts of the village of Horekasa.
A memorial poster for Bandu Vichami who was killed in Maoist custody in front of the Gadchiroli Sessions Court.’
Eight days later, constable Bandhu Vichami (also a Maria Gond) was killed after being kidnapped by the CPI Maoists near Koti police station for ‘building an information network.’ They were both incidents beyond the mainstream narratives written somewhere else: yet while a memorial poster was put up a day later outside the Gadchiroli Sessions Court for Vichami (like countless others for slain policemen), Rajitha’s body was still in the mortuary, with her public memory as controversial as the life she lived. Didn’t the Supreme Court once call Naxalites also children of the republic?
Rajita Usendi was born in 1984-1985 (?)in the village of Javeli in Kasansur panchayat of Etapalli Block, and died a Naxalite Area Commander for Chatgaon.
Her village Javeli is isolated: their people don’t venture too far into the towns, in fear of being harassed by the police as deemed Naxalite supporters. Another young man, Ramsu who had previously joined the party decided to leave and live at home. He, however was not allowed to resume life normally, a police party would eventually arrive to take him away, and then attempted to distribute, saris, volleyballs, carrom-boards, etc. Ramsu is now a surrendered Maoist, and only joined the police because he was beaten, according to the villagers, who have no ill will towards him.
In the village itself, a decades-old transformer lies derelict, another village subsists without electricity. There are 83 homes in the village, 81 of which are Maria Gond, one Parden, and one mixed Bengali-Maria home, a home spoken about with pride by the villagers (the father was bengali and married a Maria and even his son has now married a Maria). The villagers are landed, yet depend on the rains for cultivation.
Rajita was the youngest daughter of Birija Usendi and Raje Usendi and had studied till the 5th. She had two older sisters, both married and with children.
She, on the other hand, had joined the party in when she was still a teenager. Some say she was in the party for 18 years, some say 15 years. In one case, she was 14 when she went to the party, in another she was 17. Either way, there is no image of her left in the village, there are no documents, there are no photographs: the police had come in 2007 and taken every piece of her. She never had a voter’s ID, she had gone before she was eighteen.
The people of Javeli spoke in whispers, and spoke in secrets, they knew I was not a journalist from the jungle, I was an outsider, a journalist from Mumbai. In a thousand conversations, they would never reveal to me the secrets of Rajita. So what they tell me, and what I note, is what they deem the world can know about a young child who joined the party, who became a leader, who was finally burnt to death in a village not far from them.
For instance they would not tell me whether Rajitha was involved in the May 21st 2009 ambush in nearby the Dhanora forests that claimed the lives of sixteeen security personel, including five other policewomen. Or whether she had any involvement in the May 5th 2011 IED blast that killed five civilians on the Dhanora-Rajnandgaon road. Why would they tell me this, would they even know?
As soon as she arrived, her mother Raje, repeated slowly in soft sobs in Gondi: ‘She had no hands, no legs, her head was half burnt.’
The police had sent the family a note where they noted ‘one female Naxal member was killed,’ and they were asked to identify the body. They were taken to the body in Gadchiroli, they were interviewed, they were kept all day: fed chicken and rice for dinner.
‘We told you so many times to ask her to surrender,’ One of the C60 members told them in Gondi, ‘but you don’t listen, she doesn’t listen, and now you’ve come to take away her burnt body.’
‘We put bombs inside the room and killed her.’ They would add.
Meanwhile a seventy-five year old man talks slowly about how her daughter made the right choice, how he only used to miss her in the beginning when she left, but when she used to come back, she was a different person.
‘Sarkar zulm karti hai, toh ladki aacha kaam karne ke liye gaye.’ He would say, ‘My girl has given her life to the struggle.’ He would repeat again and again.
She never married, she never had any children.
She never returned back to the village as anyone but as a Maoist: giving speeches, warnings, statements. ‘She used to say that we should live well, don’t fight among ourselves, young men shouldn’t waste their lives in drink and if there is a fight, one should sort it in the village itself and not go report it.’ A village elder would add.
‘We never thought she’d get killed, she never stayed more than 2-3 hours anywhere. But in this village she was there from afternoon till evening.’
What were Rajita’s last moments? She died in a room without a window, a room shredded with bullet holes, her body was found next to burnt mahua fruits; this was how a Maria Gond would die, burnt to death with the Mahua fruit? Some say she was physically sick and could not escape and told her bodyguard to run away, some say he ran away in fear, leaving her alone to die. Is this how a woman who gave more than half her life to the Naxalite movement dies?
Where A Naxalite Dies
The villagers of Horekasa kept repeating that there was almost no firing from inside the house. That if there was any firing for the majority of the evening, the firing was from the security forces and it was intermittent and only from one gun at a time. The forces mostly sat inside multiple anti-landmine vehicles and fired upon the house. The Naxalites did not fire because innocent villagers were in the houses, said the villagers of Horekasa.
It was only at three in the morning, when a barrage of firing was let loose in the house, along with the sounds of large explosions. This story is almost consistent with the story from the police. In an interview with the Indian Express, the SP has gone on record to say, ‘We spent a lot of time to convince the Naxals to give up but they sent back the messengers asking them to mind their own business. After we decided to take on the Naxals, we first cordoned off the village and also evacuated other houses to keep civilians away at a safe distance. All this took many hours. The actual firing did not last for more than 30 minutes.”
The story is ‘almost consistent’ since the police claimed that the house where the ‘Naxals’ were hiding were in the outskirts and not in the middle of the village.
The ‘gunfight’s proximity to people’s homes revealed, a handful of bullet holes on their walls, at angles revealing that they could only have been fired by the security forces. The villagers too were screamed at, forced to spent the duration of the entire time in their own homes, at first only on the floor, then allowed to move, with women exclaiming how they had to go to the toilet within their own walls.
They were only let out when the security forces wanted them to put out the fire that had engulfed Rajitha, that too, which had happened under unclear circumstances: did it start when multiple UBGLs were fired into the house, or was there petrol or kerosene thrown into the house?
The other inconsistency regarded the escape of the second Naxalite, who apparently disappeared into the dead of night, from a house with only one exit, surrounded by dozens of security forces. His escape humoured the villagers of the panchayat: he escaped like a fart in the smoke, said a villager, who mimicked him taking his clothes off and crouch away into the darkness.
‘How did the police get here?’ the villagers began to ask themselves, a conversation that bounced from Marathi to Gondi, a conversation that could mark an informant, a conversation that they could not place.
They speak how Rajitha had come to Yamunabai and asked for water. That she was tired and that she wished to rest and asked Yamunabai to lock her into the house. When the police finally arrived, they forced Yamunabai to open the door, and found two knapsacks. The scene the villagers then described is akin to what happens when one feels snakes enters their houses: the police backed away in fear, wondering if they were actually inside, and instead cordoned off the house.
When it was confirmed that Rajitha and her bodyguard were inside, they sent villagers inside to ask them to surrender. One doesn’t know why Rajitha refused to surrender, but why was a single woman surrounded by dozens of policemen killed in a village only three kilometres away from a CRPF camp? The police could argue that they didn’t want to be ambushed by more Naxalites: but they had superior firepower and numbers, a CRPF camp a mere ten minutes away, wouldn’t they want more Naxalites to fight, isn’t that whey they’re deployed? Yet, a single woman surrounded by hundreds of policemen, was brutally burnt to death.
It was the only sound the villagers of Horekasa heard her make: the sounds of her screaming. She never abused, never raised any slogans, never said anything.
The day after the house was burnt down, the assistant superintendent of police told the villagers that they will account for the damage that was caused and they should give an ‘avidhan’ to the nearest police station.
Five people, including the police patil of the village Mahadev Ramaji Parse had gone to Chatgaon police station, with an account of burnt crops, burnt money, burnt books, burnt documents, but were instead beaten by policemen.
‘Tumhare goan mein naxali aate hai, aur humko nahi bola tumne!’ – They would abuse them, even threatening the aged patil to resign, ‘Tum gaon ke patil ho ke kuch nahi karte ho,’
The village Gaita or the headmen Pandurang Pada S/o Gendu was beaten with a bajirao, along with the aged Yamunabai Parse w/o Madhav and her nephew Lalaji Narote, whose house Rangita had taken refuge in, and Gyaneshwar Kirange h/o Ranjan, an ASHA worker. All three men revealed week-old injuries of a bajirao, while Yamunabai was only beaten on the palms of her hand. As Gyaneshwar revealed his torture wounds, his neighbours teased him how he once had gone to join the police but wasn’t able to.
‘Now we have to live in fear of the ones in the jungle.’ Added the Gaita of the village.
The death of a Naxalite is not just a Rashamon of truth and lies, this is also the Rashamon of morality. To some she was nothing, she was vermin: she deserved death and was killed like an animal that sneaks into a house. And not even a single byte in this article should exist for her memory. To others she may be dreaded commander, or even a respected, Maoist commander; an adivasi, she spoke to them in their language. Yet to one village, she was one of their own, to parents, she was a daughter they gave to the only revolution they know.