2011 - Walking with the Comrades

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Cover photo of book

Walking with the Comrades

By Arundhati Roy

In February 2010, quietly, unannounced, Arundhati Roy decided to visit the forbidding and forbidden precincts of Central India’s Dandakaranya Forests, home to a melange of tribespeople many of whom have taken up arms to protect their people against state-backed marauders and exploiters.

She recorded in considerable detail the !rst face-to-face journalistic “encounter” with armed guerrillas, their families and comrades, for which she combed the forests for weeks at personal risk. This essay was published on Friday, March 19, 2010 in Delhi’s Outlook magazine. Kasama urges all readers to give it close attention and wide circulation.


The terse, typewritten note slipped under my door in a sealed envelope confirmed my appointment with India’s Gravest Internal Security threat. I’d been waiting for months to hear from them.


I had to be at the Ma Danteshwari mandir in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, at any of four given times on two given days. That was to take care of bad weather, punctures, blockades, transport strikes and sheer bad luck. The note said: “Writer should have camera, tika and coconut. Meeter will have cap, Hindi Outlook magazine and bananas. Password: Namashkar Guruji.”


Namashkar Guruji. I wondered whether the Meeter and Greeter would be expecting a man. And whether I should get myself a moustache.


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Arundhati Roy with the Maoists.


There are many ways to describe Dantewara. It’s an oxymoron. It’s a border town smack in the heart of India. It’s the epicenter of a war. It’s an upside down, inside out town


In Dantewara the police wear plain clothes and the rebels wear uniforms. The jail-superintendent is in jail. The prisoners are free (three hundred of them escaped from the old town jail two years ago). Women who have been raped are in police custody. The rapists give speeches in the bazaar.


Across the Indravati river, in the area controlled by the Maoists, is the place the police call ‘Pakistan’. There the villages are empty, but the forest is full of people. Children who ought to be in school, run wild. In the lovely forest villages, the concrete school buildings have either been blown up and lie in a heap, or they’re full of policemen. The deadly war that’s unfolding in the jungle, is a war that the Government of India is both proud and shy of.


Operation Green Hunt has been proclaimed as well as denied. P. Chidambaram, India’s Home Minister (and CEO of the war) says it does not exist, that it’s a media creation. And yet substantial funds have been allocated to it and tens of thousands of troops are being mobilized for it. Though the theatre of war is in the jungles of Central India, it will have serious consequences for us all.


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Centenary celebrations of the adivasi uprising in Bastar


If ghosts are the lingering spirits of someone, or something that has ceased to exist, then perhaps the new four-lane highway crashing through the forest is the opposite of a ghost. Perhaps it is the harbinger of what is still to come.


The antagonists in the forest are disparate and unequal in almost every way. On one side is a massive paramilitary force armed with the money, the firepower, the media, and the hubris of an emerging Superpower. On the other, ordinary villagers armed with traditional Weapons, backed by a superbly organized, highly motivated Maoist guerilla fighting force with an extraordinary and violent history of armed rebellion. The Maoists and the paramilitary are old adversaries and have fought older avatars of each other several times before: Telengana in the ’50s, West Bengal, Bihar, Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh in the late ’60s and ’70s, and then again in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra from the ’80s all the way through to the present


They are familiar with each other’s tactics, and have studied each other’s combat manuals closely. Each time, it seemed as though the Maoists (or their previous avatars) had been not just defeated, but literally, physically exterminated. Each time they have reemerged, more organized, more determined and more influential than ever. Today once again the insurrection has spread through the mineral-rich forests of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, and West Bengal— homeland to millions of India’s tribal people, dreamland to the corporate world.


It’s easier on the liberal conscience to believe that the war in the forests is a war between the Government of India and the Maoists, who call elections a sham, Parliament a pigsty and have openly declared their intention to overthrow the Indian State. It’s convenient to forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that pre-dates Mao by centuries. (That’s a truism of course. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t exist.) The Ho, the Oraon, the Kols, the Santhals, the Mundas and the Gonds have all rebelled several times, against the British, against zamindars and moneylenders. The rebellions were cruelly crushed, many thousands killed, but the people were never conquered. Even after Independence, tribal people were at the heart of the first uprising that could be described as Maoist, in Naxalbari village in West Bengal (where the word Naxalite—now used interchangeably with ‘Maoist’—originates). Since then Naxalite politics has been inextricably entwined with tribal uprisings, which says as much about the tribals as it does about Naxalites


This legacy of rebellion has left behind a furious people who have been deliberately isolated and marginalized by the Indian Government. The Indian Constitution, the moral underpinning of Indian democracy, was adopted by Parliament in 1950. It was a tragic day for tribal people. The Constitution ratified colonial policy and made the State custodian of tribal homelands. Overnight, it turned the entire tribal population into squatters on their own land. It denied them their traditional rights to forest produce, it criminalized a whole way of life. In exchange for the right to vote it snatched away their right to livelihood and dignity.


Having dispossessed them and pushed them into a downward spiral of indigence, in a cruel sleight of hand, the Government began to use their own penury against them. Each time it needed to displace a large population—for dams, irrigation projects, mines— it talked of “bringing tribals into the mainstream” or of giving them “the fruits of modern development”. Of the tens of millions of internally displaced people (more than 30 million by big dams alone), refugees of India’s ‘progress’, the great majority are tribal people. When the Government begins to talk of tribal welfare, it’s time to worry.


The most recent expression of concern has come from the Home Minister P. Chidambaram who says he doesn’t want tribal people living in ‘museum cultures’. The well-being of tribal people didn’t seem to be such a priority during his career as a corporate lawyer, representing the interests of several major mining companies. So it might be an idea to enquire into the basis for his new anxiety.


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People of Kudur village protest the Bodhghat dam: “It does not belong to the capitalists, Bastar is OURS.”


Over the past five years or so, the Governments of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal have signed hundreds of MOUs with corporate houses, worth several billion dollars, all of them secret, for steel plants, sponge-iron factories, power plants, aluminum refineries, dams and mines. In order for the MOUs to translate into real money, tribal people must be moved.


Therefore, this war


When a country that calls itself a democracy openly declares war within its borders, what does that war look like? Does the resistance stand a chance? Should it? Who are the Maoists? Are they just violent nihilists foisting an outdated ideology on tribal people, goading them into a hopeless insurrection? What lessons have they learned from their past experience? Is armed struggle intrinsically undemocratic? Is the Sandwich Theory—of ‘ordinary’ tribals being caught in the crossfire between the State and the Maoists—an accurate one? Are ‘Maoists’ and ‘Tribals’ two entirely discrete categories as is being made out? Do their interests converge? Have they learned anything from each other? Have they changed each other?




The day before I left, my mother called sounding sleepy. “I’ve been thinking,” she said, with a mother’s weird instinct, “what this country needs is revolution.”


An article on the internet says that Israel’s Mossad is training 30 high-ranking Indian police officers in the techniques of targeted assassinations, to render the Maoist organization “headless”. There’s talk in the press about the new hardware that has been bought from Israel: Laser range finders, thermal imaging equipment and unmanned drones so popular with the US army. Perfect weapons to use against the poor.


The drive from Raipur to Dantewara takes about ten hours through areas known to be ‘Maoist-infested.’ These are not careless words. ‘Infest/infestation’ implies disease/pests. Diseases must be cured. Pests must be exterminated. Maoists must be wiped out. In these creeping, innocuous ways the language of genocide has entered our vocabulary


To protect the highway security forces have ‘secured’ a narrow bandwidth of forest on either side. Further in, it’s the raj of the ‘Dada log.’ The Brothers. The Comrades.


On the outskirts of Raipur, a massive billboard advertises Vedanta (the company our Home Minister once worked with) Cancer hospital. In Orissa, where it is mining bauxite, Vedanta is financing a University. In these creeping, innocuous ways mining corporations enter our imaginations: the Gentle Giants who Really Care. It’s called CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility. It allows mining companies to be like the legendary actor and former Chief Minister, NTR who liked to play all the parts in Telugu mythologicals—the good guys and the bad guys, all at once, in the same movie. This CSR masks the outrageous economics that underpins the mining sector in India. For example, according to the recent Lokayukta Report for Karnataka, for every tonne of iron ore mined by a private company the Government gets a royalty of Rs 27 and the mining company makes Rs 5000. In the bauxite and aluminum sector the figures are even worse. We’re talking about daylight robbery to the tune of billions of dollars. Enough to buy elections, governments, judges, newspapers, TV channels, NGOs and aid agencies. What’s the occasional cancer hospital here or there?


I don’t remember seeing Vedanta’s name on the long list of MOUs signed by the Chhattisgarh government. But I’m twisted enough to suspect that if there’s a cancer hospital, there must be a flat-topped bauxite mountain somewhere.


We pass Kanker, famous for its Counter Terrorism & Jungle Warfare Training School run by Brigadier B K Ponwar, Rumpelstiltskin of this war, charged with the task of turning corrupt, sloppy policemen (straw) into jungle commandos (gold). “Fight a guerilla like a guerilla”, the motto of the warfare training school, is painted on the rocks.


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On the Day of the Bhumkal: Face to face with “India’s greatest Security Threat.”

The men are taught to run, slither, jump on and off air-borne helicopters, ride horses (for some reason), eat snakes and live off the jungle. The Brigadier takes great pride in training street dogs to fight ‘terrorists.’ Eight hundred policemen graduate from the Warfare Training School every six weeks. Twenty similar schools are being planned all over India. The police force is gradually being turned into an army. (In Kashmir it’s the other way around. The army is being turned into a bloated, administrative, police force.) Upside down. Inside out. Either way, the Enemy is the People.


It’s late. Jagdalpur is asleep, except for the many hoardings of Rahul Gandhi asking people to join the Youth Congress. He’s been to Bastar twice in recent months but hasn’t said anything much about the war. It’s probably too messy for the People's’ Prince to meddle in at this point. His media managers must have put their foot down. The fact that the Salwa Judum (Purification Hunt)—the dreaded, government sponsored vigilante group responsible for rapes, killings, burning down villages and driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes— is led by Mahendra Karma, a Congress MLA, doesn’t get much play in the carefully orchestrated publicity around Rahul Gandhi.


Women guerrillas supervise the backstage for the Bhumkal feast. Bhumkal an annual ceremony means Earthquake I arrived at the Ma Danteshwari mandir well in time for my appointment (first day, first show). I had my camera, my small coconut and a powdery red tika on my forehead. I wondered if someone was watching me and having a laugh. Within minutes a young boy approached me. He had a cap and a backpack schoolbag. Chipped red nail-polish on his fingernails. No Hindi Outlook, no bananas. “Are you the one who’s going in?” he asked me. No Namashkar Guruji. I didn’t know what to say. He took out a soggy note from his pocket and handed it to me. It said “Outlook nahi mila.” (Couldn’t find Outlook)


“And the bananas?” “I ate them”, he said, “I got hungry.” He really was a security threat. His backpack said Charlie Brown — Not your ordinary blockhead. He said his name was Mangtu. I soon learned that Dandakaranya, the forest I was about to enter, was full of people who had many names and fluid identities. It was like balm to me, that idea. How lovely not to be stuck with yourself, to become someone else for a while.


We walked to the bus stand, only a few minutes away from the temple. It was already crowded. things happened quickly. There were two men on motorbikes. There was no conversation—just a glance of acknowledgment, a shifting of body weight, the revving of engines. I had no idea where we were going. We passed the house of the Superintendent of Police (SP), which I recognized from my last visit. He was a candid man, the SP: “See Ma’am, frankly speaking this problem can’t be solved by us police or military. The problem with these tribals is they don’t understand greed. Unless they become greedy there’s no hope for us. I have told my boss, remove the force and instead put a TV in every home. Everything will be automatically sorted out.


In no time at all we were riding out of town. No tail. It was a long ride, three hours by my watch. It ended abruptly in the middle of nowhere, on an empty road with forest on either side. Mangtu got off. I did too. The bikes left, and I picked up my backpack and followed the small internal security threat into the forest. It was a beautiful day. The forest floor was a carpet of gold.


In a while we emerged on the white, sandy banks of a broad flat river. It was obviously monsoon fed, so now it was more or less a sand flat, at the center a stream, ankle deep, easy to wade across. Across was ‘Pakistan’. “Out there, ma’am” the candid SP had said to me, “my boys shoot to kill.” I remembered that as we began to cross. I saw us in a policeman’s rifle-sights—tiny figures in a landscape, easy to pick off. But Mangtu seemed quite unconcerned, and I took my cue from him


Waiting for us on the other bank, in a lime green shirt that said HorlicksTh was Chandu. A slightly older security threat. Maybe twenty. He had a lovely smile, a cycle, a jerry can with boiled water and many packets of glucose biscuits for me, from the Party. We caught our breath and began to walk again. The cycle, it turned out, was a red herring. The route was almost entirely non-cycle-able. We climbed steep hills and clambered down rocky paths along some pretty precarious ledges. When he couldn’t wheel it, Chandu lifted the cycle and carried it over his head as though it weighed nothing. I began to wonder about his bemused village boy air. I discovered (much later) that he could handle every kind of weapon, “except for an LMG”, he informed me cheerfully.


Three beautiful, sozzled men with flowers in their turbans walked with us for about half an hour, before our paths diverged. At sunset, their shoulder bags began to crow. They had roosters in them, which they had taken to market but hadn’t managed to sell.


Chandu seems to be able to see in the dark. I have to use my torch. The crickets start up and soon there’s an orchestra, a dome of sound over us. I long to look up at the night sky, but I dare not. I have to keep my eyes on the ground. One step at a time. Concentrate.


I hear dogs. But I can’t tell how far away they are. The terrain flattens out. I steal a look at the sky. It makes me ecstatic. I hope we’re going to stop soon. “Soon.” Chandu says. It turns out to be more than an hour. I see silhouettes of enormous trees. We arrive.


The village seems spacious, the houses far away from each other. The house we enter is beautiful. There’s a fire, some people sitting around. More people outside, in the dark. I can’t tell how many. I can just about make them out. A murmur goes around. Lal Salaam Kaamraid. (Red Salute, Comrade) Lal Salaam, I say. I’m beyond tired. The lady of the house calls me inside and gives me chicken curry cooked in green beans and some red rice. Fabulous. Her baby is asleep next to me, her silver anklets gleam in the firelight.


After dinner I unzip my sleeping bag. It’s a strange intrusive sound, the big zip. Someone puts on the radio. BBC Hindi service. The Church of England has withdrawn its funds from Vedanta’s Niyamgiri project, citing environmental degradation and rights’ violations of the Dongria Kondh tribe. I can hear cowbells, snuffling, shuffling, cattle-farting. All’s well with the world. My eyes close.


We’re up at five. On the move by six. In another couple of hours, we cross another river. We walk through some beautiful villages. Every village has a family of tamarind trees watching over it, like a clutch of huge, benevolent, gods. Sweet, Bastar tamarind. By eleven the sun is high, and walking is less fun. We stop at a village for lunch.


Chandu seems to know the people in the house. A beautiful young girl flirts with him. He looks a little shy, maybe because I’m around. Lunch is raw papaya with masoor dal, and red rice. And red chilly powder. We’re going to wait for the sun to lose some of its vehemence before we start walking again. We take a nap in the gazebo. There is a spare beauty about the place. Everything is clean and necessary. No clutter. A black hen parades up and down the low mud wall. A bamboo grid stabilizes the rafters of the thatched roof and doubles as a storage rack. There’s a grass broom, two drums, a woven reed basket, a broken umbrella and a whole stack of flattened, empty, corrugated cardboard boxes. Something catches my eye. I need my spectacles. Here’s what’s printed on the cardboard: Ideal Power 90 High Energy Emulsion Explosive (Class-2) SD CAT ZZ.


We start walking again at about two. In the village we are going to we will meet a Didi (Sister, Comrade) who knows what the next step of the journey will be. Chandu doesn’t. There is an economy of information too. Nobody is supposed to know everything. But when we reach the village, Didi isn’t there. There’s no news of her. For the first time I see a little cloud of worry settling over Chandu. A big one settles over me. I don’t know what the systems of communication are, but what if they’ve gone wrong?

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Pots, rifles, jhillies... Everything in these villages is clean and necessary.

We’re parked outside a deserted school building, a little way out of the village. Why are all the government village schools built like concrete bastions, with steel shutters for windows and sliding folding steel doors? Why not like the village houses, with mud and thatch? Because they double up as barracks and bunkers. “In the villages in Abhujmad”, Chandu says, “schools are like this…” He scratches a building plan with a twig in the earth. Three octagons attached to each other like a honeycomb. “So they can fire in all directions.” He draws arrows to illustrate his point, like a cricket graphic— a batsman’s wagon wheel. There are no teachers in any of the schools, Chandu says. they've all run away. Or have you chased them away? No, we only chase police. But why should teachers come here, to the jungle, when they get their salaries sitting at home? Good point.

He informs me that this is a ‘new area’. The Party has entered only recently

About twenty young people arrive, girls and boys. In their teens and early twenties. Chandu explains that this is the village level militia, the lowest rung of the Maoists’ military hierarchy. I have never seen anyone like them before. They are dressed in saris and lungis, some in frayed olive green fatigues. The boys wear jewelry, headgear. Every one of them has a muzzle-loading rifle, what’s called a bharmaar. Some also have knives, axes, a bow and arrow. One boy carries a crude mortar fashioned out of a heavy three-foot GI pipe. It’s filled with gunpowder and shrapnel and ready to be fired. It makes a big noise, but can only be used once. Still, it scares the police, they say, and giggle. War doesn’t seem to be uppermost on their minds. Perhaps because their area is outside the home range of the Salwa Judum. They have just finished a day’s work, helping to build fencing around some village houses to keep the goats out of the fields. They’re full of fun and curiosity. The girls are confident and easy with the boys. I have a sensor for this sort of thing, and I am impressed. Their job, Chandu says, is to patrol and protect a group of four or five villages and to help in the fields, clean wells or repair houses—doing whatever’s needed.

Still no Didi. What to do? Nothing. Wait. Help out with some chopping and peeling.

After dinner, without much talk, everybody falls in line. Clearly, we are moving. Everything moves with us, the rice, vegetables, pots and pans. We leave the school compound and walk single file into the forest. In less than half an hour, we arrive in a glade where we are going to sleep. There’s absolutely no noise. Within minutes everyone has spread their blue plastic sheets, the ubiquitous ‘jhilli’ (without which there will be no Revolution). Chandu and Mangtu share one and spread one out for me. They find me the best place, by the best grey rock. Chandu says he has sent a message to Didi. If she gets it, she will be here first thing in the morning. If she gets it.

It’s the most beautiful room I have slept in, in a long time. My private suite in a thousand-star hotel. I’m surrounded by these strange, beautiful children with their curious arsenal. They’re all Maoists for sure. Are they all going to die? Is the jungle warfare training school for them? And the helicopter gunships, the thermal imaging and the laser range-finders?

Why must they die? What for? To turn all of this into a mine? I remember my visit to the open cast iron-ore mines in Keonjhar, Orissa. There was forest there once. And children like these. Now the land is like a raw, red wound. Red dust fills your nostrils and lungs. The water is red, the air is red, the people are red, their lungs and hair are red. All day and all night trucks rumble through their villages, bumper to bumper, thousands and thousands of trucks, taking ore to Paradip port from where it will go to China. There it will turn into cars and smoke and sudden cities that spring up overnight. Into a ‘growth rate’ that leaves economists breathless. Into weapons to make war.

Everyone’s asleep except for the sentries who take one-and-a-half-hour shifts. Finally, I can look at the stars. When I was a child growing up on the banks of the Meenachal river, I used to think the sound of crickets—which always started up at twilight—was the sound of stars revving up, getting ready to shine. I’m surprised at how much I love being here. There is nowhere else in the world that I would rather be. Who should I be tonight? Kamraid Rahel, under the stars? Maybe Didi will come tomorrow.


They arrive in the early afternoon. I can see them from a distance. About 15 of them, all in olive-green uniforms, running towards us. Even from a distance, from the way they run, I can tell they are the heavy hitters. The People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA). For whom the thermal imaging and laser-guided rifles. For whom the jungle warfare training school.

They carry serious rifles, INSAS, SLR, two have AK-47s. The leader of the squad is Comrade Madhav who has been with the Party since he was nine. He’s from Warangal, Andhra Pradesh. He’s upset and extremely apologetic. There was a major miscommunication, he says again and again, which usually never happens. I was supposed to have arrived at the main camp on the very first night. Someone dropped the baton in the jungle-relay. The motorcycle drop was to have been at an entirely different place. “We made you wait, we made you walk so much. We ran all the way when the message came that you were here.”I said it was okay, that I had come prepared, to wait and walk and listen. He wants to leave immediately, because people in the camp were waiting, and worried.

It’s a few hours’ walk to the camp. It’s getting dark when we arrive. There are several layers of sentries and concentric circles of patrolling. There must be a hundred comrades lined up in two rows. Everyone has a weapon. And a smile. They begin to sing: Lal lal salaam, lal lal salaam, aane vaale saathiyon ko lal lal salaam (red salute to the comrades who have arrived). It is sung sweetly, as though it wasa folk song about a river, or a forest blossom. With the song, the greeting, the handshake, and the clenched fist. Everyone greets everyone, murmuring Lalslaam, mlalslaa mlalslaam....

Other than a large blue jhilli spread out on the floor, about 15 feet square, there are no signs of a ‘camp’. This one has a jhilli roof as well. It’s my room for the night. I was either being rewarded for my days of walking, or being pampered in advance for what lay ahead. Or both. Either way it was the last time in the entire trip that I was going to have a roof over my head. Over dinner I meet Comrade Narmada, in charge of the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (KAMS), who has a price on her head; Comrade Saroja of the PLGA who is only as tall as her SLR; Comrade Maase (which means Black Girl in Gondi), who has a price on her head too; Comrade Rupi, the tech wizard; Comrade Raju, who’s in charge of the division I’d been walking through; and Comrade Venu (or Murali or Sonu or Sushil, whatever you would like to call him), clearly the senior-most of them all. Maybe central committee, maybe even politburo. I’m not told, I don’t ask. Between us we speak Gondi, Halbi, Telugu, Punjabi and Malayalam. Only Maase speaks English. (So we all communicate in Hindi!) Comrade Maase is tall and quiet and seems to have to swim through a layer of pain to enter the conversation. But from the way she hugs me, I can tell she’s a reader. And that she misses having books in the jungle. She will tell me her story only later. When she trusts me with her grief.

Bad news arrives, as it does in this jungle. A runner, with ‘biscuits’. Handwritten notes on sheets of paper, folded and stapled into little squares. There’s a bag full of them. Like chips. News from everywhere. The police have killed five people in Ongnaar village, four from the militia and one ordinary villager: Santhu Pottai (25), Phoolo Vadde (22), Kande Pottai (22), Ramoli Vadde (20), Dalsai Koram (22). They could have been the children in my star-spangled dormitory of last night.

Then good news arrives. A small contingent of people with a plump young man. He’s in fatigues too, but they look brand new. Everybody admires them and comments on the fit. He looks shy and pleased. He’s a doctor who has come to live and work with the comrades in the forest. The last time a doctor visited Dandakaranya was many years ago.

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Performing Arts: Members of the Chetna Natya Manch, the cultural wing of the party, waiting in the wings

On the radio there’s news about the home minister’s meeting with chief ministers of states ‘affected by Left-Wing Extremism’. The chief ministers of Jharkhand and Bihar are being demure and have not attended. Everybody sitting around the radio laughs. Around the time of elections, they say, right through the campaign, and then maybe a month or two after the government is formed, mainstream politicians all say things like “Naxals are our children”. You can set your watch to the schedule of when they will change their minds, and grow fangs.

(Even now I think of Comrade Kamla all the time, every day. She’s 17. She wears a homemade pistol on her hip. And boy, what a smile. But if the police come across her, they’ll kill her. They might rape her first. No questions will be asked. Because she’s an Internal Security Threat.)

After breakfast, Comrade Venu (Sushil, Sonu, Murali) is waiting for me, sitting cross-legged on the jhilli, looking for all the world like a frail village schoolteacher. I’m going to get a history lesson. Or, more accurately, a lecture on the history of the last 30 years in the Dandakaranya forest, which has culminated in the war that’s swirling through it today. For sure, it’s a partisan’s version. But then, what history isn’t? In any case, the secret history must be made public if it is to be contested, argued with, instead of merely being lied about, which is what is happening now.

Comrade Venu has a calm, reassuring manner and a gentle voice that will, in the days to come, surface in a context that will completely unnerve me. This morning he talks for several hours, almost continuously. He’s like a little store manager who has a giant bunch of keys with which to open up a maze of lockers full of stories, songs and insights.

Comrade Venu was in one of the seven armed squads who crossed the Godavari from Andhra Pradesh and entered the Dandakaranya forest (DK, in Partyspeak) in June 1980, 30 years ago. He is one of the original forty-niners. They belonged to People’s War Group (PWG), a faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI(ML), the original Naxalites. PWG was formally announced as a separate, independent party in April that year, under Kondapalli Seetharamiah. PWG had decided to build a standing army, for which it would need a base. DK was to be that base, and those first squads were sent in to reconnoitre the area and begin the process of building guerrilla zones. The debate about whether communist parties ought to have a standing army, and whether or not a ‘people’s army’ is a contradiction in terms, is an old one. PWG’s decision to build an army came from its experience in Andhra Pradesh, where its ‘Land to the Tiller’ campaign led to a direct clash with the landlords, and resulted in the kind of police repression that the party found impossible to withstand without a trained fighting force of its own.

(By 2004, PWG had merged with the other CPI(ML) factions, Party Unity (PU) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC)—which functions for the most part out of Bihar and Jharkhand. To become what it is now, the Communist Party of India-Maoist.)


Dandakaranya is part of what the British, in their White Man’s way, called Gondwana, land of the Gonds. Today the state boundaries of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra slice through the forest. Breaking up a troublesome people into separate administrative units is an old trick. But these Maoists and Maoist Gonds don’t pay much attention to things like state boundaries. They have different maps in their heads, and like other creatures of the forest, they have their own paths. For them, roads are not meant for walking on. They’re meant only to be crossed, or as is increasingly becoming the case, ambushed. Though the Gonds (divided between the Koya and Dorla tribes) are by far the biggest majority, there are small settlements of other tribal communities too. The non-adivasi communities, traders and settlers, live on the edges of the forest, near the roads and markets.

The PWG were not the first evangelicals to arrive in Dandakaranya. Baba Amte, the well-known Gandhian, had opened his ashram andleprosy hospital in Warora in 1975. The Ramakrishna Mission had begun opening village schools in the remote forests of Abujhmad. In north Bastar, Baba Bihari Das had started an aggressive drive to “bring tribals back into the Hindu fold”, which involved a campaign to denigrate tribal culture, induce self-hatred, and introduce Hinduism’s great gift—caste. The first converts, the village chiefs and big landlords—people like Mahendra Karma, founder of the Salwa Judum—were conferred the status of Dwij, twice-born, Brahmins. (Of course, this was a bit of a scam, because nobody can become a Brahmin. If they could, we’d be a nation of Brahmins by now.) But this counterfeit Hinduism is considered good enough for tribal people, just like the counterfeit brands of everything else—biscuits, soap, matches, oil—that are sold in village markets. As part of the Hindutva drive, the names of villages were changed in land records, as a result of which most have two names now, people’s names and government names. Innar village, for example, became Chinnari. On voters’ lists, tribal names were changed to Hindu names. (Massa Karma became Mahendr A Karma.) Those who did not come forward to join the Hindu fold were declared ‘Katwas’ (by which they meant untouchables) who later became the natural constituency for the Maoists.

The PWG first began work in south Bastar and Gadchiroli. Comrade Venu describes those first months in some detail: how the villagers were suspicious of them, and wouldn’t let them into their homes. No one would offer them food or water. The police spread rumors that they were thieves. The women hid their jewellery in the ashes of their wood stoves. There was an enormous amount of repression. In November 1980, in Gadchiroli, the police opened fire at a village meeting and killed an entire squad. That was DK’s first ‘encounter’ killing. It was a traumatic setback, and the comrades retreated across the Godavari and returned to Adilabad but in 1981 they returned. They began to organise tribal people to demand a rise in the price they were being paid for tendu leaves (which are used to make beedis). At the time, traders paid three paise for a bundle of about 50 leaves. It was a formidable job to organise people entirely unfamiliar with this kind of politics, to lead them on strike. Eventually the strike was successful and the price was doubled, to six paise a bundle. But the real success for the party was to have been able to demonstrate the value of unity and a new way of conducting a political negotiation. Today, after several strikes and agitations, the price of a bundle of tendu leaves is Re 1. (It seems a little improbable at these rates, but the turnover of the tendu business runs into hundreds of crores of rupees.) Every season, the government floats tenders and gives contractors permission to extract a fixed volume of tendu leaves—usually between 1,500 and 5,000 standard bags known as manak boras. Each manak bora contains about 1,000 bundles. (Of course, there’s no way of ensuring that the contractors don’t extract more than they’re meant to.) By the time the tendu enters the market, it is sold in kilos. The slippery arithmetic and the sly system of measurement that converts bundles into manak boras into kilos is controlled by the contractors, and leaves plenty of room for manipulation of the worst kind. The most conservative estimate puts their profit per standard bag at about Rs 1,100. (That’s after paying the party a commission of Rs 120 per bag.) Even by that gauge, a small contractor (1,500 bags) makes about Rs 16 lakh a season and a big one (5,000 bags) upto Rs 55 lakh. A more realistic estimate would be several times this amount. Meanwhile, the Gravest Internal Security Threat makes just enough to stay alive until the next season.

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Gathered Storm: Dance troupes of various Janatana Sarkars perform on Bhumkal Day

We’re interrupted by some laughter and the sight of Nilesh, one of the young PLGA comrades, walking rapidly towards the cooking area, slapping himself. When he comes closer, I see that he’s carrying a leafy nest of angry red ants that have crawled all over him and are biting him on his arms and neck. Nilesh is laughing too. “Have you ever eaten ant chutney?” Comrade Venu asks me. I know red ants well, from my childhood in Kerala, I’ve been bitten by them, but I’ve never eaten them. (The chapoli turns out to be nice. Sour. Lots of folic acid.)

Nilesh is from Bijapur, which is at the heart of Salwa Judum operations. Nilesh’s younger brother joined the Judum on one of its looting and burning sprees and was made a Special Police Officer (SPO). He lives in the Basaguda camp with his mother. His father refused to go and stayed behind in the village. In effect, it’s a family blood feud. Later on, when I had an opportunity to talk to him, I asked Nilesh why his brother had done that. “He was very young,” Nilesh said, “he got an opportunity to run wild and hurt people and burn houses. He went crazy, did terrible things. Now he is stuck. He can never come back to the village. He will not be forgiven. He knows that.”

We return to the history lesson. The party’s next big struggle, Comrade Venu says, was against the Ballarpur Paper Mills. The government had given the Thapars a 45-year contract to extract 1.5 lakh tonnes of bamboo at a hugely subsidised rate. (Small beer compared to bauxite, but still.) The tribals were paid 10 paise for a bundle which contained 20 culms of bamboo. (I won’t yield to the vulgar temptation of comparing that with the profits the Thapars were making.) A long agitation, a strike , followed by negotiations with officials of the paper millin the presence of the people, tripled the price to 30 paise per bundle. For the tribal people, these were huge achievements. Other political parties had made promises, but showed no signs of keeping them. People began to approach the PWG asking if they could join up.

But the politics of tendu, bamboo and other forest produce was seasonal. The perennial problem, the real bane of people’s lives, was the biggest landlord of all, the Forest Department. Every morning, forest officials, even the most junior of them, would appear in villages like a bad dream, preventing people from ploughing their fields, collecting firewood, plucking leaves, picking fruit, grazing their cattle, from living. They brought elephants to overrun fields and scattered babool seeds to destroy the s oil as they passed by. People would be beaten, arrested, humiliated, their crops destroyed. Of course, from the forest department’s point of view, these were illegal people engaged in unconstitutional activity, and the department was only implementing the Rule of Law. (Their sexual exploitation of women was just an added perk in a hardship posting.)

Emboldened by the people’s participation in these struggles, the party decided to confront the forest department. It encouraged people to take over forest land and cultivate it. The forest department retaliated by burning new villages that came up in forest areas. In 1986, it announced a National Park in Bijapur, which meant the eviction of 60 villages. More than half of them had already been moved out, and construction of national park infrastructure had begun when the party moved in. It demolished the construction and stopped the eviction of the remaining villages. It prevented the forest department from entering the area. On a few occasions, officials were captured, tied to trees and beaten by villagers. It was cathartic revenge for generations of exploitation. Eventually, the forest department fled. Between 1986 and 2000, the party redistributed 3,00,000 acres of forest land. Today, Comrade Venu says, there are no landless peasants in Dandakaranya.

For today’s generation of young people, the forest department is a distant memory, the stuff of stories mothers tell their children, about a mythological past of bondage and humiliation. For the older generation, freedom from the forest department meant genuine freedom. They could touch it, taste it. It meant far more than India’s Independence ever did. They began to rally to the party that had struggled with them.

The seven-squad team had come a long way. Its influence now ranged across a 60,000 sq km stretch of forest, thousands of villages and millions of people.

But the departure of the forest department heralded the arrival of the police. That set off a cycle of bloodshed. Fake ‘encounters’ by the police, ambushes by the PWG. With the redistribution of land came other responsibilities: irrigation, agricultural productivity and the problem of an expanding population arbitrarily clearing forest land. A decision was taken to separate ‘mass work’ and ‘military work’.

Today, Dandakaranya is administered by an elaborate structure of Janatana Sarkars (people’s governments). The organising principles came from the Chinese revolution and the Vietnam war. Each Janatana Sarkar is elected by a cluster of villages whose combined population can range from 500 to 5,000. It has nine departments: Krishi (agriculture), Vyapar-Udyog (trade and industry) Arthik (economic), Nyay (justice), Raksha (defence), Hospital (health), Jan Sampark (public relations), School-Riti Rivaj (education and culture), and Jungle. A group of Janatana Sarkars come under an Area Committee. Three area committees make up a Division. There are 10 divisions in Dandakaranya.

“We have a Save the Jungle department now,” Comrade Venu says. “You must have read the government report that says forest has increased in Naxal areas?”

Ironically, Comrade Venu says, the first people to benefit from the party’s campaign against the forest department were the mukhias (village chiefs)—the Dwij brigade. They used their manpower and their resources to grab as much land as they could while the going was good. But then people began to approach the party with their “internal contradictions”, as Comrade Venu put it quaintly. The party began to turn its attention to issues of equity, class and injustice within tribal society. The big landlords sensed trouble on the horizon. As the party’s influence expanded, theirs had begun to wane. Increasingly, people were taking their problems to the party instead of to the mukhias. Old forms of exploitation began to be challenged. On the day of the first rain, people were traditionally supposed to till the mukhia’s land instead of their own. That stopped. They no longer offered them the first day’s picking of mahua or other forest produce. Obviously, something needed to be done.

Enter Mahendra Karma, one of the biggest landlords in the region and at the time a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI). In 1990, he rallied a group of mukhias and landlords and started a campaign called the Jan Jagran Abhiyaan (public awakening campaign). Their way of ‘awakening’ the ‘public’ was to form a hunting party of about 300 men to comb the forest, killing people, burning houses and molesting women. The then Madhya Pradesh government—Chhattisgarh had not yet been created—provided police back-up. In Maharashtra, something similar called ‘Democratic Front’ began its assault. People’s War responded to all of this in true People’s War style, by killing a few of the most notorious landlords. In a few months, the Jan Jagran Abhiyaan, the ‘white terror’—Comrade Venu’s term for it—faded. In 1998, Mahendra Karma, who had by now joined the Congress party, tried to revive the Jan Jagran Abhiyaan. This time it fizzled out even faster than before.

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Armed Strugglers: A village militia, the ‘base force’ of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army

Then, in the summer of 2005, fortune favoured him. In April, the BJP government in Chhattisgarh signed two MoUs to set up integrated steel plants (the terms of which are secret). One for Rs 7,000 crore with Essar Steel in Bailadila, and the other for Rs 10,000 crore with Tata Steel in Lohandiguda. That same month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made his famous statement about the Maoists being the “Gravest Internal Security Threat” to India. (It was an odd thing to say at the time, because actually the opposite was true. The Congress government in Andhra Pradesh had just outmanoeuvred the Maoists, decimated them. They had lost about 1,600 of their cadre and were in complete disarray.) The PM’s statement sent the share value of mining companies soaring. It also sent a signal to the media that the Maoists were fair game for anyone who chose to go after them. In June 2005, Mahendra Karma called a secret meeting of mukhias in Kutroo village and announced the Salwa Judum (the Purification Hunt). A lovely melange of tribal earthiness and Dwij/Nazi sentiment.

Unlike the Jan Jagran Abhiyaan, the Salwa Judum was a ground-clearing operation, meant to move people out of their villages into roadside camps, where they could be policed and controlled. In military terms, it’s called Strategic Hamleting. It was devised by General Sir Harold Briggs in 1950 when the British were at war against the communists in Malaya. The Briggs Plan became very popular with the Indian army, which has used it in Nagaland, Mizoram and in Telangana. The BJP chief minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh, announced that as far as his government was concerned, villagers who did not move into the camps would be considered Maoists. So, in Bastar, for an ordinary villager, just staying at home became the equivalent of indulging in dangerous terrorist activity.

Along with a steel mug of black tea, as a special treat, someone hands me a pair of earphones and switches on a little MP3 player. It’s a scratchy recording of Mr Manhar, the then SP Bijapur, briefing a junior officer over the wireless about the rewards and incentives the state and central governments are offering to ‘jagrit’ (awakened) villages, and to people who agree to move into camps. He then gives clear instructions that villages that refuse to surrender should be burnt and journalists who want to ‘cover’ Naxalites should be shot on sight. (I’d read about this in the papers long ago. When the story broke, as punishment—it’s not clear to whom—the SP was transferred to the State Human Rights Commission.)

The first village the Salwa Judum burnt (on June 18, 2005) was Ambeli. Between June and December 2005, it burned, killed, raped and looted its way through hundreds of villages of south Dantewada. The centre of its operations were the districts of Bijapur and Bhairamgarh, near Bailadila, where Essar Steel’s new plant was proposed. Not coincidentally, these were also Maoist strongholds, where the Janatana Sarkars had done a great deal of work, especially in building water-harvesting structures. The Janatana Sarkars became the special targetof the Salwa Judum’s attacks. Hundreds of people were killed in the most brutal ways. About 60,000 people moved into camps, some voluntarily, others out of terror. Of these, about 3,000 were appointed SPOs on a salary of Rs 1,500.

For these paltry crumbs, young people, like Nilesh’s brother, have sentenced themselves to a life-sentence in a barbed wire enclosure. Cruel as they have been, they could end up being the worst victims of this horrible war. No Supreme Court judgement ordering the Salwa Judum to be dismantled can change their fate.

The remaining hundreds of thousands of people went off the government radar. (But the development funds for these 644 villages did not. What happens to that little goldmine?) Many of them made their way to Andhra Pradesh and Orissa where they usually migrated to work as contract labour during the chilli-picking season. But tens of thousands fled into the forest, where they still remain, living without shelter, coming back to their fields and homes only in the daytime.

We shouldn’t judge Charu Mazumdartoo harshly. Especially not while we swaddle ourselves with Gandhi’s pious humbug. Lohandiguda was never a Naxal area. The comrades moved in when graffiti saying ‘Naxali aao, hamein bachao’ began appearing on walls. In the slipstream of the Salwa Judum, a swarm of police stations and camps appeared. The idea was to provide carpet security for a ‘creeping reoccupation’ of Maoist-controlled territory. The assumption was that the Maoists would not dare to attack such a large concentration of security forces. The Maoists, for their part, realised that if they did not break that carpet security, it would amount to abandoning people whose trust they had earned, and with whom they had lived and worked for 25 years. They struck back in a series of attacks on the heart of the security grid.