This was the first women’s issue the Party decided to campaign against. It had to be handled delicately, with surgical tools. In 1986 it set up the Adivasi Mahila Sanghathana (AMS) which evolved into the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (KAMS) and now has 90,000 enrolled members. It could well be the largest women’s organization in the country. (They’re all Maoists by the way, all 90,000 of them. Are they going to be ‘wiped out’? And what about the 10,000 members of CNM? Them too?) The KAMS campaigns against the adivasi traditions of forced marriage and abduction. Against the custom of making menstruating women live outside the village in a hut in the forest. Against bigamy and domestic violence. It hasn’t won all its battles, but then which feminists have? For instance, in Dandakaranya even today, women are not allowed to sow seeds. In Party meetings men agree that this is unfair and ought to be done away with. But in practice, they simply don’t allow it. So the Party decided that women would sow seeds on common lands, which belongs to the Jantana Sarkar. On that land they sow seed, grow vegetables, and build check dams. A half-victory, not a whole one.
As police repression has grown in Bastar, the women of KAMS have become a formidable force and rally in their hundreds, sometimes thousands to physically confront the police. The very fact that the KAMS exists has radically changed traditional attitudes and eased many of the traditional forms of discrimination against women. For many young women, joining the Party, in particular the PLGA, became a way of escaping the suffocation of their own society. Comrade Sushila, a senior office bearer of KAMS talks about the Salwa Judum’s rage against KAMS women. She says one of their slogans was Hum Do Bibi layenge! Layenge! (We will have two wives! We will!) A lot of the rape and bestial sexual mutilation was directed at members of the KAMS. Many young women who witnessed the savagery then joined the PLGA and now women make up 45% of its cadre. Comrade Narmada sends for some of them and they join us in a while.
Comrade Rinki has very short hair. A Bob-cut as they say in Gondi. It’s brave of her, because here, ‘bob-cut’ means ‘Maoist.’ For the police that’s more than enough evidence to warrant summary execution. Comrade Rinki’s village, Korma was attacked by the Naga Battalion and the Salwa Judum in 2005. At that time Rinki was part of the village militia. So were her friends Lukki and Sukki, who were also members of the KAMS. After burning the village, the Naga battalion caught Lukki and Sukki and one other girl, gang raped and killed them. “They raped them on the grass”, Rinki says, ” but after it was over there was no grass left.” It’s been years now, the Naga Battalion has gone, but the police still come. “They come whenever they need women, or chickens.”
Ajitha has a bob-cut too. The Judum came to Korseel, her village and killed three people by drowning them in a nallah. Ajitha was with the Militia, and followed the Judum at a distance to a place close to the village called Paral Nar Todak. She watched them rape six women and shoot a man in his throat.
Comrade Laxmi who is a gorgeous girl with a long plait, tells me she watched the Judum burn thirty houses in her village Jojor. “We had no weapons then,” she says, “we could do nothing, but watch.” She joined the PLGA soon after. Laxmi was one of the 150 guerillas who walked through the jungle for three and a half months in 2008, to Nayagarh in Orissa, to raid a police armoury from where they captured 1,200 rifles and 200,000 rounds of ammunition.
Comrade Sumitra joined the PLGA in 2004, before the Salwa Judum began its rampage. She joined she says, because she wanted to escape from home. “Women are controlled in every way,” she told me. “In our village girls were not allowed to climb trees, if they did, they would have to pay a fine of Rs 500 or a hen. If a man hits a woman and she hits him back she has to give the village a goat. Men go off to the hills for months together to hunt. Women are not allowed to go near the kill, the best part of the meat goes to men. Women are not allowed to eat eggs.” Good reason to join a guerilla army?
Sumitra tells the story of two of her friends, Telam Parvati and Kamla who worked with KAMS. Telam Parvati was from Polekaya village in South Bastar. Like everyone else from there, she too watched the Salwa Judum burn her village. She then joined the PLGA and went to work in the Keshkal ghats. In 2009 she and Kamla had just finished organizing the March 8th Women’s day celebrations in the area. They were together in a little hut just outside a village called Vadgo. The police surrounded the hut at night and began to fire. Kamla fired back, but she was killed. Parvati escaped, but was found and killed the next day.
That’s what happened last year on Women’s Day. And here’s a press report from a national newspaper about Women’s Day this year.
Bastar rebels bat for women’s rights
Sahar Khan, Mail Today, Raipur, March 7, 2010
The government may have pulled out all stops to combat the Maoist menace in the country. But a section of rebels in Chhattisgarh has more pressing matters in hand than survival. With International Women’s Day around the corner, Maoists in the Bastar region of the state have called for week- long “celebrations” to advocate women’s rights. Posters were also put up in Bijapur, a part of Bastar district. The call by the self- styled champions of women’s rights has left the state police astonished. Inspector- general (IG) of Bastar T. J. Longkumer said, ” I have never seen such an appeal from the Naxalites, who believe only in violence and bloodshed.”
And then the report goes on to say:
“I think the Maoists are trying to counter our highly successful Jan Jagran Abhiyaan (mass awareness campaign). We started the ongoing campaign with an aim to win popular support for Operation Green Hunt, which was launched by the police to root out Left- wing extremists,” the IG said.
This cocktail of malice and ignorance is not unusual. Gudsa Usendi, chronicler of the Party’s present knows more about this than most people. His little computer and MP3 recorder are full of press statements, denials, corrections, Party literature, lists of the dead, TV clips and audio and video material. “The worst thing about being Gudsa Usendi” he says, “is issuing clarifications which are never published. We could bring out a thick book of our unpublished clarifications, about the lies they tell about us.” He speaks without a trace of indignation, in fact with some amusement.
“What’s the most ridiculous charge you’ve had to deny?”
He thinks back. “In 2007, we had to issue a statement saying ‘Nahi bhai, humney gai ko hathode say nahin mara.’ (No brother, we did not kill cows with hammers.). In 2007 the Raman Singh Government announced a Gai Yojana (cow scheme), an election promise, a cow for every Adivasi. One day the TV channels and newspapers reported that Naxalites had attacked a herd of cows and bludgeoned them to death— with hammers— because they were anti-Hindu, anti-BJP. You can imagine what happened. We issued a denial. Hardly anybody carried it. Later it turned out that the man who had been given the cows to distribute was a rogue. He sold them and said we had ambushed him and killed the cows.”
And the most serious?
“Oh there are dozens, they’re running a campaign after all. When the Salwa Judum started, the first day they attacked a village called Ambeli, burned it down and then all of them, SPOs, the Naga Battalion, police, moved towards Kotrapal…you must have heard about Kotrapal? It’s a famous village, it has been burnt 22 times for refusing to surrender. When the Judum reached Kotrapal, our militia was waiting for it. They had prepared an ambush. Two SPOs died. The militia captured seven, the rest ran away. The next day the newspapers reported that the Naxalites had massacred poor adivasis. Some said we had killed hundreds. Even a respectable magazine like Frontline said we had killed 18 innocent adivasis. Even K.Balagopal, the human rights activist, who is usually meticulous about facts, even he said this. We sent a clarification. Nobody published it. Later, in his book, Balagopal acknowledged his mistake…. But who noticed?”
I asked what happened to the seven people that were captured.
“The Area Committee called a Jan Adalat (Peoples Court). Four thousand people attended it. They listened to the whole story. Two of the SPOs were sentenced to death. Five were warned and let off. The people decided. Even with informers —which is becoming a huge problem nowadays— people listen to the case, the stories, the confessions and say “Iska hum risk nahin le sakte” (We’re not prepared to take the risk of trusting this person) or, “Iska risk hum lenge” (We are prepared to take the risk of trusting this person.) The press always reports about informers who are killed. Never about the many that are let off. Never about the people who these informers have had killed. So everybody thinks it is some bloodthirsty procedure in which everybody is always killed. It’s not about revenge, its about survival and saving future lives… Of course there are problems, we’ve made terrible mistakes, we have even killed the wrong people in our ambushes, thinking they were policemen, but it is not the way it’s portrayed in the media.”
The dreaded ‘Peoples’ Courts’. How can we accept them? Or approve this form of rude justice?
On the other hand, what about ‘encounters’ fake and otherwise—the worst form of summary justice—that get policemen and soldiers bravery medals, cash awards and out-of-turn promotions from the Indian Government? The more they kill, the more they are rewarded. “Bravehearts” they are called, the ‘Encounter specialists’. ‘Anti-nationals’ we are called, those of us who dare to question them. And what about the Supreme Court that brazenly admitted it did not have enough evidence to sentence Mohammed Afzal (accused in the Dec 2001 Parliament Attack) to death, but did so anyway, because “the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.”
At least in the case of the Kotrapal Jan Adalat, the Collective was physically present to make its own decision. It wasn’t made by judges who had lost touch with ordinary life a long time ago, presuming to speak on behalf of an absent Collective.
What should the people of Kotrapal have done I wonder? Sent for the police?
The sound of drums has become really loud. It’s Bhumkal time. We walk to the grounds. I can hardly believe my eyes. There is a sea of people, the most wild, beautiful people, dressed in the most wild, beautiful ways. The men seem to have paid much more attention to themselves than the women. They have feathered headgear and painted tattoos on their faces. Many have eye make-up and white, powdered faces. There’s lots of militia, girls in saris of breathtaking colors with rifles slung carelessly over their shoulders. There are old people, children, and red buntings arc across the sky. The sun is sharp and high. Comrade Leng speaks. And several office-holders of the various Jantana Sarkars. Comrade Niti, an extraordinary woman who has been with the Party since 1997, is such a threat to the nation, that in January 2007 more than 700 policemen surrounded Innar village because they heard she was there. Comrade Niti is considered to be so dangerous, and is being hunted with such desperation, not because she has led many ambushes (which she has), but because she is an adivasi woman who is loved by people in the village and is a real inspiration to young people. She speaks with her AK on her shoulder. (It’s a gun with a story. Almost everyone’s gun has a story: Who it was snatched from, how, and by whom.)
A CNM troupe performs a play about the Bhumkal uprising. The evil white colonizers wear hats and golden straw for hair, and bully and beat Adivasis to pulp—causing endless delight in the audience. Another troupe from South Gangalaur performs a play called Nitir Judum Pito (Story of the Blood Hunt). Joori translates for me. It’s the story of two old people who go looking for their daughter’s village. As they walk through the forest, they get lost because everything is burnt and unrecognizable. The Salwa Judum has even burned the drums and the musical instruments. There are no ashes because it has been raining. They cannot find their daughter. In their sorrow the old couple starts to sing, and hearing them, the voice of their daughter sings back to them from the ruins: The sound of our village has been silenced, she sings. There’s no more pounding of rice, no more laughter by the well. No more birds, no more bleating goats. The taut string of our happiness has been snapped.
Her father sings back: My beautiful daughter, don’t cry today. Everyone who is born must die. These trees around us will fall, flowers will bloom and fade, one day this world will grow old. But who are we dying for? One day our looters will learn, one day Truth will prevail, but our people will never forget you, not for thousands of years.
A few more speeches. Then the drumming and the dancing begins. Each Janatana Sarkar has its own troupe. Each troupe has prepared its own dance. They arrive one by one, with huge drums and they dance wild stories. The only character every troupe has in common is Bad Mining Man, with a helmet and dark glasses, and usually smoking a cigarette. But there’s nothing stiff, or mechanical about their dancing. As they dance, the dust rises. The sound of drums becomes deafening. Gradually, the crowd begins to sway. And then it begins to dance. They dance in little lines of six or seven, men and women separate, with their arms around each other’s waists. Thousands of people. This is what they’ve come for. For this. Happiness is taken very seriously here, in the Dandakaranya forest. People will walk for miles, for days together to feast and sing, to put feathers in their turbans and flowers in their hair, to put their arms around each other and drink mahua and dance through the night. No one sings or dances alone. This, more than anything else, signals their defiance towards a civilization that seeks to annihilate them.
I can’t believe all this is happening right under the noses of the police. Right in the midst of Operation Green Hunt.
At first the PLGA comrades watch the dancers, standing aside with their guns. But then, one by one, like ducks who cannot bear to stand on the shore and watch other ducks swim, they move in and begin to dance too. Soon there are lines of olive green dancers, swirling with all the other colours. And then, as sisters and brothers and parents and children and friends who haven’t met for months, years sometimes, encounter each other, the lines break up and re-form and the olive green is distributed among the swirling saris and flowers and drums and turbans. It surely is a Peoples’ Army. For now, at least. And what Chairman Mao said about the guerillas being the fish, and people being the water they swim in, is, at this moment, literally true.
Chairman Mao. He’s here too. A little lonely, perhaps, but present. There’s a photograph of him, up on a red cloth screen. Marx too. And Charu Majumdar, the founder and chief theoretician of the Naxalite Movement. His abrasive rhetoric fetishizes violence, blood and martyrdom, and often employs a language so coarse as to be almost genocidal. Standing here, on Bhumkal day, I can’t help thinking that his analysis, so vital to the structure of this revolution, is so removed from its emotion and texture. When he said that only ‘an annihilation campaign’ could produce “the new man who will defy death and be free from all thought of self-interest”— could he have imagined that this ancient people, dancing into the night, would be the ones on whose shoulders his dreams would come to rest?
It’s a great disservice to everything that is happening here that the only thing that seems to make it to the outside world is the stiff, unbending rhetoric of the ideologues of a party that has evolved from a problematic past. When Charu Mazumdar famously said, “China’s Chairman is our Chairman and China’s Path is Our Path” he was prepared to extend it to the point where the Naxalites remained silent while General Yahya Khan committed genocide in East Pakistan (Bangladesh), because at the time, China was an ally of Pakistan. There was silence too, over the Khmer Rouge and its killing fields in Cambodia. There was silence over the egregious excesses of the Chinese and Russian Revolutions. Silence over Tibet. Within the Naxalite movement too, there have been violent excesses and it’s impossible to defend much of what they’ve done. But can anything they have done compare with the sordid achievements of the Congress and the BJP in Punjab, Kashmir, Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat… And yet, despite these terrifying contradictions, Charu Mazumdar was a visionary in much of what he wrote and said. The party he founded (and its many splinter groups) has kept the dream of revolution real and present in India. Imagine a society without that dream. For that alone we cannot judge him too harshly. Especially not while we swaddle ourselves with Gandhi’s pious humbug about the superiority of “the non-violent way” and his notion of Trusteeship: “The rich man will be left in possession of his wealth, of which he will use what he reasonably requires for his personal needs and will act as a trustee for the remainder to be used for the good of society.”
How strange it is though, that the contemporary tsars of the Indian Establishment—the State that crushed the Naxalites so mercilessly— should now be saying what Charu Mazumdar said so long ago: China’s Path is Our Path.
Upside Down. Inside Out.
China’s Path has changed. China has become an imperial power now, preying on other countries, other peoples’ resources. But the Party is still right, only, the Party has changed its mind.
When the Party is a suitor (as it is now in Dandakaranya), wooing the people, attentive to their every need, then it genuinely is a Peoples’ Party, its army genuinely a Peoples’ Army. But after the Revolution how easily this love affair can turn into a bitter marriage. How easily the Peoples’ Army can turn upon the people. Today in Dandakaranya, the Party wants to keep the bauxite in the mountain. Tomorrow will it change its mind? But can we, should we let apprehensions about the future, immobilize us in the present?
The dancing will go on all night. I walk back to the camp. Maase is there, awake. We chat late into the night. I give her my copy of Neruda’s Captain’s Verses (I brought it along, just in case). She asks again and again, “What do they think of us outside? What do students say? Tell me about the women’s movement, what are the big issues now? She asks about me, my writing. I try and give her an honest account of my chaos. Then she starts to talk about herself, how she joined the Party. She tells me that her partner was killed last May, in a fake encounter. He was arrested in Nashik, and taken to Warangal to be killed. “They must have tortured him badly.” She was on her way to meet him when she heard he had been arrested. She’s been in the forest ever since. After a long silence she tells me she was married once before, years ago. “He was killed in an encounter too,” she says, and adds with heart-breaking precision, “but in a real one.”
I lie awake on my jhilli, thinking of Maase’s protracted sadness, listening to the drums and the sounds of protracted happiness from the grounds, and thinking about Charu Mazumdar’s idea of protracted war, the central precept of the Maoist Party. This is what makes people think the Maoists offer to enter ‘peace talks’ is a hoax, a ploy to get breathing space to regroup, re-arm themselves and go back to waging protracted war. What is protracted war? Is it a terrible thing in itself, or does it depend on the nature of the war? What if the people here in Dandakaranya had not waged their protracted war for the last thirty years, where would they be now?
And are the Maoists the only ones who believe in protracted war? Almost from the moment India became a sovereign nation it turned into a colonial power, annexing territory, waging war. It has never hesitated to use military interventions to address political problems— Kashmir, Hyderabad, Goa, Nagaland, Manipur, Telengana, Assam, Punjab, the Naxalite uprising in West Bengal, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and now across the tribal areas of Central India. Tens of thousands have been killed with impunity, hundreds of thousands tortured. All of this behind the benign mask of democracy. Who have these wars been waged against? Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Communists, Dalits, Tribals and, most of all against the poor who dare to question their lot instead of accepting the crumbs that are flung at them. It’s hard not to see the Indian State as an essentially upper-caste Hindu State (regardless of which party is in power) which harbours a reflexive hostility towards the ‘other’. One that in true colonial fashion, sends the Nagas and Mizos to fight in Chhattisgarh, Sikhs to Kashmir, Kashmiris to Orissa, Tamilians to Assam and so on. If this isn’t protracted war, what is?
Unpleasant thoughts on a lovely, starry night. Sukhdev is smiling to himself, his face lit by his computer screen. He’s a crazy workaholic. I ask him what’s funny. ” I was thinking about the journalists who came last year for the Bhumkal celebrations. They came for a day or two. One posed with my AK, had himself photographed and then went back and called us Killing Machines or something.”
The dancing hasn’t stopped and it’s daybreak. The lines are still going, hundreds of young people still dancing. “They won’t stop”, Comrade Raju says, “not until we start packing up.”
On the grounds I run into Comrade Doctor. He’s been running a little medical camp on the edge of the dance floor. I want to kiss his fat cheeks. Why can’t he be at least thirty people instead of just one? Why can’t he be one thousand people? I ask him what it’s looking like, the health of Dandakaranya. His reply makes my blood run cold. Most of the people he has seen, he says, including those in the PLGA, have a Haemoglobin Count that’s between 5 and 6, (when the standard for Indian women is 11.) There’s TB caused by more than two years of chronic anaemia. Young children suffer from Protein Energy Malnutrition Grade II, in medical terminology called Kwashiorkor. (I looked it up later. It’s a word derived from the Ga language of Coastal Ghana and means “the sickness a baby gets when the new baby comes.” Basically the old baby stops getting mother’s milk, and there’s not enough food to provide it nutrition.) “It’s an epidemic here, like in Biafra,” Comrade Doctor says, “I have worked in villages before, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Apart from this, there’s malaria, osteoporosis, tapeworm, severe ear and tooth infections and primary amenorrhea —which is when malnutrition during puberty causes a woman’s menstrual cycle to disappear, or never appear in the first place.
“There are no clinics in this forest apart from one or two in Gadchiroli. No doctors. No medicines.”
He’s off now, with his little team, on an eight-day trek to Abhujmad. He’s in ‘dress’ too, Comrade Doctor. So if they find him they’ll kill him.
End of Part Four. Read Part Five here