India - a new reportage ...34 days with Maoists inside the forest
34 days with Maoists inside the forest
Suvojit Bagchi spent over a month in Maoist hideouts in the forests of south Chhattisgarh.
UVOJIT BAGCHI 27th Nov
Local Maoists evolved from tribals of Bastar, the Gonds. Their relationship is extremely cordial and friendly.
CAMP IN THE FOREST
After walking for eight hours in a forest that possibly had more hillocks and rivulets than trees, without any long pause, by early evening we entered a narrow barren table of land bounded on either side by two separate ridges. At the far end stood a few blue and yellow tents. Somji, one of the men who had met me at the edge of the forest, picked up speed as we approached the tents. With the amber red setting sun in the backdrop, I saw some activity in the camps as Somji reached the centre of the table.
A moderately tall man standing guard with a rifle flung over his shoulder whistled and heads in silhouette started rushing towards the centre of the narrow rectangular table. Under a minute, the camp members, a group of about 40, stood in formation and began singing a welcome song for us, which I realised through my stay, is a Maoist ritual:
Lal lal salaam, lal lal salaam Aanewale sathio ko lal lal salaam Patrakar sathio ko lal lal salaam. (Red salute to the friends who have come and to the journalists.)
Members in the queue raised their fist to whisper "lal salaam" — "red salute". There were very young girls with hair cropped like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, they ended their "lal salaam" inevitably with a giggle. Rest, between 15 and 30 years, the men and women, wore rubber sandals, olive green battle fatigues and carried guns of various makes. Insas Standard rifle 5.56 mm, .303 rifles (antiquated), the Carbine 9 mm, LMG 7.62 mm, 12-bore guns, the SLR 7.62 mm rifle and standard Kalashnikovs were the recognisable ones.
The writer stayed in camps like these where life is pretty basic.
A thin and strongly built man in his 40s, armed with an AK and a whistle, introduced himself as Gudsa Usendi alias Sukhdev. Usendi is the spokesperson of the Maoist party in Dandakaranya. I was surprised. I had a different mental picture of Usendi. From the texture of his voice, which I heard over telephone, I thought of him as a tall, plump man. "But he is so thin," I thought. "He looks like a martial arts instructor and not an irate spokesperson of a revolutionary party."
Usendi is also one of the 20 members of the Maoists' Chhattisgarh state committee, called the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee (DKSZC). He gave me the first instructions of guerrilla life: "Akash will be your guard. In case of an attack, if I say Bastar you will move towards the enemy and reverse if I say Narayanpur. Akash will cover you."
Akash, my bodyguard, an 18-year-old Gondi boy, had an unusually pleasant smile and treated me almost like a kid while he was with me. "As we move forward or backward, while under attack, make sure that you are always behind me so that I can take the fire on me," he repeatedly told me.
Maoist platoons normally set up their camps in a semi-circle with one tent in the centre, which was referred to as the "headquarter". Every time a camp is set up, the camp commander does a roll call and gives a fresh set of passwords that may help to regroup later if the camp comes under attack from the security forces.
Akash slept for about four hours at night as he spent two hours every night guarding the camp from under a mohua tree in incessant rain. Nevertheless, he never failed to wake me up early for my walks through several kilometres of rain-drenched forest. Though the purpose of these walks was to take me to villages and camps in the Maoist-controlled forest, I later realised that Maoist platoons normally walked for long distances almost every day to ensure safety, collect local intelligence and imbibe a sense of purpose in young mind.
The Maoists have three regional committees in DK called North, South and West. The regional committees have 10 divisional committees supervising 25 to 30 area committees. The size, name, number and jurisdiction of the divisions change as per strategic and political requirements.
The party has three main wings — the military, the mass organisations and the government, called Janatana Sarkar (JS). Next morning I was taken to witness the functioning of one JS. It was in Bastar district and the name of the JS, I was told, was Mettagaon Panchayat.
The head of the JS in Mettagaon, Suder, was a young man from the community. He was a dark, thin man with a red scarf with yellow dots wrapped around his forehead, a bit like a bandana. He was wearing several brass earrings. On our way to the village well, which he claimed was dug by the members of the JS, he showed me something that may well be the basis of the Maoist network in a village.
Suder took out a yellow file with loose A4-size white paper neatly tucked inside. Vertical red lines were drawn on the white sheets to mark several columns. The names of heads of each family, the number of families, the number of humans and animals in each family, births and deaths in Mettagaon and per-family landholding were all recorded in these pages. It could well be called the "Census report of Mettagaon".
The chart enumerates five villages, called paras, under the Mettagaon village council. Those are marked under Column 1 as "Serial Number". Column 2 marks the total number of men in each village and Column 3 marks the number of women. Columns 4 to 8 mark the number of animals: Column 4 for cows, 5 for buffaloes and the rest for goats, pigs and chickens.
Three things, I felt, are significant in this chart.
First, the household animals are registered so that after every paramilitary/police offensive a comprehensive fact-finding of "missing" animals can be made and the cumulative damage calculated. Thus each village unit has a ready database that keeps an account of the collateral damage of the conflict. Second, the census is also conducted to document if any villager has abandoned the village. Such unwarranted disappearances are potentially dangerous if such villagers are picked up by the police, or worse, if they join the administration as "special police officers". Third, the total number of men to women was 427/445 in Mettagaon village council.
Suder and the team told me that they had 153 families in the Mettagaon village council. The total occupied land is 543 acres. Each family has land for farming and constructing a house. There was a difference of opinion among the JS-Mettagaon members about the exact size of unoccupied land. It could be between 150 and 200 acres. Five families in Mettagaon region were given five acres of land each by the party.
However, I could not locate any of the beneficiaries in Mettagaon who were given land; rain and other logistical reasons, like time and security, prevented such meetings.
Instead, I met a farmer called Sahitram, in the village Kilem in the Maoist council Kharenar, somewhere north of Indrawati. Sahitram showed me his farmland and mud-and-thatch house and told me that he used to be a landless farm worker six years ago. The party gave him eight acres of land, five for farming and three for constructing a house and he joined the party because of that. He informed me that five families in his village council got land from the party.
Maoists claimed, in a press release in November 2010 that so far they had "confiscated three hundred thousand acres" of forestland in Dandakaranya, presumably for redistribution among landless peasants. And that's what made them a potentially dangerous party for the companies wanting to acquire land for setting up mining industries in south Chhattisgarh.
Later, the officials of Chhattisgarh police told me the party was at its strongest in areas where they had managed to form a JS.
"Maoists normally form party units first, then the military, then the mass organisation. Finally, when they are confident about the security of villagers they form a JS," the officer told me while having a swig at Stella Artois in a south Delhi restaurant. If the officer is correct, then I would say that Maoists control Dandakaranya's forest area — equivalent to a 15 or 20 thousand square kilometre in size — equivalent to a medium sized European state.
Suvojit Bagchi works as a Correspondent with BBC World Service in Delhi. This is the first of a three-part article
In the second of a three-part series, Suvojit Bagchi meets the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Maoist and state militias.
SUVOJIT BAGCHI 4th Dec
A camp in Abuj Marh, where the author stayed. Cadres are singing ‘International’ in Gondi & Hindi. PHOTOGRAPHS: SUVOJIT BAGCHI
uring my stay in Dandakaranya's Maoist-dominated areas that lasted five weeks, I saw hundreds of young boys and girls with staleness in their eyes and an indifferent demeanour. One of them, Suklu, a man in his early 20s, accompanied me to Mettagaon, a village dominated by the rebels north of the Indrawati River. I often caught Suklu in the corner of the tent, listening to news on the radio with his usual nonchalance.
Occasionally, he would put a red flower behind his left ear and a matchstick in his right ear and roll it. Suklu prompted me to think of him as an ideal candidate for the National Rural Employment Scheme (NREGA).
On the third day of my visit to the forests of Dandakaranya, Suklu left me shocked. We were on our way to Mettagaon when he told me that he headed the defence wing of the village council.
"We are called jan (people's) militia," Suklu said, adding that he headed a group of 25. He explained that the militia was a local force and differed from the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
"The militia's role can be compared to that of the Bangladeshi freedom fighters of the 1971 war who acted as informers and mobilised sporadic attacks on the Pakistan Army or to Vietcong fighters, who the US Armed Forces referred to as '... man, woman or child... tough fighter (who fights for) liberation'," he said.
The militiamen dress in civilian outfits, unlike the fatigue-clad PLGA members, and form several concentric and invisible layers around the fighters. The militiamen, being locals, mingle easily with villagers and collect information about the movement of state forces. In case a camp is exposed to a police operation, the Maoists use intelligence inputs from the militias to decide whether to stay put in the area, disappear or counter attack.
"We move faster than the forces as we know the terrain better," Suklu said.
I stopped encouraging "romantic" notions about seemingly "incomplex" Gonds with brass earrings and red flowers in braids. It was, however, evident that the Left wing militias hardly care about the theoretical bits of Marxism or Maoism. Instead, they undertake dangerous assignments for the sake of the party.
One such assignment, to smuggle me across the area between the guerrilla base and police camps into Maoist-dominated regions, was undertaken by a man called Gassi. We walked past paramilitary camps even as Gassi thoughtfully acted as the lookout and asked me to "relax". Curious as to what could drive someone to take such risks, I enquired about his motivation.
"My family has been systematically tortured by the forest and revenue guards," Gassi said in broken Hindi.
Forest and revenue department officials have been allegedly harassing tribes in the region for decades over "chopping of trees or killing of wild animals", which the locals consider an "infringement of their rights". To make matters worse, the forest officers settled the cases "illegally" by taking money or by demanding other benefits such as the company of tribal women. A large number of the militiamen joined the party in solidarity with the movement to drive away the officials.
The militias actively assist the PLGA in combat. Being members of a hunter-gatherer society, the predominantly Gond militiamen are adept at setting up traps to snare animals. The traps are two feet deep and four feet wide cavities covered with shrubs. Inside the traps are finely chiselled wooden spears and iron rods inserted vertically.
The militias often set up such traps along the likely routes of the security forces. The objective is to make at least one soldier fall into the trap during a military encounter. "If one soldier falls into the trap, the entire battalion slows down," Suklu said.
A group of tribal women singing about the revolution. They even break into folk songs from their tribes
The militias mostly carry gunpowder rifles and traditional weapons like bows and arrows. The weapons that are used to kill wild animals have often come in handy to thwart the movement of the security forces. The militias are also trained to make pressure bombs using ammonium nitrate. They can set up landmines and trigger blasts, though I did not get to see any.
In Mettagaon, the militia, also called the "base force", has 24 members in the platoon, of which 13 are women. The platoon has five single-shot gunpowder rifles, 10 knives, and 10 bows and arrows. The overall size of the Maoist militias is anybody's guess. Based on the number of village councils controlled by the Maoists, it could be between 1 lakh and 1.2 lakh. Surely, all of them are not party cadres.
Comrade Jagesh, head of the Northern Regional Command of the PLGA in Dandakaranya, refused to disclose the overall size of the militia for "strategic reasons".
He did, however, mention that "300 to 500 boys and girls have joined every year since the launch of Salwa Judum", the erstwhile state-sponso-red anti-Maoist vigilante movement.
"They are the eyes and ears of the party," he said. When these "eyes and ears" waver, the party gets into trouble, leaders get arrested or killed. That the leaders survived in south Chhattisgarh confirms that the party, villagers and the militiamen are closely integrated.
An officer with the Chhattisgarh police said they feared the "eyes and ears" the most, as they are "hidden".
The state has its own militia. Their names are changed periodically, from Gopniye Sainik (the secret army) to Salwa Judum, special police officers and the Auxiliary Force.
After leaving the Maoist strongholds, I had the privilege of travelling on NH 16 through Dantewada with several people who had decided to violate the law, albeit with state assistance. Dileep Sethia — a shaggy-bearded, stocky man in a neatly-pressed white shirt and trousers — was with a Maoist squad till the mid-1990s and now is one of the main strikers of Dantewada police.
He carries in his trouser pocket a 9mm pistol that fires 12 rounds. He walks around with a group of local boys who function as his bodyguards and often says that the war against the Maoists can never be won "without these boys". Sethia and his "boys" are called the SPOs.
Technically, Sethia was not an SPO. He, in his capacity as a constable, headed a wing of SPOs with 65 fighters of the Delta Force of Koya commandos. He was happy with his life — the local police chief was a phone call away and he had bodyguards with semi-automatic rifles.
Sethia's machismo, his eagerness to resolve all issues single-handedly, using automatics, reminded me of movie gangsters. "If they (the police) get 50 or 60 like me, things will change," he told me.
Well-ensconced in my car, we set off on our tour of Dantewada. As I pressed the red button of my voice recorder, I realised it was worth spending an hour with Sethia.
Sethia: I was promoted because I took part in lot of operations, killed them (the Maoists) in various places... I led the group in various places, so was promoted and made a constable from being an SPO.
Question: People you killed were Naxalites?
Sethia: Yes, Naxalites.
Question: How many have you killed so far?
Sethia: I have lost count. Killed in several places. Entered Andhra Pradesh and killed, with Greyhound force... killed them in Maharashtra.
He has, incidentally, heard of the ideals of human rights. He knows that the law that scares also gives him immunity. He knows emotionally and physically he has an advantage over foot soldiers of the CRPF from Assam or Kerala. "Look at their paunches. They can't fight. Only we (the local boys) can... We are tough, we know the terrain."
He is aware that almost every senior police officer in south Chhattisgarh who criticises the arming of the tribes in public tells journalists privately that the war cannot be won without the Sethias or gangs of gun-toting tribesmen. He also knows that his parent organisation's name will change from Gopniye Sainik to Auxiliary Force over the years, but he will always head the anti-Maoist force, till one evening someone guns him down in a nondescript weekly market.
On my last phone call, he told me that his bodyguard Yogesh had stepped on a landmine. "Guns failed this Gond," he said as the phone line snapped.
Suvojit Bagchi works as a Correspondent with BBC World Service in Delhi.
What led Jairam Ramesh to tag Maoist areas as ‘liberated’? In the last part of the series, Suvojit Bagchi explores the reasons
SUVOJIT BAGCHI 11th Dec
A Maoist doctor, somewhere near the Indrawati River, Bastar district. PHOTOGRAPHS: SUVOJIT BAGCHI
he reasons for the rise of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in south Chhattisgarh's heavily forested region — an area as big as a mid-sized European country — was the subject of several conversations with party
cadres and leaders during my five-week stay in the upper course of the Indrawati River in Dandakarnya (DK). While the strength of party units, built over a span of 30 years, is the primary reason for rise of the Maoists in DK, there are other factors that prompted Union Minister Jairam Ramesh to recently describe south Chhattisgarh as a "liberated zone", where the state's writ does not run.
Health care in DK, provided by the state government, is nothing less than atrocious. There are few health centres and doctors are not available round-the-clock.
To fill the vacuum, Maoist barefoot "doctors", a few hundred boys and girls in their early 20s, often travel like missionaries from one hamlet to another with boxes full of medicines for common ailments such as malaria, snake bites, dysentery, severe itching and fever. They are adored by villagers.
Prakash, a 23-year-old doctor with a serious, oval face, told me during a casual conversation one evening, "Earlier, no one took me seriously. One day, the party's division secretary asked me if I would like to be a doctor. I thought he was joking but then he sent me to a camp, manned by doctors from cities, where I was trained for two weeks. I returned as a paramedic. Now the entire village, mine and others, runs after me. It gives me a strange sense of empowerment and purpose — I am doing something for my people, my land."
Imparting this "strange sense" of purpose to a group of illiterate, underfed, sickle cell-ridden and half-lost tribal populace to organise themselves against the world's third largest military power is what the Maoists' success is all about.
The children of guerrillas are tutored by senior members and travel with a platoon or a company. Older children with a basic understanding of language go to what is called the Basic Communist Training School. A close look at the syllabus of the school reveals a mix of life-skills training, basic education and political theory that may help raise volunteers for the party.
Some of the children also attend the local ashram (residential schools) set up by the government. I visited two residential schools funded by the state government — in Tirkanar in Narayanpur district in east Bastar and Rohtaar in the Abuj Marh area. In both the places, villagers complained that teachers rarely visited the schools. The schools were being funded by the state government but run by the villagers.
The Maoists often visit the schools to play with the children. The government pays for teachers, assistants, cooks and meals, while the Maoists maintain the schools — a remarkable example of the great Indian co-existence.
“We issue several warnings before executing a death warrant. We request them and their families to leave the village forever... I have met people who being on the Maoist side work for the police. They are under surveillance and are losing sleep.” Budhu, a Maoist militia commander from east Bastar
The two-page syllabus says that sessions will begin in February and continue till August. Two months are earmarked for outdoor activities that include working in the fields to produce food grains. The syllabus also suggests that the students be taught language or mathematics full-time, that is 100 periods, and the next four months be dedicated to other subjects like basics of history and politics, health, hygiene and Marxist thoughts.
The children are trained to use cell phones, laptops, generators and motorcycles. The schools are allotted 130 days to train one batch of students.
The Maoist education department seems to be the most organised wing of the party. "We have teachers, syllabus and sessions — everything in order, more or less," said Badri, a senior member of the education cell. Teachings based on the basics of politics with a pinch of Marxist-Leninist thought on the right to "self-assertion" may prove to be a deadly cocktail for the Indian state.
Fear could also be forcing people to refuse to side with police. A Maoist militia commander, Budhu, from east Bastar, came to see me on the 16th day of my visit. He was wearing a khaki shirt and a tightly fitted holster. During a three-hour conversation, Budhu told me why it was necessary "to kill". He said he had killed three people in the past seven years.
"The last execution took place three years ago. If people commit small or minor mistakes, we warn them and let them go. But there are people who traditionally are class enemies. We give them the death sentence. But we issue several warnings before executing a death warrant. We request them and their families to leave the village forever. For instance, those who were killed in my area had been warned for five years. One of them was shot and the others were lynched," Budhu said without pausing. "I've met people who, being on the Maoist side, work for the police. They are under surveillance and are losing sleep."
The Maoists and the tribals with the police refer to each other as "enemies", and look to inflict damage on the other side. Both sides record the violence committed by the other, and distribute the videos. Boys rush to the ambush points, click photos of dead soldiers and circulate them among journalists.
Like any other region wracked by prolonged conflict, south Chhattisgarh has developed an obsession with the glorification of violence. Documentary filmmakers, journalists and rights activists flock to the hamlets of Tadmetla or Konta to buy grainy footage of headless torsos and punctured abdomen — a global market for local violence evolves.
Maoists have used to their advantage the contradiction between predominantly pro-tribal policies — like protection under the fifth schedule of the Constitution — and an economic regime Reports suggest that there are serious violations of several laws in acquiring land in areas that fall under the fifth schedule.
A senior government official said mining activities were "not possible" in tribal areas without amending laws. "But that will take you ages," the official said, ruefully. "The mining and the tribal maps of India are almost the same and, minerals located in the areas are essential to sustain the GDP growth."
He feels that if laws are "not bypassed", tribal land cannot be accessed. "There will be some deviations to accelerate the growth. There will be movements against us, but the process is irreversible," said the official. Maoists, systematically, through their programmes, songs and public rallies highlight this contradiction between the policies and practices of the government.
Despite the organisational problems and policy contradictions among the rebels, Maoists will continue to grow as long as the Indian Constitution is violated by its keepers.
Evenings and Nights
Evenings, if it was not raining, were usually dedicated to the study of party literature printed on cheap paper using silk screens. Magazines on governance are published in Gondi. Besides, the Maoists are in the habit of quickly translating everything that author and activist Arundhati Roy writes.
There were no singing sessions at nights but films would be played on a laptop. One film that was repeatedly screened was Do Bigha Zameen. The other commonly watched films were: The Axis of War that includes a depiction of Mao's long march, Gillo Pontecarvo's recently resurrected classic The Battle of Algiers and Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon.
At the end of the day, I would lie down with 10 or 12 guerrillas in one of the 15-by-10 square feet tents. As I drifted off to a good night's sleep, I couldn't help thinking of how the tranquillity of the plastic tent, filled with the snores of a dozen sleeping guerrillas and the buzz of countless insects, belied the threats that surrounded us.
Gondi interviews were translated by a journalist, Lingaram Kodopi, in Delhi.
(Suvojit Bagchi works as a Correspondent with BBC World Service in Delhi)