An eerie silence welcomes me as I walk down the row of houses, not a soul in sight. I know that from every tiny window in these little brick-walled units, watchful, suspicious eyes follow my every move.
They are assessing me, wondering if I am friend or foe. But then, in these thickly forested parts, the lines of distinction blurred many years ago. And their life could depend on the accuracy of the conclusion they draw about every visitor.
This is life-as-usual in this part of Narayanpur block of the Bastar region in Chhattisgarh, in a settlement locally referred to as mukhbiron ki basti, the Village of Informers. The residents have long stopped fighting the label. If being labelled an informer helps them escape the wretched lives they were leading in their forest dwellings, so be it.
It is also by choice that these wise ancient people, traditional custodians of the forest wealth, have chosen to walk away from their forest homes to live in these tiny isolated dwellings, away from their lands: their only source of sustenance, willing to brave a life of hunger and uncertainty.
Narayanpur block is not where these tribal families hail from; they have travelled from Abujhmarh, the other block in the newly-carved Narayanpur District in south Chhattisgarh, believed to be the stronghold of Maoist presence. Some families have been here for several decades, while others arrived as recently as two months ago.
Why would anyone leave home and lead a life of destitution in these marked areas, vulnerable to attack for taking a stand to not support the Maoists, or worse, being labelled police informers?
Some families moved out of compulsion, explain the villagers, once they accept my presence as safe and come out to meet me. If a family member is picked up by the police for questioning, the entire family is at risk. Many have never been informers, but the label stuck.
The residents recalled a defining moment when the necessity of moving out became evident to the villages at large. This was a few years ago, when the Maoists were on a 'recruitment drive', but it still sends a shiver through the silent, listening group. A few families in some remote villages collectively decided to oppose the recruitment efforts and said so. Shortly after, 26 boys aged 18-25 years of age were executed with the rest of the village forced witnesses to the macabre sight.
The villagers believe that at least 10-15 people from each village have been abducted and subsequently killed, most often claiming that they were accused of passing information to the police. "Life in the village was worsening every day. There were constant threats. People would be roughed up. Hunger is easier to live with than fear and constant dissent," narrated a tribal woman in a tattered sari.
At this point, a man listening quietly so far burst out, "Back home, we were simply not allowed to get on with our daily chores, work in our fields. They would call a meeting and it was compulsory to attend in silence. Asking a question was forbidden. We did not even have the right over our field's produce - it would be taken away by the Maoists.
When we obtained PDS rations from the government, they would take away half of it. After some time, even that source of food grains dried up. What were we to eat?" There was no choice but to move out. The villages in the forest, lament the residents of the settlement, no longer have schools and health services. Gradually, families began to move out. Those who stayed back are either Maoist supporters, they assert, or some who were forced by circumstances to stay back, however reluctantly.
As violence escalated, more families started trickling out of the forests, moving to places that seemed safer. Over the last decade, many such settlements have come up behind Narayanpur town, in open spaces like the hills in the vicinity. Bereft of agricultural land, the people sit idle during the harvesting season.
One of the settlements is, ironically, named Shanti Nagar, the Abode of Peace. It has electricity, school, access roads, even drainage. Many families have settled here. The one factor that unites them is a sense of desolation and loss, and often, antagonism and grief. Their lives may be safer here than in their forest homes, but what does the future have in store from them, landless and unschooled as they are? Who is to blame? Most important, will they be able to return home?
The villagers hesitate to answer. Abhujhmarh, a vast expanse of dense forest never surveyed during any Indian Census, has no functional government presence, limited as they are to Orcha Block and Sonpur Village. Maoist camps are scattered across these forests, some surrounded by landmines and inaccessible even to the tribal groups who have known these forests as their only home for several decades.
Close to these unsecured settlements of alleged informers is a heavily guarded group of 30-40 houses where 'special informers', recognized as Special Police Officers (SPOs) by the State reside. Also locals, they accompany police during their treks, acting as guides in the thick forests. They earn a monthly salary, are trained in use of weapons and are protected. The distinction between the two settlements is stark.
Political will is essential if more such settlements are to be prevented from coming up, so they matter more than mere vote banks.