Manish Kunjam is busy working out strategies with his Communist Party of India (CPI) comrades against the backdrop of the setting sun in Raipur. His relaxed demeanour belies his predicament. This two-time Member of the Legislative Assembly from Sukma in the south Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, considered to be a Maoist stronghold, is no novice to a conflict situation. According to Kunjam, in February, the police tried to instigate the naxalites against him and other CPI members in a bid to have them killed “so that there is no Adivasi left to speak of Jal-Jangal-Jameen in Bastar”. As the president of the All India Adivasi Mahasabha, Kunjam has been voicing the concerns of the tribal people caught in the crossfire in the state-Maoist conflict. Although he weighs his words as he fears that a slip of the tongue can prove fatal, he does not mince words in criticising the State government, the Maoists and corporate houses for the plunder of the region’s natural resources. In 2005, a fact-finding mission of the CPI exposed the atrocities committed by the civil militia Salwa Judum, mobilised for counter-insurgency operations. In 2007, Kunjam, along with others, petitioned against the Salwa Judum. This resulted in the Supreme Court ordering the disbanding of the militia in 2011. Kunjam belongs to the Gondi Koya tribe. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:
The CPI had a strong foothold in these areas.
If you look at the state of the Communist parties in the country today, on the basis of media reports as well as the enthusiasm they exude, they have become weak, and that is true of their position in Chhattisgarh as well. Although the CPI’s membership increased, its pockets of strength weakened after the Jan Jagran Abhiyan was started in the 1990s. Today, the CPI is unable to win an election in Bastar, a region where it was once strong. If you look at the areas where the Salwa Judum used to be active, the Maoists have gained considerably in Bastar, Bijapur and Sukma [districts]. We are trying to gain lost ground. We believe in democracy and not the gun as is obvious from our political participation, but yet we are accused of being Maoist sympathisers. Had that been the case, we would have won election after election with their support. The Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] and the Congress have always won from the region and the reason for this has been the subject of media debate. Despite the plain truth, the police brand us as naxalite sympathisers, spy on us and disrupt our rallies. They sneak into our programmes and raise slogans that can land us in trouble. The jails are packed with people from political parties. Many CPI cadres have been accused of naxalite activities. The BJP, with the help of the police, is trying to weaken the CPI politically because inside Bastar, the CPI is the only party fighting for the rights of Adivasis. We protested against the Salwa Judum and got it banned. We protested against Tata and Essar and they were compelled to flee from the region. They want to loot the resources of Bastar but have realised that it will be difficult to do so as long as the CPI is around. According to them, the naxalites are already weak. So, once they take care of the CPI, the oppressed and abused Adivasis will be forced to run, leaving their land for the Tatas, Jindals, Essars and Adanis. Once the Adivasis leave, it will be a cakewalk for these corporates, and even the Congress will support them obliquely in this.
What do you think of the situation in Bastar?
The presence of paramilitary forces has increased substantially in Bastar and there are several front organisations. I will not go into whether they are Salwa Judum II or III, but a big campaign is under way using surrendered Maoists and local boys. Earlier, things were operated through the barrel of the gun. The modus operandi has changed now. There are also fake surrenders though the police, and the government will deny it in public. No one can deny that Bastar has turned into a police state. Typically, the head of a district is the Collector, but it is fair to say this is not the case in Bastar. Here, the head of the police is the chief administrator. The government is absent from many areas. There are also instances of entire panchayats being shifted out of villages to far-off places. In Konta, six to seven PDS [public distribution system] shops meant to cover several villages are lumped together. In Chintalnar, 17 fair price shops of 17 panchayats function from one place. This is the case in Polampalli in Bijapur district and in the Abujhmarh region. Villagers travel several kilometres to collect rations after obtaining permission from the Maoists. In many areas, the Maoists have instructed the people not to take rations from the government but consume what they grow. I am not saying anything that is not known.
How does the next generation view these events?
Boys and girls in the 12 to 20 age group are migrating to Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Goa, Visakhapatnam and Vijayawada. This trend is worrying for us. They face many troubles in unfamiliar locations. Recently, we brought back the body of a boy who was helping in the construction of a borewell. Four boys died in a blast in a chemical plant near Hyderabad. Seven girls from Salepal, near Jagdalpur, died when they were returning from work elsewhere. When we hear about such instances, we intervene. But we have no clue about what is happening to the residents of interior areas such as Maad, Bijapur and Konta [Sukma district] since we are unable to reach them. We are unable to save the honour of our sisters and daughters. All this is traumatic for us. This is also the government’s responsibility, but does it care? The Adivasis of Bastar do not occupy the mind space of political leaders sitting in Raipur and elsewhere. When elections can be won by distributing money, blankets, clothes and liquor, what is the need to think about the poor and Adivasis? Instances of corruption are mind-boggling in Chhattisgarh, if anybody cares to investigate.
How do you see the future of Chhattisgarh and your role in it?
When they say big businesses will bring development to Chhattisgarh, I want to ask whose development? If 100 people get ruined by a project and 10 people’s lives improve slightly because of it, will you call it development? Let us assume that one day naxalism will be finished in Bastar. Will it bring peace? Will the simple life of the tribal people be returned to them? Another problem will raise its ugly head: the Tatas and the Essars will arrive and drive us out of our lands. Our troubles are endless. There are many things inside me, which I will hopefully share one day, but right now a wrong word here or there can cost us our lives.