In a Guerrilla Zone: Two Reigns of Political Violence in Bastar

The ambush on May 25 by Maoist guerrillas in the Darba Ghati valley (in the Sukma area of the Bastar region in southern Chhattisgarh), 345 kms south of the state capital of Raipur, of a convoy of provincial Congress Party leaders has shocked the Indian state apparatus.  The Z-plus and other categories of armed security personnel — entitlements of the ‘lords’ of India’s political establishment — were no match for the guerrillas.  The main targets of the attack were Mahendra Karma, founder of the state-promoted, financed and armed private vigilante force, Salwa Judum (SJ), and Nand Kumar Patel, the chief of the Congress Party in the province and a former home minister of the state.

A press statement issued by Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) (CPI [Maoist]) on May 26 states that the “goal of this attack was mainly to eliminate Mahendra Karma and some other reactionary Congress top leaders”.  It pointedly reminds Chhattisgarh’s state government leaders and state police officials “who are hell-bent on crushing the revolutionary movement of Dandakaranya” that they suffer from a “big illusion that they are unbeatable”.  Mahendra Karma too falsely believed “that Z-plus Security and bullet proof vehicles would save him forever”.  The statement also clarifies that in Chhattisgarh “there are no differences between [the] ruling BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] and opposition Congress in terms of policies of suppressing the revolutionary movement.  Only due to public pressure, as well as to gain electoral benefits, some of the local leaders of the Congress at times came [out] in condemnation of incidents like [the] Sarkeguda and Edsametta massacres”.

The convoy was returning from a “Parivartan Yatra” (“March for Change”) rally in Sukma and the Maoists knew not only that Karma and Patel were in the convoy, but even the route that it was to take.  The assassinations were thus meticulously planned and executed, though they took a two-hour long gun battle with the state forces to accomplish, a clash in which many who merely serve or protect (the latter, armed personnel) the oppressors, and do so because they have little choice, were either killed or injured.  The Maoist guerrillas reportedly even provided first aid to some of these persons who suffered injuries.

Righteous Indignation Against Maoist Violence

Inevitably, in the aftermath of such incidents the chorus of righteous indignation against Maoist violence fills the waves, especially on TV.  So, one has to constantly reiterate that there are two reigns of political violence in Bastar.  The first, state and state-sponsored terror — heartless and coldblooded, it has constantly been outdoing itself in barbarity and callous indifference to human life.  The second, the political violence of resistance — it is driven by an urge to transcend the prevailing exploitative economic relations and overthrow the oppressive social and political order.  This, the violence of the oppressed, is reactive; it stems from the continuing acts of violence of the oppressors.

More important, the violence of the oppressors and the violence of the oppressed seem to have had a profound effect on the political culture and social psychology of the oppressed.  There’s this almost natural fury — hot passion — of the tribal peasants, men and women, even those in the Maoist militia and the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA), for they have suffered so much at the hands of their oppressors, and there’s a public memory of the exploitation, the oppression, the misery, the anguish that has been passed on over generations.  Of course, there’s a public memory of the collective resistance too, for instance, that of the Bhumkal Rebellion of 1910.  One has to repeatedly restate these simple truths, for the intellectuals of the establishment want to blot them out.  They want them left out of remembrance or consideration, just as they want to obliterate from public memory the reasons for the civil war, of which something akin to a “strategic hamlets programme” was sought to be executed by the SJ backed by the security forces, and this was the first phase of the anti-Maoist counterinsurgency, with Operation Green Hunt (OGH) being the grand design of its second stage.

The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has been rather upfront in stating the main reason for this war.  Talking to select group of editors on September 6, 2010 he pointed out that “Naxalite [Maoist] areas happen to be those areas which are the heartland of India’s mineral wealth . . . If we are not allowed to exploit the mineral resources of this country, I think the growth path of this country will be adversely affected”.  This was repeated by him in a speech to Indian Police Service (IPS) probationers on December 24, 2010: “Naxalism [Maoism] today afflicts central India where the bulk of India’s mineral wealth lies and if we don’t control Naxalism, we have to say goodbye to our country’s ambitions to sustain a growth rate of 10-11 per cent per annum”.  The Bastar region of Chhattisgarh happens to be one such area which is mineral rich but where large parts have been turned into a guerrilla zone by the CPI (Maoist) — tracts where the revolutionary movement is strong, but where the Party and its mass organisations are in power only as long as the guerrillas have the upper hand over the state’s forces, and where power can revert back to the Indian state when they are forced to retreat.

Therefore, sections of the corporate media bay for the blood of the “leftwing extremists” and the human rights groups are being equated with the latter.  Far away from the scene of the Maoist ambush, ensconced in the safety and comfort of their TV studios, the big guns, TV anchors and “talking heads”, have been booming!  They cannot stomach a successful ambush by the Maoist guerrillas.  “This is a major setback for Operation Green Hunt”; “Shouldn’t it be overhauled and intensified?” or better still, “Shouldn’t the Army be deployed on the frontlines in Bastar?”

The Congress now seems bent on intensifying OGH with the despatch of additional central paramilitary forces.  The BJP chief minister of the state, Raman Singh, initially suggested that the union government go in for talks with the Maoists.  It may be noted that the latter have always been open to negotiations, even as they have insisted that they will not give up on the use of force.  Nevertheless, the fiddling BJP, trying to discover what may serve its politics of one-upmanship, has now made common cause with the Congress to step up the joint battle of state and central forces against the Maoists.  And, the Congress must surely be pleased with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo’s statement demanding “firm action” to put an end to such Maoist “depredations” and urging “all democratic forces to fight the politics of violence”.

Salwa Judum — Terror Arm of the State Forces

We refuse to join the chorus of righteous indignation against Maoist violence.  Why?  The credentials of the leaders of this chorus against Maoist violence, this so-called “anti-terrorist” chorus, are well known — in the eyes of the victims, whether ordinary adivasis in southern Chhattisgarh or Muslims in Gujarat, they stand convicted of terrorism on a scale that constitutes “crimes against humanity”.  The Congress-led UPA government sanctioned the “security-related expenditure” that funded the SJ.  The state BJP government turned the other way when the funds for IDP camps went into the personal coffers of SJ leaders.  And, the mining companies contracted with the SJ warlords for “protection and ‘ground-clearing’ services”.  The SJ which Karma led was “a land and power grab masquerading as a local uprising”, as Jason Miklian, writing in the journal, Dialectical Anthropology (“The Purification Hunt: The Salwa Judum Counterinsurgency in Chhattisgarh, India”, 33, 2009, p. 442, 456), put it.

In Dantewara, Bastar and Bijapur districts in Chhattisgarh, in the context of large-scale acquisition of land by corporations in what is a mineral-rich region, entire villages were evacuated and villagers forcibly herded into camps, from which those who escaped were branded Maoists and hunted down.  Indeed, SJ, which organised the evacuation and forced herding “was created and encouraged by the [state] government and supported with the firepower and organisation of the central police forces.”  No, this quote is not from a report of one of the country’s civil liberties and democratic rights organisations, but taken from chapter 4 of a 2009 draft report authored by Sub-Group IV of the Committee on State Agrarian Relations and Unfinished Task of Land Reforms, set up by the Ministry of Rural Development, New Delhi.  Without mincing words, this report referred to “the biggest grab of tribal lands after Columbus” in the making as being initially “scripted by Tata Steel and Essar Steel who want[ed] seven villages or thereabouts, each to mine the richest lode of iron ore available in India.”

The period from June 2005 for about eight months witnessed the depredations of the SJ backed by the state’s security forces — the murders of hundreds of ordinary Gondi peasants, the razing of hundreds of villages and the forcible herding of people into camps, the sexual atrocities against women, vast stretches of cultivable land lying fallow, the total disruption of the collection of minor forest produce, lack of access to the weekly haats (local markets), the schools turned into police camps, the complete trampling upon of the rights of people.  It was only when the Maoists raised a Bhumkal militia and their People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) launched a series of “tactical counter-offensive campaigns” that the Indian state began to re-think its counterinsurgency tactics.

Maoist Resistance

For instance, on July 16, 2006, the PLGA attacked the SJ-SPO-organised, security forces-protected Errabore camp in Dantewada to free the detainees there.  On March 15, 2007, the PLGA attacked a police camp that had been set up in a girls’ school in Ranibodli (in Bijapur police district), killing 68 policemen, a significant proportion of them Special Police Officers (SPOs), and looted weapons, making sure that all the schoolgirls in the hostel were safe.  It is significant that after most of such attacks the Party had appealed to the SPOs (locally recruited tribal youth) to quit their jobs and seek the people’s pardon.  In one such statement issued after the Ranibodli raid, Gudsa Usendi, the Dandakaranya Party spokesperson addresses these desperadoes:

[T]he government is playing a dirty and dangerous game of keeping you in the front and making you kill your own brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.  That’s why we are asking you to quit this job.

Clearly, given the backing of the Party and the PLGA, the tribal masses could not be terrified into submission.  But the SJ-SPO operation went on.  On January 8, 2009, in the village of Singaram (Dantewada district), the SPOs displayed a level of savagery, indeed, barbarity that was shocking — they took their hostages to a canal and butchered them, taking turns in raping the women before slaughtering them.  But repression breeds resistance, and severe repression only hardens the resistance.

In September 2009, the Union Home Ministry, with the joint command that it had organised to coordinate the counterinsurgency operations of the central security forces with the police forces of the seven states — Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa, Maharashtra, and West Bengal — where the Maoist movement was spreading, launched OGH.  Significantly, Dantewada — the epicentre of what the Indian state calls “left-wing extremism” — was where OGH began, in the Kishtaram-Gollapalli area.  As expected the Maoists responded with an intensification of their “tactical counter-offensive campaign”.

On April 6, 2010, PLGA guerrillas the size of a small battalion ambushed troops of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), including members of COBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action), modelled on the lines of the Andhra Pradesh Greyhounds, between Tadimetla and Mukaram villages, killing 76 of the state troops.  In the statement issued after the attack, in a section entitled “why was this counter-attack carried out?” the Party mentions, among other things, the barbaric acts of the state forces, the Singaram incident (the state atrocity mentioned above, in particular).  The press release goes on to say:

Behind the April 6 attack on [the] CRPF in Tadimetla lies the anguish, sorrow, insults, exploitation and repression suffered by thousands of adivasis of Bastar.  This is incomprehensible to those hypocrites and empty phrase-mongers who repeat endlessly that Naxalites should abjure violence.

There’s a lot more detail one can add, but suffice it to say that OGH has been stepped up from January of this year.  In the last major incident in Edsametta village on the night of May 17 in Bijapur district, personnel of the COBRA fired unilaterally and indiscriminately, killing eight ordinary adivasis, including four minors, none of whom were Maoists.  This deliberate targeting of the support base of the Maoists is part and parcel of the state’s counterinsurgency policy.  It occurs so often, for instance, what the villagers of Sarkeguda, Kothaguda and Rajpenta (in Bijapur district in southern Chhattisgarh) suffered on June 28 last year when 19 of them were gunned down, even when there was no exchange of fire.  It is as if whoever supports the Maoists deserves to be killed, for, according to state intelligence, these were villages that backed the Maoists.

Ethics of the Violence of the Oppressed

Now where was the chorus of righteous indignation against Maoist violence when SJ was committing crimes against humanity and when OGH was (and is) doing the same?  We know what decent political behaviour is, and certainly a lot better than the leaders of this chorus.  But we owe it to ourselves to analyse what happened, this on our terms and for our purposes.  Given the fact that ordinary adivasis, including those in the Maoist militia and the PLGA, have suffered so much at the hands of their oppressors, there surely is a widespread emotional need to avenge deeply felt wrongs (i.e., seek revenge) and there must be a lot of frustrated and tortured people who are ready to sacrifice their lives to avenge themselves or their fellow victims.  We do not think that we ought to condemn their motives or their violent actions, and we don’t think or recommend that the CPI (Maoist) do the same.  Indeed, we think that the CPI (Maoist) is doing exactly what we think is the right thing to do — it has mobilised these people in a collective struggle to change the very conditions which have driven some of their fellow men and women to engage in violent acts of revenge.

In the context and circumstances we have outlined, and given the fact that the Constitution and the law have failed to bring justice to the victims, the violence of the oppressed, led by the Maoists, is a necessity.  Or, to put it differently, in the context and circumstances, the use of violence is a necessary evil.  Moreover, the violence of the oppressed is serving the cause of justice.  And, given that the law and the Constitution have let the victims down, it is morally justified.  The oppressed have been left with no other way but to challenge the violence that reproduces and maintains their oppression.

Nevertheless, there are dehumanising aspects of the violence of the oppressed.  We are radical-left intellectuals who have learnt from Marxists, Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, feminists, ecologists, dalits, tribals, oppressed nationalists, civil libertarians and peace campaigners, indeed, even from pacifists.  Often, violence and non-violence are contrasted as mutually exclusive ways of confronting oppression, and the Maoist way is claimed to be exclusively violent.  This is far from the truth.  At the heart of the political activity of the Maoists is organising and convincing people, not only of the need to fight against oppression, but of the need for a new society free of oppression, and most of this political activity involves only non-violent confrontation, albeit in a more committed manner.  In the best tradition of the philosophy of non-violent resistance, Maoist practice is based on the “notion of witness” — a small number of highly committed revolutionaries, by force of example, involving a great deal of sacrifice, and taking huge risks, teach a large number of people and, in the process, change the political consciousness of these people and win them over in the collective struggle for freedom and justice.

In their violent political resistance, however, we feel that the Maoists need to take account of the entire set of consequences.  It is heartening to find that in the fight against the oppressors and their hired combatants, the Maoists are now sensitive to the injuries and deaths that they inflict on those who serve or protect the oppressors but who have to do so because they have little choice.  Like the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, we too want to persuade the revolutionaries to specify certain limiting conditions for the deployment of violent means, like the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and Protocol II relating to non-international armed conflict.  Cruelty and brutality must never be a part of the means of revolution.  Another consequence of violent means is that the mass base of Maoists then comes under attack and the Maoists are often unable to protect these supporters.

Political Goals of the Guerrilla Warfare

While the condemnation of the Darba ambush by the anti-terrorist chorus ought to be subjected to criticism, it is important that there is consistent and regular counter-political propaganda which places such incidents in a political perspective and articulates the political goal of the guerrilla warfare waged by the Maoists.  For the Maoists, if we understand them correctly, this war is not merely the continuation of politics by other means.  The political situation had developed to a stage beyond which it could not proceed by the usual means, and in the course of the war the Maoists are trying to sweep away the obstacles in order to achieve their political aims.  At present, the Indian state, on behalf of the ruling classes, is waging this war to enable private, including foreign direct, investment in the industrial — mainly the mining — sector, while the Maoists — again, in the present — are fighting a war of resistance, a just war for the physical security of the adivasis, for the habitability of their natural environment as well as for the preservation of their socio-cultural environment.  Contrary to official propaganda, in Bastar the war waged by the Indian state is not for the “development and welfare” of the adivasis; indeed, as a result of this “dirty war”, the lives and livelihoods of the adivasis are under severe attack.

While this political message may be clear to many living in the proximity of the war zone, it is generally not understood outside the war zone(s).  Hence, there is a need to explain to people all over the country why this war is being waged and in whose interests it is being fought.  The PLGA is an armed body for carrying out the political tasks of the revolution and hence it is the responsibility of the Party to explain the politics behind every major strike by the revolutionaries.  The paucity of such propaganda outside the war zone(s) is a weakness that the CPI (Maoist) has to overcome if it is to retain the credibility of its political project.

Bernard D’Mello, deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai, has edited and co-authored What Is Maoism and Other Essays(Cornerstone Publications, Kharagpur, 2010).  Gautam Navlakha, a long-time activist of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, Delhi, is the author of Days and Nights in the Heartland of Rebellion (Penguin, 2012).

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