A despatch from the Maoist heartland
A despatch from the Maoist heartland
Meeting Deva, the Maoist commander of Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, India’s most militarised zone after Kashmir, is an anti-climax, especially after a long and uneasy wait in the darkness. The man hasn’t heard of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Neither is he aware of the pro-capitalist changes that have buffeted Chairman Mao’s China.
Sitting on a tarpaulin spread inside an unwalled shack in some forlorn hilly outpost in Dantewada, anticipating this ‘top Maoist’s arrival is not particularly exciting when accompanied by a fear-inducing buzz of malarial mosquitoes, which, it is said in a lighter vein, kill more Maoists than Indian security forces do. And you cannot really see where you are going to sit and wait because the teen sentries have stopped lighting their torches after guiding you to a halt. The other option, more viable for your city-dwelling back, is to stand and lean onto one of the three wooden poles that hold the roof of hay, and watch the glow-worms and stars.
But the high point of the day is that Soni Sori, the teacher-turned social activist, darling of civil society members and an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate in the last General Election, is there too, chatting away with her nephew, Lingaram Kodopi, an energetic and muscular Tribal activist given to frequent guffaws. In the run-up to the polls, Sori had said that, “I am not a Maoist, but an Adivasi from Bastar.” But she is there to meet the Maoist commander to seek his blessings and direction to launch a new organisation, likely to be called ‘Sanyuqt Prajatantra Manch’ (roughly, ‘joint democratic platform’). She had her team prepare a set of logos for the new outfit: one of them has a picture of Pravin Chand Bhanjdeo, the late Bastar king who campaigned for equal rights for Tribals. The Maoist leader can handpick one of the logos for them.
With Sori and Kodopi, we had already spent close to nine hours together at four different locations, waiting for word on the place and time of the meeting with the ‘commander’. “You will be meeting a very senior guy,” a point person for the Maoists who is popular among journalists had told us as early as 7 am. A conversationalist, he announced immediately that the BBC had been there recently, and that a “German TV channel” was there a few days earlier to meet a senior member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Since its formation in 2004 with the merger of the People’s War Group (PWG) and Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), the CPI (Maoist) has eliminated more than 6,000 civilians and security forces across the Red Corridor, a vast belt of India’s east controlled by armed Maoist cadres, and especially in Bastar, the epicentre of the insurgency where the newly elected Narendra Modi Government has sent additional troops to check left-wing extremism.
This person, who proudly declared that he worships the activist-author Arundhati Roy for her pro-Maoist stance, asked us to wait until 9 am before we set off for the meeting. While Roy, in an article published in 2010 in Outlook magazine, had made clear her sympathy for Maoists in their fight against exploitation by corporates, contractors, the police and politicians, she had commended them for being more Gandhian than Gandhians themselves in their consumption patterns and lifestyle.
Others who have earned their respect include those who cheered the Supreme Court-imposed ban in 2011 on the Salwa Judum, a state-sponsored militia propped up by security forces to combat Maoists in Chhattisgarh.
The Salwa Judum was meant to be an answer to the idea of khatam—or annihilation of ‘class enemies’—first proposed by Charu Mazumdar in 1967, notes a state government official. “But it was a botched-up effort. The government armed villages that wanted to wean themselves away from Maoism. But mostly, they gave away arms and ammunition to untrained young men who used those weapons to settle personal scores and indulge in anti-social activities or go on a drunken spree of rape. It was destined to be counter-productive,” he says.
Maoists got a major morale boost with the ban imposed on the militia. Swept under the carpet were the brutal massacres by Maoists of villagers who had taken refuge under Salwa Judum forces. In some cases, there were public executions of Salwa Judum supporters. Other forms of gross repression have been recorded as well. Former Maoists say many people were publicly beaten to death for their misplaced loyalties. All this does not seem to bother intellectuals sympathetic to them. Like the protagonist in Neel Mukherjee’s book The Life of Others, shortlisted this year for the Man Booker award, well- meaning urban students, inspired by successful armed rebellions elsewhere in the world, gave a bohemian boost to the Maoist cause in the late 60s and early 70s, and it was all very fashionable in certain charmed circles to support the poor Maoist. They had been shortchanged, after all, by a middle-class led India.
The poor Maoist of the ‘Che Guevara’ vintage has changed, however. But the sympathy nonetheless persists.
We wait until 11 am, when Sori and Kodopi arrive at our first location, vowing to fast- track the meeting with the ‘top Maoist guy’. Then they go on to tell stories of police atrocities on them and other Tribals. They say they were framed by the police for opposing corporate greed and for standing up for the rights of Tribals in the mineral-rich state, which accounts for 15 per cent of the country’s steel output, and yet stands lowest of all states on human development indicators. In September 2011, Sori and Kodopi were chased by the police while they were allegedly trying to collect a bribe of Rs 15 lakh from a contractor at a steel-mining facility run by the Essar Group at the behest of Maoists. While Kodopi was caught at the Palnar weekly market in Dantewada, Sori escaped. “They do all kinds of unimaginable torture in police stations. They target your genitals. They strip you of your dignity and often try to destroy you physically as well as mentally,” Kodopi tells us, emphasising that Tribals are denied any kind of rights, facilitating the growth of Maoism in the state and elsewhere in the so-called Red Corridor, home to a large number of Tribals in the country. Apart from the Northeast, Chhattisgarh has the largest proportion of Tribals among Indian states. Despite being rich in natural resources such as iron ore and aluminium, the region that falls inside the Maoist corridor,comprising parts of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, continues to languish in poverty.
Without doubt, Maoism was a political response to gross exploitation of natural resources by corporates and manipulation of Tribals by unscrupulous contractors. But it has, over the years, become almost an organised crime syndicate, and corporates and contractors find themselves paying protection money in order to run their businesses in peace. WikiLeaks posted a diplomatic cable dated 11 January 2010 that claimed that ‘a senior representative from Essar, a major industrial company with large mining and steel-related facilities in Chhattisgarh, told Congenoff (Consul General Office) that the company pays the Maoists significant amounts not to harm or interfere with their operations.’ The police had also arrested many corporate officials for paying bribes to Maoists. Several companies, the Tata Group among them, had come under the police scanner for allegedly offering bribes to extremist groups so that their business operations are not hurt.
Then, Sori makes a statement that borders on the farcical: I am no Maoist sympathiser. She also vows that she had nothing to do with collecting protection money from corporates. In 2011, after Kodopi’s arrest and that of an Essar official, Sori fled to Delhi where she was arrested by the Crime Branch of the Delhi Police on 4 October on charges of ‘acting as a conduit for Maoists’. Despite her pleas that she feared for her life, a court transferred her to the Chhattisgarh Police, which held her in her home- district Dantewada, where she alleged she was sexually assaulted and tortured for days. Sori accused the then- district police Superintendent Ankit Garg of stripping her and asking policemen to sexually harass her.
SUPPORT FROM ACTIVISTS
During the period she was in custody, Left-liberal activists raised a storm, and a group of intellectuals, including the likes of Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Aruna Roy, Jean Dreze, Meena Kandasamy and Anand Patwardhan, wrote to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressing concern about the condition of Sori, who had since 11 October gone on a fast to protest her ‘framing’ in the payoffs case. Within the next two years, most charges against her were dropped for lack of evidence. There was similar outcry when the Chhattisgarh-based paediatrician and public-health activist Dr Binayak Sen was arrested for pro-Maoist activities.
“If Maoists were not here, the government here would have sold off the entire region to corporates,” Sori now tells us, as we wait for ‘the call’. When I ask her about the new strategy that the Maoists may be devising in the face of the increasing presence of forces in the Red Corridor, especially in Bastar, she signals to Kodopi to field that question. “Until the last man is dead, there will be revolution,” he starts off, pointing out that strategies will have to be redrafted from scratch whenever there is a setback. The particular setback he is referring to is that of Maoists surrendering to the police in droves. While Sori says that most of these ‘surrenders’ were staged by the police by paying “ordinary villagers”, Kodopi admits that if a senior leader gives himself up to the police, it is only natural that the cops would uncover numerous Maoists plans to keep them at bay. “And that means it takes a while before new strategies are adopted,” he notes, but hastens to add that he is no Maoist. “If [the police] see us here in the forest, they will bump us off. They are just waiting for an opportunity,” pitches in Sori, who contested the Bastar seat for the Lok Sabha polls on an AAP ticket but lost to Dinesh Kashyap of the BJP.
Bibhu Prasad Routray, an expert on left- wing extremism in the country, dwells on reasons why left-leaning liberals tend to endorse the violent ways of Maoists. “The way I see it is that there is no black and white scenario anywhere. Like those who join the ranks of Maoists, the intellectuals who back them also do it for different reasons,” he notes, adding that organisations such as the Taliban exhibit similar traits. “Different people have different motives. In the case of people like Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal and other founders of the movement, ideology was the driving force,” he says, suggesting that ‘quality’ restrictions were imposed on initial ‘hires’. In later stages—at a time when they faced recruitment difficulties, as Maoists face now— teens could walk in with the intention of holding a gun, or target rivals, to loot, or for any other flimsy reason, says Routray, who has served as a deputy director in India’s National Security Council Secretariat.
Similarly, intellectual classes sympathise because some of them see Maoism as a check against Western capitalist intentions. These mostly urban educated voices end up condoning the illegal actions of Maoists in the belief that they can stop the ‘onslaught of capitalism’ or contain the sway that MNCs might end up enjoying in mineral-rich areas of the country.
As regards Sori, Routray feels that she, born into a Tribal family in Dantewada, would naturally find it difficult to distinguish between Maoists and the State. In at least 75 districts in the country, including south Bastar, Maoists call the shots, and wield tremendous influence in 105 other districts. “She has ended up being a pawn in the hands of Maoists and Left-liberals. It is a tragedy,” Routray says.
Sori gestures to a villager, a Maoist sympathiser, to make a quick enquiry about lunch and the proposed meeting. Soon, she is gone, riding pillion on Kodopi’s bike, to a place where lunch is arranged.
“We will get a message soon,” assures the man meant to interact with journalists. Rice, dal and desi chicken curry are served, and we are joined by more people. Sori’s advocate, who has come from Jagdalpur and sports a Tom Selleck moustache, shakes hands warmly. We then head to another location, some 10 km away. An affable, lean and hungry-looking villager also joins us, giving directions to a place near a Sunday market where they barter local produce—vegetables, country liquor, etcetera. He goes on for hours about the police having framed him as a Maoist. But when quizzed about various leaders, he is happy to talk about them. He also admits with a chuckle that he has worked closely with senior leaders of the stature of Ramanna.
It is 2 pm when Sori and others take shelter in a shed next to a home awaiting ‘the message’, and a few of us, including the friendly villager, decide to take a walk. “This is like what the rest of India was like in the 1930s,” exclaims a journalist-friend. Breathtakingly beautiful and green, the hamlet we were waiting in is a quiet backwater at first look, but residents have several queries while being photographed. Some of them object angrily. Government offices in the village closed down some 10 years ago, we are told, implying that this is a place where only the Maoist writ runs. There is uneasy calm in the air.
Such criminal underdevelopment helps Maoists keep the villages under their thumb. Tribals who have broken free of poverty have often not bothered to either return to the villages or align with the Maoists. The poor have to bear it. Evidence of this is visible across Bihar, Jharkhand and other regions where Maoists have strongholds. “Under-development is the key to their success,” a former member of the Maoist intellectual wing tells me.
Maoists, as the Union Ministry of Home Affairs puts it, ‘…try to derive benefit from overall under-development and from sub-normal functioning of field institutions like police stations, tehsils, development blocks, schools, primary health centres and anganwadi centres… The Government’s approach, accordingly, is to deal with Maoist activities in… the arenas of security, development, administration and public perception.’
Says a senior police officer, “The so-called intellectuals seem to have focused their ire on the government and contractors alone. They have, to my mind, pretended not to see the atrocities perpetrated on Tribals by these Maoist leaders, not to mention the crores of rupees they amass through protection money, which renders them as more of a mafia than liberators conceived by Chairman Mao.”
While nobody rubbishes the lofty goals of the original Maoist movement, its founding leaders like Kanu Sanyal favoured bloodshed only as the last option. Over the years, however, especially with the expulsion of the late Kondapalli Seetharamaiah from the PWG in 1991, Routray notes, the organisation and its numerous factions remained “the source of extreme violence targeting politicians and security forces”.
Writes Routray in a paper authored this September: ‘Each transformation of the movement thereafter in terms of splits, mergers and formation of new identities escalated the ingrained proclivity to use violence as an instrument of expansion and influence. The CPI (Maoist) represented the natural progression of this trend.’
Says a Maoist functionary: “So far, upper-class leaders from Andhra had used Tribals as cannon fodder to collect bribes, fight and die. Now there is a tilt to greater violence as Tribals wrestle their way to top positions, realising that they have been fooled for long. They happen to be much more violent and less ideologically disciplined than the founding fathers, for obvious reasons.” He hastens to add that across the Red Corridor, Maoists have become “more or less extortionists and not mere takers of protection money”. “They are not satisfied with decent payoffs. They want huge sums,” he says, claiming that the pattern is plainly visible across the bauxite-mining areas of Kalahandi in Odisha, other areas like Paradip, and in many parts of Jharkhand and Telangana. He says that the local media groups in all these areas have incurred the wrath of Maoists for suggesting that they are hand-in- glove with corporates and politicians in looting natural resources. All of them have denied any such wrongdoing. “People, especially Leftists from Delhi, easily get carried away by the Maoist story of sacrifice and a crusade against corporate invaders. The story on the ground is vastly different, with Maoists showing scant respect for villagers,” he says, alleging that they often raid villages and forcibly recruit teens and young women. “They use women for sexual gratification. The supply of condoms and anti-pregnancy tablets to forest camps merits an investigation,” he says. “Sexual harassment is rampant. Women in these camps are used like sex slaves. All that ideological flourish of the movement is history.”
Sori has by now sensed our impatience with no word of the meeting from anywhere. “You have come a long way from Delhi. It will happen soon,” she says calmly. Kodopi has by now decided to stretch his legs on a charpoy and take a short nap. The advocate and the “PR guy” are busy with Sori drafting the new Tribal forum to fight injustice.
Many hours and motorbike surveys by Maoist volunteers later, we are told that the meeting is going to happen in “10 minutes”. In a place where time seems to have stopped ticking long ago, it stretches to one-and- a-half hours before we set off through tortuous and muddy roads for the destination. It is dark, and the only light is that of the six motorbikes along the trail, carrying us three journalists, Sori and others. We have to alight from our bikes twice and wade through water before we make it to a spot from where we are escorted by the teen recruits to an isolated location in a dusty village.
We are expecting Ganesh Uike, secretary of the South Regional Committee (SRC) of the CPI (Maoist), and perhaps the most powerful man in the organisation after Ganapathy. He is a controversial figure, with some Maoists suggesting that he gave the police tip-offs that led to the killing of Maoist spokesperson Azad in July 2010 under odd circumstances. In the words of the former Maoist, “The civil rights groups refuse to believe that perhaps some Maoists colluded with the police to finish off Azad, who was opposed to misuse of funds and collection of hefty protection money.” For its part, the CBI has maintained that Cherukuri Rajkumar aka Azad and journalist Hemchandra Pandey were killed in a genuine encounter.
After a long wait, the ‘Gandhians with guns’ (as a magazine blurb once called them) appear in uniform, shaking hands and warning against taking pictures. One of them is a young girl. They have AK-47 rifles and walkie- talkies. It emerges within minutes that Deva, whom the National Investigation Agency has named as the one who killed Congress leader Nand Kumar Patel and his son, is our host of honour since Ganesh has been hospitalised in Andhra Pradesh for complications that arose from his diabetes. Or so goes the story. The criminal-commander has an hour-long conversation with Sori, Kodopi and others. Then we are called in.
Modi is class enemy, he says. “He is travelling the world to acquire support to take on Maoists,” he says in halting Hindi with absolute conviction.
“Are you scared?” I ask.
His face turns red with anger. “Me, afraid? What happened in Darbha Valley in Sukuma district [where 27 Congress leaders, including Salwa Judum founder Mahendra Karma, were ambushed and killed in 2013]? We cannot be stopped by the whole strength of the armed forces of the whole world,” says Deva, his muscular posturing at odds with his ample tummy.
“Even the great apostle of armed struggle, Fidel Castro of Cuba has said that armed struggle and guerrilla warfare have lost their sting. What do you think?”
“Who is that?” he asks, leaning towards the ‘PR guy’, who informs him that Castro is a Cuban revolutionary.
“Kooba? Kooba? No. Let’s talk about India.”
“What do you think of changes in Chairman Mao’s own country?”
“I told you, let’s focus on Bastar.”
“Are you preparing for attacks in states like Kerala?”
“Yes, we have armed guerrillas there. We are picking up in strength. What you have to remember is that power flows only through the barrel of the gun. We are convinced and we will keep fighting till the last man,” he says, his voice rising to a rage.
Deva loudly demands that all cameras be turned off. The weather is awesome, but the mood is rotten, and the interview is soon over, and we hear him muttering, “These crazy journalists and their questions.”
It is past 10 pm and we have a long drive back to Jagdalpur.
While we are leaving, Deva gets into a huddle, yet again, with Sori and Kodopi.
“It was a disappointment,” I tell my journalist-friend. He nods. “But we see that Sori has a lot to share with him.” he says and I agree.
The fire at our makeshift camp sways violently in the snake-infested terrain. We are left feeling that the Maoist leadership has fallen into the hands of petty thugs and reckless criminals, rendering Left-liberal pro-Maoist postures a joke. The romance of the revolution just went up in smoke.