Soundings from Maoist territory: a field-based inquiry

Paper presentation made by Kunal Majumder at Institute of South Asia Studies, National University of Singapore on September 20, 2010

Please note: All the opinions in this paper are entirely personal and does not reflect my publication’s editorial stand

On April 6 earlier this year, Maoists ambushed a heavily armed Central Rapid Police Force (CRPF) battalion in the jungles of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh, and blew up an armoured vehicle. Within hours, 76 soldiers were dead.
Four days later we received an anonymous call. It was an invite from the Naxals. My photographer and I flew down to Raipur, capital of Chhattisgarh and took a bus as instructed by the caller. At no point along the 400 km stretch that links Raipur with Dantewada did we sight a single major blockade or armed guards.

Though Bastar is a backward area, the road was pleasantly broad and level – no doubt to service the large number of mining multinationals that operate in this iron ore-rich region of Chhattisgarh. In the bus I was really surprised to find no talk of the recent carnage – other than a stray comment from the driver towards the journey’s end when we were about to reach Dantweada of how not the Maoists, but the CRPF men were in hiding due to fear that it could be their turn next time. After an eight hours journey, we got another call telling us where to get down and which guest house to put up in. From there next morning we would again be picked up by an escort, who took us to the edge of a forest.

Our guide Geeta, in her late twenties, clad in a faded sari and armed with a single-barrel gun spoke hardly a word despite all my tries. She was also an expert in the art of delaying. Each time one of us asked her how much further we are going, she would dodge us with half-liners like, “Let’s cross this hillock first,” or “Just across the field.”

(Women form a major chunk of the Maoist cadres and many of them at among the top commanders. Even during my visit, I found an equal proportion of men and women in the party cadre. Apart from women participation, quick tribunal justice has been a key attraction for the tribal. A poor tribal is petrified to go to a police station when his hen is stolen or his cycle goes missing. The corrupt policeman asks him for bribe and harasses him. The Maoist gives him instant justice)

As we went up and down the hillocks, groups of 8 to 15 year-old tribal kids would stop to greet us with their customary lal salaams. They could have been mistaken for your neighbourhood children; only their bows and arrows gave them away. It was much later, during our interface with the Maoist leaders, that we learnt they were actually members of the party’s Balak Sangathan – a large roving network of young members who are involved in healthcare, education, and cultural activities – and, most importantly, in “identifying enemies”.

After eight hours of walking, which included a lunch-cum-tea break, we reached a village – wooden huts with thatched roof, a few coconut and mango trees, and idle cattle ambling all around: the usual Chhattisgarh pastoral scene. Geeta pointed to the hut in which we would be spending the night and said we are going to start again tomorrow morning. Saying that, she disappeared into the hut. Minutes later, she emerges dressed up in battle fatigues.

It was stifling hot when we had started, but by around 7pm, it started getting cooler. As we chatted and sipped the tea made by the tribal women – our hosts of the moment – the Maoists “guarding” us sprang up and ran towards one of the huts. It was already quite dark and had started drizzling.
In a few more minutes two men, both in their mid-forties, dressed in civvies, AK-47 rifles swinging from their shoulders appeared. After the customary lal salaams, one of them introduced himself as Ramanna alias Ravula Srinivas the 44-year-old chief planner of the Dantewada attack.  Accompanying him was 48-year-old Ganesh Ueike, the party’s political strategist.

Both Ramanna and Ganesh were from Andhra Pradesh. They come to Chhattisgarh some 30 years back. Since then they have never gone back. Not once even once did they revisit their village or kept contact with their parents or relatives. During the 15-hour interaction that followed we were told in great detail of how the attack was planned and executed. Ramanna, secretary of the south Bastar regional committee of the CPI (Maoist), at times became ecstatic as he told us about the “highest casualties our cadre has ever inflicted on the Indian anti-Naxalite security forces in a single day.” Ramanna’s father was a farmhand; he had been only to school and spoke in Telegu-accented Hindi. But Ueike, a BSc from Osmania University, was quite fluent in English. In the last few years, there has been an increase of Gondi-speaking leaders in the party hierarchy in Chhattisgarh. All the second rank leaders are locals.

(Even though the Maoist movement in post Independent India began in Bengal, most of the key leaders in the movement today are Telegu. After the crackdown by Siddhartha Shankar Ray in late 1960s and 1970s, many leading Naxal leaders including Kanu Sanyal moved to Andhra Pradesh. Top leaders like Ganapati, Krishenji and Azad (now dead) are Telegu. I must also mention that the number of incidence in Chhattisgarh increased only after 2004 crackdown on Naxals in Andhra. We will get to the Andhra incident later in the later)

After the usual pleasantries, even before we could start questioning them on the attack, they had their own set of questions. They wanted to know where did we worked before, where is our home? How many members in family? Which university we went to? How much we are paid?

And then finally, we began. First natural question: Why did you kill 76 CPRF jawans?

Ramanna took the lead and started complaining that media always thinks Maoists are a military organisation but the fact is they are a political party. So for the next two hours both of them explained us about the CPI (Maoist) party structure and hierarchy. (See attachment for the chart of CPI (Maoist) Party structure)

Finally Ramanna returned to our first question: What exactly happened on April 6? I will not go into the details of what Maoist version of the attack is. Information on it has already appeared in The Hindu and even I have written about it in my piece “Amongst the Believers”.  However I would like to share with you in details the reasons given by Maoists for the attack and my observations.

• Operation Green Hunt: Killing of 115 innocent Adivasis, who are not naxals
• Maoist leaders had been arrested in vicious countrywide crackdowns and killed in ‘fake encounters’. Azad was still alive then.
• Raman Singh government had signed 96 MoUs with various multinational mining firms in just the Beladila hill region.

Ganesh asked me: “Tell me, are these companies going to give proper jobs to the poor Adivasis?” I really didn’t have an answer. When I looked around at ordinary villagers, the only luxury they had was a radio. There wasn’t even a cycle in the scores of villages that I walked in my 30 km journey to meet Ramanna and Ganesh. The reason for violence is the standard one:  “We have taken up arms to safeguard the rights of the hapless tribals.”

I could actually see the pride in Ramanna’s eyes for having planned and implemented such a big attack. He even went on to call one of his comrades and made him display how they plant pressure bombs by using a syringe and camera flash.

At this point I would like to stop and point out a few things. First of all, it’s important to differentiate between Maoists and tribals. Following the typical Marxist-Leninist-Maoist (MLM) strategy, the movement adopted causes of the downtrodden. The Maoist movement in Chhattisgarh grew only after a systematic and consistence work done by Maoist leaders like Ramanna and Ganesh for the last 30 years. We very conveniently say Maoism is growing in tribal areas because the Indian state has failed to bring in development. But the story is somewhat different. If you look at the lifestyle of tribals in India, you will realise the definition of development is very different for tribals compared to the western model we in urban India have adopted. A tribal’s needs are very simple. Usually he depends on his tarri (an alcoholic drink) and simple produce from the forest. Now the government banned manufacturing of alcohol and stopped tribals from using forest good, some claim tribals move out the tribals from the forest. The tribal is not going to destroy the forest. He has been living there for generations. What has now happened is tribals who have been self sustained has moved to money lenders and vicious circle of poverty.

In the last few years, there has been a struggle to acquire the mineral rich land here for mining. Ramanna is not wrong when he mentions about the number of MoUs signed between the Raman Singh government and the private companies. Recently in an interview, Singh proudly announced Chhattisgarh has a GDP of 10 percent. But the question is 10 percent of growth among whom? Tribals still continue to be the most impoverished and neglected. And now they are caught in a battle between the state and the Maoist. Neither of two, they can escape.

The mine factor as a cause of unrest has been acknowledged to me by none other than the last Union Mines Secretary Santha Sheela Nair. She retired in August. But in May, she told me how the central government realizes that mines have become an issue of contention and is a possible reason for the Maoist conflicts. A new Mines and Minerals Bill, vigorously opposed by the mining lobby, will, if enacted, make it mandatory for 26 percent of the profits to be shared with the locals. Under it, licenses can only be given to companies that make a full disclosure of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities even before they start mining. The bill is still pending, I don’t know if it ever going to see the light of the day.

Now, two days before Azad’s killings on June 29, Ramanna calls me up early morning and starts complaining how the CRPF has been raping and torturing young girls. Ramanna goes on to issue a threat against the security forces and tells me that they will conduct a similar ambush like the one they did on April 6. Within hours of the call, Maoist cadres ambushed 63 security personnel, killing 26, just three kilometres from the CRPF camp in Narayanpur district.
Once again, there is some truth in Ramanna’s complaint. Just a few weeks back, my senior colleague Tush Mittal has visited the village of Mukram, just a few kilometres from where the April massacre of 76 CRPF jawans took place and found the whole village deserted. Facing a blacklash from the troops, most of the 115 families had fled to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. Villagers told her three girls were raped and five people including the Sarpanch picked up. That day in the evening, I called up Vijay Raman, the Special Director General of CRPF. He was furious. Since January 2010, more than 450 lives — including around 150 security personnel — had been lost in anti-Naxal operations. He completely rubbishes the rape allegations against the security forces.

Ofcourse two days later on July 1, prominent Maoist leader Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad was killed by the Andhra Police. Azad was the person negotiating on behalf of Maoists with Swami Agnivesh, a social activist, on a peace process. Agnivesh just couldn’t get over his guilt.  He told me it is possible that Azad let his guard down because of his last letter and Azad was a key person and most favourably disposed to the peace process. However the Home Ministry has completely rubbished this claim. Chidambaram has repeatedly said Maoist have not shown any inclination for talks.
Now I have my own views on the whole issues of talks. Let me first take you to 2004.

There were two events that year that left a mark on the Maoist movement in India.
• Unification of Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and People’s War Group (PWG) come together and form CPI (Maoist)
• The Andhra talks between PWG and the Government
The third event, as alleged by the Maoist, was the betrayal of YSR Reddy government. Then state home minister Jana Reddy and Chief Minister YSR pushed for a talk with PWG. The Andhra Police kept opposing the initiative. The ban on PWG was removed. Weeks before the talks, police mysteriously dropped its entire objection. Around 160 Maoist leaders led by State PWG secretary Ramakrishna landed in Hyderabad. In the second round of talks, Ramakrishna threw a document at the face of the government negotiators that listed excessive land possessed by ministers in YSR Reddy government. The government put the talks on hold and instituted a commission of enquiry. The commission agreed that there was truth in Ramakrishna’s claim but the extent wasn’t as much. So it was decided a joint exercise between Maoist and government would be conducted to find out the extent of excessive land holding. And then suddenly the talks broke down. Why? The police didn’t want the squad leaders who were taking part in the exercise to carry guns. Maoists were adamant that they would need guns for security and the Andhra Police refused to allow it. (To me this sounds a really silly reason to break a talk.) Now before the third round, PWG decided go back to jungles. The Andhra Greyhound Commondos followed them back into the forest, tracked them down and killed most of the top leadership of PWG in Andhra. The police say PWG agreed to ceasefire in order to regroup and reorganize as this was the same time when the Unity conference between both PWG and MCC took place.

With such an experience in hand, whether Maoists would want to negotiate with the government is questionable. Even if Azad was at the verge of negotiating, his killing has put a full stop to any peace process for the time being. There is another school of thought among the Maoists observers who donot believe that they are genuinely willingly to negotiate or start a peace process. Primarily because it is not in the Maoist philosophy to negotiate from a position of weakness. The Maoist movement in India may have created some impact but it is still not strong.

Meanwhile focus has shifted to Bengal. With the Assembly election next year, it’s a battle of might. Azad’s death played out in Mamata Banerjee’s Lalgarh rally. Stung by the heavy defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, it is crucial for the CPM to recapture Jangalmahal area, which has 41 Assembly seats. If the party can maintain status quo in the region, Mamata’s dreams of toppling the CPM in the 2011 Assembly election may not come true. This is why Mamata held the Lalgarh rally. Her Nandigram general Shubhendu Adhikary is leading the battle of Lalgarh. However, winning Lalgarh without the PCAPA’s support will remain a pipedream for Mamata. Though PCAPA supported the rally, it is not particularly happy with Mamata. But in order to get rid of CPM, it probably would side with her. Already more than 40 people have been killed in the last two weeks, since my colleague Partha Dasgupta first reported about the struggle there. Coming weeks are going to be bloodier.

Coming to what happened in Lakhisarai in Bihar recently. Maoists are a divided lot on this issue. Bihar Maoists have always been a castist in nature since MCC days when it was fighting against Ranvir Sena, the upper caste militia. The killing of Constable Lucas Tete has been condemned across Maoist ranks in Delhi to Chhattisgarh.

Maoist supporter GN Saibaba wrote a piece in last week’s Tehelka raising key issues
• Why did the Maoists demand the swap when they knew that ordinary policemen have no importance for the government?
• Why did they kill Lucas Tete, a Jharkhandi Adivasi, and not the Yadav, Sinha or Khan among the four abducted men?

One of my journalist friends was in jungles of Chhattisgarh when this incident happened. A senior leader Comrade Narmada was shocked to hear about the whole incident and said its not in Maoist philosophy to kill innocent hostages. Infact there has been numerous in Chhattisgarh when CRPF and policemen would move around Maoist areas unarmed so that the Maoist would spare them. And they do. This is acknowledged by CRPF personnel themselves.
There is essentially some difference between the Maoists who are from MCC background and those from PWG. MCC has always been very aggressive. They believe in class annihilation before setting up their base while PWG believes once must set up the base support and then annihilate the class. Probably that could explain the incident of hostage killing.

Let me conclude by saying this: Maoism is an ideological war, fought on the fodder of the poor and downtrodden. It cannot be seen as just a law and order or merely a development issue. Already areas like North Assam are seeing emergence of similar ideology. If Maoism is breeding in India, the only way out according to me, is to take away the fodder. You cannot take away the ideology.

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