BASTAR ~ It’s a war, but it remains hidden. Neither the gun-wielding aggressors nor their unarmed opponents dare call it a war, since they both draw support from the same community base: the tribals of Bastar. While Maoists fear that an open declaration of this war might weaken their position among tribals, the gunless cadres of the Communist Party of India (CPI) are terrified that a public acknowledgement of hostilities will disrupt their mobilisation of tribals.
Yet, the war is as bloody as any other, and at times as fierce as the one raging between Maoists and security forces in southern Chhattisgarh. The latest flashpoint was on 14 June, when a band of Maoist militia raided Bade Bedma and Chhote Bedma villages in Dantewada, looking for the veteran CPI leader Nandaram Sori, a former member of the Chhattisgarh Assembly. They could not find him in his village Bade Bedma that night, but caught hold of his brother Mundaram Sori, another CPI leader, shot at his leg, set his tractor on fire, and burnt down several huts. Over a three-hour long rampage till an hour past midnight, they set huts ablaze in Chhote Bedma too.
The area is seen as a CPI stronghold, and the likely idea was to terrorise the party’s supporters in these villages. If so, it had its effect; locals are still reeling in fear after the attack. The shock is all the more severe because Maoists had desisted from raiding CPI cadres ever since they themselves came under attack from the state’s anti-Maoist militia Salwa Judum in Bastar two years ago.
The re-eruption of Maoist-CPI hostilities places the CPI in a tight spot, caught in a pincer the party sees no way out of. On one side, the CPI has the enmity of Maoists. On the other, its cadres and local leaders are under attack from security personnel, who see red as red without distinction and accuse them of Maoist sympathies. Over 100 local CPI leaders and workers in the region have been put behind bars. They include local CPI leaders Kartam Joga, Sudruram Kunjam, Sukal Prasad Nag and Bhima, as well as over a dozen leaders of assorted mass organisations operating under the party’s aegis.
The CPI’s top leadership is in the midst of a debate over how to fend off this double attack. The issue was discussed in detail by the party’s national council that met on 18-19 June. “The CPI, which has an extensive mass base in south Bastar, with a large number of elected representatives in panchayats, is facing threats from both the police and Maoists. Many local CPI leaders and supporters are still in jail, facing trials under various charges, including sedition, while Maoists are also treating CPI men as their enemy and targeting the houses of CPI cadres,” bemoaned party general secretary AB Bardhan, after the meeting, urging the Government to start peace talks with Maoists.
The conflict between the CPI and Maoists has a long history. It began soon after a horde of Maoists migrated to south Bastar from Andhra Pradesh in the 1980s. Tensions attained a new peak in 1989, when the CPI released a pamphlet that raised uncomfortable ideological questions for Maoists. It was distributed mostly in Bastar’s Bijapur region, where Maoists first sought to establish themselves. Instead of defending their posture with words, Maoists resorted to arms. In 1990, they killed CPI leader Nageshwar Rao, an Andhraite who had settled in Bijapur and was an active distributor of the pamphlet.
Angered by Maoists’ disdain for dialectics, the CPI spoke out even more loudly. In the mid-1990s, the two sides’ standoff took another bloody turn, with Maoists killing another CPI leader Gopal Rao, and raiding villages where CPI cadres lived. This time round, Konta, the southernmost block of Dantewada, bore the brunt of the attack.
Such incidents continued until mid-2005, when the Chhattisgarh government launched the Salwa Judum, roiling the region and pushing tribals into what was turning out to be a civil war of sorts. In response, the CPI launched a movement against this state-sponsored force, holding a series of strikes and demonstrations, apart from filing a public interest litigation (PIL) against the state government’s move.
That is how the party came to pit itself against both the local police and Maoists. In 2006, the CPI bolstered its efforts by reviving its All India Adivasi Mahasabha, which soon gained a large following in south Bastar, something neither the police nor Maoists took kindly to. Despite such support from tribals, the CPI has not been able to succeed locally in the electoral arena.
That is because Maoists do not let tribals vote. “The election boycott by Maoists has been working against the CPI. They have been able to enforce their writ primarily on tribals, who are the CPI’s main supporters. In urban pockets, where the boycott call means nothing, voters come out and vote openly. In a way, therefore, Maoists are helping the BJP and Congress at the cost of the CPI,” says a senior CPI leader of Chhattisgarh, “It is pretty clear that Maoists do not want the CPI to win. If that happens, the party’s base will expand, which, in turn, would spell the defeat of the Maoist line.”
The party refuses to give up, though. In the Bijapur, Narayanpur , Dantewada and Jagdalpur districts of south Bastar, CPI cadres have made a point of continuing their work among tribals. It is difficult, they admit. In fact, many tribal villages bear a deserted look nowadays, their residents having fled their homes in fear of attacks by either Maoists or Salwa Judum gunmen. “The CPI lacks the wherewithal to counter the Maoist attack,” says the senior CPI leader, “They terrorise tribals on the day of polling. They attack and threaten our cadres and local leaders. We are helpless, since they refuse to hold a dialogue.”
Nominally at least, Maoists are Communists as well. This allows the prospect of swaying their supporters away. “The only option we have is to fight them ideologically. It is this ideological activity of the CPI that Maoists are trying to counter through arms. What kind of communist movement is this?”
The Maoist leadership is unlikely to answer that question. It is aware, nonetheless, that the CPI’s success with tribals could prove their undoing, especially if they get convinced that the ballot is a worthier way to achieve their aims than the bullet.