The Indian state has amassed nearly one hundred thousand paramilitary forces—code-named Operation Green Hunt—ostensibly to confront an armed rebellion organized by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in the Dandakaranya forests in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. As the forces raise their guns at each other, massive and protracted violence is breaking out in these hills and jungles affecting the lives of several million tribals inhabiting the area.
The latest of these is the killing of nearly 40 civilians and trainee special police officers by the Maoist forces in Dantewada. After exploding a civilian bus carrying 50-60 persons, they opened fire on those who survived the blast. This atrocity is preceded by a series of other atrocities in recent weeks, the most notable being the killing of 76 CRPF personnel on April 6 while they were walking back to their camp. The attack on the civilian bus shows that the Maoists have escalated the scale of “revolutionary violence” in response to the Operation Green Hunt to the point that they are prepared to inflict massive “collateral damage” to innocent civilians. This is clearly a warning to the government of the shape of things to come if the Operation Green Hunt continues. While the cabinet committee on security, the army chiefs, the home ministry, and counter-insurgency experts prepare for even more aggression with an “expanded mandate” for the home minister, a crucial factor is systematically missed in the raging debates on this issue in the mainstream media (there is some discussion in the alternative media, especially the internet).
There is overwhelming evidence that the Maoist forces at the frontline—the militias and the guerrilla army—consist entirely of tribal youth. While the orders for a specific action could be emanating from the essentially non-tribal leadership hiding safely in their secured bases, it is the tribals on the ground that carry out the explosions and the killings. According to reports discussed below, there are about 50,000 armed militias and 10,000 guerrillas operating basically in the Bastar area; all these people are young tribals. The Maoists have been able to raise this huge force because a vast majority of tribals in Bastar have sided with the Maoists for reasons discussed below. The massive presence of tribals in the Maoist scheme of things has led commentators such as Roy (2009) to conclude that there is no difference between the tribals and the Maoists. I will evaluate the factuality of this conclusion below.
For now, it is evident—yet systematically overlooked— that any armed operation to flush out the Maoist leadership will have tribals, armed or unarmed, as the direct target. There are layers and layers of tribal human shields between the government forces and the Maoist leadership. Further, as the ill-fated and murderous Salwa Judum campaign showed, any attack on tribals not only results in immense calamity for the tribals, it in fact helps increase Maoist base of support including expansion of guerrilla forces. The essentially non-tribal veteran leadership from Andhra and Bihar have carefully planned all this for decades after poring over maps and demographic profiles.
To understand why even the militias and the guerrillas—not to mention the millions of unarmed tribals who support them—ought to be viewed as victims requiring protection, we need to understand the real character of how the (upper class) Maoists, driven out from Andhra and Bihar, went about constructing their base of support in Bastar.
May 19 - Another day, another attack: Mangled remains of a vehicle after it was blown up by suspected Maoists at Chowkishal forest of West Midnapore district of West Bengal, nearly 175 kilometers west of Calcutta, killing four soldiers and wounding another two
We now have four important documents in the public domain to study this issue. Two of these are based on recent travels inside the Maoist territory by two public intellectuals from Delhi (Roy 2010, Navlakha 2010); the others are detailed interviews of the general secretary of the Maoist party (Ganapathi 2010) and the Maoist spokesperson (Azad 2010).
The last two are Maoist documents by definition. As for the other two, it stands to reason that the Maoists wouldn’t have allowed the intellectuals, accompanied by guerrilla forces, to travel extensively in their territory in times of war unless the intellectuals showed prior sympathy to the Maoist movement. It is beyond belief that the Maoists would invite people, including other Naxalites, who are opposed to them to travel with the guerrillas, take photographs, make audio recordings, visit the headquarters at Abujmaad to interview the general secretary, and inspect documents of Maoist administration (Navlakha 2010).
As it turns out, there is not a single remark in the two (very) long pieces written by the intellectuals that questions the basic objectives of Maoist strategy. (For the record, Roy 2009 did contain some well-tempered critical remarks; they are now totally absent from Roy 2010). Furthermore, each article is strewn with political remarks of the authors themselves, some of which directly support the basic Maoist goals and practices. Take just one of those remarks:
“Charu Mazumdar was a visionary in much of what he wrote and said. The party he founded (and its many splinter groups) has kept the dream of revolution real and present in India. Imagine a society without that dream” (Roy 2010).
As a matter of fact, lip-service notwithstanding, most “splinter groups” of the erstwhile Naxalite movement no longer share Charu Majumdar’s “vision”; for example, that “vision” strictly forbade participation in electoral politics, as the Maoists rightly emphasize. Charu Majumdar’s—and Kanhai Chatterji’s—“vision”, in its original form, is currently upheld essentially by the Maoists. Away from the propaganda of the Indian state, then, this study is based on pro-Maoist documents.
The Maoist spokesperson Azad (2010) asserts that “the welfare of the masses is the first priority for the Maoist revolutionaries”. The media-savvy Kishenji (Koteshwar Rao) offers to talk to any party that “worked for the common good of people” (Times of India, 18 March) suggesting that the Maoists had devoted themselves to the “common good” of tribals in Bastar forests. The Maoists had already entrenched themselves in these forests for about twenty five years before the first of the major attacks by the state began in 2005, in the form of the Salwa Judum campaign. So, what did the Maoists accomplish for the tribals in that quarter of a century?
The ability of an organization to engage in the welfare of a given population is obviously a function of the influence of that organization in the concerned area. As the writers report, the Maoists entered the Dandakaranya forests in small groups—two squads (Navlakha 2010), seven squads (Roy 2010)—back in 1980. (The puzzling issue of why they chose Dandakaranya of all places in this vast country will be taken up later). Having secured the confidence of the local, predominantly tribal population, they set about organizing them so that they can realise their rights—for example, rights of land, forest produce, and the like. Needless to say, vested interests, such as tribal chiefs in cohort with the local police and forest officials, attempted feeble interventions initially. There were more determined attempts in 1991 and 1997 that were easily dispelled because a large number of tribals had benefited from the movement by then: “killing a few of the most notorious landlords” (Roy 2010) did the job. As the remnants of state representatives were driven out of the area, things seem to have proceeded smoothly till about 2005.
During this period, the Maoists were able to build up a substantial organizational base both in terms of participation of people and coverage of area. The peasant-worker front, Dandakaranya Adivasi Kisan Majdoor Sangh (DAKMS), currently has nearly 1,00,000 members. The women front, Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Samity (KAMS), has nearly 90,000 members. Even the cultural front, Chetna Natya Manch, has over 10,000 members.
From 2001 onwards, Dandakaranya is directly administered by Revolutionary People’s Committees (Janatanam Sarkars, JS). Each JS is elected by a cluster of 3-5 villages whose combined population can range from 500 to 5,000. 14-15 such JSs make up an area JS, and 3-5 area JSs go on to constitute a division. There are 10 divisions in Dandakaranya. So, the general picture is that the party’s authority “now ranged across 60,000 square kilometers of forest, thousands of villages, and millions of people” (Roy 2010). I must emphasize that these are Maoist numbers as told to the visiting intellectuals. Assuming, in the absence of contrary evidence, that these numbers are not inflated to impress the outsiders, we can now ask what the Maoists have achieved for these millions of people.
The travelogues attempt to paint an impressive general picture of Dandakaranya. Away from the ugly inequalities of the rest of India, with its filthy towns and failed countryside, we get a picture of a land of pristine rivers and lush green forests. There live a population of beautiful people in colourful attires going about happily with their daily lives, armed with their newly-found dignity and self-reliance in a largely egalitarian society. According to Vandana Shiva (speaking to NDTV, 13 April, 2009), peace and tranquillity prevailed in Bastar before the Indian state attacked the people. Despite grinding poverty and historical neglect by the state, tribal areas usually present a sense of serenity on the surface. A very different and disturbing picture emerges when we scratch the surface.
Maoist Welfare: Wages and Agriculture
Consider the issue of wages. On a seasonal basis, much of tribal livelihood in the concerned area depends on collection of forest produce such as tendu leaves and bamboo culms, among other items. A bundle of 50 tendu leaves—70, according to Navlakha (2010)—currently fetches one rupee. To earn about 30 rupees, then, a tribal has to collect and bundle nearly 2000 tendu leaves per day! No doubt this is a substantial increase from a meagre 3 paise per bundle in 1981 (Roy 2010). Similarly, the wage for a bundle of 20 bamboo culms has been raised from 10 paise in 1981 to 7 rupees now. So, a tribal has to cut, collect and bundle 100 bamboo culms to earn 35 rupees a day. These figures are roughly corroborated by Kobad Ghandy (2008) who reported that daily wages have been raised 3/4 times from 10 rupees some years ago.
It is difficult to compare wages on an absolute scale since they vary widely with respect to nature of work, location, caste, gender, etc. It is well-known that tribals occupy the bottom of economic ladder. Given their atrocious exploitation in the past by the state and private operators, the wages sketched above signal “huge achievements for tribal people” (Roy 2010); the impoverished tribals never knew anything better. The documents report, without furnishing data, that these wages—negotiated by the Maoists with private contractors—are higher than those announced by the Chhattisgarh government. The Maoists were also able to eliminate traditional social evils such as free first day labour for tilling the land of the village chief. These measures explain why tribals feel indebted to the Maoists.
But the mere surpassing of highly exploitative wages announced by a particular state government to satisfy the greed of private contractors does not by itself qualify as an “alternative development model” that others allegedly preach but the “Maoists have been practicing for last thirty years among millions of Indians” (Navlakha 2010). Even if absolute comparisons are difficult, it is evident that these wages are much, much lower than the minimum wages enforced across the nation; the tribals in Bastar “make just enough to stay alive until the next season” (Roy 2010). For agricultural labour, minimum wages typically vary between 60 to 80 rupees a day in the rest of the country. In a “high-wage” state like Kerala—perhaps one model the Maoists would wish to compete with—wages under the rural employment guarantee scheme range upto 150 rupees a day (Utsa Patnaik, personal communication).
The other side of this problematic picture is that, having negotiated what I consider to be merely subsistence wages for the tribals, the Maoists themselves collect 120 rupees per bag of tendu leaves from the contractors (each bag contains 1000 bundles). The contractors are allowed to collect up to 5000 bags per season per contractor. This means that for a big contractor with 5000 bags, the party makes about 6,00,000 rupees. Roy (2010) reports that, at a conservative estimate, such a contractor makes about Rupees 55,00,000 per season. The documents do not state how many contractors operate in the Dandakaranya area; in general, it is said that the tendu leaf business itself runs into hundreds of crores of rupees. A similar story obtains for bamboo culms, tamarind, and other forest produce that generate “royalties” for the party, and huge profits for contractors.
As for agriculture, the Maoists did encourage the tribals to grab about 3,00,000 acres of forest land which they had been cultivating “illegally” in any case for generations. The task was relatively easy since there were no landlords from the outside and tribal societies have insignificant class structure. As the Maoists realized, the issue was basically to grab forest land of the state at will since there was no real intervention of vested interests. In fact, something like a class-structure developed as tribal chiefs and other elements with muscle-power grabbed disproportionate portions of land. The problem was subsequently solved by killing a few of the more notorious landlords, as noted. The net picture, it is claimed, is that “there are no landless peasants in Dandakaranya”. The Maoists also organized the tribals to construct some harvesting structures such as ponds and wells, and encouraged the nomadic tribals to learn proper cultivation techniques. There’s an attempt to introduce multicrop and shifting cultivation. Navlakha (2010) presents some details about the grain and vegetable items cultivated, and their yields, as recorded in a given JS. There’s some mention of using tractors and buffaloes for ploughing in some areas in recent times. None of this sounds anything more than routine and—compared to other regions of the country—primitive agricultural practices.
It is difficult to form a picture of the extent of these efforts and their role in improving the quality of life of the tribals. Recall that we are talking about an area of 60,000 square kilometres and a time-span of a quarter of a century. In general terms, Roy (2010) writes:
“Only 2 per cent of the land is irrigated. In Abujhmad, ploughing was unheard of until 10 years ago. In Gadchiroli on the other hand, hybrid seeds and chemical pesticides are edging their way in (Gadchiroli is in adjacent Maharashtra). ‘We need urgent help in the agriculture department,’ Comrade Vinod says. ‘We need people who know about seeds, organic pesticides, permaculture.’”
Why is Comrade Vinod asking for these absolutely basic things now? What have the Maoists been doing for close to three decades?
Maoist Welfare: Health and Education
A more concrete picture of the food-situation emerges when we look at the health sector. There is no mention of even a single health centre initiated by the Maoists in that vast area. All we are told repeatedly is that people have been advised to drink boiled water; apparently, this method reduced infant mortality by 50% (Ghandy 2008). Navlakha (2010) reports that lately the JSs have initiated a scheme of “barefoot doctors” in which some tribals are trained to apply some medicines (distinguished by their colour) for afflictions such as malaria, cholera and elephantitis, the three most dreaded illnesses. Again, we do not know the extent of these efforts.
However, Roy (2010) reports a doctor she met—a doctor was visiting that area after many years. The doctor said that most of the people he has seen including those in the guerrilla army, have a haemoglobin count between five and six (when the standard for Indian women is 11). There is extensive tuberculosis caused by more than two years of chronic anaemia. Young children are suffering from Protein Energy Malnutrition Grade II. Apart from this, there is malaria, osteoporosis, tapeworm, severe ear and tooth infections and primary amenorrhoea—malnutrition during puberty causing a woman’s menstrual cycle to disappear, or never appear in the first place.
“It’s an epidemic here, like in Biafra,” the doctor said. “There are no clinics in this forest apart from one or two in Gadchiroli. No doctors. No medicines.”
Notice that most of the severe conditions are caused by acute malnutrition—especially in women and children—suggesting what the “alternative model” of agriculture and other efforts at Maoist “development” has done to the people of Dandakaranya. Words like “famine” and “sub-Saharan condition” are frequently used in the documents under study (Navlakha 2010, Azad 2010). The words are of course polemically directed at the state: ‘Look, what the Indian state has done to the tribals’. Any index on quality of life certainly brings out what the Indian state has done to its people, not just the tribals. But the area at issue concerns essentially the Maoists “with a history of more than two decades where the party has been able to create an alternative structure, virtually uncontested” (Navlakha 2010).
As with the almost complete absence of health centres, the documents do not provide any evidence for any new and regular school for the tribal children in the vast area. The rare schools that exist are all provided for by the state. By now, a large number of these impoverished schools have either been occupied by the security forces or blown up by the Maoists to prevent the security forces from doing so. Lately, the JSs under the Maoists have initiated a mobile school programme; there’s also a mention of some evening schools operating in some areas. The mobile schools are “in nature of camps where children attend schools for anywhere between 15 to 30 days, depending upon how tense the situation is in a particular area. Classes last for 90 minutes for each subject with four subjects taught in a day. There are between 25-30 students and three teachers. They have begun to employ certain teaching aids from globe, torchlights to CDs to teach history and science.” Again we do not know the extent of these efforts. In any case, beyond these rather primitive and grossly inadequate efforts, the documents do not explain why the Maoists failed to introduce thousands of regular schools in the 10 divisions under their control during at least two decades of non-tense situation.
In so far as tribal-welfare is concerned, could the Maoists have done better on wages, agriculture, health, and education? Given their vast command area with visible support from millions of tribals, it is not difficult to conceive of real alternatives to the measly “development” programmes they initiated. With thousands of villages under their control, they could have dominated thousands of gram sabhas and hundreds of panchayats in the Bastar area.
Under the auspices of these tribal-controlled panchayats, they could have formed hundreds of democratically-constituted cooperatives to administer the livelihood of tribals. For example, cooperatives devoted to forest produce such as tendu leaf could have competed—with massive popular support—for the tenders floated by the state each year. This way the system of greedy contractors would have been eliminated from the scene and the entire profits—after paying “Kerala”-type wages—would have remained with the tribals. Similar efforts could have been directed at other forest produce and agricultural land.
Add to this the state funding that would have been allocated to these panchayats, and the ability to draw rural credit from local banks. One can only imagine what good could have been done for the tribals with the funds so available: schools, colleges, technical institutes, health centres, tractors, buffaloes, tubewells, irrigation canals from rivers, safe source of drinking water. In time, these people’s organisations could have made full use of national rural employment guarantee scheme, the forest rights act, the right to information, the education act, and other schemes of the state.
There are other advantages with strong and legal people’s bodies. For example, it is mandatory for corporations to secure consent of the local people before they can start operations. To that end, Tata Steel authorities organized a public hearing for their planned steel plant on October 12, 2007. The corporation “secured” the required consent by hiring an audience of about 50 people in a meeting far away from the concerned area. It is doubtful if they would have dared to do so if vigilant people’s committees, under the auspices of panchayats, were in place. In fact, Roy (2010) reports on a wonderful initiative by the women’s mass organisation, KAMS, in which members of KAMS immediately surround a police station after someone is falsely arrested, and get the person released before the police is able to file charges. One wonders if such initiatives can be expanded with legal people’s institutions in place.
None of this of course was going to be easy. The alternative just sketched would have required creative economic initiatives backed by democratic movements; it would have also involved legal battles with the state and the contractors, as every people’s movement in the rest of the country knows. Nonetheless, in Dandakaranya, the Maoists enjoyed unprecedented advantages, as noted, to pursue these democratic goals. There is no evidence that the Maoists even contemplated these obvious steps. Why not?
Primacy of Warfare
A disturbing answer begins to emerge when we look at what else the Maoists have done in the area during the same period. The basic idea, as the General Secretary Ganpathi told his visitors (Ganapathi 2010), is that “it is important to guard against getting bogged down in legalism and economism and forget that masses have to be prepared for seizure of power.” So, “seizure of power”, and not the welfare of the tribals, was the central goal. In this light, it is seriously questionable if the Maoists entered the forests of Dandakaranya three decades ago with tribal welfare in mind at all. The documents suggest the following story.
After considerable setbacks to their armed struggle in Andhra, the Maoists decided to enter these forests way back in 1980, as noted. The primary goal was to
“build a standing army, for which it would need a base. Dandakaranya was to be that base, and those first squads were sent in to reconnoitre the area and begin the process of building guerrilla zones” (Roy 2010).
Dandakaranya offered a variety of advantages. It was a vast densely forested area spanning across several provinces such that people can cross state boundaries through the forest itself. After the refugees from the erstwhile East Bengal left the area, it was inhabited almost entirely by the tribal population who have been there for ages. The state had only a rudimentary presence in some areas, while it was almost totally absent in others. Also, as noted, “there was a class society here, but due to the tribal traditions, unlike plains the Mukhia/Manjis exploitation did not appear sharp” (Navlakha 2010). Finally, due to their historical isolation and exploitation from the outsiders, tribal traditions have been compelled to acquire some degree of militancy to defend themselves. Much before the Maoists entered the scene, tribals in Bastar had a history of resistance against the British, landlords and moneylenders. Dandakaranya was virtually a “blank slate” on which the Maoists decided to inscribe Charu Majumdar’s—and, later, Kanhai Chatterji’s—“vision”.
The first task was to create enough guerrilla zones, and the second was to secure guerrilla bases in the guerrilla zones so created. Navlakha (2010) explains the distinction:
“Guerrilla zone is a fluid area in the sense that there is contention for control and the State is not entirely absent, even if it be in shape of its police or armed force. However, there are spots in these guerrilla zones which are demarcated to ensure that some work can carry on relatively uninterrupted. These are ‘bases’ which are not easily penetrable or accessible.”
The current plan is to
“intensify and expand guerrilla war ... we have to utilize cleverly the tactics of hit and run basically” (Ganapathi 2010).
“we have to develop guerrilla war into mobile war and guerrilla army into a regular army” (Ibid.).
That’s the goal. The tribals are essentially cannon-fodder in this elaborate military strategy.
To pursue it, one-third of the guerrilla forces of the erstwhile People’s War Group were transferred to Dandakaranya from Telengana in Andhra back in 1988 after some support from the tribal population had been secured. The squads from Andhra started organising village militias from the very beginning. Militias consist of 20 to 30 young people armed with anything from bows and arrows, muzzle loaders, home-made pistols to genuine rifles and rocket launchers (10% of the used stock is distributed from the central army headquaters to the militias each year). Their basic task is to “guard” a group of villages. Apparently, the best of the fighters from the militias are incorporated into more professional guerrilla squads whose members sport combat uniform and carry “serious” weapons such as Insas rifles, AK-series rifles, self-loading rifles, pistols, revolvers, hand grenades and other forms of explosives; some carry light machine guns, mortars and rocket launchers. In December 2001, the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) was formally consituted. By now, the PLGA has “moved from platoons to companies, and are now moving towards battalion formation” (Navlakha 2010). The writers report that there are about 50,000 members of militias and 10,000 in PLGA.
Once guerrilla zones expanded and covered much of the area, the task of constructing guerrilla bases started in earnest in 2001. Two or three spots were selected for guerrilla bases in each division, and in this shape 10-12 spots were concentrated upon to form the guerrilla bases. Abujmaad forms the Central Guerrilla Base. To ensure that these bases are not “easily penetrable or accessible”, a complex system of landmines and IEDs punctuate every road, approach, landmark tree or rock formation throughout the forest areas. Needless to say, all of this requires an elaborate structure of informers, lookouts, technical experts, technical equipment for secure wireless communication, laptop computers, solar-charged batteries, electronic and other devices for triggering IEDS, vehicles such as hundreds of motorcycles, well-concealed factories and workshops for manufacture, repair and refitting of weapons, and so on. Except for the supply of human power—young men and women—to the militias and PLGA (we return), the tribals are nowhere in the picture.
Allocation of Funds
The documents do not explain sufficiently where the money for this elaborate military structure comes from. Some weapons and related ammunition have been seized/stolen from police stations and armouries, some have been removed from the corpses of security personnel after ambushes. It is unclear if the total amount of these seizures explain almost battalion level weaponry. Navlakha (2010) does report, in general terms, the source of money: party membership fee, levy and the contributions of the people, confiscation of the wealth and the income sources of the enemy, and taxes collected in the guerrilla zones and base areas.
Presuming that most members are famine-stricken tribals themselves, party membership fees are not likely to amount to much. Later in the essay, Navlakha (2010) informs that “revenue accruing from looting of bank or confiscation of wealth are far less” than the money collected from royalties on forest produce such as tendu leaf. So, it is really the royalties/levies from forest produce and taxes on contractors and companies that constitute the bulk of the funds. (What is “contributions of the people”? Are there remittances from abroad from wealthy sympathisers as with LTTE and similar organisations?) It is anybody’s guess how much money is so collected and how it is divided between military work and “mass work”.
An apparently disjointed bit of information throws some light on the issue. Navlakha (2010) reports on the budget for 2009 of one area RPC (recall that there are about 50 area RPCs in Dandakaranya). The income side showed about rupees 11 lakhs. It is interesting that, although the income includes about 3,60,000 rupees from taxes on contractors, it does not directly mention the “royalties”—the real money. About half of the income comes from allocation by the JS; it is unclear what it means. Does it mean that some of the other income, including royalties, is partly distributed by the divisional RPCs to area RPCs? Or, does it mean that most of the real money remains with the party itself for military work?
An indirect evidence for the latter conclusion emerges when we look at the expenditure side of the budget. It is reasonable to expect that the income of a given RPC is primarily meant for development work in the concerned area. It turns out though that over 50% of the (meagre) income is allocated to “defense”, about 12% for agriculture, 9% for health, and 0.9% for education. It is important to note that “defense” means providing just the kits for the militias and PLGA (three pair of uniform, oil, soap, toothpaste, washing soap, comb, gunpowder, bows and arrows, and food). RPC budget does not pay for the weapons and related military needs; so, the astronomical money needed for that purpose must be controlled directly by the party itself. Is that where rest of the money including the “royalties” go? The answer is likely to be in the positive since even most of the development money is diverted to military preparations.
Now that we have some idea of where the money from the taxes, royalties, and “contributions from people” basically go, it is clear why the system of greedy and rich contractors—and similar characters—must continue to operate freely even in the “liberated zones”, while the tribals continue to toil at subsistence wages to survive until the next season. In other words, these contractors and other concealed characters are allowed to cheat the tribals all the way—“the slippery arithmetic and the sly system of measurement that converts bundles into manak boras into kilos is controlled by the contractors, and leaves plenty of room for manipulation of the worst kind” in a business running into several hundred crores (Roy 2010)—because they basically fund the war against the state for seizure of power. One wonders if the “rapacious plunder by the tiny parasitic class of blood-sucking leaches” (Azad 2010) includes these contractors who fund the “war of liberation”.
The preceding perspective also explains why the Maoists never even contemplated alternative and genuine development plans based on panchayats, cooperatives, etc. For one, as noted, those plans would have driven the system of private contractors out of Dandakaranya resulting into a massive loss of revenue for the party. For another, those plans would have raised the condition of the tribals from mere subsistence to the threshold of decent living. Having tasted decent living by their own cooperative enterprise, would the tribals continue to clutch on to the Maoists; most importantly, would they allow their young people anymore to join the militias and PLGA to die violent deaths at a young age?
Finally, once real economic development with the associated democratic process unfolded, Dandakaranya would have teemed with state officials, other political parties, functionaries of banks and other funding agencies, agents of companies supplying a variety of goods, expansion of communication within the area, etc. Dandakaranya would have opened up to the outside world. This would have seriously compromised the secrecy, security and inaccessibility of the network of guerrilla bases. It is no wonder that the Maoists do not allow development activities of the state in the areas they control (Navlakha 2010). The ostensive reason given is that, in those areas, they themselves “undertake reforms that benefit people”; by now we have a fair idea of the character of those “reforms”. In sum, then, the tribals cannot be allowed to prosper beyond subsistence because it will interfere with the plans for seizure of power.
Children for War
The Maoists complain that the state uses “school children as SPOs (special police officers) and as police Informers” (Azad 2010). Given the character of the state, as noted, this—as with other horrors—might well be true. What is the Maoists’ own record with respect to children?
Even if we set aside earlier, unconfirmed reports of children being snatched away from tribal families at gunpoint, the documents provide a range of evidence about extensive involvement of children in the war. Roy (2010) describes a young boy, Mangtu, who appears to be one of the conduits between nearby towns and the guerrilla army. Next, she describes another “slightly older” person, Chandu, with a “village boy air”, who actually belongs to a militia and can handle every kind of weapon except an LMG. Then, of course, there’s this much talked about (and photographed) young girl, Kamla. At the time of reporting, she is 17, and is already a hardcore member of the PLGA with a revolver on her hips and a rifle slung on her shoulder. We can only guess about her age when she joined the armed forces. She had taken part in a number of ambushes; in fact, watching “ambush videos” is her favourite form of entertainment. Yet she has a captivating smile; that’s the human design of a 17-year old which even the addiction to ambush videos cannot disfigure.
These are not isolated examples. Roy’s narrative and the accompanying photographs furnish the distinct impression that most, if not all, of the people in the militias and PLGA are aged between mid-teens to early twenties, and most of these have been part of the armed forces for several years. Roy’s motherly instinct wells up as she prepares to sleep in the forest amidst hundreds of armed guerrillas: “I’m surrounded by these strange, beautiful children with their curious arsenal”.
Recruiting children for warfare seems to be an established practice in the Maoist scheme of things. Comrade Madhav, who has now risen to be a commander of a PLGA platoon, joined the Maoists at the age of 9 in Warangal in Andhra Pradesh (Roy 2010). The entire thing is carefully organized. The mobile schools mentioned earlier (perhaps the only Maoist effort at education of tribal children), are not meant to provide education to tribal children in general. While the general tribal child has no school to go to, these specialised schools, called Young Communist Mobile School (or, Basic Communist Training School), host select groups of 25-30 children in the age group 12-15. These children receive intensive training for six months in a curriculum consisting of basic concepts of Marxism Leninism and Maoism, Hindi and English, maths, social science, different types of weapons, computers, etc. (Navlakha 2010). Once they pass out, “they trail the PLGA squads, with stars in their eyes, like groupies of a rock band” (Roy 2010).
Navlakha (2010) also reports that, as with any regular army, recruitment drives are conducted with meetings and leaflets. One of the leaflets, directed at “unemployed boys and girls of Bastar”, says “you will not get any salary but food, clothes, personal needs will be fulfilled and your families would be helped by the Janatam Sarkar”. Elsewhere in the essay, Navlakha (2010) reports on the food supplied to the guerrillas: “Breakfast can vary between ‘poha’, ‘khichri’, etc., mixed with peanuts and followed by tea. Lunch and dinner consists of rice with dal and subzi. Food is simple but nutritious. Once a week they get meat. Sometimes more than once if fish is available or there is pork, which is provided by the Revolutionary Peoples Committee”. Even with this impressive food intake, most of the guerrillas have less than half of the normal count of haemoglobin, as noted. One can only imagine with horror the condition of these children when they joined the forces.
With no schools to go to, no opportunities in hand, and with sub-Saharan conditions prevailing in their families, which able-bodied tribal child can resist the temptation of assured food, clothes, peer company, and the ability to roam the forests with a rifle slung on shoulders? Naturally, when the state attacks and the economic lives of tribals are further disrupted, enrolment for militia and PLGA increases sharply. The more the repression by the state, the bigger the “people’s army” of starving children.
As mentioned, the total strength of the militias and PLGA currently adds up to about 60,000, with many more in the waiting. Assuming as above that most of them joined the forces when they were children, it follows that the Indian state and the Maoist leadership—consisting of Ganapathi, Koteshwar Rao, Kobad Ghandy, Azad, and others in their politbureau and central committee—conspired to deny normal chilhood to a vast number of tribal children. They never went to school, never learned about life outside the forests, never glimpsed the pluralistic complex of Indian society, never acquired the skills to become a participating citizen, never allowed to make up their mind. All they know is how to fashion an IED, how to clean and fire a rifle, how to ambush, how to kill. They form the frontline—and get maimed and killed—when the police, the greyhounds, the CRPF and special operations forces encircle them. As for Kamla, “if the police come across her, they’ll kill her. They might rape her first. No questions will be asked” (Roy 2010). Kamla won’t be the only one.
The basic picture is abundantly clear from Maoist documents themselves. In an act of palpable cowardice, the defeated Maoist leadership from Andhra and Bihar abandoned the struggling people there, and entered the safe havens of Dandakaranya forests. Taking advantage of the historical neglect and exploitation of the tribals by the state—the “root cause”—the Maoist leadership ensured the support of hapless tribals with token welfare measures while directing most of the attention secretly to construct guerrilla bases. In the process, they lured a large number of tribal children with assurances of food and clothing. These children have now grown into formidable militia and guerrilla forces. After committing atrocious crimes in the name of “revolutionary violence”, these youth brigades are now facing the wrath of the mighty Indian state. It is reasonable to infer that millions of tribals continue to side with the Maoists largely because their children are with them.
Should the tribals now pay the price with their lives and livelihood because of the evil designs of a handful of men such as Ganapathi, Koteshwar Rao, Kobad Ghandy, Azad, and others in their politbureau and central committee? Whose vision is the Indian state supposed to satisfy, Charu Majumdar’s or Gandhi’s? How does Mrs. Sonia Gandhi address the “root cause” by attacking the tribals?
The tribals can be saved only if:
- The state dismantles operation green hunt since its immediate victims are unarmed tribals under mental and physical seize.
- The state announces total and universal amnesty to the young tribal people in the militias and the PLGA—and a safe and concrete programme for their rehabilitation—once they surrender (only) to a citizen’s body comprising of individuals such as Yash Pal, Swami Agnivesh, Kuldip Nayyar, Mohini Giri, Medha Patkar, Rajender Sacchar, Himanshu Kumar, Binayak Sen, Jean Dreze, Aruna Roy, Vandana Shiva, and others
- The essentially non-tribal leadership of CPI (Maoist) is brought to justice for their crimes against humanity.
Nirmalangshu Mukherji teaches in the Department of Philosophy, Delhi University
- Azad 2010. Interview with the spokesperson of CPI (Maoist), The Hindu, 14 April.
- Ganapathi 2010. Interview with General Secretary, CPI (Maoist), by Jan Myrdal and Gautam Navlakha, 14 February, sanhati.com
- Ghandy, K. 2008. Interview with Suvojit Bagchi, BBC South Asia, 23 September.
- Navlakha, G. 2010. ‘Days and Nights in the Heartland of Rebellion’, sanhati.com. An abridged version appeared in Economic and Political Weekly, May.
- Roy, A. 2009. ‘Mr. Chidambaram’s War’, Outlook Magazine, 9 November.
- Roy, A. 2010. ‘Walking With The Comrades’, Outlook Magazine, 21 March.