Left Politics in Bastar

Noted Indian academic and human rights activist Bela Bhatia surveys the political situation in India’s tribal region of Bastar.

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Today, the situation in Bastar, a region in the state of Chhattisgarh in central India, is symptomatic of the situation in the tribal tracks of mainland India. Bastar is one of the poorest areas of the country, with two-thirds of its population being adivasi (indigenous people of mainland South Asia). Divided into seven districts that are included in the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution of India – a constitutional provision that provides safeguards and protective measures for tribal residents – this mineral-rich, forested region is also the most militarized zone in the country. Here, a war rages – in some places more visibly than in others.

In many ways, it is an old war that tribal areas have been witness to since colonial times. In colonial Bastar, there are accounts of several adivasi rebellions in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Similar to the other tribal rebellions of that period, communities in Bastar were fighting for control over their land and forests as well as their identity and culture. These local battles were ultimately about sovereignty.

Left politics in modern day Bastar began with the spread of communist politics through the Communist Party of India (CPI). By the late 1970s, the CPI had a strong following in large parts of Bastar. Many local battles were fought to help adivasis to retain control over their land and resist exploitation by outsiders. They also put up candidates for assembly elections and had significant successes.

Around 1980, another stream of communist politics – the Naxalite Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War, usually called the People’s War Group (PWG) – moved into Bastar. They were using the areas of Bastar adjacent to Telangana, the main centre of their activity then, as a shelter zone. With time, however, their influence spread. Not unlike other tribal areas of the country, Bastar too has been witness to an in-migration of non-tribals for 200 years or so, who came with a wide variety of business interests. Over the decades, a section of these non-tribals have become economically and politically powerful, and the adivasis have been marginalized. It was mainly to end the exploitation by the police and the forest department on the one hand, and non-tribal traders and moneylenders on the other, that the Naxalite movement took root in the hills and forests of the region. For the Naxalites, their work in Bastar was an experiment of a kind since they tried to develop it as a “model” area, where in addition to politics of resistance, they also aimed to put into practice their ideas regarding “development”.

Besides checking the exploitation of adivasis by police and forest officials, the Naxalites were appreciated by the people for extracting higher tendu patta rates from the contractors. Tendu patta is used to make bidis, the local cigarettes. The few weeks while the tendu leaves are picked are important in the annual economic cycle of the adivasis, since they give them cash income.  Naxalites also forced the traders to give a fairer barter rate for minor forest produce. They also distributed land and cattle head amongst those who had none, questioned anti-women practices prevalent within adivasi culture, resolved conflicts and, from time-to-time, dispensed justice.

However, some actions of the Naxalites also came up for criticism. For instance, their interference of adivasi belief systems as well as local systems of self-governance. Some authoritative figures such as Patels (a dominant caste) and Pujaris (temple priests), and elected representatives such as the village panchayat’s sarpanch (or village head), were also killed. Many persons were killed on suspicion of being police informers. The Naxalites also prevented development works such as roads, electrification, and the installation of mobile towers. From some areas, there were reports that they prevented parents from educating their children beyond primary school, ordering them instead to send them to the party. Naxalites were also intolerant towards political dissent. Those who did not agree had to cave in, or move out of their villages, or face violent reprisal.

Over time, resentment grew, leading to a civilian anti-Naxalite campaign called the Jan Jagran Abhiyan (Campaign of Peoples’ Awakening). Led by the Congress and the CPI, the campaign was unarmed and remained largely nonviolent. It started in 1989 in southwest Bastar. Many rallies and public meetings were organized, but it fizzled out in less than two years due to conflicts within the organization. In the following years, most of the main protagonists of the Jan Jagran Abhiyan were killed by the Naxalites.

Mid-2005 was to see discontent against Naxalite actions emerge again in one village of Bijapur tehsil. The discontent became organized when some notable tribal and non-tribal elites, with the help of the government, gave it the shape of a counter-insurgency movement known as the “Salwa Judum” (meaning “purification hunt” in Gondi, a widely spoken Dravidian language in several states in central India). By this time, the PWG had merged with CPI (ML) Party Unity in 1998 and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) in 2004, giving birth to a unified party: the CPI (Maoist).

News of Salwa Judum first started circulating in June 2005. There were stories of thousands of adivasis who had been rendered homeless and who relocated to relief camps due to intimidation and violence of the Salwa Judum mobs. It took some time for the contours and substance of Salwa Judum to become clear and for many to realise that this was not a spontaneous popular resistance against the Naxalite movement – as the State was making it out to be – but a state-sponsored operation, backed by massive funds, armed forces, and most seriously, impunity.

We could see that this latest counter-insurgency strategy included attempts to create a divide along ethnic lines by pitting one group of adivasis (allegedly pro-Naxalites) against another group of adivasis and non-adivasi settlers (who made up the Salwa Judum), where the latter had the military support of the State and Union governments.

The repercussions of this new experiment were severe. Many people were killed, women raped, houses burnt. Over 100,000 adivasis were displaced from their homes by 2006. At the time, this was the largest instance of displacement in the country. Despite severe criticism in the media and ongoing court cases in the High Court of Chhattisgarh and the Supreme Court of India, the war on the ground continued with disregard for any legal repercussions. Though “strategic hamletting” by the Salwa Judum failed, this did not stop the government from launching Operation Greenhunt in September 2009, starting again from Bastar.  

The tribal residents of the war zone live as though in a cage. Their movements have become severely restricted in the last decade. Many of those who had run away across the borders to Telangana during the height of the first phase of the counter-insurgency, from 2005 to 2006, have become permanent settlers there. Families have got divided and communities have been dispersed. For many years, these displaced families could not cultivate their lands and those who could, only did so only furtively. The homes that had not been burnt but remained unoccupied eventually fell apart. Their belongings were looted and their greatest wealth, in the form of cattle and livestock, was lost, died or became feral.

During these years, the government also withdrew all welfare services (schools, health centres, the public distribution system) from the villages falling in the conflict zone and restricted these services to only those who were in the camps. Many schools were also demolished or bombarded by the Maoists, who did not want them to be occupied by the security forces. Most of the interior villages that are in the conflict zone are not electrified and road connectivity is poor. The minimal resources the adivasi communities had by way of public services were no longer available to them. Those who fled to Telangana were not eligible to access these services either. Over the years, even though many families have returned, re-built their homes and resumed farming, the situation is far from normal.

Armed actions by Maoists as well as state-sanctioned counter-insurgency operations continue on an everyday basis. Besides fake encounters, instances of sexual violence, use of draconian laws like the UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967) and the CSPSA (Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005), there are other methods of violence deployed by the state which often do not come to light.

For instance, when security forces conduct search and comb operations through the villages, it is very common to find them helping themselves to the tribal residents’ produce of rice, cooking oil, and poultry. Cash and ornaments also get stolen. When women have demanded money, they have often been beaten and even raped, as happened in the three cases of mass rape and sexual assault in Bijapur and Sukma districts in late 2015 and early 2016. In these three instances, 16 women were gang raped by security forces and more than 28 women reported severe sexual assault. A First Information Report (FIR) – a written document by police organizations in countries such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, in response to a cognisable offence – was lodged in all the three cases. This was unlike other under-investigated violations in the region, such as those between 2005 and 2006, when more than 99 rapes occurred, for which no complaints could be made.

Many everyday atrocities continue to go unreported. There have been multiple instances where people have been beaten to death. One such case is that of Laloo Sodi of Kunna village in Sukma district. Sodi was killed by security forces when they came to his village on a search operation and found him working in his fields. Surrounding him, they brutalized him so severely that he died the following morning and was cremated the same day. Usually, when the forces come, the men run away as they are usually the ones being targeted. The security forces often use the fact of their running away as proof of their guilt. But Laloo Sodi, who did not run away, still had to part with his life.  

In the situation that prevails, most families are unable to put up a fight. Those who protest have to be ready to face consequences. Illegal and wrongful confinement is common. Individuals, especially youth, may get picked up from public spaces like the market or the forest, and family members, traveling on foot from one police station to the next in search of their missing loved ones, may not know about their whereabouts for days.

Generally, people belonging to the more interior villages, considered to be strongholds of the Maoists, are viewed with suspicion, if not hostility. Since 2015, however, many have started coming out in large numbers to protest against missing people, cases of fake encounters and rape. Despite such actions, however, in most cases, complaints against the police are not registered.

In one recent case, in late 2016, two youth, Sonku and Bijlu, were killed. Sonku had passed his eighth grade examination and Bijlu had never gone to school. After Gudiya, Bijlu’s sister, died due to an illness, both Sonku and Bijlu went to inform their aunt, who lived 30 km away, about the demise. While spending the night at their aunt’s place, the hut they were sleeping in was surrounded and they were picked up. When the parents went to the police later that day, they were informed that their sons’ dead bodies had been sent to the police station. Later, the family found hair and other evidence near a canal very close to the hamlet, hinting that Sonku and Bijlu were possibly killed on the way to the police station shortly after they were forcibly picked up.

Devti Karma, wife of Salwa Judum leader Mahendra Karma – who was killed by Maoists in 2013 – is the Congress MLA of the constituency Sonku and Bijlu belonged to. She took up their case but despite her insistence, the FIR was not lodged. She hosted the family members at her home for their safety, for which she was charged with kidnapping. Later, she approached the High Court for relief. When even a high-profile politician like Devti Karma has to face these barriers to lodging an FIR – the first step towards achieving justice – we can only imagine how difficult it is for ordinary villagers.

Around the same time, there were two other instances of disappearances in Sukma district. In one such incident, erstwhile members of the Sangam (the village-level committee of the Maoists), who had later joined the CPI, were picked up from their homes in the night and killed on the way to the police station. Like the case regarding the disappearance of Sonku and Bijlu, when the families of the missing later approached the police, they were informed that the person had died and the body was sent to Sukma for post-mortem. This is a new trend, where there is no pretence – no pretence that the killing was during an encounter.

After the Salwa Jadum, which was banned by the Supreme Court in 2011, there have been other vigilante organizations like the Samajik Ekta Manch and the more recent Action Group for National Integrity (AGNI). Samajik Ekta Manch had to disband itself when a sting operation in April 2016 revealed that they had planned to circumvent a possible ban by creating several vigilante groups. The main difference between Salwa Jadum and the newer vigilante groups is that the latter are largely unarmed. Actually, the government does not really need to arm them anymore. In the last decade, the government has created many types of police and paramilitary formations that have employed local tribal youth like Koya Commandos, District Reserve Guards and Bastar Battalion. It has become easier to take “illegal” actions with impunity. The erstwhile vigilante groups now work as “police friends” and do the police’s dirty work like harassing, silencing or driving away dissenting voices – be they those of CPI activists, human rights workers, journalists, lawyers or writers – by naming them as Maoist supporters or agents.

Many members of these vigilante groups are often also affiliated with an organisation of the Hindutva brigade. With full support of the BJP government at the state and centre, these members are also engaged in furthering the Hindutva agenda. For example, there have been instances where churches, enshrined as meeting places for Christian minorities, have been demolished. Bastar is becoming heavily saffronised and democratic space is shrinking day by day.

If you are living in the metropolises of Bastar, like Jagdalpur, life does not get affected that much. Real estate is thriving. There are malls. Businesses are going undisturbed in such areas.  Those who are most affected are those who are residing in the villages of the war zone, those who are combatants or part of the Maoist organisation in any capacity, and of course, those who are fighting the state's battle – members of the police force and paramilitary, who are mostly from humble background, so humble that if one family member is killed while on duty, another family member is ready to take the job that is offered in compensation despite the same risks.

Meanwhile, news of tensions in Bastar have a way of eclipsing larger systemic issues. Private corporations continue to push their mining projects through by circumventing constitutional provisions and existing laws that are in place to protect the interests of the tribals. The state and police, as it were, have persistently worked in the interest of these corporations. Nonviolent mobilisation against such incursions by people in Bastar and the tribal tract is met with brute force. In large parts of the tribal tracks, basic survival is under threat. This is the case even when the government says that it is doing what it is doing to uplift the tribals of these regions.

Today it has been 12 years of this war and sadly, there is no respite. The government says it will not stop until it wipes out the Maoists. The Maoists say they are ready to take on the government.  Maoist violence has also increased manifold in the last decade. There have been several instances where members of the police and paramilitary, as well as some civilians who are suspected of being police informers, have been killed. Many people have also been displaced due to Maoist violence. It is not clear what the people who reside in the war zone, who are seen as supporters of the Maoist movement, really think and truly want.

Bastar, in short, has been transformed into the most militarized zone in the country. A solution to the conflict is nowhere in sight.

A draft of this paper was originally presented at the "Left Politics in South Asia: Past, Present, Future" workshop at the University of Toronto.

Bela Bhatia is an Indian academic and human rights worker. She holds a PhD in Social and Political Sciences from the University of Cambridge and a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) from the Gujarat University. She works on an independent basis and lives in Bastar, south Chhattisgarh.