ON A LATE-FEBRUARY AFTERNOON THIS YEAR, 44 young women, dressed in khaki T-shirts and olive-green fatigues, sat in serried rows in an open-air classroom in Kanker, Chhattisgarh. They were newly recruited sub-inspectors of the Chhattisgarh Police, now in the last week of training at the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College. In their early twenties, and strikingly fit, the women sat ramrod straight and poker-faced, listening attentively to the person whose presence had dominated the past six weeks of ceaseless instruction.
“Yeh toh commando ki factory hai,” Basant Kumar Ponwar, the director of the college, said—this is a factory for commandos. He stood trim, in polished black army boots. The military campaign ribbons on his chest provided the only flash of colour on impeccably creased camouflage fatigues. A former brigadier of the Indian Army, Ponwar now carries the civilian rank of an inspector general of police and runs the college, which he founded in 2005.
Strategically located at the northern tip of the troubled Bastar region, the college’s sprawling campus lies on the outskirts of Kanker town. The deeply forested Keshkal Ghats begin not far south of it, and beyond is a zone that is usually described by the government as Maoist “infested.” It’s a vast area, which covers what are today the seven southernmost districts of Chhattisgarh, and extends into the dense forests of Abhujhmad, a region that abuts neighbouring Maharashtra, as well as parts of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.
Every six weeks, the college puts around 400 trainees through a gruelling “jungle warfare module,” which is meant to prepare them for deployment in the decade-long war of attrition with the Maoists—the cadre of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). In ten years, the college has trained more than 30,000 men and women of the police, as well as others of the Border Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Central Industrial Security Force and the Sashastra Seema Bal.
Sanjay Kak is a film-maker and occasional writer, whose recent work includes the documentary Jashn-e-Azadi—How we celebrate freedom (2007) about the conflict in Kashmir. He is the editor of the anthology Until My Freedom Has Come—The New Intifada in Kashmir (Penguin India 2011).