From the corner of the road, the paddy fields gleamed in the sun. It had rained a few days ago. Amidst distant hills, wreaths of smoke curled in the air. Some days, a dull roar of engines ricocheted in the distance. The silence returned a while later, almost always. One late summer afternoon, as we crossed Pandripani in 2017, at the crossroads beyond the railway track, where lone paths led towards isolated settlements, the muddy road took us to a tiny village called Parpa.
Beside the hand pump, at the entrance of the village, was an anganwadi (a rural child care centre) that bore no signs of occupancy, that day. Behind it stood an old traditional home whose walls were built by stacking flat stones — a construction style indigenous to Jagdalpur. Inside, there were books arranged in a neat file beside Somari who lay on the floor casting an occasional awry glance sideways. That was the first time we met Bela Bhatia, a human rights lawyer, independent researcher, social scientist and author living in Bastar.
It was during military combing operations in late October of 2015 when the first few incidents of rape, sexual assault and human rights violations came to light in Peddagellur, Bijapur. The security forces had camped in the village. In their testimonies, women mentioned the gruesome nature of torture and violence inflicted upon them. One woman was blindfolded and raped. Another woman raised objections to soldiers stealing their poultry and supplies. A soldier held her legs while another raped her. They used batons to beat them mercilessly. Sometimes, they threatened to lift their skirts and smear chilli powder on their vagina.
“There have been no arrests made so far. There has not even been a systematic inquiry. And, these were very important cases. Did you know that these were the first cases filed after the amended rape law in 2013 which allowed for indictment of central and state forces when on duty and accused of crimes such as rape and sexual assault? In order to understand the seriousness of these instances, we must realize that these incidents were not one of a kind. Even during our investigation, we felt that there was a certain kind of planned nature to these instances that one could discern. The first incident happened between October 19 and 24 in Peddagellur village. It was during combing operations by the army that lasted 4-5 days. Three women were gang raped and many were sexually assaulted,” said Bela.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. It didn’t happen by chance. In 2016, there were 13 instances of gang rape reported in Belam Nendra in Bijapur between January 11 and 16. Many of the women even testified before the Sub-divisional Magistrate (SDM) and police. “There were similar patterns observed in two different districts on the same day. The same incident was reported between January 11 and 14 in Kunna which is in Sukma. That is when you begin to feel that it is all a part of a larger plan. And, that is worrisome. The stories we heard indicated that the rapes happened at a much larger scale in Belam Nendra. Almost 13 women mentioned to us what happened that day when our team from Women against Sexual violence and state repression (WSS) visited them. When we heard these stories, we observed similarities in terms of timing, she explained, “It was happening in one hamlet, and at the same time it occurred in another.”
In such cases, according to her, when the armed forces go to villages, three or four soldiers usually visit a house together. Some stand guard outside the homes while the others step in. They help themselves to anything they find including rice, oil and poultry. Sometimes, they return in the evenings or the next day. “It’s a crime that one has heard of since the Salwa Judum days. People have been giving lists of items that were taken from their homes like hens and goats. However, nobody pays attention to them since people are also getting killed there. Therefore, you focus on the latter. However, as far as the villagers are concerned, these are their assets. In Belam Nendra, one woman said to them: Don’t take my hens. I want to sell them and buy clothes. They threw a fishing net over her face, pushed her inside, and raped her. Women who spoke out, who fought back, were the ones who were targeted. So, this is the kind of recurring pattern that we saw,” she said.
In 2007, Bela documented a case in Lohandiguda block (Bastar division) where Tata Steel was making an attempt to forcibly acquire 1764 hectares of tribal lands that belonged to ten panchayats namely Badanji, Bade Paroda, Belar, Beliapal, Chindgaon, Dabpal, Dhuragaon, Kumli, Sirisaguda and Takraguda in order to set up a Green Field Integrated Steel plant in Bastar. In 2018, Tata Steel was forced to withdraw from the region. At that time too, Bela explained that through gram sabhas under PESA (Panchayat’s Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996) adivasis were allowed to take note of any new development that alienated their land and have the right to consider proposals, and refuse them.
“In Lohandiguda, we found that in the entire belt, systematic repression had occurred. 60 of the most articulate individuals from 10 panchayats were rounded up and arrested under false cases. This was in late February or March of 2007. One woman was raped and ten were molested. This happened in a village called Kakrapada. Everything seemed so systematic that in the molestation case, for instance, it was to remain molestation and not advance to rape. In this case too, two soldiers stood outside the house while two or three would then go inside and tear off women’s clothes. The incident wouldn’t advance to rape. There were ten such incidents; the women said so,” she said.
However, there was one rape case reported in another para. In that particular incident, Bela recalls, a lone policeman visited a house. Perhaps, the officer became isolated from the rest of the group. He went in and asked the woman for water. She got him a tumbler. He then pulled her aside, and raped her. “We saw how people supported the woman including her community, family, husband and her in-laws. They all came to complain. They didn’t go to the police station. They didn’t want to go there. That is when we decided to investigate what actually happened there. We had sent the report to National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Their statements were gathered later. Again, things were lost in translation. She told them that the policeman sat on her but it was written down as something else,” explained Bela and she further added, “As far as rape is concerned, that is one way to say it. But there are many ways to say it, and she was describing what happened to her in a particular way. The same person is being grilled three different times for an hour at a stretch. We witnessed the same process this time as well. Women had to give their testimonies so many times in front of the collector, the SDM and the police over and over again. Yet, it has not moved forward.”
She pointed out that in the aforementioned case the area did not come under the purview of Maoist influence unlike Peddegellur and Belam Nendra. However, there was resistance in certain pockets. There were ordinary people speaking out against injustice, atrocities and unfair treatment meted out to tribal communities. “One would expect that simple things like internal inquiries could be done. When forces conduct combing operations, they usually go in very large batches. A few hundred people go together. Yet, it is not impossible to interrogate them. If you question them one by one, you will get the truth. Again, it is a matter of will: whether you really want to get to the bottom of the truth or not. They have been accusing us for a while,” she said and explained further, “After the first case when I (on behalf of the WSS team) had become the complainant in the FIR, they said to us that we were coaxing these women to make these accusations even though they had spoken with the women several times. So, in the second case, we then ensured that the women themselves become complainants.”
Despite recurring visits by national government agencies, the state’s women commission, National Commission of Women (NCW), National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) and even National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), there has been no progress in these cases whatsoever. The NCW took a suo motu cognizance of the first case. In the second case, however, they were never informed that the women had also travelled to Bijapur on the day of their visit in order to file the FIR. “When the team found out later, they were quite upset,” said Bela.
It was purely by chance that Bela found out about each of these cases. “It makes us feel that the reality is likely to be much worse. In the first case, the WSS was in the region to investigate an older case that wasn’t related to rape or assault. While we were there, we had heard that something happened in these remote villages that were located 12 to 15 kms inside the forests,” she explained, “Coincidentally, it was a Friday. It was market day and people from isolated villages had travelled to the bazaar. Therefore, we were able to speak with many of them and ascertain that something had happened. Many women spoke on camera.”
The team first heard about the Kunna ‘case’ from Soni Sori, an activist and former politician, who upon learning about the incident decided to visit the village and investigate further. They were in her house when someone from Bijapur arrived and urged them to go to his village. The forces had been camping there for 3 – 4 days. They were all worried. They didn’t know what was happening. “He was so insistent that even though it was not a part of our plan, one part of the team went there to find out what happened,” she said.
In conversation, we discussed the difficulties and challenges faced by villagers and activists in Bastar to register complaints against offenders particularly in cases where incidents of sexual assault, rape and torture have been reported. When the perpetrators of the crime are security personnel, it becomes almost impossible to ensure that justice prevails. “There is this whole question of added responsibility. That’s what we need to draw attention to. Of course, in society rape exists. Everywhere, societies have their own norms to question it.
There are existing laws in our country as well as other countries. So, that kind of questioning has to continue. The problem arises when Government agencies that have an added responsibility, who are in an area with a particular mandate, who are on duty and resort to something like this. We have to remember that they are not just individuals of a society but they are on official duty. There are rules they are obliged to adhere to. Our police force and our security forces also have a line of command and so on which is enforced. They also enjoy a certain kind of power in the region. They are armed. Not only is it laws that are broken but it is also trust that gets broken. The forces are responsible to some extent. It is the quality of the police personnel and the individual security persons within the force. It is that questioning, that strictness, that adherence to their own code of conduct that must be checked including the way they come across or behave with civilian populations.”
A few months before we visited Bastar, there were sustained attacks against numerous human rights activists, academicians and journalists who were specifically targeted by the administration and security forces. Some were forced to leave while others were threatened or arrested. That day, Bela pointed out that as far as her persecution is concerned as a human rights activist, it began in a very ‘marked’ manner. “It happened post lodging FIRs for the rape cases. There have been many fake encounters that I have been involved with investigating and trying to file FIRs for. Then, when the inquiries were ordered, I was also involved with giving depositions to the SDM. I think what has happened to me and other human rights defenders in the region can be attributed to investigations we have been working on. We have questioned the scale of human rights violations that have been occurring in these regions by the police and security forces during combing and search operations as well as part of the counter-insurgency operations,” she said.
The Supreme Court had ordered the state of Chattisgarh to take imminent and appropriate measures to prevent and condemn the operation of groups that violate human rights or take law into their own hands thereby acting unconstitutionally in 2011. However, many believe that the state has failed to uphold the orders over the years. “I think the state is in contempt of court. We have seen many formations of these kinds. The most notable of them was the Samajik Ekta Manch. In a sting operation, some of the leaders admitted on camera that they would make many formations. So, there would be the Samajik Ekta Manch here in Jagdalpur that would work in urban areas, and then there’s the Mahila Ekta Manch. The objective was to crack the urban network or the urban support network of the Maoists whereas Adivasi Ekta Manch would be operational in rural areas. Similarly in Dantewada, there is Vikas Sangharsh Samiti, and in Sukma there is the Aatankvadi Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti. So, they explained that in every district they would make these kinds of formations. That way, if one gets banned, the others can pick up. So, it was deliberate. The fact that we came under attack is because we were seen to be a part of that support network. However, we are working here in our own professional capacities. The journalists, lawyers and academic activists like me, several other local persons, local leaders who were a part of the CPI and had been working in the region for decades have been targeted,” she said.
In 2016, a few months before we first visited Bastar, Communist Party of India (CPI) leaders took out a rally to mark Bhumkal divas in Bastar on February 10. In 1910, the British government proposed to declare two-thirds of the Kanger forest as reserve forest and prohibit shifting cultivation, hunting and acquiring forest produce. This move would have affected the lives of tribal communities residing in Bastar and also cause displacement at a massive scale. Around that time, Bastar was reeling under one of the worst droughts the region had ever witnessed. In Nethanar village, resided a man who shaped the rebellion that led to scores of adivasis uniting against the zamindars and British administration. His name was Gundadhur Dhurva.
The rebellion also ascertained the importance of preserving tribal culture and lifestyle. In order to commemorate the sacrifices of the adivasi leaders of the rebellion, CPI had decided to take out a rally through different parts of Bastar. However, Adivasi Ekta Manch infiltrated their rally and shouted anti-maoist slogans. After a few such instances, Manish Kunjam, prominent MLA of the Communist Party of India then announced that they would put an end to the programme.
“So, that was another way of targeting them by not allowing them to continue their work,” said Bela, “The CPI too has been accused of having close links with Maoists in the past. Likewise, in each of our cases, we have been accused simply because we are questioning the state through different mediums. It just so happens that in our own professional capacities we are in Bastar. Naturally, we are here to uphold the law in Bastar in our own ways. Therefore, whenever we have come across ‘cases’, we have questioned them. And, we have done so only after establishing facts. We see it as our duty not merely in our professional capacities but also as citizens of this country. I have done similar work in different states of the country in the last 30 years. In Bastar, we are labelled as Maoist sympathisers, Maoist dalals/agents or just as Maoists. In many different ways, one has been labelled and targeted.”
Over the last few years, there has been concerted pressure built against those who have raised their concerns over atrocities committed towards tribal communities. While Bela has been working in Bastar for the last 13 years as part of her research, since early 2016 she has been primarily concentrating on work related to human rights. She learnt about a list circulated in Bastar that had her name alongside several other activists, academicians, lawyers and politicians on it. The then collector sent her a message informing her of the same.
“We had an hour long discussion on my work and my grievances. I was also asked what I thought of the Constitution of India and whether or not I believed in it. It was a very long, frank and open discussion. Whenever the Government has certain suspicions, certainly they should ask questions, and individuals like me should co-operate,” she said and further added, “But, I think a line is crossed when it is done through mediums and through organisations which infringe upon the human rights of other individuals. For example, in the case of Samajik Ekta Manch or Mahila Ekta Manch, I do feel that they have a right to express their dissent. They define themselves as anti-Naxalite organisations. They have a right to be anti-naxalite. They have questions about Naxalism or the way it has panned out in Bastar. They are free to do that. They burnt an effigy of what they called the Naxal samarthak/sympathiser in Sanjay market which is a very crowded area in Jagdalpur. To that extent also, one agrees that they have a right to do that.”
The Naxali Peedit Sangharsh Samiti organised a rally in the parade ground of Bijapur where they burnt effigies of Soni Sori, Arundhati Roy and Bela Bhatia amongst others. However, Bela didn’t protest against the organisation or the incident. “I wouldn’t want an effigy burnt but in some ways even that is a form of democratic dissent. I don’t want somebody to chant Murdabad with my name but that’s alright. You are shouting a slogan. They say you shouldn’t come back to Bijapur. That, however, I will not agree with. It is my right and I will assert that. Even after the incident, I didn’t think of protesting it in any way. I think a line is crossed when you are not just expressing your opinion but inciting others to violence,” she says.
A few months before we met Bela, some people visited her in Parpa. There were around 80 to 100 individuals who travelled in ten different vehicles. That day, according to Bela, there were 4 or 5 jeeps, 5 autos, 1 pickup van and so on. They conducted a rally and shouted slogans against her. They spoke to her land lady, neighbours and demanded to know why they chose to give their homes on rent to a ‘terrorist’.
Isko bahar nikalo, they yelled. “My land lady said to me: You can’t be a Naxalite. I told them you bought your own rice and daal. You cooked for yourself and your place is full of books and papers. This was her assessment of me and this is what she communicated to them,” Bela explained, “The plan always was to discourage us. It was done in an obtuse manner. They could have chosen to put some false cases on us. They could still do that. They put pressure on the land lords so that they ask us to leave. That’s what led to my other friends who at that point decided to go away. They didn’t want them to harm the landlords and their families especially those who had supported them in their work and in their personal capacities for so long. So, it is under such circumstances that people (activists, journalists, academicians) had to leave Bastar.”
However, those individuals who visited the village that day took it a step further. They distributed leaflets that had Bela’s photograph printed on it. They called her a Maoist agent. “They had bundles of them. Children later told me there were blue, yellow and green leaflets. They distributed them all over the area. Now that the two of you have come here, you can see that the area is quite isolated,” she told us, “I travel on my TVS all alone. There are large stretches where I am alone at different times of the day and night. So, when you label somebody with a photo and distribute it, it’s like you are giving sanctions to anyone that you can do whatever you like with this person. And, that’s a dangerous thing to do.”
The next day, when Bela went to the collector and complained to him, he admitted that he was aware of what had transpired in the village. “It was only when I was talking to him that I realised it was all a part of the plan. Samajik Ekta Manch had me on a list and if they pulled off their stunt here, they may do it to others too. They had a banner with Mahila Ekta Manch on it that read Bela Naxali. It becomes a source of intimidation. You can choose not to be intimidated but you have no control over the people who could get influenced and take action against you. So, it is an incitement to violence which I think, as mentioned earlier, is crossing the line,” she said.
That night, Bela recalls, she received phone calls from two men who belonged to Samajik Ekta Manch. They asked her what she planned to do, and if she would ever leave Bastar. She soon realised that she had to communicate her decision and in some ways introduce herself to the public of Bastar. She wrote a statement and submitted it to the local newspaper which was then picked up by numerous national media agencies.
“I wanted to assert my right to live here, work here and in the beliefs that I hold dear. Whatever I am doing is within the framework of the constitution. So, why should I allow another organization to malign my name or the kind of work I do,” she further explained and added that her statement was published on March 23 and the rally of protestors came to her village on March 26. “That was an escalation on their part. I announced that I am not going away. Of course, I had the support of my land lord and my land lady who are Gond adivasis, and the other villagers too. It is a large village. I don’t know all of them but I know some people in my immediate neighbourhood who are very supportive. So, it is with their support that I continue to stay here.”
A year later, in 2017, a mob visited her home in Parpa again. Similar patterns of violent threats and accusations ensued. They threatened to burn down her home, kill her dog and destroy everything she owned. There were more than 30 men who arrived in vehicles and motorbikes. They gave her 24 hours to leave. Some months ago, we bumped into Bela along with Jean Dreze in Dantewada. It had been a few months since she had shifted to her new home in Jagdalpur.
“We all have limited life spans. Therefore, in terms of choices, you decide what you want to do in life. This in some ways is taking forward something that has been an ongoing process in human history. There are individuals and organizations who will continue to do this kind of work and face the odds. Often, there is so much happening around you that you don’t really have the time to stop or think. You just continue,” she said.
One morning, she went to the local bakery to buy some bread. A young man alighted from a grey Maruti car and stared at her for a while before driving away. “I don’t know what to make of this incident,” she said.
That afternoon, in 2016, Somari’s furious barks didn’t go unnoticed. A while later, Bela walked back into the hall wondering what had her agitated. A postman had arrived with a letter. Back then, the state wished for Bela to take up their offer of police protection. In many cases, this was also done to keep a keen eye on activists and politicians. A year later, Bela had to run from pillar to post to request for protection from organisations and groups that threatened her presence in the region.
During her time in Bastar, she has witnessed, observed and heard first-hand accounts of tribal communities being subjected to violence and oppression in the name of conflict. Since its beginning, the Naxal movement has undergone a drastic transformation in terms of both ideology and leadership. Tracing its origins, Bela explained, “It was around the 1980s when the Naxalite movement started in Bastar. At that time, the Naxals who were travelling to these regions were mainly from the adjoining what is now Telangana region. This was the People’s war group (PWG) who were using the jungles in Bastar as a shelter zone. In the 1980s, they had a strong presence here. There has always been a lot of social and economic transaction, and interaction between tribal communities living in these adjoining areas. There were people inter-marrying; there were seasonal migrations that would happen from Bastar to Andhra Pradesh; they also go to the ‘mirchi baadis’ (communities would cross the border to work as agricultural labourers on chilli farms). Therefore, there was already that kind of a relationship between people on either side of the border. There was familiarity.”
Initially, the PWG came to areas that were closest to the Andhra Pradesh border where resided the Dorla community. The Dorlas in comparison to the Hill Marias are concentrated in larger pockets towards Bijapur and the other side of the Indravati river beyond which one would find the Murias. Similarly in the eastern range of Bastar, says Bela, there were Dandami Marias who in anthropological literature were also referred to as the Bison horn Marias since they wear the bison horn head gear in their social functions by anthropologists like Mr. Grigson. The women, on the other hand, dance with a metal rod that has small percussion instruments attached to it (jhumka lathi). Hence, they were called Dandami Maria.
“The Dorlas have always lived closer to the roads. Therefore, their economic conditions have been relatively better. Initially, as a part of the shelter zone, when the PWG first arrived, they were with the Dorlas of Bastar who are the Koyas of Andhra Pradesh. The PWG then gradually started moving inwards and came across the Hill Marias. As they travelled further, they crossed paths with the Murias (like those residing in Abhujmad). The Murias were comparatively in a worse situation due to their geographical location. And, that is how or why they (Murias) became their (PWG’s) strong hold. Initially, the place was just a shelter for the Naxalites but slowly they got involved with issues prevalent there and started addressing them,” said Bela, “In some places like Abhujmad there had been no Government presence at all. Even during the Colonial era, Abhujmad was left alone deliberately based on the advice of anthropologists like Grigson, Verrier Elvin and so on. Between 1947 and 1980, I think there was some presence of the Indian Government but not a quite lot. So, it is possible that there may be entire areas where the Maoists were the very first people to visit or enter these regions. It was during that time from 1980s to mid 1990s that they took up quite a few issues there related to oppression and economic exploitation mostly by the forest officials, police guards and traders. Minor forest produce is an important part of the income of adivasis and they were not getting fair rates.”
Today, the situation is no different. Tribal farmers continue to bear the brunt of exploitation. Owing to existing conflict between the state and Maoist groups, public infrastructure and inadequate healthcare has resulted in deaths owing to preventable diseases like malaria, dysentery, typhoid, jaundice and tuberculosis. Malnutrition and sickle-cell anaemia too are especially pervasive amongst the villagers.
Over the three years, we came across several such men, women and children who didn’t survive the year. Since adequate medical facilities are extremely uncommon in these regions, tribal communities are faced with the hard choice of travelling 20 to 30 kms on foot to seek treatment. In the absence of basic healthcare, the locals rely on traditional medicine or inappropriate/superstitious tribal practices to rid them of illnesses at times which make it excessively difficult for health workers to convince them to seek medical help in cases of emergencies.
“There is one thing we need to be very clear about,” Bela mentioned in conversation, “Initially, the Naxalites were mobilising against traders because they were one exploitative class. Now, the trading community mostly comprises outsiders. Bastar has a history of non-tribal people coming into this region for more than 200 years. Some of the migration has been due to distress. In these parts, for example, you do find non-tribal people from adjoining Telangana region or Odisha. Now, these are poor people. They are non-tribal but they are poor. They are also labouring communities and are often landless. Many of them who stayed in villages eventually acquired some land. For example, Pandripani is a mixed village: you have both adivasis as well as people belonging to different castes such as yadavs, mahras, and other dalits too. Some of them have land, and some of them are landless.”
Over time, there were issues raised by the non-tribal communities who moved to Bastar. Based on observations, some of them started supporting the Maoist movement in small ways such as supplying them with rice or clothes. However, what one may also observe is that a few of them in the post Salwa Judum phase became main supporters or the main constituents of counter insurgency. “They were all identified as a class. And, it was ‘a class’ that the Maoists had been fighting against. Therefore, when they got a chance to organize themselves they took it. But in terms of violence itself when the state stepped in (in the form of Salwa Judum) the main ‘reason’ that they kept giving everyone was they were there to reduce violence perpetrated by Maoists. However, in purely research terms, if you see the kind of violence that existed before — both with respect to incidents in terms of the whole organisation of it, and the kind and scale of violence that has happened post 2005, you will truly feel and see that there has been a many fold increase. Hence, that reason doesn’t hold at all,” she explained.
Since 2005, when Salwa Judum was deployed as a part of anti-insurgency operations in the state, the scale of violence catapulted into its current form where both sides continue to inflict violence with aggression. Earlier, even individuals from the police forces admitted that the violence (from either side) would be sporadic. Quite often, there would be targeted attacks and warnings were given well in advance. Yet, the state came in with the argument that their presence indicated containment of the Maoist movement. However, one may find that during its first and second phase of operations — that took shape in the form of Salwa judum and Operation green hunt — so severe and wide spread was the scale of atrocity that naturally it caused alienation amongst people.
“In some ways, that could be one of the reasons that led to the ‘spread’ of the Maoist movement,” she said, “People went back to the Maoists because they were literally caught in between. I am not saying that all of them were subjected to similar situations. One could describe that as ‘the sandwich theory’. And, I don’t subscribe to any such theory. On ground, what one would see is that there were a large number of people thrust into such circumstances where they had no free choice in the matter; where you have this sort of a terrorist state, and the only option they have for shelter or security is to go to the other side. Today, Sukma has become the Maoist movement’s strong hold. In 2005, there was no such ‘movement’ in existence there.”
According to Bela, in order to understand what happened in 2005, we have to first realise that what transpired in Bastar is part of a larger strategy about containing the movement in the country as a whole. “Now, the Naxalite movement as we know is quite an old movement. It has been here since 1967 and 1969 after the formation of the CPI (ML). The Naxalite movement is not one single party. I don’t have the exact count but in the mid 1990s when I was doing my research I found out that there were approximately 60 groups in the country. There has always been a history of both splits as well mergers within the movement. So, what we see today in the form of the CPI (Maoist) is a result of two very important mergers that happened in the past which led to the formation of CPI (Maoist) thereby making it the single largest party. In 1998, there was one merger that happened between the PWG and the CPI (ML) Party Unity. After that in 2004, the Maoist Communist Center (MCC) also joined in. As a result, in 2004, they had the single largest party. And, they called themselves CPI (Maoist). Their strategy included relying on military methods. Therefore, they were completely underground. They were banned. Otherwise in the history of the Naxalite movement, you see these open movements and they have played a very important role. However, in this case, it has mostly been an underground existence since 2004.”
We told her about our conversation with Chaitram Atami and the points of views he shared that described the helplessness of adivasis who were being exploited by Maoists. Although, we didn’t anticipate neutral points of view from someone who was involved with Salwa Judum, Atami ascertained the fact that villagers were constantly forced by Maoists to provide them with ration, supplies and even family members to fight their cause. Villagers witnessed their relatives being torched to death during jan adalats. There were many who believed that such instances of violence ultimately pushed adviasis to unite and fight against Maoists in the form of Salwa Judum as opposed to it being a state sponsored or state initiated movement.
“A very important weakness of the Maoist movement, in some ways it is a theoretical weakness, is that there is no room for dissent. There is no answer to that situation — which is very likely — that not everybody is going to agree with your theory or your line of action. Then, what happens to these people? Now, if these are ‘your class enemies’, hypothetically you can do away with them. But the point is they are people of the same class (the tribals — the class they claim to be fighting for), and they don’t agree with your way of doing things. What options do they have? I think it is true that in Bastar there have been such periods where local people have organised themselves against the Maoists,” she says and further explains, “The ‘organisation’ stage comes later. Firstly, that feeling of disagreement has been there in pockets, in different phases. And, one has evidence of such phases which has led to the ‘organisation’.”
Historically, Bela says, if we take a look at the events, the first Jan Jagaran Abhiyan happened in 1990-91. There was an incident in a village called Bedre which is located in the Kutru Division. The Maoists never condoned the traditional hierarchical set up amongst tribes which included Patels, Pujaris, the headman and so on. A lot of those roles were based on traditional inheritance (from father to son). “This is a subject matter that has been studied by anthropologists. It is a system that has evolved in indigenous societies all over the world. You will find similar systems everywhere. Here, as part of the Maoist movement, they decided to take action against some of these traditional systems,” Bela said.
In Bedre, there lived a man called Banda Patel. They killed him. The person who committed the murder and was leading the squad that day has since then surrendered. He now lives in Jagdalpur. “It is such an odd thing,” says Bela, “He has a little house which the state has given him as compensation or rehabilitation. Now, he is a gardener in a Government public space. And, he is living that kind of a life. In an interview with me, he accepted that he was the person responsible for Banda Patel’s death. Now, Banda Patel was a very popular Patel in that area. He was considered to be a good man.”
On the night of Banda’s death, his brother and the adivasis of Bedre left to a village nearby. They didn’t want to draw attention to themselves. So, they walked all night. There, they met a tribal leader who suggested that they meet Mahendra Karma, a political leader from the Indian National Congress, who was later assassinated in a Maoist attack near Jeeram village as he was returning from a rally meeting in Sukma on May 25, 2013. Two days later, Naxalites claimed responsibility for the attack as confirmed by the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee spokesperson Gumudavelli Venkatakrishna Prasad who went by the alias Gudsa Usendi (in memory of the 17-year-old Maria boy who was one of the five Maoists gunned down by the armed forces in Potenar, Abujhmad in 2000).
“During the earlier Jan Jagaran abhiyan, both the Congress and CPI were a part of the initiative. It was a non-violent dissent. In a sense, it didn’t have any state sponsorship like what we saw during Salwa Judum. Based on our observations, the Jan Jagaran Abhiyan died due to various reasons including inner formations. Undoubtedly, there were problems with the Jan Jagaran Abhiyaan. It is interesting to note that in the following 10 years every single leader of Jan Jagaran Abiyan was killed. Of course, Mahendra Karma died much later but his elder brother Podiyaram was killed by them.”
Bela later told us that all this information was based on an interview she had conducted with a person who was a part of Jan Jagran Abhiyan. He was Dalit. According to her, he had sustained a bullet injury, and had survived. She interviewed him in 2007 or 2008. He died two or three years later. “Now, let’s take a look at what happened before what became Salwa Judum. What was really happening in the region?” Bela asked as she explained further, “Yet again, we have evidence that in another village not far from Bedre there was one instance where a truck carrying food grains for the CRPF was stopped by Maoists and the grains were taken away by force, of course.”
Soon after the incident, she says, the police arrived and rounded up people in the nearby village. They arrested some youth and threw them in prison. The villagers were upset and demanded that they release them because they weren’t involved in the incident at all. The police then asked them who was truly responsible for stealing grains meant for the CRPF.
“The villagers held a local meeting. And, there were people from the Maoist fold too just like in Bedre. These were ‘their’ people. There was dissent brewing from within. It’s not like a non-tribal person from a trading community or somebody who belonged to another class who was being questioned by the Maoists, who had vested interests and wanted to do away with them. It wasn’t that kind of ‘class’. It was mostly people from areas of their (Maoist) own influence, people who were members of their own organization. And, this happened not for one or two years but for many years. They called a local Maoist person and had an argument of sorts. They rounded him up, and deposited him at the nearest police station. This is just one of the cases,” Bela explained, “There were many such incidents at that time. My own understanding is that this kind of dissent may have happened over the years, and may have also died down. Those were some of the drawbacks. But they (Maoists) were also doing a lot of good in the area.”
The eventual form that these incidents took led to ‘Salwa Judum’. In some ways, the state adopted it and sponsored the initiative. Bela believes that it wasn’t just the state but the central government actively participated in the initial phase too. There was money pouring in. Arms were distributed to civilian forces. “At that time, there were the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Paramilitary Forces and the Indian Reserve Battalion (IRB) functioning in these areas. One may observe that the maximum incidents of violence were recorded in the first two years of Salwa Judum (2005 and 2006). That time, the IRB were from Nagaland and also included the local police forces and so on. In most of the cases that one heard, the violence was actually committed by them. In some ways, they also had the civilian people involved in the police force. But they weren’t too many in numbers.”
According to Bela, there was a massive surge in instances of violence during Salwa Judum where various individuals and groups that backed the movement were working with the forces. Usually, a large group of people (approximately 300 to 400) would visit a village. Out of them, at least 150 were armed forces that belonged to the Indian Reserved Battalion.
“When the houses were torched, it is entirely possible that the people who accompanied the forces would have burnt them down. Many people were killed at that time. Some of their names were revealed. Some managed to run away. Some stayed back. For instance, we heard a story about an old man in a village. What could be the reason for killing an old person, for killing a sick person who is bed-ridden, who is unable to move?” she asked.
People residing in the villages ran in three different directions. Some ran towards the jungle. Some went across the border. A few of them crossed paths with a mob of 300 to 400 people entering their village, and eventually ended up joining them. “It then became a rally since they would go from village to village. So, I feel this is called strategic hamleting (counter insurgency strategy aimed at creating ‘protected’ hamlets by isolating rural population from insurgents). This is the kind of violence that was observed in Nagaland and Mizoram. This is the kind of violence we saw at international levels even in Vietnam and Malaysia. Therefore, this is not by chance. It is all part of a much larger understanding and defense strategy. Even the Salwa Judum civilians who were a part of the whole operation may not know what they were truly a part of,” Bela explained, “For, I don’t think they really understand the Maoist movement. The link with Naxalbari, its many facets and the ideology of the movement is that it is in fact an international ideology. In this sense, the Government’s claim in society that they will wipe them (Maoists) out is moot simply because ideologies function at an international level. And, it is based on a certain theoretical understanding. It stems from certain parts of the society. So, there are certain reasons, there are certain roots to it. And, there have been Government reports in the past that have pointed out the socio-economic or fundamental reasons behind the birth of the Naxalite movement in the country.”
Bela believes that the present day Maoist movement and the whole trajectory of the Naxalite movement cannot be talked about in the same breath. The movement itself has had many facets and this is a different phase. According to it, there are different actions that are currently in progress. In terms of Government response, however, what was happening in Bastar was quite clear with the initiation of strategic hamlet programmes. “With respect to who should bear the responsibility of whatever happened, I think it has to be the Government. It was, in my opinion, a planned thing. And, that is why we say that none of this was spontaneous in nature. It was state sponsored. Some of the local people who were assisting the government didn’t realize that they actually played a very small role in the whole game. They were made to feel as though they were powerful. In fact, at that time, many of these people were flown around in helicopters. And, they were told: we will finish them (Maoists) off. Perhaps, they too felt that this will all end quite easily.”
However, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Nobody ever explained to those civilians the challenges involved in ending the Maoist movement. Bela believes that in a way the Government used them and endangered their lives. Some of them who were genuine dissenters were trying to find an avenue, a way to express their discontentment. “But there were others who were very clear that this was their chance to make money. There was crores of money coming in. And, a large majority of Salwa Judum leaders made a lot of money out of the situation. This whole thing was an operation and it was planned. A lot of government funds have gone into it. There has been no accountability in the public domain about how much money has been spent on it or is being continued to be spent on it. In terms of responsibility, I think the state has to bear it. Because even if the CRPF, IRB, individual forces or civilians participated in the initiative, they did so with some kind of understanding that the state was a part of it all,” she said and further added, “Whether they were ordered to do it or not, it was never questioned. So, there was some kind of impunity which was given to them. And, impunity is a part of the design. The state can decide at what point to continue to give that kind of impunity or at what point to pull the plug. If the state wants to do that, then the state can do that!”
In order to understand the current situation, she pointed out that one must take a look at what the forces have done in Kashmir and Nagaland. Over 100,000 people have been killed in both these regions where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was implemented. However, the armed forces enjoyed impunity in all these regions including Bastar. “There hasn’t been a single person who was pulled up or held accountable for what happened there. I have not come across anything in official records where an officer or anybody has done anything wrong. There have been multiple cases of rapes, torture and other human rights violations reported from each of these places. And, there is documentation on this,” she said.
Some of them eventually became Amnesty International cases. Many international human rights organizations besides the national ones have constantly raised these concerns and issues. There hasn’t been a single instance yet wherein the state stepped in to take any action against the perpetrators. “Therefore, it is a part of the larger design,” says Bela, “There are further questions to ask, of course. For example, what has this achieved? In Kashmir it hasn’t achieved anything. In Nagaland, it hasn’t achieved anything. Even, in Bastar, it has not achieved anything. And, in each of these cases, if you go back you’ll see there are roots to the conflict. There is a reason behind it historically. Secondly, people there didn’t take to the gun immediately. In Kashmir, till 1989, people didn’t take to the gun. In Nagaland again, till the late 1950s, people didn’t organize themselves in an armed manner. So, the point is that until these basic questions that give rise to the dissatisfaction that alienates individuals and communities are answered nothing will be solved.”
Over the next few months, we heard stories of the Naga and Mizo battalion wreaking havoc in the region during Salwa Judum. An altercation with a shopkeeper at one of the camps resulted in the tribal man being shot and abandoned on the road. There were serious allegations of sexual harassment and rape against the Mizo battalion. It was during that time that certain schools functioned as shelters for the police forces. Some narrated gruesome tales of pregnant women being murdered, breasts of women being chopped off and fetuses being suspended on doors. A man once confided in us that there were rumours of children born in certain hamlets that looked like they were from the North-Eastern parts of the country. They had no characteristic features of the local adivasis. We could not corroborate any of these stories.
Then and even now, the local government has had many district level forces that comprise tribal people as well as surrendered Maoists. Therefore, with respect to intelligence, they no longer required outsiders to help them identify locations or hideouts of Maoist groups or even locate particular individuals involved with them. “Currently, in some ways, whatever is going on is a part of ‘legal work’. It is legal counter-insurgency. However, back then this wasn’t there. That’s why the local government needed that kind of input from outside. Hence, whatever civilian forces existed there, as I said earlier, some of them had their own reasons for being unhappy with the Maoists. These people were gathered, and the local dissent garnered support from the state and the centre. It was then that Mahendra Karma became the leader of the Salwa Judum. He was at that time the leader of opposition in the state assembly. As a tribal leader too, he had a certain stature. Therefore, Salwa Judum became what it became. I think there is some truth in both sides. There were some cases of local dissent and as I said earlier Maoists can’t handle dissent. That, I would say is a great weakness of the movement,” said Bela.
Some believe that their intolerance stems from their survival being threatened to a certain extent. It is an underground movement, after all. Apart from arms and ammunition, their mode of operations is secretive in nature. Therefore, they aren’t in a position to take risks. “They believe that if you have some suspicion that someone might be an informant you might as well do away with him or her. But, the point is that how many cases will you handle in that manner and assume that there won’t be any counter-response? That person has a family too and even belongs to a community. Sooner or later, they will mobilise themselves when somebody supports them. Some Salwa Judum people have also mentioned this to me. They said that they were struggling against an armed force. So, they went to the police because they were unarmed. ‘Now, if we go to the police what mistake have we committed?’ they asked. They went to their own police force, and the state may have misused them. Again, we must remember that not all of Salwa Judum was an armed standing army,” she further explained, “ It was not like that at all. There were a lot of civilians involved who were unarmed. But, there were some people who may have been given arms. So, I think, if you are in their shoes, they have two options: either they side with the police and become one with them or they form their own army, their own group independent of the state in terms of identity even though they may have some nexus and all that. This is what the senas did in Bihar. So, there were caste based senas in Bihar as a response to Maoist struggle. There, for example, the Ranvir Sena is an organisation that is independent in some ways although it has close connections with the ruling party or the ruling parties.”
Owing to a few individuals, some believe that blanket statements about the entire Government structure being incompetent or malicious are often made which inevitably alienates good people in the ranks. “The aim is not to alienate anybody. In this case, you are drawing attention to the forces that some individuals have committed a crime. For example, in the rape cases, the soldiers had gone in four batches of let’s say 100 each. That doesn’t mean all 400 people were involved in the incident. The way such cases are taken up or perceived at that level is bothersome. They should take strict action against those who are involved. Instead they try to get back at us or portray to whoever is listening or reading that these people are falsely accusing them or labelling the entire police force or security forces in a certain way. This is done in order to deflect attention from the actual issue,” says Bela and further added that it also seemed as if there couldn’t be any interruptions in operations that could provide easy access to resources such as minerals, “They don’t want any defamation. That way, government operations, mining operations or corporate interests move forward uninterrupted. The whole point of view being made so far is that the forces’ morale will decline due to these inquiries. It is true this is a difficult area for anyone to work in. But the point is that whoever is working here is doing it as a duty. Now, in order to keep their morale up, should they get absolute impunity?”
While the state claim that they did whatever they could to adhere to the rule of law, Bela believes that one cannot dismiss the fact there is an armed combat between the two sides. Therefore, there is a military strategy involved. “At the same time, their argument is that they are doing all this for development. But in terms of development, what exactly is the state doing? It is true that there is a livelihood college that has been established in Dantewada. There are porta-cabins for displaced children from interior regions for education. Roads have been built in a big way. However, as far as the other kinds of rights are concerned especially those that are related to land and forests, and basic resources like minerals; you find that the state is not as committed to the interests and rights of the tribal communities,” says Bela.
She then explained how laws like the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act which is a historic and forward-looking law; which has huge potential to ensure sovereignty at the level of the adivasi population; which is necessary to be actualized especially because it is a fifth scheduled area, is not respected in Bastar. “Under normal circumstances, the governor has a lot of power, and is in fact one of the main officials in a 5th schedule area. However, here they don’t have that much say in matters but that shouldn’t be the case. The governor therefore is like a puppet official. It is the chief minister and that whole line of hierarchy that works here. PESA is an important law. So, is the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Additionally, I feel that the mineral policy needs to be revisited whether in Bastar or other adjoining areas like the tribal belt of Odisha, and everywhere else. It has to be done through non-violent means. There are lots of sanghathans and movements brewing where affected people have been questioning the Government as far as the mineral policies are concerned. The Government has to take stock of all that,” she says, “The minerals are not going away. You can always stop and take a pause. You can allow your people to speak, and hear them out; hear what the other possibilities are and so on. That way, you can reformulate your policies. But that is not happening. Instead what we see is that, without any accountability, without transparency, some of these things are being pushed.”
There’s a line of argument amongst both adivasis and other people residing in the region that although everyone is supportive of initiatives pertaining to education, not all view constructing roads till remote settlements as a sign of development and progress. In some cases, it may bring forth further exploitation as was observed amongst many tribal communities across the country. “It may not always be empowering,” says Bela, “At the same time, the fact that main roads and transportation services have improved considerably is also appreciated by the people. We can’t do all this at the cost of fundamental values. For, if you continue to not follow the law in totality as far as the land and forests are concerned, then the state’s existing policies will cause large scale migration and distress. So, where are the people left to enjoy the other kind of development such as electrification and roads? They won’t be there. As a result of this conflict, I think Bastar today has gone through what it has not gone through in its entire history. That’s the scale of crisis. We can’t even see it often because the whole social fabric is completely in shreds. In every single village, you have people that are firstly in many different places and secondly they are in different sides, and are dealing with violence.”
Hypothetically, if the state calls off its operations, Bela feels that the conflict may still not end quite easily. It will take another 10 to 20 years for things to get restored to some kind of normalcy. She fears there could be some fallout of the kind of violence occurring in Bastar. While the government ascertains that they are trying their best to contain the Maoist situation, they are adopting means that could cause further problems and result in alienation of people. “The government is merely paying lip service to progressive laws related to people’s basic rights, land, forest and their resources. Therefore, as far as those laws are concerned, the Government ignores them and instead then furthers the interests of corporate organisations. So, the people can understand to what extent the Government is really with them, and to what extent it is against them,” Bela explains.
Conflicts have always risen when people’s strong personal or absolute interests collide irrespective of the geographical location. During our conversation, we discussed who were the key players who perpetuated the conflict in Bastar and who stood to benefit from it. Bela strongly believes that in the long run it could be companies that are yet to make a presence in the region. “Currently, you are trying to gain access to the resources. Once the resource is available, there could be many other players on the scene. Therefore, on ground, there may be some people who will benefit from it all. There could be some business interests of people who are for example in the Samajik Ekta Manch but these are all small traders. There will be larger players. They may not be here right now but they will emerge,” she says.
Upon asking if the vested interests of corporate lobbying through government could be the driving force of the conflict, Bela explained that while economic and business interests exist, one cannot ignore the effects of economic globalisation. “That bit, of course, should be unearthed by someone who is good with economics,” she explains, “Then, there is this other part in terms of resistance. There is non-violent resistance. There are many non-violent struggles in all these adivasi areas and in the entire adivasi belt. For the state, it is very easy to contain a non-violent movement. The armed variety is in the shape of the Maoists. And, now Bastar is their headquarters.”
Although some argue that ‘business’ and ‘class’ interests might be channeled through current Government structures, one still cannot deny that the Maoists’ primary agenda of overthrowing democracy and installing communism has overshadowed their acclaimed philosophy of tribal welfare. If both sides allege development and welfare of the underprivileged, then why fight at all? Why has the war raged for decades? “I think the Maoists are trying to achieve a revolution. The battle ground is Bastar right now. But it is a larger struggle for them. The people of Bastar may not necessarily relate to that whole notion of revolution or Kranti. Because many of them may not really understand what that kranti is about or what it involves. Therefore, they might be in the fight in order to achieve some change in their lives every now and then. They may not be able to relate with a very distant goal. This is not only observed in Bastar but even elsewhere where similar revolutionary battles are waged, one often finds that the larger number of people who are in it may not be able to relate with that notion of Kranti. These are poor people. In some ways, this kind of revolution is done by city-bred people and the youth who have access to that knowledge, who understand what kranti is about, and who join it very clearly with that aim in mind. Sometimes, however, this isn’t the case. Therefore, on another level, it almost feels like cheating. And, that is uncomfortable,” she says.
While socio-political ideologies like democracy, communism and socialism are well constructed concepts on paper, it heavily relies on the assumption that human beings are utterly capable of functioning with honesty and sincerity. Another flawed assumption socialism and communism makes is that systems that place collective interest over individual interest can work. If history teaches us anything it is that foundation of any successful system has to be rooted in individual liberty and freedom. The failings of our current democratic setup can be attributed to human nature. While Maoists believe democracy has resulted in the complete failure of our system, and that reliance on communism will bring about change in society, they quite often fail to take into consideration the fundamental nature of human beings. There is ample evidence of human failure — that Maoists claim to be the failure of democratic bureaucracy — even in the Maoist ranks. Therefore, overthrowing a mode of governance and replacing it with a structure that is rooted in communism may resolve nothing. Based on our observations, we realised that what we require is in fact a silent revolution that encourages people to work on self-reform, to dig deeper within themselves and connect these issues on an individual level to the ‘source’ which is human nature. For, external revolutions tend to keep us going in loops.
“I think we need to work in all these different directions because structural changes are important as they allow for large scale changes to take place. Therefore, an effort of that nature is important. At the same time, alertness and awareness about the weaknesses of human nature and human personality is needed. So, we have to also work in that direction as well, and not condemn it as reform. There could be someone like Kabir or some other individuals who have contributed greatly to the advancement of human beings. Work on all fronts need to be appreciated. There is no need to be arrogant if you are engaged with one kind of work. For example, someone may work with physically challenged people. There are also people suffering untold agonies because they have some mental illnesses or other ailments,” she said and went on to explain, “Bahut dukh hai har jagah. Now, someone might be working with a leper. You condemn it by saying you are not bringing any structural changes. You are just working with one leper. But the point is that by taking care of that leper you are keeping compassion alive. You are keeping your responsibility as a human being alive. You are keeping many notions alive. You are trying to advance that person’s life. Therefore, you are trying to advance certain human values, certain human norms, and only by practising them can you keep it alive.
Although the present democratic system has many inadequacies, Bela explained that it is based on values and principles that humanity and human beings all over the world have fought for. There have been many sacrifices and deaths that have resulted in the freedom that we enjoy. Therefore, it is imperative that we hold the system accountable. “When we say we want a real democracy, we want to keep those norms and those principles alive. Therefore, we want a system that is based on these principles to be accountable towards those values. What has been written in the preamble of our constitution? If you are committed to justice, if you are committed to equality, if you are committed to freedom, if you are committed to liberty, we would want this inadequate democracy to be committed to that,” says Bela, “We don’t want to take human struggle backwards. We want it to go forward. Likewise, we want any group be it revolutionary (in their self-definition) or others to also be accountable to these norms. Sometimes, one may say that you belong to a certain ideology which is supposed to be more advanced than this existing inadequate system but you don’t respect these basic norms.”
Therefore, she believes, we must hold everyone accountable including our own selves to these fundamental norms, principles and human values thereby bringing us to the question of ‘ends’ versus ‘means’. “For instance, we are against collateral damage of the state in this war. However, there are civilians dying due to landmine blasts and pressure bombs too. But we barely raise any questions about collateral damage in that case. You will be able to hold both these sides accountable only if you are committed to those basic human values and you don’t want to support either side that takes us behind. If we fight for those basic principles, then we will condemn wrong doings on both sides. Otherwise, you will turn a blind eye to either one side,” she says.
Quite often, human rights activists have been taken to task for this biased behavior wherein authorities claim that their line of questioning is often focused on government action while they continue to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by Maoists. We wondered aloud if biased condemnation was indeed practised by activists and lawyers or was it the accustomed perception of human rights work that led to such accusations.
“No, I think it is an important question. And, it is not just the Government but there are other people in society who have been asking similar questions. Although, human rights activists may find them inconvenient, they have to address these questions. I feel they are valid. It is not always a question of evenness or maintaining a balance. That can’t be the objective. If there’s something wrong, then you must question it. I think, to that extent, it is true that outsiders whether activists or journalists may have not been able to reach out to those who were victims of Maoist violence. We have not gone to them. It is not due to inaccessibility. It is due to our own mental framework,” she says, “In some ways, in terms of magnitude, state atrocities definitely tend to be much larger. We should hold the state accountable. At the same time, there is also an argument that those who are victims of Maoist violence are attended to by the state. Therefore, we don’t have to look at them. Then, there are others who may believe that they are for the revolutionary movement. Therefore, they may willingly not want to look at it because they think that this kind of violence will happen, and there is a certain acceptance that comes with that.”
In case of the former, the state has its own weaknesses and limitations. As far as looking after the victims who bore the brunt of Maoist violence is concerned, it can’t be said that the state has always been sincere in its approach. “The state can choose to have its own response. What about us? The basis of our response cannot be dependent on whether or not the state is responding. We have to have our own response. And, we have to fashion our actions based on them. So, what do we have to say to these victims of Maoist violence? Are we to say: No, listen you must understand this is revolutionary violence! They are aiming at a revolution. Your deaths will happen, by the way. Try to look at the larger picture. Can we say that to them especially when a large majority of these people are from the same area? They are often people who are a part of those same villages. They are tribal. In terms of their socio-economic backgrounds, they are similar people.”
At 3 pm, Bela rose from her chair and offered to make us some upma. Save the chirruping birds that took flight in the distance, there was barely any sound that broke our reverie that afternoon. She returned with three plates, a while later. Somari leaned against the wall, and walked away languidly.
There were stories floating around of grievances, of difficulties that went unheard. Quite often, the villagers would narrate to us such tales where differences rose between the Maoists and tribal communities residing in the villages of Bastar. Every time they raised such concerns, they were attacked by the cadres. “There are many examples of this kind where the Maoists might have had a problem with one person and they took it out on the entire family. One person may become an SPO but the whole family has to face their wrath. Why should that be the case?”
While there have been no reported instances of rape by Maoist cadres, once in the midst of an argument some police officers told Bela that such incidents did occur. In Bihar, she recalls, an individual from CPI (ML) Party Unity mentioned to her about one such incident that involved someone from the Maoist ranks. “He was from the CPI (ML) Party Unity. This man was involved in the gang rape of a Rajput woman. So, they expelled him. In the mid 90s, there was an internecine contact between the ML groups and the MCC who eventually decided to take him in. Therefore, by admitting him into Maoist Communist Centre, they got a foothold in that village. That is something that I would object to. I think this is showing a very poor standard. If one ML group has taken action against him, then how can someone else just admit him for political expediency? That is the problem. Apart from that, I have not come across a case of that kind from those quarters. One has never seen mindless killings. However, sometimes one has heard things that couldn’t be substantiated,” she said.
Once, a lawyer confided in Bela about a case that she was handling wherein gruesome punishment was inflicted upon an individual. Apparently, there were nails hammered into someone’s feet. This was narrated to her by a villager who had heard the story. “I don’t know if this is true because we haven’t seen it ourselves. Recently, someone called me and told me about another person who had been picked up and put in prison earlier by the state simply because he spoke about what was happening in the area he lived in on national television. Apparently, his son had called for help quite recently because his father had received a death threat from Maoists! So, under what circumstance was this issued? What did the person do? This is something one would need to find out. Even if you go to his village, we cannot confirm that they would speak to us because they fear them,” she says.
Based on her observation, in certain instances, when Maoists accidentally kill civilians or target the wrong people, they have admitted to their mistakes in the past. However, many of the killings happen on a large scale. According to Bela, this in turn implies that such acts have a certain sense of acceptance amongst them. “For example, the man who killed Banda Patel, who has surrendered and is living in Bastar is now ‘accepted’. Banda Patel was killed under a policy and killing under that policy is fine according to them. Now, there is this practice of targeting sarpanchs. Once, a very senior Maoist person mentioned to me that some sarpanchs were targeted because they were seen as the lowest representative of the state. There have been similar deaths of SPOs. One man was targeted when he visited his village. He was on leave. There were a few cases like that in Bijapur. A man went to the stream nearby with his wife to fish or bathe. And, he was killed. Another person was targeted when he went to the market. They are not in combat. They are unarmed. Now, in such cases, do they (Maoists) apologise for killing them? I don’t know! I can’t remember whether they apologized or not. Even if he is an SPO, why would you pick him up and kill him when he is on leave? Also, if the state picks up somebody claiming that this person is a Maoist but in actuality he is not in uniform and doesn’t have a gun, then what evidence do they have? You are just picking that person up and framing them.”
Similarly, Bela had come across such incidents of murder when somebody was kidnapped in Bijapur in 2007 or 2008. She received a request from Vanvasi Chetna Ashram to help them. The social welfare organisation spearheaded by Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian Human Rights activist originally from Uttar Pradesh who lived in Bastar for more than 1.5 decades, worked towards empowering adivasis by spreading awareness on their rights, strengthening elementary education, healthcare service and protecting natural resources amongst others. Over time, as the organisation provided free legal aid and support to victims of Salwa Judum, Maoist violence and security forces, it invariably invoked the wrath of numerous groups. In 2012, a police force comprising more than 500 individuals surrounded the ashram and razed it to the ground with bulldozers.
That day, Bela says, apparently 20 people had taken lift in the vehicle that belonged to Vanvasi Chetna Ashram. They were trying to resettle some of the adivasis. So, they had brought their rice in one van. As the van returned from the village, they were stopped en route. The public distribution system (PDS) dealer and another man who were amongst the 20 people travelling in the van were kidnapped. “Himanshu Singh and Kopa Kunjam themselves tried to go and talk to them but they were surrounded. People were agitated. They said: ‘our people’ were in ‘your’ vehicle. Since I was in the area, they requested me to try and talk to a few people. But who do I talk to?” she asked, “In the villages, people were told to let go of whoever was kidnapped and that they hadn’t done anything. A dead body was found two or three days later.”
The PDS dealer who survived the ordeal was Dalit. He was picked up because one of his cousin brothers served as a Special Police Officer (SPO) in Bastar. They demanded that his brother leave the police force immediately. To that the dealer said to them: He is my brother but he comes from a different family. What do I tell him? They let him go.“But they killed the other guy. I saw his dead body. They had beaten him to death. What was his fault?” asked Bela.
He was an ex-Sarpanch and a BJP member. When the Salwa Judum rally had visited his area, he used their stage to speak to the villagers. “Now, speaking out is not a crime. Being a member of BJP is not a crime in a democratic state. One may not like the BJP but somebody might become its member and that doesn’t mean you kill them. Being an ex-Sarpanch also doesn’t warrant such punishment. He was killed for these reasons. And, this is a fact!” says Bela, “Even if somebody is corrupt, how can one resort to capital punishment? Sometimes, when a Sarpanch gets killed, you hear remarks like Oh! But he was corrupt! There are other ways to resolve corruption. While at the political level we are against capital punishment, at this level we allow all kinds of punishments to happen for minor issues! Everybody’s life is supposed to have equal value but that isn’t the case here,” she said.
As far as India is concerned, Bela believes our strength lies in our people. She doesn’t believe in organised violence. However, it is entirely possible that a person at an individual level, in particular situations, may resort to violence. “We may tell ourselves that we don’t want to but the truth of the matter is that even I don’t know how I would react in that particular situation or circumstance,” she admits, “Therefore, I feel at the ‘movement’ level while you may commit yourself to non-violence, I wouldn’t rule out that some violence may occur. Therefore, I find the idea of Shanti Mehta more attractive which is peacefulness as in you will try to maintain peace as far as possible. Therefore, the question of violence, in terms of organized violence, in terms of actually having a standing army, training and weapons, I am not for it. I like the symbol of War Resisters International: two fists with broken guns. Even for Bastar, that is what we need. We need to break these guns. The arsenal of the Indian state is huge. So, if one is trying to compete with the Indian state then it is a losing battle.”
At times, Bela would describe herself as a pacifist. For, violence can never be an ideal. It is only non-violence that can be an ideal for any society or future way of life. However, she also acknowledges that violence in her day-to-day life may be unavoidable. “Therefore, the way I describe it to myself is that I believe in minimum violence. Now, politically what does that mean? It is true that there is structural violence, and the brunt of the structural violence is borne by poor, subjugated communities. In our country, a very large part of these communities are the dalits and the adivasis. I respect their freedom to choose their own paths and their own methods. I have not suffered what they have suffered. I would like to say that I respect their choices,” she explains, “At the same time, as somebody who has observed and seen up close the fall out of violent methods, I feel there is a certain kind of a spiral that is inevitable. You think you are trying to solve one issue but you get entangled into something much larger, and it keeps going on. There seems to be no end to it. I think that’s the problem. Because, we are here to end things not create more problems.”
Once, on a visit to Japan, she came across a globe in a museum in Hiroshima. It had black pointers or markers for countries that had nuclear technologies. “It was a horrendous sight. It’s like the human race is out there to kill itself,” she said, “In some ways, the quality of the human being is so poor. When we look at our human history, how is it that we have not yet learnt such simple lessons about greed, power, selfishness and how these are the main tendencies behind these social evils? So, I think these are very old questions that we are trying to grapple with. Locations change, people change. Even in Bastar, we have crossed 10 years. There has been a lot of killing here. I can’t say what it has achieved. Who is going to win this war? I don’t think there are going to be any winners in this war. I think it is only people who are losing out. Their homes, their fields, their land: all that has been taken up as a battle front. Did they even realise at any given point in time when they welcomed the Maoists or anybody that this is what is going to happen on their land? Did anybody ask them? Were they given a choice? Are they in it willingly?”
Bela confided in us that she believed we need to find other ways to try and resolve existing issues; that there should be demilitarisation and it had to happen from both the state and the Maoist side. “I think there is a lot to fight for but all that can be done in open and democratic ways. By adopting those ways, you also have a chance for dialogue with those you are fighting with. It allows for a larger number of people to join you,” she said, “I would personally really want open and democratic movements to happen here where you don’t give in to fears of any kind, where you can be fearless and fight for your rights.”
“Because in the shadow of the gun, you can’t have peace…”
[PS: Names and identities of ‘points of contact’ and ‘interpreters’ changed to protect their privacy.]
(to be continued…)
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