Bastar: Guns and Roads

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After nearly two decades of violence, Bastar now has a semblance of normalcy but this has more to do with individual choices than ideological leanings

LATE LAST YEAR when India was caught in the excitement of Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, a routine killing of sorts took place in a remote hillside village in Bastar district of Chhattisgarh. For a state that is inured to extreme violence, the death of a villager—however important the person may be locally—hardly merits attention. The news was not even reported in local papers or on social media. But the killing of the headman of Kandanar village, located in the remote Koleng area of the district that adjoins Odisha, is symptomatic of the deadly cat-and-mouse game for control between Maoists and government authorities.

“It was evening and we had lit a fire in our courtyard and suddenly these people (Maoists) surrounded our home. They had already surrounded the village. They then pulled away my father and grabbed me as well,” says Shankar, the son of the murdered headman Jattu. “They told my father, ‘You are helping build a road and are also helping in forest work. You will bring the government here’,” he says. The headman was dragged out of his home and killed. “I too would have been killed, but I managed to free myself and run away,” Shankar adds.

Helping the government build a road is a cardinal sin in the Maoist code of crimes. It is another matter that in Kandanar, villagers have a simple reason to want one: it connects them to other parts of the district and allows access to services that are available in the neighbouring Koleng. In any case, the area gets cut off during rains, resulting in total Maoist dominance. But such is the ferocity of resistance to any contact with the outside world that even a dirt track—‘road’ as the local people call it—is considered a dangerous deviation.

The event should be viewed in perspective. Koleng, while it is under a degree of Maoist control, is hardly an important area of operations for the group. The most vicious fight for territorial control is to be seen in the southern district of Sukma. There, the effort to build a 70-km stretch of road linking the hamlet of Dornapal to Jagargonda—an area that was once accessible to the government only by helicopter as the road was too dangerous to travel on—is a story of almost epic proportions. A ‘road’, a pathway of mud that loses any consistency during rains, has been laid out but is far from complete. In this area, as in Koleng and elsewhere, it is perilous for any person—contractor, villager, policeman—to be associated with road building. At about the same time as the killing in Kandanar, the Maoists killed another villager in Punpalli, a village classified as ‘Maoist dominated’ just about 5 km off the road. Unlike the Kandanar incident, the method, manner and the goal of this murder was different. Two weeks before it was done, villagers were literally disarmed: their mobile phones were taken away. When the police were informed of it, the villagers were alerted that something untoward could be expected.

Understanding any conflict situation is tough. Scholars and participants—security personnel, extremists and activists— spend a lot of time trying to figure out what happened and why. The Maoist conflict in East and Central India is no different. But there is one dominant explanatory theme popular among Indian scholars and activists from civil society. Put simply, it is this: the Indian Government first abandoned Adivasis to their fate, and then its agents began to exploit them, meting out untold injustices to a people who have lived in these forests for centuries before any government in Delhi took form. It is a plausible argument for certain purposes, but it lacks any mechanistic detail about how and why the events of the last few decades occurred in the Bastar division of Chhattisgarh. For example, this line of reasoning has no plausible answer to questions like why do people join Maoists? Why do they abandon them? And why have the Maoists been unable to spread their wings to the central and northern plains of the state? To answer these questions requires a careful look at individual motivations, choices and constraints in the lives of this region’s people. Overarching narratives about exploitation and injustice cannot account for these.

The story is different if one leaves aside the ideological narrative.

The seven bands of Maoists who departed from Andhra Pradesh in 1980 for what was then a remote part of Madhya Pradesh did not set out to start a revolution there. Instead, their task was to ‘develop’ the Dandakaranya region—as the area comprising Bastar and Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra is known—as a rear base for their actual theatre of revolution: Andhra Pradesh. At first, something positive did come out of the Maoist incursion in the Bastar region. The exploitation and harassment of Adivasis at the hands of the forest bureaucracy and petty officials was curbed. But once that was done, what was to be done next? After all, there’s no stopping until the end point, a revolution, is at hand. If that were not enough, there was a twist in the tale. Andhra Pradesh witnessed a ruthless decimation of Maoist ranks. It was a strange situation. The rear area was pretty much a safe zone, but the main theatre of action had ceased to exist. In the annals of revolutionary politics, this was a unique situation.

That is when the Maoists adopted a strategy that would set Bastar ablaze in the years 2005-06. After some years of non- intervention in the internal matters of Adivasis, the Maoists declared a ‘class struggle’ in a region that had remained virtually unchanged for millennia. All of a sudden, villagers were declared to be either ‘feudal elements’ or part of ‘the proletariat’, a crude application of categories to an Adivasi society that had no notion of class distinctions.

The strategy may be scoffed at for being alien to the region’s social set-up, but in terms of modern economics it made sense. Once you sort people into two, you impart a political identity to them, however artificial it may be. That is the first step in establishing control. Identity is now widely accepted to have an economic basis. The mechanisms are complex, but the effect is simple: one gains more ‘utility’ in dealing with like-identified people. From educational attainments to poverty to gender discrimination, identities matter.

There was a further effect: since 1980, there have been generations of youngsters who have seen no government in the interiors of Bastar except the ‘jantana sarkar’, or the rule of Maoist squads. This was made possible in the first place by policies put in place after Independence that mandated a very light administrative set-up in these far-flung areas. The vacuum gave Maoists the room they needed. When it finally dawned on governments in Raipur, Bhopal and Delhi that isolation was not helping preserve Adivasi culture but was creating a headache, the Maoists would not let the government move an inch. Now they wanted isolation for their own strategic reasons.

It was on this dual strategy of forging new identities in Adivasi villages and keeping all government authority out that Maoists gained near complete dominance of southern Chhattisgarh for nearly a quarter century. By the early 21st century, others had discovered a counter-strategy that employed a logic that was a copycat version of what Maoists had perfected.

Kutru is like any other village in this part the country. Salfi and other palm trees dot the landscape. The village is not far from the southern bank of Indravati river and is one of the gateways to the Abhujmarh—a vast un-surveyed forest that spans southern Chhattisgarh and parts of Maharashtra. But beyond the idyll, there’s something alarming about the place: it is well within territory where Maoists can strike at will. A CRPF camp marks the entry to the village.

The place is also home to Madhukar Rao, one of the original leaders of the Salwa Judum, a group that’s the outcome of a spontaneous uprising against Maoists that emerged in some villages in this region of Bijapur district in 2005. Today, Rao is a marked man and armed guards of Chhattisgarh Police shadow him everywhere he goes. Unlike his depiction as a ferocious sword-wielding activist who was out to bring Adivasis into the Hindu fold, the man who greets visitors at his ashram has the demeanour of a middle-aged teacher. Scores of children, many of whom have lost their parents to Maoist attacks, study at his school. After a perfunctory introduction, ‘guruji’, as Rao is known locally, appears pensive and anticipates uncomfortable questions.

“Much has been written about us and much of it is disproportionate to what happened here,” he says in response to the simple question: how did it all begin here?

Maoists declared a 'class struggle' that labelled villagers either as 'feudal elements' or part of 'the proletariat', a crude application of identity divisions to an adivasi society

“What you need to understand is this: at one time, this area was totally dominated by Maoists and people of the region were under their thumb. [People’s] ability to carry on with their work and lives was severely restricted. Collection and contractual sale of leaves was banned. People were bound to rise against Maoists one day,” he adds.

What he shies away from is the extent of the violence this “spontaneous uprising” caused. To a straight question on the loss of life in the campaign, he expresses remorse, but says nothing more. To be sure, the original impulse was based on an untapped resentment against Maoists, but very soon, the state government and other local politicians, including the late Mahendra Karma, got into the act. The result was an orgy of violence across Sukma and Bijapur districts from 2005 until 2008.

Effectively, the Salwa Judum created its own version of ‘identity politics’ just as the Maoists had done earlier. This time, it was simple and equally terrifying: either you belonged in a camp along a highway, or, if you continued to live in a village, you were a Maoist. The goal on both sides was identical: controlling people in a sparsely populated area. Once you managed that, territorial control would follow.

In the end, the results were mixed. No clear-cut identities on the basis of either location (as expected by those spearheading the Salwa Judum) or ‘class’, as Maoists wanted, took hold. Nor were these externally imposed distinctions durable. By 2011, some Adivasis began returning to their villages after Maoists promised them no harm. The insurgents wanted them to return as a revival of cultivation meant better food supplies and the original aim of controlling local populations. But some people chose to stay back in district towns, muddling goals on both sides. In many cases, this was for reasons that have little to do with ideology but with plain calculations of current security and future prospects.

Few of the Salwa Judum’s original leaders are alive today. Karma met a grisly end in Darbha valley in 2013. Chetram Atami lives a forlorn and guarded life in Geedam, a town on the highway from Jagdalpur. While P Vijay, probably the most blunt instrument of that campaign, now lives in Konta, Sukma district. The change of guard in Chhattisgarh in December has most of them worried about their future. Given the history of such campaigns from the 1980s onwards, it is clear that an ‘us-versus-them’ strategy to tackle Maoists remains a viable option.

The Shantinagar area in Bijapur town has the air of a bureaucratic resettlement colony that never seems to change. Cramped houses, dysfunctional water supply, non-existent sewage systems and sludge that has nowhere to go. But this insalubrious setting has one vital attribute that remains in short supply in the district: security.

The year was 2005 and a 20-year-old Sammara Hemla was busy studying in a college at Bhopalpatnam. His village, Sawnar, lies deep inside a Maoist dominated region of Bijapur. A look at the map shows this is an area not far from the tri-junction of Bijapur, Sukma and Dantewada districts, the kind of location where Maoists hold sway and the government is not exactly a next-door neighbour. Hemla’s description of the chaotic security situation is typical of accounts from this region: “By 2005, the situation was so bad that it was not safe to stay in the village anymore. There was constant terror from the Maoist side and after a while people from the neighbouring village requested us not to come back as that would make things very difficult for everyone. My elder brother also joined me in Bijapur, but his son and my brother’s wife stayed back. Our family and almost the entire side of the village we lived in were under [the Maoists’] constant watch. In 2016, they took away my nephew deep inside the jungles. He was beaten badly and a jan adaalat (‘people’s court’) sentenced him to death. We’ve not seen him after that.”

Hemla’s crime was his decision to embark on an education and that his family owned 60 acres of land. This is as bad as it can get under Maoist domination: a member of a ‘feudal family’ who is trying to figure the world is exposed to dangerous ideas. Each such person chips away at the geographic isolation that Maoists so prize. Would he like to go back to Sawnar? “No,” is his firm response.

“In 2016, they took my nephew deep inside the jungles. He was beaten badly and a Jan Adaalat, or a so-called people's court, sentenced him to death. We have not seen him after that,” says Sammara Hemla, former resident of Sawnar village

All these events flow from the broad strategies of Maoists and the counter-strategies of occasional ‘spontaneous uprisings’ and the government. This gives an appearance that people who are caught in these situations don’t have a choice and they are mere pawns in a deadly game of chess. The ground situation is, of course, very different. In virtually all cases, people do make choices; sometimes they go bad and sometimes life remains normal. In this context, decisions to join the Maoists and, in many cases, to abandon them are the real determinants—shorn of ideology— of the conflict in Bastar.

Bijapur is now home to a large number of people uprooted from their normal village lives. There is also a significant chunk of former Maoists who have quit the group. In virtually all such cases, the choices are based on rational calculations. Cases of disenchantment with Maoist ideology are rare to find, and even in these instances, there is a core of material calculation.

Raghunath Gawade is a former Maoist who was once a local- level organiser with multiple roles in the organisation: as a courier for party work, a ‘writer’ for the Maoist commander Ganesh Uike, and as a secretary of the local branch of the CPI(Maoist). He was also in the squad that participated in the attack on the Rani Bodli police camp that led to the death of 55 policemen. After nearly 16 years with the Maoists, he left them in 2015. When he had joined the group in 1999, he was on the government payroll as a clerk in a flagship welfare scheme. “[Maoists] said, ‘Why don’t you work for us?’ They had my village in their control. There was pressure from their side and there was fear. It was prudent for me to go with them,” he says about his association with the insurgents. So what prompted him to leave? “I have two daughters. One of whom is a school student who wants to become a doctor one day. Some months before I quit Maoists, she asked me, ‘Papa, you work in the jungles and we rarely get to see you. Who will help us study further if you are not around?’ That changed my mind.”

Today, Gawade is in dire straits. After two-and-a-half years as a ‘secret soldier’ on police rolls, he’s been put to pasture. He now works are a manual labourer in Bijapur. Does he have any regrets? “I am working for my family now. But yes, I wish I had better income like the time I had a police department salary.”

Is there a way to speed up such desertions? “Unfortunately it is not that simple. Even if an insurgent decides he has had enough and that he has better prospects in normal life, the decision to leave Maoists is fraught with danger,” says a police officer who has dealt with such cases. “In many cases, these people have their families in their villages and the Maoists know that. The moment they leave, their families are bound to get into trouble which can be life threatening. That is one factor that holds people back even when they want to leave.”

Then there is the larger issue of what to do with people who give up arms. The case of Gawade and many others shows that the government’s ‘surrender policy’ often leads to counterproductive results due to administrative lapses. These have second order effects: Maoists then use the plight of those who surrendered as a warning of what awaits deserters. These effects and counter-effects are difficult to pin down and often lead to chaotic situations.

The net result is a slow change and persistence of bad equilibria like terror and violence in interior regions and relative safety along highways, a situation that has been nearly two decades in the making. If one leaves aside ideological explanations of conflict, it is clear that a complex history of isolation, repeated attempts at using identities to control the region and the utter dominance of Maoists have long made Bastar a hard place.

SO WHAT HAPPENS next? Chhattisgarh, the last redoubt of the Maoist insurgency, finds itself at a cusp again. After a campaign that has lasted almost two decades, there is a semblance of government control in this troubled part of India. The ‘Red Corridor’ days, when a wide swath of territory was under rebel control, are now a fading memory. Only three districts, Naryanpur, Bijapur and Sukma, remain strongly contested zones. Even here the situation bears no comparison to 2004-05 or even 2011. But it has to be said that because of the terrain, there are diminishing returns on any strategy to end insurgency. A ring-fenced network of metalled roads and a proper communication network to keep a close watch on these two contiguous zones is the best bet.

That may, however, change. For one, the state’s newly sworn- in Congress government led by Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel is acutely aware of the cost at which this relative peace has been attained. Thousands of Adivasis have lost their lives and far more have been displaced. From ground-level political workers to newly-elected legislators, everyone wants peace. One legislator in South Bastar tells Open that “a middle path is the need of the hour”. “The way forward could be that aggressive patrolling and area domination strategies are put on hold while the Maoists are encouraged to meet us half way,” says the MLA. The other part of this approach to peace is two-fold. One, the state takes a hard look at the thousands of active FIRs that have named persons who are not even aware that they are wanted by the police. These are victims of circumstances who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and had no role in perpetrating violence. Two, it considers the release of thousands of prisoners languishing in jails for offences related to Maoist violence. In both cases, there are a large proportion of persons who are in all likelihood innocent. The process, however, is not so simple. For one, all these FIRs and detained persons need to be screened carefully to separate them from persons against whom there are genuine grounds for doubt. For another, they are in different stages of the legal process: investigation, the presentation of charge-sheets and actual trials. There are now a large number of cases that show even if one’s innocence is proved in a court, the entire process is time-consuming and leaves Adivasis in debt and misery. This may come to an end soon. The new government is actively considering the creation of a committee that will look at these issues sympathetically and in cases of minor transgressions may decide to end legal proceedings. The committee is expected to be notified soon.

It is the other aspect of tackling the situation—of reducing or giving up patrolling and area-domination exercises in the interior areas—that is a cause for concern and may prove to be a terribly expensive mistake if it is implemented. This measure cannot be termed a response at any level to the Maoist challenge. For a group that believes in overthrowing the state, it is futile to take any steps that may lead to talks of any kind. There are, of course, civil society individuals who wish for such discussions and the Maoists may not be averse to them, even if for solely tactical reasons. As an observer in Bastar who is in contact with the group’s planners tells Open, “One senior Maoist ideologue, who met me recently, told me that the danger of bloodshed is high and that some ‘middle path’ has to be found.”

The only time an ‘ideological’ response of sorts was contemplated to the Maoist issue was sometime in 2006, when an expert group was established by the erstwhile Planning Commission to deal with ‘development issues to deal with causes of discontent, unrest and extremism’. The group issued a report on ‘development challenges in extremist affected areas’ in 2008. The report’s recommendations included taking governance to these remote areas and implementing protective laws as well. But it contradicted itself when it also recommended talks with Maoists ‘unconditionally’. The history of the Maoist movement shows that the group is hostile to the idea of government-led development in any form.

In any case, by the time the report was issued, it was outdated. For another, the Maoists had by then lost traction in the plains of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. Also, it had no strategic perspective, except for recommendations at the most general level. Ultimately, what worked was the slow and painful establishment of security camps along the ‘highways’—which were nothing more than muddy tracks almost until 2015—and the slow and painful building of metalled roads. During this period, a large number of security personnel lost their lives, as did many contractors who were targeted by Maoists. The latter continue to be targets even today. But in the end, it is the roads that worked: it is a safe bet to say that wherever a metalled highway has been completed, the insurgents retreat at least 5-10 km into the hinterland. This allows security forces the vital space for patrolling and keeping the movement of insurgents in check. To order a reduction in area domination would be self-defeating, especially after the huge amount of blood and money spent on road construction. It is quite possible that once such operations cease, the roads will get dug up soon after. The possibility of ‘helicopter days’ returning to Chhattisgarh, too, cannot be ruled out.

Any journey to Bastar is revealing in more ways than one. The scars left by the violence of Maoists and the vigilante group Salwa Judum are glaringly visible. They serve as a reminder of what can go wrong when strategies enter a blind alley. But most importantly, Bastar shows the unbridgeable distance between ideological explanations and the complex interplay of choices, options and strategies that operate on the ground. The former are useful in crafting narratives, but they can hardly be called explanations.