The Booker prize-winning author and activist gains rare access to the tribal people and Maoist guerrillas who – from their camps deep in the Dandakaranya forest – have taken up arms against the Indian state
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 Maa Danteshwari mandir in Dantewara, 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.
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 epicentre 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 (300 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 mobilised. Though the theatre of war is in the jungles of Central India, it will have serious consequences for us all.
If ghosts are the lingering spirits of someone, or something that has ceased to exist, then perhaps the National Mineral Development Corporation’s 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 organised, hugely 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 1950s, 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 re-emerged, more organised, 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 who 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 against 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 marginalised 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 criminalised 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, who says he does not 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.
Over the past five years or so, the governments of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal have signed hundreds of memorandums of understanding – all of them secret – with corporate houses worth several billion dollars, 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 organisation “headless”. There’s talk in the press about the new hardware that has been bought from Israel: laser range finders, thermal imaging equipment and the 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 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, Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, 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 Rs27 (40p) and the mining company makes Rs5,000. In the bauxite and aluminum sector the figures are even worse. We’re talking 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 and jungle warfare training school run by Brigadier B K Ponwar, Rumpelstiltskin of this war. He is 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. The men are taught to run, slither, jump on and off airborne 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 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 Peoples’ 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.
I arrived at the Maa 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 recognised 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 centre 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 Horlicks!, was Chandu. A slightly older security threat. Maybe 20. 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 un-cycleable. 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. Every village we walk through has a family of tamarind trees watching over it, like a clutch of huge, benevolent gods. Sweet, Bastar tamarind. By 11am 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 lovely 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 chilli 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 stabilises 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?
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 20 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 days’ 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’re 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 opencast 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 Guerilla Army (PLGA). For whom the thermal imaging and laser guided rifles. For whom the jungle warfare training school.
End of Part One. Read Part Two here