January 24, 2020
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Inside The PWG

Armed with AK-47s—and a lot of tribal support—the Naxalites form a guerilla zone deep in the jungles of Central India

Inside The PWG

Every drop of my blood I scatter like a seed To liberate my country. Though battered and broken Like the wave in the sea I will be born again and again.

—Cherabandaraju, (Revolutionary Telugu poet)

CAN moonlit nights be terrifying and fraught with danger? I had never thought so. But deep in the jungles of Bastar and moving with a People’s War Group (PWG) squad is like trudging through a battle zone. There is information of ‘enemy’ movement in the vicinity. Enemy in this part of the world means the Madhya Pradesh police. Despite the lurking possibility of an encounter, we are ordered to cut across a patch of open paddy fields where one is exposed to danger. I feel a sense of helplessness as I march with three armed guerrillas in front and two behind me. In perfect silence—there is a complete embargo on speech. Anything can happen. Including a sudden burst of bullets. We could be dead and no questions would be asked. Perhaps a single column in Bhopal newspapers would state: ‘Five Naxalites and a journalist killed in an encounter.’ Fear is real for the uninitiated.

Welcome to the little Yenan of India—the Bastar district of Madhya Pradesh. It is here that young men and women guerrillas in olive green fatigues and armed with AK-47s, .303 rifles, 12-bore double barrel guns, Bharmar guns, pipe grenades and landmines are ready for battle. Their war is against the ‘reactionary’ state government. But they maintain that they are no gun-toting mafia. What distinguishes them, they claim, is their ideology—Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong thought.

Donning green peak caps embossed with a shining red star, a kit-bag on their back, a gun slung from their shoulders and shod in cheap rubber shoes, these guerrillas march endless miles from village to village, forest to forest and hill to hill. At every halt they talk to tribals, listen to their problems, sing and dance with them. And train them to stand up and fight for their rights.

The guerrillas do not speak a word of English and neither do they come from an urban upper-class background. There seems to be no place in the tortuous jungles for starry-eyed romantics of the ’70s from St Stephen’s or St Xavier’s. In Bastar are the committed mobile squads of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)-People’s War, better known as the PWG, an offshoot of the historic Naxalbari armed peasant uprising of the late ’60s.

The fall of the Soviet Union and communist bloc countries has not demoralised them. The fact that the land of Mao has taken a capitalist U-turn under Deng Xiaoping has not dampened their resolve. Even a series of splits among various Naxalite groups has not frustrated them. A New Democratic Revolution is what the struggle is all about. Which they hope to achieve by, to borrow Mao’s phrase, "encircling cities with liberated villages". For this, they are ready to unite with any force fighting against the ‘semi-feudal, semi-colonial’ system. A system run by zamindars and com-prador/bureaucratic capitalists and supported by imperialists.

The PWG was formed in 1980 with the merger of the Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh committees of the CPI(ML). For 12 years, the legendary Kondapalli Seetharamaiah nurtured this Naxal brigade as its secretary till he was expelled in 1992. Under the present secretary, Ganapati, the party has been working in tandem with organisations like the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the CPI-ML (Party Unity), which operate in Bihar. Like the PWG, these groups don’t participate in parliamentary elections. The PWG has also developed close links with non-communist groups of the North-east like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland and the United Liberation Front of Assam.

What makes them so committed? The gun or their ideology? The prophets of doom had pronounced the End of History after the collapse of the Soviet Union. What kind of history are they trying to create? A question that kept playing on my mind as the train reached Raipur station—where I would meet my contact man.

 At 3 pm sharp on November 20, I spotted two boys near the reservation counter. As per the plan, one of them was carrying a thermos flask, a biscuit packet and a magazine and I had a camera and a film roll in my hand. "Hello, I am Prakash," I said. "I am Subhash," came the reply. The passwords had matched. For the next eight days we would be moving around together in the forests of Dandakaranya. A nine-hour bus ride from Raipur would take us to the edge of the thick jungles, from where we would have to travel by foot to an undisclosed destination. Subhash and Lalchand made sure that the police had not observed our arrival. We walked for five hours and it was dusk when we reached a tribal hamlet beyond which lay deeper forests and hills. "Apne wale yahin ayenge (Our people will come here)," Subhash told us. We wait the whole night in a hut but no one turns up.

EARLY next morning I hear a call from the fields: "Lal salaam dada! Lal salaam." Two uniformed armed men come towards us. They raise their fists in the air and repeat, "Lal salaam,"and immediately add, "photo nahin khinchna hai (please don’t take pictures)". Two more squad members join us after sometime. One is Sukhdev, secretary of the area committee, who carries an AK-47 rifle. You can identify rank by the weapon carried. Rajman, the lean and witty deputy commander, carries an SLR. A squad has nine to 15 members.

Most of the arms and ammunition are snatched from the police. But sophisticated weapons, like the AK-47s, are bought from arms suppliers. A big chunk of the funding for arms comes from tendu leaf contractors who, for fear of irking the PWG, pay up. Earlier, the PWG used to collect Rs 3 crore from the contractors annually as levy. For the last three years, instead of levying contractors, the PWG has asked them to give the amount to the people—by paying tribals more money for the tendu leaf they buy from them. Now the main source of party funds is the villagers themselves who have been asked to donate a day’s salary for the cause. Last year, two lakh trib-als donated Rs 20 lakh to the PWG coffers.

In Delhi, I had been told that the central committee of the PWG had deputed Bhupati, the PWG special zonal committee secretary, to talk to me. But the interview wouldn’t be easy to get. A five-day march and many weary miles lay between me and Bhupati. We set off on our trek under the supervision of Sukhdev, one of the main leaders of the forest committee command, on November 22.

The guerrilla leads a rough life. He eats what the villagers feed him. A typical meal is rice gruel and vegetable curry. He sleeps in the forest on plastic sheets, ready to be on the move.

Everything works with military precision. In the morning, the squad commander chalks out the plan of action for the day. Once the squad reaches a village, local activists of the Dandakaranya Adivasi Kisan Mazdoor Sangh (DAKMS) gather together. All the villages in Dandakaranya are situated in the midst of thick jungles. The tribals can’t survive without the forest. Neither can the guerrillas.

WE struggle uphill for about one-and-a-half hours through thorny undergrowth—on an untrodden path. The guerrillas seldom follow trails: they create their own route. The moon has risen in the winter sky and we find a place behind the foliage to camp for the night. All of us search for a clear patch to spread our blue plastic sheets. If you can rest your head without the thorns coming in the way, you are lucky. Sukhdev props his Kalashnikov against a tree and lights a candle. "We were not welcome when we first crossed the Godavari river," recalls Sukhdev. He was with a unit of the Radical Students’ Union in north Telengana, before being sent to Dandakaranya in 1983. Since then he has not gone back. "The local people used to run away whenever they saw us. We had to run after them to convince them that we were not bandits." The hypnotic silence of the forest takes over as Sukhdev pauses for a breath. All you can hear is the rhythmic fall of dewdrops and chirping crickets.

Suddenly, some dry leaves crackle. My ears perk up—is it the police? "Don’t worry, the comrades are on sentry duty," Sukhdev dispels my fears and switches on his transistor. The radio is the only connection with the outside world and BBC news is a favourite. They monitor news by rotation. Says Sukhdev: "We’ve always relied on the radio." It’s a little past midnight and I’m wide awake. The plastic sheet does little to cushion the rocky terrain and my blanket is wet with dew. But the PWG men are oblivious to the surroundings—they are fast asleep. Nothing is new or ‘exciting’ for Sukhdev except for the fight which began 12 years ago when he was sent to the forests.

Initially, the PWG had to confront the forest guards and revenue officials. Says Sukhdev: "The forest guards were the first enemy of the villagers. They did not allow them to pluck even leaves from trees. Forest officials used to harass them. Corruption was rampant. If a tribal wanted to construct a new hut, he had to pay Rs 900 to Rs 1,600 to forest officials. For renovation they charged Rs 300 to Rs 400. The villagers were scared to protest because they feared they would be implicated in false cases. It was only after the PWG organised villagers against a notorious forest nakedar (guard) in Mokhpal village in 1992 and thrashed him that the villagers started speaking out."

Exploitation by tendu contractors, paper mill owners, forest and revenue officials has made the people turn to the PWG. The contractors used to pay the tribals only three paise for 50 tendu leaves before the PWG set foot in the Gadhchiroli area of Maharashtra. It started a massive agitation against the contractors and won. Now the tribals get Rs 1.20 for every 70 leaves. The party is demanding a revision in the rates in Bastar too. The paper mill owners, who paid Re 1 for a dozen bamboo poles, have hiked the rate to Rs 5.35 for every 20 bamboo poles. The entire belt is badly neglected—there are no roads, water supply and electricity in most of the villages.

‘Have trust in the people’ is the first dictum a guerrilla is taught. The second lesson is: don’t stay at one place for too long since it might attract the attention of the ‘enemy’. Before dawn we pack our kit-bags and set out for the day. A tribal peasant alerts us about the police. Everyone is asked to walk barefoot to avoid leaving conspicuous footprints.

It’s the support structure provided by the villagers which has made the task of the state police difficult. The police have organised many ambushes but these have not affected the PWG.

But now the police too have developed their own network informers across the forests to keep track of PWG squads. Admits Bhupati: "We are facing problems because of the informers. We warn them and ask them to desist from helping the police Through the villagers we also try to make them understand that they are betraying their own people. If they fail to come around, we have to eliminate them. Otherwise we will be eliminated."

On this score the PWG has been as ruthless as the police According to a squad area committee member, about 200 inform ers have been done away with since 1980. But such executions do not always find approval. Admits one member: "How long can go on killing informers? We face protest from our own members whenever we execute an informer." 

The PWG struggle also involves developmental and reform programmes. This includes ‘save the environment’ campaigns. September ’95, the PWG got massive support from tribal women when it launched a campaign against the ghotul system. Around 3,000 women from 30 villages gathered in Kiskodo village under the banner of the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangh to demand an end to the system. Premarital sex is not considered taboo in tribal society. Young men and women go to a separate hut called ghotul where they drink, dance and spend nights together. Although the system is socially acceptable, women have always been at the receiving end and there have been many unwanted pregnancies.

WE reach Jupla village on the morning of November 23 and camp at a nearby hillock. Deputy commander Rajman tells the villagers about a December 28 rally at Narayanpur to demand higher rates for agricultural produce. A big portrait of Mao Zedong is fixed on a tree before the meeting begins. The villagers are briefed about the raid on the Manpur police station on September 18 during which the PWG squad snatched five SLRs, 15 .303 rifles, six .410 muscats, two .32 service revolvers and 2,700 cartridges. "All the policemen also shouted ‘PWG zindabad’ slogans before surrendering. The government has suspended 12 policemen," laughs Rajman. And the whole village laughs with him.

There is a suspected police informer in the gathering—a 17-year-old diminutive, bright-eyed lad dressed in a lungi and vest. He is said to be in constant touch with a police informer from the neighbouring village. He listens patiently throughout the meeting. At the end of which Rajman turns his attention to him. The villagers complain that he had been warned twice but has not stopped helping the police. Rajman asks him to tell his story. The boy denies the charges even as Rajman and Sukhdev warn him again. The meeting concludes with the singing of revolutionary songs. The squad packs up. It is time to move on.

For the last eight days I have been in the forest marching, singing, dancing and living with the guerrillas. But despite the bonhomie it has been no holiday. There were times when I was petrified—and the fear of being gunned down by police bullets still lingers.

On the bus back to Raipur I am still apprehensive. What if the police search my belongings? I was carrying exposed films of PWG squads. Also, the diary where I have maintained ‘incriminating’ jottings. I keep my fingers crossed as the bus pulls up and a group of 10 armed policemen get on board. "Gasht par ja rahe hein (we are on a routine patrol)," they tell the conductor as they alight a few kilometers ahead to comb the forests in search of the Naxalites. I heave a sigh of relief. For them as well as the PWG it is an endless war.... 

(The names of villages were changed in deference to the PWG’s wishes.)


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