They carry serious rifles, INSAS, SLR, two have AK47s. 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 vaaley saathiyon ko lal lal salaam. (Red salute to the comrades who have arrived.) It was sung sweetly, as though it was a 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 fifteen 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 Roopi, 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 politbureau. 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 Potai (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.
On the radio there’s news about the home minister’s meeting with chief ministers of states affected by “leftwing extremism” to discuss the war. 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.
I am introduced to Comrade Kamla. I am told that I must on no account go even five feet away from my jhilli without waking her. Because everybody gets disoriented in the dark and could get seriously lost. (I don’t wake her. I sleep like a log.) In the morning Kamla presents me with a yellow polythene packet with one corner snipped off. Once it used to contain Abis Gold Refined Soya Oil. Now it was my Loo Mug. Nothing’s wasted on the Road to the Revolution.
(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 will 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’s is one of the original forty-niners. They belonged to Peoples War Group (PWG), a faction of the Communist party of India (Marxist-Leninist) CPI (ML), the original Naxalites. PWG was formally announced as 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 reconnoiter the area and begin the process of building guerilla 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. PWGs 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 and leprosy hospital in Warora in 1975. The Ramakrishna mission had begun opening village schools in the remote forests of Abhujmad. 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, peoples’ names and government names. Innar village for example, became Chinnari. On voters’ lists, tribal names were changed to Hindu names. (Massa Karma became Mahendra 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 rumours 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 DKs 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 3 paisa 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 6 paisa 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 Rs1. (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 Rs1,100. (That’s after paying the Party a commission of Rs120 per bag.) Even by that gauge, a small contractor (1,500 bags) makes about Rs16 lakh (a lakh is 100,000 units) a season and a big one (5,000 bags) up to Rs55 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.
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 chutney turns out to be nice. Sour. Lots of formic 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 paisa 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 mill in the presence of the people, tripled the price to 30 paisa 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 whether they could join up.
But the politics of Tendu, bamboo and other forest produce was seasonal. The perennial problem, the real bane of peoples’ 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 soil 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 peoples’ participation in these struggles, the Party decided to confront the Forest Department. It encouraged people to take over forest land and cultivate it. The 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 300,000 acres of forestland. 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 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. It’s 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 forestland. A decision was taken to separate “mass work” and “military work”.
Today, Dandakaranya is administered by an elaborate structure of Jantana Sarkars (people’s governments). The organising principles came from the Chinese revolution and the Vietnam war. Each Jantana 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 (defense), 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 ten 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 Mukhiyas (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 puts 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, their’s had begun to wane. Increasingly people were taking their problems to the Party instead of to the Mukhiyas. Old forms of exploitation began to be challenged. On the day of the first rain, people were traditionally supposed to till the Mukhiyas land instead of their own. That stopped. They no longer offered them the first days 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 Mukhiyas and landlords and started a campaign called the Jan Jagran Abhiyan (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. Peoples’ War responded to all of this in true Peoples’ War style, by killing a few of the most notorious landlords. In a few months the Jan Jagran Abhiyan, 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 Abhiyan. This time it fizzled out even faster than before.
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 7000 crore with Essar Steel in Bailadila, and the other for Rs10,000 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 out-maneuvered the Maoists, decimated them. They had lost about 1600 of their cadre and were in complete disarray.) The PMs 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 Mukhiyas in Kutroo village and announced the Salwa Judum (the Purification Hunt). A lovely mélange of tribal earthiness and Dwij/Nazi sentiment.
Unlike the Jan Jagran Abhiyan, 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 Telengana. The BJP Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh announced that as far as his government was concerned, villagers who did not move into camps, would be considered Maoists. So in Bastar, for an ordinary villager, just staying at home, living an ordinary life, 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 D S 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 18th June 2005) was Ambeli. Between June and December 2005, it burned, killed, raped and looted its way through hundreds of villages of South Dantewara. 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 Jantana Sarkars had done a great deal of work, especially in building water-harvesting structures. The Jantana Sarkars became the special target of the Salwa Judum’s attacks. Hundreds of people were killed in the most brutal ways. About sixty thousand people moved into the camps, some voluntarily, others out of terror. Of these, about three thousand were appointed Special Police Officers (SPOs) on a salary of fifteen hundred rupees.
End of Part Two. Read Part Three here