ON MAY 29TH, A MAOIST COMMANDER called Maneela visited Darel, a village 20 km southwest of Chintalnar in Chhattisgarh on the Sukma-Bijapur border. He was accompanied by a large group of Maoist guerrillas. Darel has been a Maoist stronghold for a long time. The Maoists would store most of their ration for their cadres in South Bastar here—especially rice. They also kept their supply of uniforms in this village, until a few months ago when a party of the Central Reserve Police Force raided Darel and seized this material, which was later destroyed.
Maneela, who is the secretary of the CPI (Maoist)’s Jagargunda area committee asked the villagers not to set up the weekly market, a practice which had started recently in Darel. Earlier, Adivasis from here and neighbouring villages would go to Chintalnar to sell forest produce like mahua liquor and tamarind. But, as more and more villages have started their own weekly markets, villagers in Darel also decided to do it.
Maneela, according to a villager, told them that the market was inviting attention from security forces. “He [Maneela] said that the market will encourage security forces to set up a camp here, followed by construction of road,” says the villager.
Normally, villagers would listen to Maoists and adhere to their diktat. But this time, an old woman among the villagers got up and confronted Maneela. She chided him for being apathetic to the welfare of the villagers. “You force us to take out processions against security forces and now you want to snatch away our livelihood as well,” she is believed to have shouted at Maneela. Even as she was saying it, many villagers murmured in approval. Maneela, say villagers, was taken aback. The Maoists left the meeting in a huff.
The same evening, a 12-year-old boy from Darel, Hurra was bitten by a snake. As he began to lose consciousness, the villagers created a makeshift stretcher to take him to the CRPF camp in Chintagufa. In the last one year or so, the medical facility at this camp has proved to be a lifesaver for many Adivasis. Around a month before the Darel episode, a woman from nearby Mukaram village had knocked at the camp gates, carrying her six-month-old baby in her arms. Mukaram is largely considered a village sympathetic to Maoists. The CRPF believes that information to Maoists in April 2010 about the movement of its troops came from Mukaram only—it led to a Maoist ambush in which 75 CRPF personnel lost their lives. The baby was suffering from malaria and was also severely malnourished. Bursting into tears, the woman told the CRPF commandant that she had tried to get the baby treated by a Vadde (a witch doctor popular among Adivasis in these parts), but that in her heart she knew he would be of no help. So, defying Maoist diktat, she quietly slipped away from the village and brought her baby to the camp.
The CRPF camp has no paediatrician. But the doctor there began immediate treatment. The baby was cured in a week and was later shifted to a government hospital.
In Darel, that evening, as the villagers brought Hurra to the entrance of the village, they were stopped by a Maoist platoon. “You cannot go the camp. Get him treated by the Vadde,” they were told sternly. As arguments broke between the villagers and the Maoist squad, Hurra breathed his last. Had the villagers not been stopped by Maoists, he would have received an anti-venom injection readily available at the CRPF camp.
After Hurra’s death, which is seen as a warning by Maoists against attempts to defy them, the weekly market at Darel has been shifted to another place called Timmapuram. But the incident has created a strong resentment against Maoists in Darel and nearby villages.
“We will help the villagers,” says a CRPF officer based in Chintagufa. “We will soon enable the villagers to begin the market once again at Darel.”
That the Maoists ordered Hurra to be taken to a Vadde says everything about the change in their trajectory. When the Maoists entered for the first time in these parts in the June of 1980, they promised to change the lives of Adivasis, who were for long victims of the Indian state’s apathy. Acting against the petty forest official or an odd policeman, the Maoists soon won the hearts of Adivasis in the entire Dandakaranya region (including Bastar) and later in other areas, from Latehar in Jharkhand to Lalgarh in West Bengal. In the absence of the state, it happened quickly. One police officer once told this writer how, while he was posted in a Maoist-affected district of Uttar Pradesh, he had very quickly assumed a demi-God status among villagers just by distributing free Paracetamol tablets. In the absence of even such basic intervention, the Maoists were able to create sympathy pockets in several states.
The Maoists claimed to work for the welfare of the Adivasis. At several places they set up schools and educated Adivasis against superstition, including going to Vaddes for treatment. They launched campaigns against the practice of isolating menstruating Adivasi women. With the help of the Maoists, villagers in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere built check dams and fishponds for sustenance.
In their paranoia, the Maoists are committing atrocities against the same people they claimed to have come to protect. In September last year, they thrashed 35 adivasis in Dantewada for not attending a meeting called by them
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In 2005, after the Chhattisgarh government decided to patronise a group of vigilantes called Salwa Judum, the Maoists destroyed electricity infrastructure in their strongholds. In Chintalnar, in Sukma district, for example, electricity was introduced long back in 1986. But two decades later, the Maoists made the area plunge into darkness. It is only recently due to the government’s efforts that electricity has returned to these parts.
As security forces widen their operations in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere, the Maoists are retreating. “The more they weaken, the more they are turning against local Adivasis, accusing them of being police informers and slitting their throats. It is making the Adivasis turn against them, which makes our job easy,” says a senior police officer in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. Maoists, who once discouraged Adivasis from going to Vaddes are now sending them back. Not only that, in their paranoia, they are committing atrocities against the same people they claimed to have come to protect. In September last year, Maoists thrashed 35 Adivasis in Dantewada for refusing to attend a meeting called by them. In April this year, they beat up villagers in Bastar who had voted in the Lok Sabha elections. In the beating that lasted whole night, ten Adivasis were seriously injured.
The construction of roads and access to cheap mobile telephony is exposing young Adivasis to the outside world. It has also helped that New Delhi has finally woken up and is trying to bring about a little development in Maoist-affected areas. In Chhattisgarh, electricity has now been made available till the last village of Jagargunda. A maternity facility has recently been set up in Chintagufa, close to the CRPF camp. A Co-operative bank will soon be functional in Chintalnar.
“Of late, the CPI (Maoist) is facing many desertions,” says a senior police officer in Bastar. “The youngsters want a better life. They are deserting for love, for livelihood.”
But the battle is not over yet. Officials warn that while resentment against Maoists is growing, it should not be eclipsed by resentment against the Indian state. On June 11th, mining had to be stopped in Bailadilla hills in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district after local tribal groups organised a protest march against allotting one of the iron ore deposits (located on a hill they consider holy) to Adani Enterprise Limited (AEL). Tribal leader Manish Kunjam has alleged that this contract was awarded to AEL against the wishes of the villagers. Adivasis from around 200 villages around the mining site took part in the protest.
The Maoists used this opportunity to instigate villagers against the government. At several places, they put up pamphlets, urging the villagers to resist and join the agitation. The local police were quick to blame the entire agitation on Maoist propaganda. But that is missing the point, as usual. While Maoists will use such opportunities to further their cause, blaming a civil resistance movement entirely on Maoist instigation is foolhardy and will only harm Indian state’s case. On his part, though, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has ordered a probe into the matter.
YET ANOTHER EPISODE where Maoists are trying to regain traction, banking on people’s anger against government, is taking place just across Chhattisgarh’s border with Telangana.
For long, the Telangana committee of the CPI (Maoist) has been operating mostly from Chhattisgarh. It is one, long, contiguous forest area. The Maoist leadership in Telangana, led by senior commander Hari Bhushan and his deputy Koyyada Sambaiah (alias Azad) comes to districts bordering Chhattisgarh and then slips back. But, of late, according to sources in the police, the new CPI (Maoist) chief, Nambala Keshava Rao has instructed them to stay put in Telangana. “Rao’s instructions are clear: do not run the Telangana ‘Secretariat’ from Chhattisgarh,” says a senior police officer in Telangana. It is through Bhadrachalam (in Telangana’s Bhadradari Kothagudem district) that Maoists in Chhattisgarh get most of their essential supplies. Many items of daily use like food and medicines are procured mostly from the Cherla market, over 50 kms away from Bhadrachalam town.
Since September, the finances to the Maoists have been squeezed due to police action. The Maoists are partially dependent on their finances from government contractors operating in Maoist-affected zones. In Telangana, especially in Bhadradari Kothagudem, Maoist finances have been badly hit since contractors are unable to pay Maoists.
But, now, the Maoists are trying to make a comeback in some of these parts by taking advantage of on an ongoing agitation involving forest land. In Telangana, thousands of Adivasis still live in forests and depend on podu (shifting cultivation) for their livelihood. Many of them have migrated to these forests from Chhattisgarh in the last 15-20 years, owing to Maoist violence. In Telangana, these Adivasis mostly grow millets and pulses on the podu land.
In February, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of all people from forest lands whose rights claims under the 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA) have been rejected (the FRA recognises individual rights of tribals over forest areas provided they prove occupation before December13th, 2005). But, as lands rights activists have pointed out, proving this is not an easy task (till November 2018, 46 per cent of FRA claims have been rejected).
In Telangana, the claims of 80,000 Adivasis have been rejected so far.
The matter will be heard again in the apex court on July 10th. The SC bench criticised the Government for “sleeping over” the problem and said that those who do not deserve to live in forest areas will not be allowed to continue with encroachment.
“It is a natural transition for them [Adivasis] and they have been doing it for years before state borders came into existence,” says a senior administrative officer in Hyderabad.
Even before the SC judgment, the Telangana government has in the past tried to evict tribals from forest areas in the state. In 2017, in Warangal district, a horde of forest officials lay siege over a tribal hamlet in the Jalaganchala forest area, demolishing the huts of 36 Gothi Koya families with the aid of bulldozers. These families had migrated to Warangal from Chhattisgarh around 2007 in order to escape Maoist violence.
After the SC judgment, since resentment is high among the tribals, senior Maoist leaders have been camping in Kothagudem in a bid to incite tribals against the government. “We have launched massive coming operations in the bordering villages involving 3,000 policemen to prevent Maoists from influencing Adivasis,” says Sunil Sharma, police chief of Kothagudem.
As operations intensify against Maoists, it is very likely that the CPI (Maoist) will be gone in the next few years. But the onus remains on the Indian state to ensure that the objective conditions under which a movement such as Maoist insurgency is born are removed. Land rights, as veteran police officers like the late EN Rammohan have argued, remains at the core of the conflict. Till these rights and dignity are not offered to India’s marginalised, the conflict will be far from over.