“Maoists target teachers, ambulance” — that was the top headline all across the front page of a national daily, but one has got accustomed to mendacity, couched in righteous indignation. As is usually the case, the news report filed by the local correspondent from the state capital of Chhattisgarh was more sensible, not at all as brazen and cocksure as the one who decided on the headline. Our immediate reaction, like most other readers, was revulsion. What purpose does such violence serve? Political violence, in a context that might warrant it, loses its legitimacy when it is reduced to this. But before passing instant judgment, should we not examine what happened and why?
On 12 April the Maoists detonated two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in southern Chhattisgarh, one near Ketulnar in Bijapur district, which ripped apart a minibus carrying nine polling staff, including five teachers, returning from duty, the other, which blew up an ambulance carrying five Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel who had hitched a ride at Darba, apart from a technician and the driver. A spokesperson of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) has profusely apologized, admitting that the teachers and other employees “died due to our carelessness”. Maoist cadre apparently targeted the minibus in haste when they “mistook those travelling in [it] . . . for security forces”. It’s true that security forces, fearing for their lives, often prefer to travel in civilian vehicles alongside civilians, and they even keep changing vehicles to ensure their safety, never bothering about the security of the civilian co-travellers, whose lives they put on the line as a result of such panic. Indeed, the five paramilitary personnel killed in the ambulance had forcibly hitched a ride on it.
The point we are making is that in a war the rules of engagement are different. According to the Geneva Convention, combatants should not occupy a school, hospital etc for these sites can then become legitimate military targets of attack. Thus, destruction of a building which was once a school is not the issue. What needs to be looked at is whether the school was turned into an armed forces camp or not. If it was, then by no stretch of imagination are combatants wrong in aiming their guns at such structures. Answers sought under the Right to Information show that, from July 2000 to July 2012, the Maoists damaged three health centres and impaired 114 schools, of which 92 were battered during 2006-08. Such statistics need to be put in the proper perspective.
Similarly, combatants are expected not to travel in civilian vehicles, especially ambulances, in war zones. This is precisely what the soldiers did, not only exposing themselves but also endangering civilian lives. These facts emerged once media and Establishment fury had been vented at the Maoists. It then transpired that the state’s soldiers had violated “standard operating procedure” which, among other things, forbids soldiers from travelling in passenger or medical vehicles.
Also, this very zone where the IED explosions took place happens to be an area where government forces, a few months ago, prohibited doctors, hospitals and clinics from treating any Maoist. Since an entire population is deemed to be supporting the Maoists, whether the person is a civilian or combatant does not matter. Everyone is deemed to be a criminal, or at least perceived to be one, unless otherwise established. Now every Maoist party member, when arrested, is charged with membership of a “banned organization” and invariably accused of treason. What does this imply? It means that by terming Maoists as criminals or terrorists or anarchists, the state has criminalised a political movement and robbed it of its social context, history and legitimacy. This, incidentally, is the fig leaf of the reason cited recently to banish the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières from this very region (Bastar) where they were providing much needed medical services to the local population. It is in such an area that elections were to take place.
In other words, we need to remind ourselves that elections are being stage-managed in the areas where the Maoist movement is strong and there is a civil war going on, this ever since the government launched Operation Green Hunt (OGH) against the Maoists in the latter half of 2009. Around 286,000 Central Paramilitary Force personnel are prosecuting this war in the forest areas of 10 states, and if one adds on the provincial armed police, the total strength of the state’s paramilitary forces in this civil war is around 386,000 personnel. The Maoist forces have grown too since the launch of OGH, but they remain a much smaller force compared to that of the Indian state.
Moreover, the state forces together with what are called “irregulars” or private vigilante outfits have been particularly vicious in perpetrating atrocities on unarmed tribal persons, marked by heinousness of a kind reserved for those deemed to be supporters of the Maoists. What the paramilitary and state-funded, private vigilante groups and SPOs did in the Chintalnar area of Dantewada district in southern Chhattisgarh between 11 and 16 March 2011 comes to mind. Or what happened on 28 June 2012 — the CRPF and its CoBRA commandoes fired indiscriminately, killing 19 ordinary villagers of Sarkeguda, Kothaguda and Rajpenta, and put to death with axes those who didn’t die from their bullet wounds.
In such a situation, it is not surprising that ordinary adivasis in the Maoist militias and in the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) who hold the security forces and the governments directing them responsible for such crimes want to avenge these deeply felt wrongs. Indeed, we would not be surprised if among these Maoist forces there are a lot of deeply embittered and tortured people who are ready to sacrifice their lives to take revenge against those who have harmed them or their associates. In Sanjay Kak’s documentary film Red Ant Dream, one of the guerrillas, a young woman, says: “I’ve seen all this with my own eyes, the rapes and beatings, jungles being combed by the police. We realized there’s no way out but to fight, to take up a gun and fight.” Sadly, in many an instance the guerrillas don’t seem to be going beyond mere violent acts of revenge. The Maoist leadership has to change this mindset, for, if it fails, the political will invariably be subordinated to the military — armed struggle will fail to bring a revolutionary consciousness into being.
The party seems to take account of the uneven spread of political consciousness and of the need to give sufficient weight to political struggles and not overestimate the role of armed struggle in the forging of a revolutionary consciousness. Last year at the time of the Chhattisgarh state assembly elections, in the Jangampal area of Sukma, the party reportedly directed the PLGA to remove an IED planted in a school building when the villagers told them that they wanted to vote. It realises that its revolution will be permanently disfigured if the PLGA goes against the will of the people.
It is heartening to note that the Maoists are realizing that their election boycott call should not be imposed on the people by force. The reality though is that polling in the areas of strength of the Maoist movement is taking place in the presence of a huge contingent of security forces. In the assembly polls in November last year, according to a media report, around Narayanpur’s 102 booths meant for 76,324 voters, there were 12,000 security force personnel — a ratio of 6.4:1. But, of course, what’s worse, more generally is that money and wealth, and the associated power it bestows, have hijacked the electoral process itself. And the forces that have denuded elections of their meaning, stripped the country of its democratic potential, are not the Maoists, but those who are very much part and parcel of the Establishment itself. It is the ruling establishment that has made a mockery of political equality at the polling booth in this “the world’s largest democracy”.
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). Bernard D’Mello, deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai, has edited and co-authored What Is Maoism and Other Essays (Cornerstone Publications, 2010).