A group of heavily armed Maoists are holding their ground in and around Amwatikar, a remote village in Jharkhand's Latehar district. It was here that in an encounter between the security forces and the Maoists, 10 CRPF and Jharkhand police personnel and four villagers were killed. The jawans' bodies were mutilated and later, doctors at Ranchi's Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) found improvised explosive devices (IED) inside the bodies.
As the heavily armed extremists take turns to steal a nap in the forest, others stand guard barely 500 metres from the place where the gun battle started on 7 January and continued until 9 January.
As we made our way through the dense forests, seeking help from the locals, we were greeted with hostile looks everywhere. As soon as we reached Amwatikar, a group of armed Maoists surrounded us and signalled us to stop.
After checking our IDs they told us to sit and offered us biscuits from a ruffled sack. A woman cadre got us some water while adjusting a rusty double-barrel gun on her shoulder.
The Maoist commander we met there gave his name as Santoshji. He was armed with a self loading rifle, a walkie-talkie and several magazines, and was surrounded by six able-bodied cadres armed with sophisticated weapons.
When pointed out that the explosives planted in the jawans' bodies could have blown the hospital, Santoshji retorted, "No, we did not intend that. We hold the doctors in high esteem. We intended to blow the helicopter. The IEDs were remote controlled. We wanted to trigger them when the bodies were taken to the helicopter, but they did not go off. We are trying to correct the fault."
He said that they had received training for seven days on how to operate the remote controlled device, but obviously that was not enough.
But how do they justify mutilating the bodies of the jawans? "We would have given them medical attention if they were alive," he claimed. "But they were dead. So we cut them open and planted the IEDs."
Santoshji would not take responsibility for the villagers killed in the gun battle: "Ask the security forces. They brought them here. We had planted bombs and the villagers got killed. The administration is trying to give us a bad name. We stand by the villagers."
If he has to be believed, the Maoists were just 40 in number and the security personnel numbered in thousands. "We were cornered, so we retaliated. We have come recently in this area, we were moving away. We are committed to our ideology, either we die or we kill, so we killed. We chased them for several kilometers and took away their weapons. Why is the police silent on that? It's a loss of face for them."
But are they getting foreign support and training? He retorted, "What of that? We are for a cause. The government is pushing the poor tribals to the edge. We have to fight, but we are branded as terrorists. We do not kill the innocent."
He realises that the battle they are fighting is not easy. "We are not worried of death. The movement will go on," he says. "The Jharkhand Jan Mukti Sangharsh Morcha deviated from our path. It is led by Pappu Lohar, who raped and looted people. We tried him in our court, after which he ran away and formed his group. He is now working with the police. We will not tolerate this," he adds.
After a brief conversation as we are allowed to proceed towards Amwatikar, Santoshji says, "Be careful, there are still explosives left behind by the security forces. We have removed some, there are several of them still in the jungle."