The terse, typewritten note slipped under my door in a sealed envelope confirmed my appointment with India’s Gravest Internal Security Threat. I’d been waiting for months to hear from them. I had to be at the Ma Danteshwari mandir in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, at any of four given times on two given days. That was to take care of bad weather, punctures, blockades, transport strikes and sheer bad luck. The note said: “Writer should have camera, tika and coconut. Meeter will have cap, Hindi Outlook magazine and bananas. Password: Namashkar Guruji.”
Namashkar Guruji. I wondered whether the Meeter and Greeter would be expecting a man. And whether I should get myself a moustache.
There are many ways to describe Dantewada. It’s an oxymoron. It’s a border town smack in the heart of India. It’s the epicentre of a war. It’s an upside down, inside out town.
Red Shadow: Centenary celebrations of the adivasi uprising in Bastar; Sten gun at hand
In Dantewada, the police wear plain clothes and the rebels wear uniforms. The jail superintendent is in jail. The prisoners are free (three hundred of them escaped from the old town jail two years ago). Women who have been raped are in police custody. The rapists give speeches in the bazaar.
Across the Indravati river, in the area controlled by the Maoists, is the place the police call ‘Pakistan’. There the villages are empty, but the forest is full of people. Children who ought to be in school run wild. In the lovely forest villages, the concrete school buildings have either been blown up and lie in a heap, or they are full of policemen. The deadly war that is unfolding in the jungle is a war that the Government of India is both proud and shy of. Operation Green Hunt has been proclaimed as well as denied. P. Chidambaram, India’s home minister (and CEO of the war), says it does not exist, that it’s a media creation. And yet substantial funds have been allocated to it and tens of thousands of troops are being mobilised for it. Though the theatre of war is in the jungles of Central India, it will have serious consequences for us all.
If ghosts are the lingering spirits of someone, or something, that has ceased to exist, then perhaps the new four-lane highway crashing through the forest is the opposite of a ghost. Perhaps it is the harbinger of what is still to come.
In Dantewada, the police wear plain clothes, the rebels wear uniforms. The jail superintendent is in jail; the prisoners are free.
The antagonists in the forest are disparate and unequal in almost every way. On one side is a massive paramilitary force armed with the money, the firepower, the media, and the hubris of an emerging Superpower. On the other, ordinary villagers armed with traditional weapons, backed by a superbly organised, hugely motivated Maoist guerrilla fighting force with an extraordinary and violent history of armed rebellion. The Maoists and the paramilitary are old adversaries and have fought older avatars of each other several times before: Telangana in the ’50s; West Bengal, Bihar, Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh in the late ’60s and ’70s; and then again in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra from the ’80s all the way through to the present. They are familiar with each other’s tactics, and have studied each other’s combat manuals closely. Each time, it seemed as though the Maoists (or their previous avatars) had been not just defeated, but literally, physically exterminated. Each time, they have re-emerged, more organised, more determined and more influential than ever. Today once again the insurrection has spread through the mineral-rich forests of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal—homeland to millions of India’s tribal people, dreamland to the corporate world.
It’s easier on the liberal conscience to believe that the war in the forests is a war between the Government of India and the Maoists, who call elections a sham, Parliament a pigsty and have openly declared their intention to overthrow the Indian State. It’s convenient to forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that predates Mao by centuries. (That’s a truism of course. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t exist.) The Ho, the Oraon, the Kols, the Santhals, the Mundas and the Gonds have all rebelled several times, against the British, against zamindars and moneylenders. The rebellions were cruelly crushed, many thousands killed, but the people were never conquered. Even after Independence, tribal people were at the heart of the first uprising that could be described as Maoist, in Naxalbari village in West Bengal (where the word Naxalite—now used interchangeably with ‘Maoist’—originates). Since then, Naxalite politics has been inextricably entwined with tribal uprisings, which says as much about the tribals as it does about the Naxalites.
Staying Put: People of Kudur village protest the Bodhghat dam: ‘It does not belong to the capitalists, Bastar is OUrs’y
This legacy of rebellion has left behind a furious people who have been deliberately isolated and marginalised by the Indian government. The Indian Constitution, the moral underpinning of Indian democracy, was adopted by Parliament in 1950. It was a tragic day for tribal people. The Constitution ratified colonial policy and made the State custodian of tribal homelands. Overnight, it turned the entire tribal population into squatters on their own land. It denied them their traditional rights to forest produce, it criminalised a whole way of life. In exchange for the right to vote, it snatched away their right to livelihood and dignity.
Having dispossessed them and pushed them into a downward spiral of indigence, in a cruel sleight of hand, the government began to use their own penury against them. Each time it needed to displace a large population—for dams, irrigation projects, mines—it talked of “bringing tribals into the mainstream” or of giving them “the fruits of modern development”. Of the tens of millions of internally displaced people (more than 30 million by big dams alone), refugees of India’s ‘progress’, the great majority are tribal people. When the government begins to talk of tribal welfare, it’s time to worry.
The most recent expression of concern has come from home minister P. Chidambaram who says he doesn’t want tribal people living in “museum cultures”. The well-being of tribal people didn’t seem to be such a priority during his career as a corporate lawyer, representing the interests of several major mining companies. So it might be an idea to enquire into the basis for his new anxiety.
The Day of the Bhumkal: Face to face with "India's greatest Security Threat".
Over the past five years or so, the governments of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal have signed hundreds of MoUs with corporate houses, worth several billion dollars, all of them secret, for steel plants, sponge-iron factories, power plants, aluminium refineries, dams and mines. In order for the MoUs to translate into real money, tribal people must be moved.
Therefore, this war.
When a country that calls itself a democracy openly declares war within its borders, what does that war look like? Does the resistance stand a chance? Should it? Who are the Maoists? Are they just violent nihilists foisting an outdated ideology on tribal people, goading them into a hopeless insurrection? What lessons have they learned from their past experience? Is armed struggle intrinsically undemocratic? Is the Sandwich Theory—of ‘ordinary’ tribals being caught in the crossfire between the State and the Maoists—an accurate one? Are ‘Maoists’ and ‘Tribals’ two entirely discrete categories as is being made out? Do their interests converge? Have they learned anything from each other? Have they changed each other?
The day before I left, my mother called, sounding sleepy. “I’ve been thinking,” she said, with a mother’s weird instinct, “what this country needs is revolution.”
An article on the internet says that Israel’s Mossad is training 30 high-ranking Indian police officers in the techniques of targeted assassinations, to render the Maoist organisation “headless”. There’s talk in the press about the new hardware that has been bought from Israel: laser range-finders, thermal imaging equipment and unmanned drones, so popular with the US army. Perfect weapons to use against the poor.
The drive from Raipur to Dantewada takes about 10 hours through areas known to be ‘Maoist-infested’. These are not careless words. ‘Infest/infestation’ implies disease/pests. Diseases must be cured. Pests must be exterminated. Maoists must be wiped out. In these creeping, innocuous ways, the language of genocide has entered our vocabulary.
To protect the highway, security forces have ‘secured’ a narrow bandwidth of forest on either side. Further in, it’s the raj of the ‘Dada log’. The Brothers. The Comrades.
On the outskirts of Raipur, a massive billboard advertises Vedanta (the company our home minister once worked with) Cancer Hospital. In Orissa, where it is mining bauxite, Vedanta is financing a university. In these creeping, innocuous ways, mining corporations enter our imaginations: the Gentle Giants Who Really Care. It’s called CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility. It allows mining companies to be like the legendary actor and former chief minister NTR, who liked to play all the parts in Telugu mythologicals—the good guys and the bad guys, all at once, in the same movie. This CSR masks the outrageous economics that underpins the mining sector in India. For example, according to the recent Lokayukta report for Karnataka, for every tonne of iron ore mined by a private company, the government gets a royalty of Rs 27 and the mining company makes Rs 5,000. In the bauxite and aluminium sector, the figures are even worse. We’re talking about daylight robbery to the tune of billions of dollars. Enough to buy elections, governments, judges, newspapers, TV channels, NGOs and aid agencies. What’s the occasional cancer hospital here or there?
I don’t remember seeing Vedanta’s name on the long list of MoUs signed by the Chhattisgarh government. But I’m twisted enough to suspect that if there’s a cancer hospital, there must be a flat-topped bauxite mountain somewhere.
Tribal people in central India have a history of resistance predating Mao. The rebellions were crushed, but the people were never conquered.
We pass Kanker, famous for its Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College run by Brigadier B.K. Ponwar, Rumpelstiltskin of this war, charged with the task of turning corrupt, sloppy policemen (straw) into jungle commandos (gold). “Fight a guerrilla like a guerrilla”, the motto of the warfare training school, is painted on the rocks. The men are taught to run, slither, jump on and off air-borne helicopters, ride horses (for some reason), eat snakes and live off the jungle. The brigadier takes great pride in training street dogs to fight ‘terrorists’. Eight hundred policemen graduate from the warfare training school every six weeks. Twenty similar schools are being planned all over India. The police force is gradually being turned into an army. (In Kashmir, it’s the other way around. The army is being turned into a bloated, administrative police force.) Upside down. Inside out. Either way, the Enemy is the People.
It’s late. Jagdalpur is asleep, except for the many hoardings of Rahul Gandhi asking people to join the Youth Congress. He’s been to Bastar twice in recent months but hasn’t said anything much about the war. It’s probably too messy for the People’s Prince to meddle in at this point. His media managers must have put their foot down. The fact that the Salwa Judum—the dreaded, government-sponsored vigilante group responsible for rapes, killings, for burning down villages and driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes—is led by Mahendra Karma, a Congress MLA, does not get much play in the carefully orchestrated publicity around Rahul Gandhi.
I arrived at the Ma Danteshwari mandir well in time for my appointment (first day, first show). I had my camera, my small coconut and a powdery red tika on my forehead. I wondered if someone was watching me and having a laugh. Within minutes a young boy approached me. He had a cap and a backpack schoolbag. Chipped red nail-polish on his fingernails. No Hindi Outlook, no bananas. “Are you the one who’s going in?” he asked me. No Namashkar Guruji. I did not know what to say. He took out a soggy note from his pocket and handed it to me. It said, “Outlook nahin mila (couldn’t find Outlook).”
“And the bananas?”
“I ate them,” he said, “I got hungry.”
He really was a security threat.
His backpack said Charlie Brown—Not your ordinary blockhead. He said his name was Mangtu. I soon learned that Dandakaranya, the forest I was about to enter, was full of people who had many names and fluid identities. It was like balm to me, that idea. How lovely not to be stuck with yourself, to become someone else for a while.
I’m surrounded by strange, beautiful children with their curious arsenal—all Maoists. Are they going to die? What for? To turn this into a mine?
We walked to the bus stand, only a few minutes away from the temple. It was already crowded. Things happened quickly. There were two men on motorbikes. There was no conversation—just a glance of acknowledgment, a shifting of body weight, the revving of engines. I had no idea where we were going. We passed the house of the Superintendent of Police (SP), which I recognised from my last visit. He was a candid man, the SP: “See Ma’am, frankly speaking this problem can’t be solved by us police or military. The problem with these tribals is they don’t understand greed. Unless they become greedy, there’s no hope for us. I have told my boss, remove the force and instead put a TV in every home. Everything will be automatically sorted out.”
In no time at all we were riding out of town. No tail. It was a long ride, three hours by my watch. It ended abruptly in the middle of nowhere, on an empty road with forest on either side. Mangtu got off. I did too. The bikes left, and I picked up my backpack and followed the small internal security threat into the forest. It was a beautiful day. The forest floor was a carpet of gold.
In a while we emerged on the white, sandy banks of a broad flat river. It was obviously monsoon-fed, so now it was more or less a sand flat, at the centre a stream, ankle deep, easy to wade across. Across was ‘Pakistan’. “Out there, ma’am,” the candid SP had said to me, “my boys shoot to kill.” I remembered that as we began to cross. I saw us in a policeman’s rifle-sights—tiny figures in a landscape, easy to pick off. But Mangtu seemed quite unconcerned, and I took my cue from him.
Waiting for us on the other bank, in a lime-green shirt that said Horlicks!, was Chandu. A slightly older security threat. Maybe twenty. He had a lovely smile, a cycle, a jerry can with boiled water and many packets of glucose biscuits for me, from the Party. We caught our breath and began to walk again. The cycle, it turned out, was a red herring. The route was almost entirely non-cycleable. We climbed steep hills and clambered down rocky paths along some pretty precarious ledges. When he couldn’t wheel it, Chandu lifted the cycle and carried it over his head as though it weighed nothing. I began to wonder about his bemused village boy air. I discovered (much later) that he could handle every kind of weapon, “except for an LMG”, he informed me cheerfully.
CSR. It allows corporates to play good guys and bad guys all at once. If Vedanta has a cancer hospital somewhere, a bauxite mountain can’t be far.
Three beautiful, sozzled men with flowers in their turbans walked with us for about half an hour, before our paths diverged. At sunset, their shoulder bags began to crow. They had roosters in them, which they had taken to market but hadn’t managed to sell.
Chandu seems to be able to see in the dark. I have to use my torch. The crickets start up and soon there’s an orchestra, a dome of sound over us. I long to look up at the night sky, but I dare not. I have to keep my eyes on the ground. One step at a time. Concentrate.
I hear dogs. But I can’t tell how far away they are. The terrain flattens out. I steal a look at the sky. It makes me ecstatic. I hope we’re going to stop soon. “Soon,” Chandu says. It turns out to be more than an hour. I see silhouettes of enormous trees. We arrive.
The village seems spacious, the houses far away from each other. The house we enter is beautiful. There’s a fire, some people sitting around. More people outside, in the dark. I can’t tell how many. I can just about make them out. A murmur goes around. Lal Salaam Kaamraid (Red Salute, Comrade). Lal Salaam, I say. I’m beyond tired. The lady of the house calls me inside and gives me chicken curry cooked in green beans and some red rice. Fabulous. Her baby is asleep next to me, her silver anklets gleam in the firelight.
After dinner, I unzip my sleeping bag. It’s a strange intrusive sound, the big zip. Someone puts on the radio. BBC Hindi service. The Church of England has withdrawn its funds from Vedanta’s Niyamgiri project, citing environmental degradation and rights violations of the Dongria Kondh tribe. I can hear cowbells, snuffling, shuffling, cattle-farting. All’s well with the world. My eyes close.