Manish Kunjam: ‘Adivasis deserve peace! We must end this war. There should be a dialogue between us and them…’

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In late spring, the leaves changed colour. In some farmlands, we’d spot hues of yellow, red and ochre amidst trees in those places where the winds changed direction and brought rain. Flowers blossomed that month. Some withered and faded into creases of the soil. Sunk in the grass were fresh sprigs that sprung towards the end of summer.

Along the side of the road, one lonely afternoon, as we drove to Sukma from Dantewada, we spotted an old woman sitting by herself. Beside a large mahua tree laid piles of kosum and raw mangoes. She tucked one foot behind another. Her soles were cracked. With a faint smile, she offered us some chind from her bag as we stopped to buy some mangoes.

“Sukma is volatile. It always has been,” said one of the men we crossed paths with earlier that day. Skirmishes occurred in borders. There were troops constantly patrolling the forests and many more killed in encounters in the last few months. Military fatigues dotted the landscape and forests. Sometimes, we heard the echo of temple bells at a distant village.

The streets of Sukma wore a deserted look today. The town changed character in weeks, months and years. Dust whirled in the air and the alleyways swerved into tiny urban settlements where buildings had cropped up in the last several years. A year later, these roads were adorned with street lamps and large murals covered walls that housed massive structures.

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Manish Kunjam was no stranger to visitors. He gestured us to follow him into the hall. At this time of the day, there was no one around him. As the president of Adivasi Maha Sabha and an active member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), he was instrumental in raising his voice against oppression of adivasis and injustice meted to tribal communities of Bastar who had suffered the devastating consequences of prolonged war and conflict. In the few hours that we spent with him, that day, we discussed the strategic destruction of tribal ethos, ideological conflicts, human selfishness and the distant possibility of peace engulfing the lands of Bastar.

‘You were born here. You grew up here. Bastar has gone through an intense transformation over the years. And, you bore witness to it all. How was it different when you were young?’

My ancestors lived in Fulpad and before that in Hiroli. It’s the village right next to Kirandul. When we were young, there were far fewer vehicles plying on the road that has now been declared as a national highway. Buses came much later. We were weary of outsiders. Perhaps, we still are. When we would hear the distant honking of cars, we would scatter away into our homes. For, we feared they would abduct us and take us away from our families. This fear gradually disappeared over the years.

In the beginning, there were very few police personnel deployed here. In those days, people were afraid of pattedar and patwaris. If any villager gathered firewood from the jungle, the forest guard would fine him.

As the number of vehicles increased, distance between towns reduced. We didn’t have to walk for days anymore. My older brothers and sisters would undertake labour work and even helped in construction of these roads. Once, they stopped a truck passing by, and decided to travel to Sukma. They had never sat in a motorvehicle before. ‘It almost seems as if the tree is running towards you at great speed. Everything that’s distant comes closer at a rapid pace,’ she described her experience to me when I was younger. One day, as the same vehicle approached the road passing through our village, my siblings decided to take me along with them. ‘Look look over there,’ exclaimed my sister as the car swerved at a corner, ‘The tree is spinning.’ From Sukma, we walked back home which was 11 kms away. This memory from my childhood, I cherish deeply.

The first time I ever visited the market in Sukma was when the street lights were first installed in that area. There was a lot of buzz and excitement in our village. A pole that held a burning flame at the top; it feels as if night has transformed into day; a pole that dispels darkness: that’s how villagers would describe the event. It was the first time that people had seen artificial light. None of us had ever experienced anything like it before. It was during the day that I accompanied my brother to the market. He pointed at the street pole and explained that it lit up every corner at night.

Yes, everything has changed in Bastar. So, did we.
Our lives altered, our towns developed and our people changed at a staggering pace.

When I became an MLA, there were absolutely no cars on the streets. People who owned scooters were considered important. We didn’t own any cars or vehicles at all. We would walk or occasionally take the bus. When our family somehow managed to buy a motorcycle, I remember it was the only vehicle in Sukma for at least six months. There was no other automobile in sight.

Those were simpler times. Villages were administered as per rules set by the mukhiya (headmen). There were very few conflicts amongst us and we would first discuss it at the village level. In such cases or conflicts wherein both parties are not ready for a compromise or settlement, they would then be reported to the police station.

As observed in many cultures and communities, there were several malpractices within our society too. Some still exist even today. One of them pertains to weddings. There used to be a practice where men from a particular family or village would gang up against others. And, in their inebriated state, they would pick up women including their first cousins on many occasions. These incidents would occur during weddings or weekly markets. The women are then forcefully married off to the men. Sometimes, this would happen without consent or any dialogue with families. This was wrong. In this area, we were the ones who put an end to this practice. I was in 9th grade or 10th grade. This practice was unjust. We held dialogues with people in many villages, and if they continued to indulge in such harmful acts, we would catch hold of the men and beat them up. We were young back then. In a few places, several FIRs were lodged against such people. Some of them were also thrown in jail. Eventually, we managed to put an end to this practice here. Back then, there weren’t too many complications in dealing with issues in the village. People feared forest guards and patwaris. Nobody fears them anymore.

However, something else has taken their place. Fear still exists and looms large here. The police, army and Maoists continue to instill a sense of fear in villagers. Adivasis have been suppressed to an extent that no one utters anything anymore.

Nothing really can be said or expressed about Maoists within the villages. That’s the level of censorship, and ban on freedom of expression that is advocated here. If one expresses their discontent with them, the local representatives (sangam) will inform their respective leaders and the person could be tried in their jan adalat. such hearings result in gruesome death of tribal people. So, adivasis have stopped talking altogether.

‘Is it safe to assume that they took away their voice and their right to dissent much like those who came before them?

Yes. Now, if we have to talk about why and how Maoists created a strong hold here, we must understand what Maoism entails. We must learn the history of areas like Dantewada, Sukma, Chhindgarh and Bastanar including the regions surrounding Jagdalpur where the original inhabitants lived. There were no villages in areas like Gollapalli, Kistaram, Jagargunda (Konta), Basaguda and Bhairamgarh (Bijapur). There were dense forests trailing throughout these places. Back then, these areas were ruled by wild animals and creatures of the night.

Over the years, people would visit these jungles to hunt. Gradually, they migrated and built villages in the surrounding areas. These regions also had a reserve forest area which led to forest rangers, guards and dappedars being posted here. They wielded their power in these regions. Some police personnel would also partake in these activities. The officers and authorities visiting the area would ill treat adivasis and abuse them on a regular basis. Villagers who would go to build new villages were beaten up, extorted for money and forced to partake in labour work like chopping bamboo or clearing obstruction from roads without any pay.

Since the land belonged to the forest reserve, people assumed perhaps they would declare portions of it in their name in exchange for all the work they were forced to do. The atrocities and torture never stopped. The forest department officials would tie up village mukhiyas for two to three days in case they revolted against them.

There was unrest brewing amongst people. Around that time, the Naxals first entered these jungles. This was in 70s and 80s. They beat up forest officers. Some of the rangers even died. The atrocities reduced and vanished in its entirety. These officials feared Naxal cadres. They stopped entering the forests altogether.

The villagers worshipped these Naxals. They became their Gods. For the first time ever, they could proclaim their land as their own. That’s how these regions became a base for Naxals here especially alongside the borders of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Meanwhile, as students we were also fighting and raising our voices against exploitation of adivasis by these forest rangers/guards and police officers. However, we were not fighting with weapons, sticks or batons.

And, that was the difference between our fight and theirs. The Naxals were commanding with weapons and we had none.  However, the means that they adopted and their mode of fighting back then proved to be more effective at least for a short while.

Today, there seems to be hardly any impact of filing complaints or resisting through non-violent means. It is because of those events that they managed to create a strong hold in these areas, and the movement transformed into what we see today.

As far as villages are concerned, nothing really has changed in its structure. Post Salwa Judum and the integration of Maoists in the region, the villages started operating according to the Maoists. The role of Patels and Mukhiyas no longer ascertained any importance. They (Maoists) made all the decisions including which festivals would be celebrated and why.

With respect to police atrocities, there is nothing I can say that you don’t already know. I have always been fighting against it, against them. Salwa Judum destroyed a lot of things. Today, we might find people who would be willing to raise their voices against the police. However, Salwa Judum was a different time. In those days, our adivasis would barely go out on roads or streets. Villagers who belonged to certain areas couldn’t cross over to this side, and vice versa. That was the situation.

Nobody would go to the Salwa Judum camps. There was fear everywhere we looked. I remember the endless screams of people travelling in buses. It was quite an ugly spectacle: murder, gruesome killings, the way they chopped up those corpses. They burnt down homes of poor villagers. The reign of terror that prevailed in these regions; I remember it all.

What the central and state government had created in no ways could be considered a small incident. We fought back. And, now when I look back, I can’t believe that we managed to put an end to it. Some days, I wondered if it would ever end. Our compeers fought a brave battle. Nandini Sundar was of immense help with all court-related matters. The battle on ground was handled by people like us. Without a shadow of doubt, we fought back.

The time period between 2005 and 2012-13 was crucial for us. Around the same time, we were also waging a war against TATA and Essar. We fought several battles in those years.

‘What do you think was Salwa Judum’s purpose? And, how did it take the form that it eventually did?’

Well, it all began in Bhairamgarh, Bijapur. Some of my friends were posted as police officers there. We had a good unit in that area. Unfortunately, after Salwa Judum, nothing remained the same. I went to meet villagers who had fled from their settlements.

Some adivasis who lived on the other side of Indravati ran from their homes and crossed over to this side because of Naxals. They allegedly beat them up and killed many of their family members. They warned them to leave their villages. Some people were beaten up so badly that they were in no position to live there anymore. At that time, there were some ‘crucial’ people from these villages who had travelled to Bhairamgarh. I met 60-70 such people at the local police station. They were armed with bows and arrows.

I had a friend named Govardhan Thakur. He is an SP or Commandant today. We studied together. Once, when he was travelling from Bhopalpattinam, there was a bomb blast along the way. He barely escaped unscathed from the incident.

When I went to Bhairamgarh, I found him there. Upon hearing that I was in town, he expressed his desire to have a word with me. And, that’s how I met the adivasis who had fled their villages. This happened in May, and Salwa Judum began in June.

The police officers including the Sub-Inspector informed me that people in large numbers had travelled to Bhairamgarh. Where will they go? What will we do?! They have come with bows and arrows to fight. I had never seen anything like this before. This was new!

Since they arrived at the police station, the officers felt it was their responsibility to give them protection. I first met the villagers there. We spoke for a while. They told me everything that happened to them. I couldn’t ask them how long they planned to stay here. I couldn’t ask them what they planned to do now or if they wanted to go home. I didn’t have the heart to do so.

What could I tell them? They understood the situation in their villages far better than any of us. I couldn’t tell them: Go fight and reclaim what you lost. Bows and arrows can’t be the solution for AK47s.

I didn’t say anything. I met them, I heard their stories and I came back. That’s all I could do at that time. None of us could have anticipated what would have happened months later. At that time, I had asked the police officers to see what could be done without blowing this whole issue out of proportion. Everyone hoped to resolve this in the least violent manner.

When I went to the other side of the river, I realized that something was changing. That year, it barely rained. Our farms were dying. There was hardly any produce being sold. People were worried about their survival. Financial troubles had begun to take its course.

Moreover, there was no work initiated by the Government that could give them employment be it digging ponds, building roads or constructing bridges amongst other things that required manpower. They weren’t allowed to facilitate such work in these areas.

It was then that adivasis demanded answers from Naxals. Their frustration with them rose and gained momentum every day. ‘You aren’t letting us collect and gather any tendu leaves. No work facilitated by the government is allowed to happen here. So, how will we survive, and live? You come to us for food and rice. If we don’t have anything to eat, what will we feed you? They questioned them: those who had first set foot on these lands to fight for their rights. And, it spread from one village to another.

Dissent. It had begun within them, against them. The saviours were no longer worshipped.

It spread through villages in lands across the river. Of course, their intention was not entirely to oppose Maoists nor did they have anything to do with the form that Salwa Judum eventually took. They were unhappy, and felt that all their problems had risen owing to the presence of Maoists.

In the beginning, when Maoists first arrived and protected adivasis of Bastar from atrocities being committed by Forest rangers and police personnel, people residing here believed that they would fight for their rights. Do you feel that the nature of problems altered over time?’

Yes. The situation kept changing. And, now it has changed drastically. Back in 2005, resentment and angst stirred the villages into revolting against them. And, it spread from one settlement to another. People decided to have meetings and ask Maoist commanders why they were being subjected to atrocities. ‘Why were they doing this to us?’ that’s what we heard them say over and over again.

By then, political leaders including Mahendra Karma (Indian National Congress) caught wind of this wave of discontentment that was brewing in some sections of the Adivasi community. Undoubtedly, there were people against Maoist activities and their ways.

Some politicians held meetings in settlements. There was a huge gathering in places like Akwa. This whole movement commenced in villages situated between Bhairamgarh and Kutru. They called it ‘Salwa Judum’. Everything that ensued after its initiation has been captured by several people. It became a big story in itself.  If the discontentment and angst was addressed and managed at the village-level, it wouldn’t have resulted in the movement gaining momentum across the region. It was forcefully and deliberately expanded into other villages.

In the beginning, many young men who were initially working with Maoists joined Salwa Judum. They became Special Police Officers. When they were with Maoists they were notorious for wreaking havoc in tribal settlements and neighbouring villages. They switched sides and continued to partake in widespread destruction and violence.What happened later changed the ethos of Bastar forever. Images of burning villages, murders, lifeless corpses and people being beaten up senselessly were imprinted on our minds for years to come.

I don’t like to talk about it; the gruesomeness of the acts that followed the movement. Some tribal people were unhappy with the manner in which Maoists conducted themselves. That sowed the seed of anger and dissent in the villages. It eventually took a dreadful form resulting in widespread death, violence and destruction.

Leaders gave it a dreadful form.

After seven or eight months, we observed that such activities had commenced in Konta. They burnt down Arlampalli village. Mahendra Karma was present with the mob. The village was torched in front of him. They burnt it down twice. They set ablaze the settlements one day and returned the next day to burn whatever homes survived the fire. So, all this farce and acts of stupidity were enabled and allowed to happen by our own leaders.

Those who participated in the massacres were targeted and punished.Yes, it’s true. Maoist cadres killed Mahendra Karma.

‘So, the discontentment was politicised?’

To this day, I can’t say for certain whether it was politicised or not. It was an extremely destructive campaign. The resentment towards Maoists was taken out on common people. The adivasis bore the brunt of it all.

Those notorious cadres who troubled villagers constantly while being a part of the Maoist movement crossed over to the army’s side. Suddenly, they were a part of the system. Nothing stopped them from continuing to burn, loot and kill innocent villagers. These were people who claimed to stand for the welfare of tribal communities. They eliminated the poor not their troubles.

So many people were killed. You can’t even imagine the numbers. You can’t imagine the state of these villages. They were killed by their own. Human beings did this to one another. What do I tell you? This story can’t be narrated again. It musn’t be uttered ever again. And yet, we remember it.

I wasn’t sure what would happen to me, back then. The situation was worsening with every passing moment. There was no one save us standing in opposition. We fought against them fervently.

We could have been killed at any point by the police. Anybody could have attacked us. There were some attempts to cause us harm. We survived. In those days, I believe the collector and SP were decent human beings. They didn’t have much of a say in what transpired before them. They never mistreated me. Perhaps, that’s’ why I remained alive. If there were people like our then IG sahib (Kalluri), I would have been dead by now.

Development took shape in many forms here. According to you, how much of this development has had a positive impact on people and to what extent has it had a negative impact on tribal communities? How would you define development?

We can’t stop electricity from reaching our villages. We deserve to have light in our homes too. We shouldn’t stop construction of roads, ponds or dams. So, why would we stand against development? Progress and development have some negative aspects or facets as well. For instance, constructing ponds and dams inevitably result in displacement of thousands of people in the process. We lose our land, forests and water. We lose everything.

While several developmental activities may not result in massive displacement and migration of communities, it is contributing towards fundamental changes in culture and tribal lifestyle.

Education has barely been introduced here. There was a time when people couldn’t read or write. People like wearing modern clothes. Women have started wearing blouses. There’s a shift towards modernity which in a way is inevitable. With these changes seeping into our ethos, I feel a lot of our traditions will get left behind. Our cultural identity will be forgotten.

A lot of it is propagated through imitation of popular culture. There’s a warped sense of development instilled in young minds. They need new cell phones, television sets and fashionable clothes. Some young men who have graduated from high school believe they can’t be seen walking around anymore and need motorcycles. Bicycles may tarnish their reputation in villages. We have received numerous complaints over the years. In order to be able to afford to buy a motorcycle, they burden their parents to take loans.

There are a large number of children travelling to South India and doing odd jobs including labour work and construction. They are exposed to everything that the urban world has to offer. It changes them. Modernisation and rapid development might push us towards dealing with bigger problems.

Scores of tribal children go to school and some even manage to get a degree. Where will they work? Where will they go? There are no jobs for adivasis. They aren’t worthy, you see!

They can’t even run a small shop here. They can’t trade in forest produce or indigenous crops nor can they become contractors. They are incapable of farming in the villages. They have been away far too long! They can’t collect tora, mahua or tendu leaves. So, tell me what is this generation going to do?

With all the poignant traditional practices and customs fading away, numerous aspects of our tribal culture are decaying and dying. Boys are rejecting age old values. It is understandable if it’s merely a rejection of religious practices. However, they detach themselves from responsibilities and duties towards their home and community. As far as culture goes, this plays an integral role in defining nuances of a culture. Dances and songs alone don’t constitute culture. This is the unfortunate reality of development!

Both Government and Maoists claim they are working for tribal welfare! If both sides want the same thing, then why is there so much suffering amongst tribal communities? Why is there conflict to begin with?

You are correct. This is a fundamental question that needs to be answered within the context of Bastar. Maoists are not working for tribal welfare. They never have. In all Maoist literature and writings, there is no talk about adivasis. It’s a different matter that they are working in adivasi areas. They have bigger goals and fundamentally they don’t really align with the larger adivasi agenda. However, they do claim that they stand with tribes.

Government works in similar fashion. I don’t see anyone truly working for the welfare of tribal communities here. Someone was talking about PESA [The Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA is a law enacted by the Government of India for ensuring self governance through traditional Gram Sabhas for people living in the Scheduled Areas of India]. PESA was formulated in the parliament by the government. It is being implemented by different people on ground.  A few people are making an attempt in Gadchiroli too. Yet here, nobody talks about this rule at all. All activities are carried out in these regions by completely avoiding this rule.

So, what then is the meaning of development? Does it revolve around employment and jobs? Adivasis gain nothing from corporations and their empty promises. However, nothing reaches the adivasi community. Whatever money is accumulated in Bastar remains with businessmen, officers, contractors, middlemen or agents.

Our adivasis do not occupy positions of importance. Therefore, all the money is circulated between such people alone. These contractors have barely finished high school while we have many young adivasi men who have a degree. We got them registered. However, the local contractors refused to let them into their circle.

Our prime minister’s budget (in 2016) sanctioned 2000 crores to encourage entrepreneurship among SC/STs. What about our tribal communities? Where do we belong? Who are we encouraging by offering such schemes?

Crusher plants are all located in and around Jagdalpur. They are owned by big businessmen who reside in those regions. Even in villages 50 or 60 kms away from main towns, mines and plants are all owned by outsiders. Who gives them these contracts? How do they manage to claim ownership of these mines? Nobody knows. There are more than 300 such plants and not one is owned by an adivasi. There are many within our community who can take up such responsibilities. The authorities can hand over operations to a group of 7 to 10 people and help them with bank loans. However, the only people who are benefitting from everything that remotely resembles pathways to development are outsiders. Moreover, those adivasis who become MPs and MLAs don’t worry about their own community at all. They stuff their pockets and grease their palms all the while ignoring tribal development and welfare of communities.

The entire tribal leadership is caught up in this game. I recently learned that the situation is similar in Jharkhand and Odisha. Our regions are rich in forest reserves, natural resources and minerals. Therefore, larger and smaller companies often set foot in these lands in order to mine whatever they can. It is easy for them to mislead our adivasi leaders.

This frustration with our leaders and discontentment with whatever is happening around us will spill over and expand into these regions. It was adivasis’ anger towards Maoists that resulted in Salwa Judum. They were misguided into believing that there are people in the system who care for the welfare and rights of tribal communities.

The modus operandi of Maoists is also extremely objectionable. People don’t utter a word due to fear. However, the truth lies before our eyes.

The fundamental concept of 5th scheduled area is that tribal people should be empowered with protection. PESA ensures that the tribal community will have ownership of resources in their lands. There is barely any respect or regard for these rules. The 5th schedule area rules too have been desecrated here. When then will the adivasi rise and progress? How will we survive?

Have you ever raised questions pertaining to 5th schedule area laws not being upheld in these regions before the Government?

They are now constructing a concrete road from Sukma to Konta. They have also set up a plant in my village called Ramaram. Our red soil meant for our farmlands is being transported elsewhere. They didn’t seek permission from anyone to dig up our lands.

I was perplexed that such events transpired in my own village. I asked the village Sarpanch to write a letter to the collector informing him that these activities were illegal. We told him that we would organise Gram Sabha on a particular date and urged him to partake in the event or send a representative.

The mining officer and CEO attended the event where they were rebuked by everybody. They sought permission from us to continue projects assigned in these regions and we refused them. Not once did they believe it was appropriate or necessary to consult tribal communities before commencing work here. We passed a motion to stop all activities effective immediately.

The work never stopped. They continued to dig up our lands and destroy our forests. The collector had complete knowledge of all the activities that proceeded despite protests against them.

We didn’t stop them this time. Yes, we decided to let it happen. If we opposed, we would have been declared as Maoists. If we stood against construction of roads, they would have thrown us in jail.

For a moment, we gave up.

Meanwhile, the lease of the company that was handling all the work expired and their tender could not be renewed. The notorious and petty contractor was selling loose rocks here and there illegally. We filed a complaint against him and informed the collector who refused to accept any formal complaints. I remember that day. All the villagers had accompanied us including the Sarpanch and Janpad president.

We had several arguments with the collector. “What are you here for?” we asked him. It didn’t matter to him. He refused to accept any written complaint. He was in a foul mood throughout the conversation. He left and so did we. Later, as we realized no one was paying any heed to our troubles, I released a statement in the local newspaper.

Reena Kangale was the Dantewara Collector at that time. She was fine with me. I sent her a message asking her to pay attention to illegal activities in these areas. She sent a team in order to conduct a raid on work sites. Everything stopped soon after.

In a while, Vivek Dhand who was the Chief Secretary of the state arrived here and stayed for a day. Work resumed within a few days. There were no discussions with tribal communities whatsoever.

Once again, we passed a motion stating that all activities must cease in this region. We sent the application but nothing happened. We held meetings with every officer except the collector. They ordered our representatives to issue No Objection Certificates. Some of those officers were tribal representatives. I yelled at them. “What are you guys here for? Why are you betraying your own people?” The zila panchayat CEO and additional collector too was present that day.

The police sides with those who are powerful and influential. Your monetary worth determines your role here. Despite proof, formal complaints and legal proceedings, work never stopped.

They continue to intimidate us, bully us.
Since last February, we have been demanding for tribal autonomy for Bastar under laws pertaining to 6th scheduled areas. We made an honest effort to educate people about fundamental issues prevalent here.

Since then, the police have been interfering with our rallies and processions. They have been infiltrating our gatherings and chanting slogans including calling us Maoists and terrorists. This continues even today. We carried out a procession against unjust practices prevalent in Bastar recently. You might have heard about the army of vigilantes who staged an attack against us during the event.

Whenever we make an attempt to do something, the police try their best to get us embroiled in cases. Most political parties have no interest in matters of tribal welfare. This is the reality of Bastar.

‘In accordance with the situation in Bastar, and based on our observation on social structures, adivasis are often placed at the bottom of any hierarchical structure. With respect to economic structure, farmers occupy the lower rung of society. Therefore, one can draw parallels between the plight of farmers and tribal communities who are being exploited not just by the government but the entire social system. Would you agree that the situation with the adivasis of Bastar can be viewed with a similar understanding?

Yes, absolutely! It should be seen this way. Agriculture is the backbone of our nation. We have now reached our point in society where those who feed us are committing suicide. Unfortunately, you will see such indifference towards adivasi community too.

Most of the resources in our country including water, iron ore mines, coal and forests belong to adivasis: the original inhabitants of these lands. No one needs to teach tribal communities how to live in harmony with nature and the importance of co-existence.
There were laws written for us. However, we have nothing. Do you understand our pain?
We are being displaced and chased away from our own lands.

United Nations too had intervened many years ago and devised key points that need to be addressed pertaining to issues faced by tribal communities. Nobody follows them. Our country was one of the key signatories on that bill [The UN Declaration calls on nations to ‘respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources]. However, merely signing the bill means nothing. Here, in our lands, we fail to honour our own constitution.

For instance, in Ramaram, we managed to stop illegal work albeit for a short while. We can never truly put an end to it. If we do, several people including me could be booked under Chhattisgarh Vishesh Jan Suraksha Adhiniyam, 2005 and other acts that could bring us harm; that would be a dangerous situation for any of us to deal with.

‘Forest Rights Act was implemented not just in Bastar but in numerous tribal areas across the country. According to you what impact has this Act had on the life of tribes? Do you also feel that in some ways the act resulted in forests being taken away from tribal communities?’

Every movement in and out of Bastar is monitored and controlled by forest officers and not just Maoists. Even before Maoists first arrived in our lands, adivasis punished forest officials and those who wronged them. Perhaps, that’s one of the reasons why they don’t have the courage to ban villagers entirely from entering any particular region. People move freely within regions declared as ‘National park’ to collect firewood and other forest produce. There is absolutely no restriction.

In areas that are controlled by Maoists, there is prohibition and restriction on cutting down trees and destruction of forests. Wherever they declare their base, one can’t chop anything without their permission. They have even denied people the right to maintain home gardens (badi) for that would entail clearing a small patch of land.

This in fact is the work of the forest department. It is the Maoists who are fulfilling their duties instead. Unfortunately, without such restrictions, people wouldn’t appreciate the concept of forest reserves. ‘This doesn’t belong to me. So, why should I take care of it?’ It is this mentality that results in destruction of our forests and land. It is this cultural degradation that perhaps we must pay attention to.

Wherever we have created large clusters of teakwood plantations, large portions of the forests have been cleared. Teakwood is cut and used for construction of homes. They sell it in larger cities. The primary reason for such behavior is the lack of respect we have today for our forests.

‘Many cases have come to light wherein security forces who are entrusted with the responsibilities of protecting common people have become agents of exploitation: mental, physical or resource-based. You have been a part of the on ground struggle in the region since the beginning. According to you, why are we witnessing recurring cases of violence perpetuated by the forces whose responsibilities include protecting tribal communities?’

There are two or three factors that one must consider while analysing the situation. Our country has paramilitary forces like Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Border Security Forces (BSF). And, these forces think along the lines of ‘nation’. They are patriots. There are cases of sexual exploitation against some jawans who are a part of these forces. In any group, there will always be a few people who might take advantage of their position and power.

Our tribal people are also inducted into the armed forces. Recently, they created the District Reserve Guard (DRG) wherein several men and women were recruited by the army. Earlier, Koya commandos and Special Task force (STF) too had many young tribal men in their team. Most of the accusations including sexual assault and rape can be attributed to some of the local boys who joined the armed forces.

One could observe such instances in Pedagallur and Belamnendra. Even during Salwa Judum, there were incidents of rape and looting reported in villages. Armed soldiers barged into homes, looted families and burnt down their huts and farmlands. Some stole money from vulnerable families. Even today, one will hear such incidents occurring in settlements.

Several complaints were lodged against men who had just left the Maoist ranks and joined the forces. They were pardoned and inducted into the army by the government. Therefore, we must place the blame on people who have wronged their own community.

In the testimonies of women who spoke about devastating incidents that ensued in Pedagallur, they mentioned that there were some men who spoke in Gondi. Some spoke in Telugu. There were similarities in statements of witnesses recorded in Belamnendra too. In the case of national forces, one could argue that many serve the nation and uphold principles of patriotism. However, most of these ‘local’ boys recruited by the DRG and STF were low-level Maoist cadres who perhaps held some ranks at the Sangam level. They crossed over and became commandos. They were notorious for breaching trust and faith of adivasi communities even when they were an active part of Maoist groups functional in the area. Nothing really has changed. They continue to partake in destruction and cause immeasurable harm to tribal communities residing here.

It is imperative that we pay attention to this phenomenon. Unfortunately, Government does not have any control over what is really happening on ground. Once there was a surrendered Maoist cadre who along with another young man raped some girls who were students in a nearby town. An FIR was registered against them. The entire Dantewara district was shut down forcefully. Back then, all these regions belonged to one district. There were intense protests against the shameful act. The situation was worsening everyday. The men were thrown in jail. They were released a while later. That’s a different story altogether.

These men were former Maoist cadres. They surrendered and joined the police forces. They committed the heinous crime.

What happened in Peddagellur and Belamnendra stirred the core of Bastar in the last few months. These are the people we are dealing with: those who have no morals. Government is unable to control police personnel. They don’t want to take any action against them for the police and government believe they are crucial assets in their attempt to wage a successful battle against Maoists. They have abundant knowledge of the area and groups active in the region. Therefore, the authorities believe that if any action is taken against them, it will demoralise such cadres who have surrendered and joined the system.

And that’s why I believe we might never see justice in these lands. Our poor adivasis will continue to suffer. Forces were deployed at the borders. And, there were constant reports of entire villages being raped and plundered. There was no legal action taken against them. Nobody paid any heed to Justice Verma Committee’s report. Similarly, nothing will happen here too.

It is another matter that we are protesting against it. Unless there is any action taken against these criminals, such incidents might continue to occur in the future as well. These men were up to no good even when they were a part of the Maoist movement. Some of them were thrown out by their commanders for violating rules and ethics. These are the bad elements of society who continue to partake in unjust and violent activities.

A lot of these issues are created by people who execute their own will and break rules on ground. One can observe such similarities in the Maoist ranks as well as the police and army. Maoists are a problem. There’s no doubt about that. I can’t say for certain if they truly follow their ideology.

What I hear on ground about their proceedings makes me question who they are and what they believe in anymore. They abandoned their ideology a long time ago. They claim to work towards tribal welfare but do you know that they levy fines and collect payments from adivasis whenever they please?

Right now, it is tendu season here in Bastar. So, they will collect five bundles of tendu leaves from every household. Every home has to pay them Rs 500. One bag of Mahua from every harvest has to be handed over to Maoist cadres.

Tell me, how are they any different from the monarchs or British rulers who walked these lands and suppressed us? These people have taken it a step further. Under the pretext of garnering support, they loot naïve adivasis. Maoists feel we mustn’t raise our voices against them. However, we have to talk about our reality, about what is perpetuated in the name of adivasi welfare in these lands. We must talk about what’s right and what’s wrong.

The Maoist leaders at the top level have absolutely no control over their soldiers on ground. And, just like the military they believe if they were to reprimand their soldiers, not only would they lose support but tribal people might turn against them,

The problems that exist with Maoists persist in Government too, and vice-a-versa.  And, the common people, the adivasis are the real victims here.

I am saying this without any hesitation that the presence of Maoists here has also given the Government an opportunity to completely destroy this region. And, Maoists will never understand this. Today, they feel accomplished by preparing Adivasis to wage war against systems and fight battles. However, the truth of the matter is that they have not done anything for Adivasis.

When the Maoist movement ends in Bastar, when they become redundant here, major leaders of the regime will move away.

How long will this movement last? No one can say for certain. Such movements have not lasted anywhere in the world. And, it’s not because of the presence of armed forces in the region. It is a matter of principles, of what you believe in. Revolutionary movements that once claimed to change the face of justice in the world where the suppressed would no longer plead to be heard have wilted away. How many people sincerely abide by communist ideologies today? If they have genuinely dedicated themselves to communism, why then are surrendered Maoist men and women joining Telugu Desam Party, Congress and Telanga Rashtra Samithi? Do they still believe in communism?

It’s strange, isn’t it?

Communism or Democracy or Socialism will not work unless people are honest and sincere. Corrupt people create corrupt systems.

These ideologies and principles have been reduced to mere discussions and ideological debates. Nothing else! Most surrendered Maoist leaders today are a part of popular political groups that they once stood against. Why?

This has all turned into a big sham in the name of ‘ideology’. It brings us grief endlessly to witness this everywhere. Some people residing in this region believe that Bastar should continue to remain a battleground so that outsiders continue to visit ‘conflict’ zones, witness atrocities, report about it and earn a name for themselves in Delhi, London and Tokyo.

This is our truth. This is the reality of Bastar. Adivasis are dying. Their lives are being destroyed. There is no ideology here! There is nothing! Government is destroying our forests and land under the veil of waging a war against Maoists.

All Adivasi movements that cropped up in these regions as a result of revolt were suppressed by the Maoists. The self-confidence in Adivasi consciousness was destroyed by them and whatever little was left of it was destroyed by the government.

We have our officers posted here who shamelessly declare: either take our side or theirs. Don’t’ get stuck in between. Don’t be an adivasi.

I have witnessed such treacherous acts myself where our identity is reduced to nothing.

‘If anybody ought to talk about the welfare of adivasi community without being political in any sense, they are immediately labelled as Maoist sympathisers. Do you think this is an immature approach or is this a well-thought out strategy to silence people?’

Yes, this is a way to silence people! This is not an idea that was discovered here or nurtured on ground. This is a high-level strategy: one that labels anyone who raises questions as a Maoist supporter/sympathiser. The ‘slandering’ and deliberate shaming is a regular occurrence. The blame game never stops and the intention is to keep torturing them until they break some day.

One can say with certainty that the tribal communities are not supportive of Maoists’ gruesome ways, of their bloodshed and their violence. It all comes at the cost of adivasis. It’s a different matter that tribal communities are neither in support of the Government forces nor the Maoists.

Fabricating facts and displaying Maoist support for the welfare of Adivasis is a way of disconnecting the common people — who want to put an end to all of this, who want peace; people who are against Maoist ideology — from the discourse. It is disconnecting them from people. There are many who feel this way.

‘We believe that any conflict is primarily a result of conflict between selfish interests of parties involved! Usually, any such disagreement can be resolved if there is a will for working towards a resolution. Why do you think this conflict in Bastar has not been resolved yet? Is it because there are vested interests of influential people in the Government, on the Maoist side and also elements in civil society like settlers who are contractors or businessmen?’

The Adivasis do not benefit from this whatsoever. However, the two major sides can have vested interests in conflict. So, can the settlers! There’s an immense amount of funding that is channeled into Bastar in the guise of fighting against the Maoist movement that is never audited. It is all a scam and there is rarely any action taken against the perpetrators. So, one can imagine what happens to funds that aren’t required to be audited by law.

One police barrack can be built with Rs 50,000-60,000. I have heard that the cost of a barrack is shown as 5-8 Lakhs in records. The tender is usually handed over to someone from UP or Bihar. A local person will be involved in the construction process while money is pocketed by top-level officials. All these scams are running within the police department. There are thousands of people who become police informants in these regions. A lot of money is pumped into these initiatives wherein informants are listed in reports. Who will crosscheck these names anyway? This is one way money is being swindled by corrupt officials in Bastar in the name of conflict.

There are a lot of contractors, shopkeepers and traders here who conduct their businesses in these areas. They are all in touch with Maoists directly or indirectly. The police is well-aware of their dealings and movement. So, the police accept bribes while Maoists collect money from all these people. This region has transformed into massive centers for money collection. It’s all a game, you see!

From the time of Nizam in Hyderabad to N T Rama Rao, everyone has had an eye on South Bastar. They demanded to include the region in Andhra Pradesh. Formal attempts to pave way for such a transition lasted several years. Nobody succeeded! However, this entire region is under the control of people from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana whether it is armed cadres in military fatigues on this side or the other. They continue to rule over Bastar. And, this is the truth.

Many contractors are from Andhra Pradesh. Be it dealing with construction of roads or gathering Tendu leaf, all trading and business are usually handled by them. Maoist commanders and most of our leaders in the police department belong from these regions too. While the Nizam and N T Rama Rao didn’t succeed in merging these areas into these states, one can argue that the entire region is under their control in one way or another.

We can definitely make this observation! This is a democracy and I have the freedom to say what I see. If these words were uttered before Maoists, it would irk them to no end. In the history of communism, and perhaps world in general, many people have been punished for speaking the truth. So, we will face whatever we need to. There is no problem. I will continue speaking the truth, and expressing whatever I witness it before my eyes. If I didn’t see it myself, perhaps I wouldn’t have spoken about it.

‘In the past few weeks, we went to Kirandul, Bacheli and Akashnagar. We got to see mining operations. We also went to the neighbouring villages, settlements and spoke to farmers there so that we could understand both sides of the story. Raising your voice against unethical and irresponsible mining practices has been a big part of your awareness efforts in Bastar. Can you tell us about your experience in dealing with these issues?’

 

We have fought a lot in Bailadila over the years, and continue to do so.  One of the observations that people make upon visiting these areas is the stark contrast between homes of NMDC employees and adivasis who reside in these regions. There is a world of difference here. Why?

NMDC has been transporting iron ore from Bastar for more than 50 years. When the government talks about development, Kirandul and Bailadila are often set as model examples of progress. What impact has it had on the Adivasis? Has it made any positive or negative difference to their lives?

In Bacheli, how many children have graduated high school? You might find one or two boys who have probably completed their 12th grade. In the neighbouring villages, you might not find anyone at all. Have you seen their homes? They live in huts. They struggle for water. They don’t have roads. They don’t have electricity. Is this development? Their children cannot get a decent education.

Today, everybody wishes to fire bullets at these young tribal men and women. Instead of going to school and carrying books, our children are doing odd jobs including going to the forests and selling firewood. They give up school at a very young age. They make mahua and sell it at the weekly markets so that their families can afford to eat. This way their families wont starve.

Is this the development that NMDC and the government speak about? This is the situation just outside their campus. Can the progress of a few political leaders and officers be equated with development of tribal communities? The situation is no different in Sukma.

Sukma is fundamentally a tribal village. It has transformed in front of us. The tribal communities residing here live in 4 to 5 paras. The oldest village here is called Suknar. There are around 80 to 90 families living there. Not one child has passed 10th or 12th grade.

Development should have a decent impact on our society. If you travel 5 to 10 kms in and around Jagdalpur, you will not find any well-educated tribal children there. The situation around Bailadila and Sukma is perhaps similar too.

This model of ‘development’ that we witness results in bigger buildings, better cars, electricity and everything associated with urban life. In many ways, there’s nothing wrong with it. However, rather than having a positive impact on our lives, it has resulted in people suffering from alcohol addiction and communities being destroyed.

This is propagated by ‘modern’ people and our illusionary idea of ‘modernity’.

Adivasi people are unable to cope or comprehend what their role is amongst the blinding glitz and glamour. They are unable to differentiate between right and wrong. This is not good for all adviasi communities.

When we oppose industries and mining activities, people assume we are against development. That is not true! Perhaps, if they take a glance at the situation of tribal people in such areas where industrialisation and mining take place, they would understand a little better what our concerns are.

We never get answers for our questions. But their questions are printed in bold letters in newspapers.

As a part of Adivasi Mahasabha, you had put forth 10 demands in 2010 about getting compensation for diseases caused by mining-related contamination of water, air and soil as well as building a school with the capacity of 1000 students, health benefits etc. How many of these demands have been met by the Government?

Nothing has been done yet. We put forth these demands much before 2010. They were also asking for 2500 hectares of tribal land in Dhurli, Bhansi. We fought against them. Essar couldn’t do anything there.

We informed the government and the chairman of NMDC that two generations have gone by and they haven’t done anything for our communities. You have money and such great profit margins. Why not build a model school for children living in 10 to 20 km radius of the facilities? Why not create something with exceptional teachers and ensure that tribal children get quality education?

However, NMDC is not ready to listen to any of our suggestions. In Javanga, they created an education hub that is nothing but a sham.  They constructed a few ashrams (hostels) and schools. Large buildings do not necessarily translate into better education. We asked for several things. One member of every family affected by mining must be provided employment with NMDC. If not, families should be given appropriate compensation. We demanded that they allocate at least Rs 5000 per family towards this cause.

We managed to halt operations and stop projects from being implemented in the region several times over. This has been the trend with any government regardless of political affiliation. It doesn’t matter who comes in power here. No rules are ever followed!

After the then Sukma DC Alex Paul Menon was abducted and held in captivity by Maoists, the government decided to set up a high-powered committee to review some of the cases levelled against prisoners in jail as soon as he was released amongst other things that led to the unfortunate incident. The government was also supposed to work towards addressing the root cause of the problem prevalent here.

Did they manage to bring about any fundamental changes? No.

On May 9, 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited soon after winning the election. He signed the MOU for SAIL and NMDC to set up a mega steel plant in Dilmili. At that time, our padyatra was in progress. There was a lot of opposition to our proposal and demands when the yatra reached Dilmili and Jagdalpur.

Some big meetings took place where 30,000 to 40,000 people had gathered at once discussing the project. Newspapers also published several stories about the gathering.
We assumed that nothing was happening from the government’s side for the longest time. We didn’t realise that surveys and other internal processes were already underway. There was no field work happening but records were moving. On January 26, 2016, the Chief Minister’s message for the common people mentioned Dilmili.

Since the MOU was signed in presence of the prime minister, it wasn’t easy for them to drop the project. The nation’s economy has been on a downward slope for the last few years. So, these projects didn’t really gather momentum.

Perhaps, one of the primary reasons for handing over the project to SAIL and NMDC was that when companies like TATA and Essar set foot here they were met with strong resistance and protests. The plants running by NMDC and SAIL are perpetually running in loss. They can barely undertake construction of one road connecting regions here let alone using profits for development and betterment of tribal society.

Therefore, the possibility of these organizations setting up successful plants here is slim. This is one way of grabbing adivasi land and forests.

Government hasn’t given up on their plans just yet. Things are merely moving at a slower pace. At the moment, no private company is ready to invest anywhere in the country.  While some might claim that the economy is showing drastic improvements, no organization is in a position to invest 8,000 to 20,000 crores in any project.

Everyone’s waiting for the opportune moment!

Do you think Bastar will ever see peace in our lifetime? And, what is necessary for the peace to be established?

Our hope is pinned on people!  This fight is for them. I believe adivasis will realise this one day or another!  Maoists have been working here for the last 30 to 32 years. They have shaped the minds of an entire generation. Therefore, the movement may not dissipate in immediate future. The only option we have is to fix everything. We need to engage in meaningful dialogues with one another.

The government often declares that that they won’t indulge in any conversation with the Maoists. If our ministers are ready to come forward and have a discussion, Maoists need to pay heed to them.

They can’t take over Delhi with a few Adivasis from Bastar. It is impossible to do so! They can’t overthrow an entire system. Why should we allow these conflicts to exist? Why should we let them destroy Adivasi regions? How much more bloodshed will these lands witness? They should come forward and partake in peaceful dialogue.

There were a lot of conversations after Alex Paul Menon was abducted. At that time, I offered suggestions on the possibility of dialogue between Maoists and the Government. After hearing our point of view, the then Chief Minister shared that they were ready for talks. His message was delivered to them through newspapers and television.

There was no reaction from Maoists whatsoever. We must put an end to this. The war must end. Adivasis have suffered enough in these lands. They deserve peace! There should be a dialogue between us and them.

Then, we can hope for peace some day…

[PS: Names and identities of ‘points of contact’, ‘sources’ and ‘interpreters’ changed to protect their privacy.]

(to be continued…)

Rest of My familyis a non-profit social-work-through-art project. If you like our work, and wish to support it, you can help us continue by donating here.

Through  ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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