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A moment that changed me: a rebel fighter who risked his life for love was murdered, and part of me died too

I first met Korsa Joga in March 2013 – a chance encounter in the intelligence department of the Chhattisgarh police in Raipur, central India. He was a former insurgent who had recently been trapped and been asked to surrender, alongside his lover, Varalakshmi, a former government teacher. Both were Adivasis, the indigenous people of India, and native to Bastar, a massive wilderness that remains the battleground between the Indian state and the ultra-left Maoist guerrilla fighters known as Naxalites.

We had quickly formed a bond that was deeper than the usual ones journalists strike up with the people they meet on assignments. His decision to abandon the revolution and his AK-47 to be with the woman he loved, and his escape from the jungle to the cities of southern India to begin a family life with her, fascinated me. After his short stint with the police he became a police informer in Bijapur, southern Bastar, and I would meet him during my visits, calling him to ask about his new job and the threats he faced.

I discovered his history: that during his guerrilla days he was married to a Naxal fighter called Savita Madkam, but then he met Varalakshmi when he was passing through a village with his platoon. She taught in the local school and soon Joga was looking for excuses to meet her.

But the Maoist rulebook prescribes that a marital life must conform to the “requirements of the revolution”. His relationship with Varalakshmi amounted to an act of gross indiscipline, as well as being against the ideals of revolution. So he decided to leave the party he had been associated with for more than a decade to begin a life with her in a distant city.

Naxalite fighters in the forests of Chhattisgarh in 2007: Korsa Joga had been a member of the revolutionary group for many years.
Naxalite fighters in the forests of Chhattisgarh in 2007: Korsa Joga had been a member of the revolutionary group for many years. Photograph: Mustafa Quraishi/AP

Then the police department sent him back to his village – to fight for the other side. The once dreaded Naxal leader was now a soldier for the state – and on the hit-list of his former comrades. If the police job was the only option, I had advised him, he should go to a city, not his village. His police bosses knew the threat, but wanted him to be deployed to maximum tactical advantage.

When a Maoist decides to surrender, they usually know the police will deploy them against their former organisation and mentally prepare for a long time before switching sides. But Joga left the jungle to begin a family, and was only forced to join the police when he and Varalakshmi were trapped.

Unable to refuse orders, he began to prepare for his move by building a small house in his village for himself and Varalakshmi. One morning, he travelled there to inspect how construction was going. That’s when his old friends managed to waylay him.

Minutes later, I was sent photographs on WhatsApp, of his corpse lying on a road in a puddle of blood. In that moment a man deep inside me, who loves, who yearns for love, a part of that man was also murdered.

A journalist often lives in bewildering haste, in a frenzied endeavour to locate news in every element around. Instead of living in the moment, letting yourself drown in its warmth or coldness, you chase it like a sniffer dog, intent on retrieving any clue or confidential document. But a journalist in a conflict zone chases the dead as well as being accosted by them. Imperceptibly, but profoundly, reporting begins to mutate your being. You find yourself ineligible for writing on topics that don’t involve blood or sorrow.

Before I found myself in the insurgent zone I had only witnessed two deaths – those of my grandfather and great-grandmother. Both had lived full lives. We relatives, after the initial grief, celebrated the grand departures and spent several days recalling and reconstructing memories of their lives. Like many others, I saw death as an eternal enigma, a loss that prompts philosophical inquiry, a tragedy that leads to profound questions.

But the deaths I encountered in the conflict zone were brutal and barbaric, shorn of metaphor and mystery. They occurred in heaps, barely leaving space for mourning, let alone a grand cremation. They irreparably damaged an entire community, which has been witnessing such deaths for several decades. A jungle bigger than several European states has metamorphosed into a graveyard.

In 2013, when I met Joga, I had been in the jungle for 18 months, had witnessed numerous killings and found myself altered. But the death of my friend made me a permanent resident, perhaps hostage, of Death Land. From then on, I found myself playing a game of chess with Death where my own defeat had been foretold.

The Death Script: Dreams and Delusions in Naxal Country by Ashutosh Bhardwaj is published by Holland House

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