Located in the hilly and forested terrains of Jhumra Pahar, Sarju village in Garu Tehsil of this district was, till a few years ago, known as a "Maoist citadel". Now it is development that is talk of the area.
A multi-pronged approach combining initiatives of the security forces and the Jharkhand government's development policies has instilled hope in the locals.
Officials claim the ultra-left Maoist militants are now returning to the mainstream and the villagers, who were their victims, want mobile connectivity, roads to their homes, education, jobs and other developmental measures.
In a recent public outreach programme organised by the district administration at the compund of the Sarju school, hundreds of villagers turned up with their demands and complaints.
One of them, Mamata Devi, said: "We want jobs. There must be some training centres so that we can earn bread and butter for our family."
Taramuni Devi, a mukhiya or village head, complained about poor roads and irrigation problems while a youth raised the issue of lack of educational institutions. "For internet connection, we have to go five km away," he said.
Mohammad Saadish talked of unemployment and demanded a ban on liquor. "We have got rid of Naxals (as the Maoists are also called), but liquor and unemployment are still big problems. Most of the youth of the region are drug addicts and do not get employment. The administration needs to address this urgently," he said.
Rajiv Kumar, Deputy Commissioner of Latehar, assured the villagers that their demands would be fulfilled and issues sorted out.
"Who among you have not got gas cylinders? Are your children going to schools? Are you getting vridha (old-age) pension," Kumar asked the villagers, and most of them respond with "Yes".
Chorha is the gram panchayat of Sarju village. While the total geographical area of the village is 172 hectares, Sarju has a total population of about 1,000 people. Garu is the nearest town.
The CRPF's 214 battalion has made its base camp in Sarju, and with the help of the district administration they are trying to instill hope in the villagers and asking the Maoists to return to the mainstream.
Saket Kumar Singh, DIG at Jharkhand Jaguar, a Special Task Force (STF) to counter extremist activities in Jharkhand, told IANS: "The Maoists have no cadres now. The organisations are left with their leaders only. They do not have any specific hideout. They keep roaming from one place to another."
Prashant Anand, SP of Latehar said: "Their activities have been restricted to only some pockets. Their splinter groups are active but they don't get villagers' support. Villagers support us and inform us whenever they see any activity (of Maoists)."
Speaking about the modus operandi of Maoists, he said that they come in a group of four and five and ask villagers to give four-five youths.
"They take them and initially involve them in cooking and other menial work. Later, they train them and push them ahead during an operation. Once their name appears in the police record, the Maoists instill fear in them that if they return, they will be killed. Because of that fear, they do not join the mainstream."
Surrendered Naxal Chashma Vikas, who had more than 20 cases against him, including that of murder, attempt to murder and under the Arms Act, had a reward of Rs 25 lakh. He was a member of the Special Area Committee for Bihar-Jharkhand-North Chhattisgarh and had been involved in Naxal activities since 1998.
"Due to the new surrender policy I surrendered before the police in 2016," he said. As per the policy, the reward money would be handed over to the surrendered activist.
"I came in contact with people belonging to the Maoist ideology during my college days. Influenced by them, I joined MCC and started working with them. I also participated in various pro-people movements in Chatra, Palamu, Latehar and other parts of the state.
"In 1996, I went underground as lots of cases were registered against me. Then I joined CPI (Maoist). Till 2016, I worked for the party. Initially, the policies and principles of the party were pro-people. We built several schools in Palamu, Latehar and other regions.
"Whatever money we collected was used for public welfare. But later, their policies and principles changed. They started attacking police forces and killing innocents. Also, the levy collected for the movement was distributed among top commanders," he alleged.
He said after the Jharkhand government brought out a new surrender policy and the administration contacted him asking to surrender, he refused.
"Because I feared that I would be killed or I would have to spend the rest of my life in jail. I insisted that I would surrender if all the cases against me are taken back. They assured me. They even convinced my family members. After all this, I surrendered myself," he said.
He said that after his surrender, almost 100 Maoists in the the three states have surrendered.
R.K. Mallick, Additional D.G. (Ops), said that in the present scenario the sphere of influence of Naxals has been severely restricted and mainly confined to few pockets in the bordering areas of adjoining states and some interior, inaccessible areas within the state.
"The last six months in Jharkhand have been exceptional on the Naxal front. There has been a 24 per cent reduction in incidents of violence, 31 per cent reduction in civilian killings, 100 per cent increase in exchange of fire and 59 per cent increase in arms recovered -- all parameters of operational efficiency.
"Till August this year, 40 successful encounters against Naxals took place, in which 24 Naxals were neutralised, including five Naxals who had rewards on their head and four surrendered Naxals. However, nine personnel of the State Police, CAPFs and Jharkhand Jaguar were killed during anti-Naxal operations in the first seven months of 2018," he said.
In Jharkhand, 21 out of 24 districts are so-called Naxal-affected. At present, out of the 30 worst Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-affected districts in the country, 13 are in Jharkhand. They are Hazaribargh, Lohardaga, Palamu, Chatra, Garhwa, Ranchi, Gumla, Simdega, Latehar, Giridih, Bokaro, West Singhbhum, Khunti. Saraikela, Kharsawa,East Singhbhum, Dhanbad, Koderma, Ramgarh.
(Brajendra Nath Singh, who visited Latehar on the initiative of BJP's Good Governance Cell, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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