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 chilly-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.
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, realized 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 twenty-five years. They struck back in a series of attacks on the heart of the security grid.
On 26th January 2006 the PLGA attacked the Gangalaur police camp and killed seven people . On 17 July 2006 the Salwa Judum camp at Erabor was attacked, 20 people were killed and 150 injured. (You might have read about it: “Maoists attacked the relief camp set up by the state government to provide shelter to the villagers who had fled from their villages because of terror unleashed by the Naxalites.”) On 13 Dec 2006 they attacked the Basaguda ‘relief’ camp and killed 3 SPOs and a constable. On 15 March 2007 came the most audacious of them all. One hundred and twenty PLGA guerillas, attacked the Rani Bodili Kanya Ashram, a girls hostel that had been converted into a barrack for 80 Chhattisgarh Police (and SPOs) while the girls still lived in it as human shields. The PLGA entered the compound, cordoned off the annexe in which the girls lived, and attacked the barracks. 55 policemen and SPOs were killed. None of the girls was hurt. (The candid SP of Dantewara had shown me his Power Point presentation with horrifying photographs of the burned, disemboweled bodies of the policemen amidst the ruins of the blown up school building. They were so macabre, it was impossible not to look away. He looked pleased at my reaction.)
The attack on Rani Bodili caused an uproar in the country. Human Rights organizations condemned the Maoists not just for their violence, but also for being anti-education and attacking schools. But in Dandakaranya the Rani Bodili attack became a legend: songs and poems and plays were written about it.
The Maoist counter-offensive did break the carpet security and gave people breathing space. The police and the Salwa Judum retreated into their camps, from which they now emerge—usually in the dead of night—only in packs of 300 or 1000 to carry out Cordon and Search operations in villages. Gradually, except for the SPOs and their families, the rest of the people in the Salwa Judum camps began to return to their villages. The Maoists welcomed them back and announced that even SPOs could return if they genuinely, and publicly regretted their actions. Young people began to flock to the PLGA. (The PLGA had been formally constituted in December 2000. Over the last thirty years, its armed squads had very gradually expanded into sections, sections had grown into platoons, and platoons into companies. But after the Salwa Judum’s depredations, the PLGA was rapidly able to declare battalion strength. It is an entirely voluntary army. Nobody is paid a salary.)
The Salwa Judum had not just failed, it had backfired badly.
As we now know, it was not just a local operation by a small time hood. Regardless of the doublespeak in the press, the Salwa Judum was a joint operation by the State Government of Chhattisgarh and the Congress Party which was in power at the Centre. It could not be allowed to fail. Not when all those MOUs were still waiting, like wilting hopefuls on the marriage market. The Government was under tremendous pressure to come up with a new plan. They came up with Operation Green Hunt. The Salwa Judum SPOs are called Koya Commandos now. It has deployed the Chhattisgarh Armed Force (CAF), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Border Security Force (BSF), the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), Grey Hounds, Scorpions, Cobras. And a policy that’s affectionately called WHAM—Winning Hearts and Minds.
Significant wars are often fought in unlikely places. Free Market Capitalism defeated Soviet Communism in the bleak mountains of Afghanistan. Here in the forests of Dantewara a battle rages for the soul of India. Plenty has been said about the deepening crisis in Indian democracy and the collusion between big corporations, major political parties and the security establishment. If any body wants to do a quick spot check, Dantewara is the place to go.
A draft report on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Task of Land Reform (Volume 1) said that Tata Steel and Essar Steel were the first financiers of the Salwa Judum. Because it was a Government Report, it created a flurry when it was reported in the press. (That fact has subsequently been dropped from the final report. Was it a genuine error, or did someone receive a gentle, integrated steel tap on the shoulder?)
On 12 October 2009 the mandatory public hearing for Tata’s steel plant, meant to be held in Lohandiguda where local people could come, actually took place in a small hall inside the Collectorate in Jagdalpur, many miles away, cordoned off with massive security. A hired audience of 50 tribals was brought in a guarded convoy of government jeeps. After the meeting the District Collector congratulated ‘the people of Lohandiguda’ for their co-operation. The local newspapers reported the lie, even though they knew better. (The advertisements rolled in.) Despite villagers’ objections, land acquisition for the project has begun.
The Maoists are not the only ones who seek to depose the Indian State. It’s already been deposed several times, by Hindu fundamentalism and economic totalitarianism.
Lohandiguda, a five-hour drive from Dantewara, never used to be a Naxalite area. But it is now. Comrade Joori who sat next to me while I ate the ant chutney works in the area. She said they decided to move in after graffiti had begun to appear on the walls of village houses, saying Naxali Ao, Hamein Bachao (Naxals come and save us!) A few months ago Vimal Meshram, President of the village panchayat was shot dead in the market. “He was Tata’s Man,” Joori says, “He was forcing people to give up their land and accept compensation. It’s good that he’s been finished. We lost a comrade too. They shot him. D’you want more chapoli?” She’s only twenty. “We won’t let the Tata come there. People don’t want them.” Joori is not PLGA. She’s in the Chetna Natya Manch (CNM), the cultural wing of the Party. She sings. She writes songs. She’s from Abhujmad. (She’s married to Comrade Madhav. She fell in love with his singing when he visited her village with a CNM troupe.)
I feel I ought to say something at this point. About the futility of violence, about the unacceptability of summary executions. But what should I suggest they do? Go to court? Do a dharna in Jantar Mantar, New Delhi? A rally? A relay hunger strike? It sounds ridiculous. The promoters of the New Economic Policy —who find it so easy to say “There Is No Alternative” —should be asked to suggest an alternative Resistance Policy. A specific one, to these specific people, in this specific forest. Here. Now. Which party should they vote for? Which democratic institution in this country should they approach? Which door did the Narmada Bachao Andolan not knock on during the years and years it fought against Big Dams on the Narmada?
It’s dark. There’s a lot of activity in the camp, but I can’t see anything. Just points of light moving around. It’s hard to tell whether they are stars or fireflies or Maoists on the move. Little Mangtu appears from nowhere. I found out that he’s one of a group of ten kids who are part of the first batch of the Young Communists Mobile School, who are being taught to read and write, and tutored in basic communist principles. (“Indoctrination of young minds!” our corporate media howls. The TV advertisements that brainwash children before they can even think, are not seen as a form of indoctrination.) The young communists are not allowed to carry guns or wear uniforms. But they trail the PLGA squads, with stars in their eyes, like groupies of a rock band.
Mangtu has adopted me with a gently proprietorial air. He has filled my water bottle and says I should pack my bag. A whistle blows. The blue jhilli tent is dismantled and folded up in five minutes flat. Another whistle and all hundred comrades fall in line. Five rows. Comrade Raju is the Director of Ops. There’s a roll call. I’m in the line too, shouting out my number when Comrade Kamla who is in front of me, prompts me. (We count to twenty and then start from one, because that’s as far as most Gonds count. Twenty is enough for them. Maybe it should be enough for us too.) Chandu is in fatigues now, and carries a sten gun. In a low voice Comrade Raju is briefing the group. It’s all in Gondi, I don’t understand a thing, but I keep hearing the word RV. Later Raju tells me it stands for Rendezvous! It’s a Gondi word now. “We make RV points so that in case we come under fire and people have to scatter, they know where to regroup.” He cannot possibly know the kind of panic this induces in me. Not because I’m scared of being fired on, but because I’m scared of being lost. I’m a directional dyslexic, capable of getting lost between my bedroom and my bathroom. What will I do in 60,000 square kilometers of forest? Come hell or high water, I’m going to be holding on to Comrade Raju’s pallu.
Before we start walking, Comrade Venu comes up to me “Okaythen Comrade. I’ll take your leave.” I’m taken aback. He looks like a little mosquito in a woolen cap and chappals, surrounded by his guards, three women, three men. Heavily armed. “We are very grateful to you comrade, for coming all the way here.” he says. Once again the handshake, the clenched fist. “Lal Salaam Comrade.” He disappears into the forest, the Keeper of the Keys. And in a moment, it’s as though he was never here. I’m a little bereft. But I have hours of recordings to listen to. And as the days turn into weeks, I will meet many people who paint color and detail into the grid he drew for me. We begin to walk in the opposite direction. Comrade Raju, smelling of iodex from a mile off, says with a happy smile, “My knees are gone. I can only walk if I have had a fistful of pain-killers.”
Comrade Raju speaks perfect Hindi and has a deadpan way of telling the funniest stories. He worked as an advocate in Raipur for eighteen years. Both he and his wife, Malti, were Party members and part of its city network. At the end of 2007, one of the key people in the Raipur network was arrested, tortured and eventually turned informer. He was driven around Raipur in a closed police vehicle and made to point out his former colleagues. Comrade Malti was one of them. On 22 January 2008 she was arrested along with several others. The main charge against her is that she mailed CDs containing video evidence of Salwa Judum atrocities to several Members of Parliament. Her case rarely comes up for hearing because the police know their case is flimsy. But the new Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA) allows the police to hold her without bail for several years. “Now the Government has deployed several battalions of Chhattisgarh police to protect the poor Members of Parliament from their own mail.” Comrade Raju says. He didn’t get caught because he was in Dandakaranya at the time, attending a meeting. He’s been here ever since. His two school-going children who were left alone at home, were interrogated extensively by the police. Finally their home was packed up and they went to live with an uncle. Comrade Raju received news of them for the first time only a few weeks ago. What gives him this strength, this ability to hold on to his acid humour? What keeps them all going, despite all they have endured? Their faith and hope—and love—for the Party. I encounter it again and again, in the deepest, most personal ways.
We’re moving in single file now. Myself, and one hundred, ‘senselessly violent’, bloodthirsty insurgents. I looked around at the camp before we left. There are no signs that almost a hundred people had camped here, except for some ash where the fires had been. I cannot believe this army. As far as consumption goes, it’s more Gandhian than any Gandhian, and has a lighter carbon footprint than any climate change evangelist. But for now, it even has a Gandhian approach to sabotage; before a police vehicle is burnt for example, it is stripped down and every part is cannibalized. The steering wheel is straightened out and made into a bharmaar barrel, the rexine upholstery stripped and used for ammunition pouches, the battery for solar charging. (The new instructions from the high command are that captured vehicles should be buried and not cremated. So they can be resurrected when needed.) Should I write a play I wonder—Gandhi Get Your Gun? Or will I be lynched?
We’re walking in pitch darkness and dead silence. I’m the only one using a torch, pointed down so that all I can see in its circle of light are Comrade Kamla’s bare heels in her scuffed, black chappals, showing me exactly where to put my feet. She is carrying ten times more weight than I am. Her backpack, a rifle, a huge bag of provisions on her head, one of the large cooking pots and two shoulder bags full of vegetables. The bag on her head is perfectly balanced, and she can scramble down slopes and slippery rock pathways without so much as touching it. She is a miracle. It turns out to be a long walk. I’m grateful to the history lesson because apart from everything else it gave my feet a rest for a whole day.
It’s the most wonderful thing, walking in the forest at night. And I’ll be doing it night after night.
We’re going to a celebration of the centenary of the 1910 Bhumkal rebellion in which the Koyas rose up against the British. Bhumkal, means earthquake. Comrade Raju says people will walk for days together to come for the celebration. The forest must be full of people on the move. There are celebrations in all the DK divisions. We are privileged because Comrade Leng, the Master of Ceremonies, is walking with us. In Gondi Leng means ‘the voice’. Comrade Leng is a tall, middle-aged man from Andhra Pradesh, a colleague of the legendary and beloved singer-poet Gadar who founded the radical cultural organization Jan Natya Manch (JNM) in ’72. Eventually JNM became a formal part of the PWG and in Andhra Pradesh could draw audiences numbering in the tens of thousands. Comrade Leng joined in 1977 and became a famous singer in his own right. He lived in Andhra through the worst repression, the era of ‘encounter’ killings in which friends died almost every day. He himself was picked up one night from his hospital bed, by a woman Superintendent of Police, masquerading as a doctor. He was taken to the forest outside Warangal to be ‘encountered’. But luckily for him, Comrade Leng says, Gadar got the news and managed to raise an alarm. When the PWG decided to start a cultural organization in DK in 1998, Comrade Leng was sent to head the Chetana Natya Manch. And here he is now, walking with me, wearing an olive green shirt, and for some reason, purple pyjamas with pink bunnies on them. “There are 10,000 members in CNM now”, he told me. “We have 500 songs, in Hindi, Gondi, Chhattisgarhi and Halbi. We have printed a book with 140 of our songs. Everybody writes songs.” The first time I spoke to him, he sounded very grave, very single-minded. But days later, sitting around a fire, still in those pyjamas, he tells us about a very successful, mainstream Telugu film director (a friend of his), who always plays a Naxalite in his own films. “I asked him,” Comrade Leng said in his lovely Telugu accented Hindi, “why do you think Naxalites are always like this?” — and he did a deft caricature of a crouched, high-stepping, hunted-looking man emerging from the forest with an AK-47, and left us screaming with laughter.
I’m not sure whether I’m looking forward to the Bhumkal celebrations. I fear I’ll see traditional tribal dances stiffened by Maoist propaganda, rousing, rhetorical speeches and an obedient audience with glazed eyes. We arrive at the grounds quite late in the evening. A temporary monument, of bamboo scaffolding wrapped in red cloth has been erected. On top, above the hammer and sickle of the Maoist Party, is the bow and arrow of the Janatana Sarkar, wrapped in silver foil. Appropriate, the hierarchy. The stage is huge, also temporary, on a sturdy scaffolding covered by a thick layer of mud plaster. Already there are small fires scattered around the ground, people have begun to arrive and are cooking their evening meal. They’re only silhouettes in the dark. We thread our way through them, (lalsalaam,lalsalaam,lalsalaam) and keep going for about fifteen minutes until we re-enter the forest.
At our new campsite we have to fall-in again. Another roll call. And then instructions about sentry positions and ‘firing arcs’—decisions about who will cover which area in the event of a police attack. RV points are fixed again.
An advance party has arrived and cooked dinner already. For dessert Kamla brings me a wild guava that she has plucked on the walk and squirreled away for me.
From dawn there is the sense of more and more people gathering for the day’s celebration. There’s a buzz of excitement building up. People who haven’t seen each other in a long time, meet again. We can hear the sound of mikes being tested. Flags, banners, posters, buntings are going up. A poster with the pictures of the five people who were killed in Ongnaar the day we arrived has appeared.
I’m drinking tea with Comrade Narmada, Comrade Maase and Comrade Rupi. Comrade Narmada talks about the many years she worked in Gadchiroli before becoming the DK head of Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sanghathan (KAMS). Rupi and Maase have been urban activists in Andhra Pradesh and tell me about the long years of struggle of women within the Party, not just for their rights, but also to make the Party see that equality between men and women is central to a dream of a just society. We talk about the ’70s and the stories of women within the Naxalite movement who were disillusioned by male comrades who thought themselves great revolutionaries but were hobbled by the same old patriarchy, the same old chauvinism. Maase says things have changed a lot since then, though they still have a way to go. (The Party’s Central Committee and Polit Bureau have no women yet.)
Around noon another PLGA contingent arrives. This one is headed by a tall, lithe, boyish looking man. This comrade has two names—Sukhdev, and Gudsa Usendi— neither of which is his. Sukhdev is the name of a very beloved Comrade who was martyred. (In this war only the dead are safe enough to use their real names.) As for Gudsa Usendi, many comrades have been Gudsa Usendi at one point or another. (A few months ago it was Comrade Raju.) Gudsa Usendi is the name of the Party’s spokesperson for Dandakaranya. So even though Sukhdev spends the rest of the trip with me, I have no idea how I’d ever find him again. I’d recognize his laugh anywhere though. He came to DK in ’88 he says, when the PWG decided to send one third of its forces from North Telengana into DK. He’s nicely dressed, in ‘civil’ (Gondi for ‘civilian clothes’) as opposed to ‘dress’ (the Maoist ‘uniform’) and could pass off as a young executive. I ask him why no uniform.
He says he’s been traveling and has just come back from the Keshkal Ghats near Kanker. There are reports of bauxite deposits—3 million tonnes—that a company called Vedanta has its eye on.
Bingo. Ten on ten for my instincts.
Sukhdev says he went there to measure the peoples’ temperature. To see if they were prepared to fight. “They want squads now. And guns.” He throws his head back and roars with laughter, “I told them it’s not so easy, bhai.” From the stray wisps of conversation and the ease with which he carries his AK-47, I can tell he’s also high up and hands on PLGA.
Jungle post arrives. There’s a biscuit for me! It’s from Comrade Venu. On a tiny piece of paper, folded and re-folded, he has written down the lyrics of a song he promised he would send me. Comrade Narmada smiles when she reads them. She knows this story. It goes back to the 1980s, around the time when people first began trust to the Party and come to it with their problems—their ‘inner contradictions’ as Comrade Venu put it. Women were among the first to come. One evening an old lady sitting by the fire, got up and sang a song for the Dada log. She was a Maadiya, among whom it was customary for women to remove their blouses and remain bare-breasted after they were married.
Jumper polo intor Dada, Dakoniley
Taane tasom intor Dada, Dakoniley
Bata papam kittom Dada, Dakoniley
Duniya kadile maata Dada, Dakoniley
They say we cannot keep our blouses, dada, Dakoniley
They make us take them off, Dada,
In what way have we sinned, Dada,
The world has changed has it not Dada,
Aatum hatteke Dada, Dakoniley
Aada nanga dantom Dada, Dakoniley
Id pisval manni Dada, Dakoniley
Mava koyaturku vehat Dada, Dakoniley
But when we go to market Dada,
We have to go half-naked Dada,
We don’t want this life Dada,
Tell our ancestors this Dada,
End of Part Three. Read Part Four here