Cover Story

War on Bastar

Print edition : April 29, 2016

CRPF personnel at Chintalnar village in Sukma district. The area is only a few kilometres from the site of the Maoist ambush in which 76 security personnel were killed in 2010. Photo: Pavan Dahat

Four "Maoists" killed recently in an encounter in Bastar. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Soni Sori in Raipur. The tribal activist has been subjected to harassment. Photo: Divya Trivedi

The economist Jean Dreze, who, along with his partner Bela Bhatia, has been accused of being a naxalite. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

The Chhattisgarh government’s all-out attack on the poor tribal residents of the mineral-rich region and all sources of support for them, in the guise of combating the Maoists, actually has the twin objectives of crushing opposition to corporate-led mining and pushing the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva agenda.

The massive state-sponsored repression in Chhattisgarh, especially the Bastar region, over the past few months under the informally named “Mission 2016” campaign marks new history on two important counts. First, the manoeuvres employed by the government in general and the security agencies in particular in the name of protecting the national interest and tackling Maoist Left Wing Extremism (LWE) have acquired unprecedented dimensions in terms of vicious and brutal interference in the everyday lives of common people. The wars waged by the Indian state over many decades against perceived and real threats to the country’s sovereignty in places ranging from Nagaland to Kashmir have often been ruthless, but even by those standards the contemporary experience of Chhattisgarh through Mission 2016 has charted new levels of barbarity. Adivasis and politically neutral activists seeking to support the marginalised sections of the population are among those specially targeted by the police state.

Second, in political and ideological terms, Mission 2016 signifies yet another calibrated nuance in the Hindutva project of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar to capture and perpetuate power. The self-professed “Hindutva laboratories” of the Sangh Parivar have taken different political and ideological shapes and hues in the exercises relating to power politics and statecraft. While the tactic was all-out aggression against Muslims in Gujarat, which manifested itself in the form of the bestial genocide of the minority community in 2002, in Odisha it took the form of rampant attacks against Christians. After 2010, the main product of the “laboratory” was neoliberal Hindutva, which combined Hindutva communalism with a corporate-driven development agenda. Narendra Modi emerged as the ultimate individual icon of this agenda in 2014. Following the dismal track record of the Modi-led Union government in the 2014-15 period, the Sangh Parivar constituents generated a “nationalism versus sedition” debate as a concomitant of the pursuit of neoliberal Hindutva. What is being played out in Chhattisgarh through Mission 2016 is primarily this political and ideological pursuit, but with the creation of a police state, where a calculated and strategic suspension of the rule of law has been imposed to oppress and suppress all voices of dissent that question the socio-economic machinations of the corporate-Hindutva politics nexus.

Multipronged state oppression

The presence of Maoist insurgents and the LWE threat posed by them is, of course, the principal instrument of the Raman Singh-led BJP government in Chhattisgarh in advancing this multipronged state oppression. Indeed, Chhattisgarh is a key part of the Maoist red corridor identified by the security agencies, which is spread across the 10 States of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhattisgarh. Security operations of varying scales have been undertaken in the State to counter LWE in the past decade and a half, especially since 2004, the year the Communist Party of India (Maoist) was formally announced following the merger of the People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre. Through this period, the armed tussle between the Maoists and the state forces had, time and again, captured attention on account of inhuman assaults and counter-assaults from both sides. Innocent people were repeatedly affected in these assaults. A case in point is Operation Greenhunt, which took aggressive proportions in 2009-10. Large numbers of Adivasis and supporters of Adivasi rights were branded Maoists during this operation, and the entire state machinery was used to silence these voices.

But, the situation that has developed over the last few months, especially the security operations that have come up as part of Mission 2016, is perceived to have greater teeth and viciousness than all the past operations. There are more widespread and intense attacks happening now, which, in turn, is affecting innocent people on a greater scale and in larger numbers. Travelling through different parts of Chhattisgarh, Frontline saw that the scale of these assaults are such that the region has literally turned into a lawless land, frightening and condemnable at the same time. Given the absolute lawlessness of the operations of the security forces in Mission 2016, the Chhattisgarh government has lost the moral right to question the parallel Janatana Sarkar run by the Maoists in what they call “liberated zones” . The list of alleged transgressions on the part of the state is long and the impunity provided to lawbreakers is atrocious. It has become a place where difficult questions such as “When the state itself disregards the law, what is to be done?” have no answers.

There was a time when people in the restive region of Bastar felt that the worst period in recent history was when the armed civil vigilante group Salwa Judum, led by Mahendra Karma, was active (between 2006 and 2011). During that period, villagers were divided into two groups, and one group was pitted against the other. Large-scale violence took place, including the torching of several villages, mass gang rapes and loss of countless lives. It led to unprecedented distress migration, with more than one lakh Adivasis fleeing to nearby States. Thousands were jailed without charges. When the Supreme Court banned the Judum in 2011, people thought that Chhattisgarh had escaped the worst of the state-fuelled civil war. However, Mission 2016 has completely belied their hopes. Central to the worsening of the current situation, according to a number of politically neutral observers of the region, is the reposting of S.R.P. Kalluri as Inspector General (I.G.) in charge Bastar range almost two years ago. One of the first things that Kalluri did after taking charge was to speak publicly in favour of the Judum. Several observers are of the view that this has directly or indirectly ignited the regrouping of ex-milita members.

Overlaps with Salwa Judum

Popular Judum leaders such as Soyam Mooka, P. Vijay, Farook Ali (brother of Judum leader Sartar Ali) and Madhukar Rao resurfaced to lead new groups like the Bastar Vikas Sangharsh Samiti, the Mahila Ekta Manch, the Samajik Ekta Manch (SEM), the Nagrik Ekta Manch and the Sarva Dharm Samuday Manch, to name a few. Most of the members of these new outfits, like in the old Judum, where Mahendra Karma was the only Adivasi, are not indigenous Adivasis but people from the trading class in cities like Jagdalpur. The overlaps with the Judum are so real that the fear of being haunted by old ghosts returned. Although they are not armed yet, unlike the Judum, the way they have roamed the region, pulled up people, demanded answers, threatened outsiders such as lawyers, journalists and activists, and stopped and searched vehicles have made it obvious that they enjoy a certain impunity from the top.

In whichever village Salwa Judum wreaked havoc, the support for the Maoists grew in leaps and bounds. Terrified by state-sponsored atrocities without respite, people found refuge in Maoist ranks. Contrary to earlier times, when it was held that most Maoists in Chhattisgarh were from Andhra Pradesh, the cadre in recent years has comprised local Adivasis, most of them victims of atrocities of Salwa Judum and the new vigilante groups. The excesses of the state forces also swelled the ranks of the Maoists. Political parties working in the region failed to become as popular as the Maoists because they would not communicate with Adivasis in their language or work for the villagers like them. The armed group of naxalites lived in forests, but there were other groups like the Sangham that mingled with the residents and helped out with whatever work was required, from building of bunds and fences to agriculture.

An objective of Mission 2016, though not formally stated, is to crack down on the urban network of the CPI (Maoist) and demolish it. This network, according to the security machinery behind Mission 2016, consists of overground Maoists and Maoist sympathisers. Asides made by the people in the security forces hint at cutting the “oxygen” of the CPI (Maoist) by finishing off the urban Maoist sympathisers and thus “asphyxiating” the Maoists. The problem with this premise is that anybody who disagrees with the state’s version of democracy or nationalism, or who raises questions about human rights violations by the paramilitary forces or simply refuses to take sides in the unfolding war is branded a Maoist. Reporters, researchers, activists, lawyers and students easily fit into this simple definition of a Maoist sympathiser who deserves to be “exterminated”. Under this new strategy, an atmosphere of insider versus outsider is also being created in Chhattisgarh, where journalists, lawyers and activists from outside the State are seen as potential threats to be barred from the State. Local people, especially in the big towns and cities, are being instigated against this category of people. In a sense, the documentation of truth is being prevented by removing independent witnesses.

Harassment of Adivasi leaders

Adivasi leaders with considerable outside support are also subjected to brutal harassment—for instance, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Soni Sori. After surviving physical and mental abuse of the worst kind while in prison on charges of being a naxal courier, she became a fearless tribal activist and leader. In February, she was attacked with an acid-like substance that burnt her face and she had to be shifted to Delhi for treatment. When AAP member Arvind Gupta filed a first information report (FIR) on her behalf over the incident, parchas (handbills) were thrown at his house, threatening him and his family members. According to Soni Sori, her attackers warned her not to raise the issue of the encounter in Mardum and told her to stop complaining against Kalluri; otherwise her daughters would be attacked. A man called Hadma was accused of being a “rewardee” naxalite, with Rs.1 lakh on his head. Paramilitary forces killed him in Mardum. His wife and other villagers insisted that he was not a naxalite and produced documents such as an Aadhaar card, a voter ID and a bank account passbook to prove it. He had earlier been picked up and spent two years in prison. Soni Sori visited the area and took the family to the Mardum police station in an attempt to lodge an FIR. Kalluri had often given statements against her in press conferences, ordering her ostracisation, and Soni Sori had unsuccessfully tried to file an FIR against him under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Under pressure from the national media and civil society, the government constituted a special team to investigate the attack on Soni Sori, but she said the team was harassing her instead in mundane ways, like giving an appointment to record her testimony but making her wait for hours or changing the venue and the time of the appointment at the last minute and then not turning up at all. Meanwhile, her sister Dhaneshwari and brother-in-law Ajay Markam were picked up for questioning. Her nephew Lingaram Kodopi, who was also arrested earlier, said that attempts were being made to frame the family members for the attack on Soni Sori. They have been living under severe pressure for several years. He was a journalist but was not being allowed to work, and frustrated with this last attempt to break them, Lingaram Kodopi declared that he would end his life if these tactics did not stop. These were attempts to intimidate and destroy the support system that was rallying behind her and the movement, said Soni Sori. “They want to drive me out of Bastar. But I will not go. After all that has happened to me, I have stopped feeling pain. If Kalluri has a problem with me, he should face me directly and not go after other people.” When she was attacked, the framing of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as an anti-national university had just started and Kanhaiya Kumar had just been arrested. Kalluri lashed out at the JNU student Umar Khalid in a statement, accusing him of being a part of the conspiracy behind the attack on Soni Sori since he had mentioned Soni Sori and the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG) in his speech on the campus. This statement, coming from a person with the rank of an I.G., not only was seen as ridiculous but also exposed the way in which he made baseless statements and accused people without proof.

When Soni Sori was attacked, she was returning from Jagdalpur after taking leave of a team of women lawyers who were hounded out of Bastar. JagLAG has been working there since July 2013, and was harassed for more than a year and accused of being a “naxalite front” by the police and the SEM. A resolution was passed by the Chhattisgarh State Bar Council challenging its right to practise in the State as it was registered elsewhere, but JagLAG received an interim order that enabled it to continue to practise. When the police started putting pressure on its landlord, a driver, by impounding his car, the team was forced to leave. After some days, when Shalini Gera, one of the lawyers of JagLAG, went back to the Jagdalpur court to meet a lawyer, she was gheraoed by around 100 advocates and threatened, said Isha Khandelwal, another lawyer with JagLAG. “They told her to get out and had she stayed a minute longer she would have been attacked for sure.”

Activist targeted

The way JagLAG was hounded out seemed to be part of a modus operandi, which was also used against the independent human rights activist and researcher Bela Bhatia. Bela Bhatia has been visiting Bastar since 2006, and in January 2015 she decided to move there full time. In October 2015, her landlady, a tailor who made clothing for the Central Reserve Police Force (CPRF), asked her to vacate the house on flimsy grounds. “They wanted me to move out because of Somari, my dog, even though we had lived all those months without any trouble. For a minute, I wondered if they were under pressure of some kind, but I wanted to live in the village anyway, so I moved to Parpa,” she told Frontline. Once the police found out where she had moved to, pressure started building on her landlord, who is a peon in a government office. He was called to the police station. He is a Gondi Adivasi and, despite the pressure, did not ask Bela Bhatia to move out. The police have visited the village several times and questioned people. They have also videographed her house. Members of the Mahila Ekta Manch took out a rally against her, calling her a “naxali dalal” and asking her and her videshi pati (foreign husband), Jean Dreze (the well-known economist), to stop collaborating with naxalites.

In an open letter, Jean Dreze said: “I was surprised to hear yesterday that some people had come to my partner Bela’s house near Jagdalpur and instigated her neighbours against her. They took out a procession in the neighbourhood, shouting slogans like ‘Bela Bhatia murdabad’ and ‘Bela Bhatia Bastar chodo’.... Anyone who thinks that Bela and I are naxalites is seriously out of touch with reality. Bela has already refuted these charges and clarified the nature of her work in Bastar in a statement published in the local media (and also in Catchnews). My own views and activities are an open book. Had the agitators bothered to find out about them, they would have thought twice about levelling these charges. I am a development economist associated with Ranchi University and the Delhi School of Economics. I live in Ranchi, but I come to Bastar from time to time to spend time with Bela. Most of my work is concerned with hunger, poverty, education, health and other aspects of social policy. I am a close colleague of Amartya Sen, Angus Deaton, Nicholas Stern and other economists who should be sent to jail if I am a naxalite, according to the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act.”

Bela Bhatia was part of the team that had helped Adivasi women file FIRs when there were instances of gang rapes by security forces personnel in the interior villages, and her harassment could be because of that, among other reasons. When Bela Bhatia was asked why she only raised questions about violence on the part of the police but never about violence from the naxals, she said: “There is a significant constitution of people who are called naxal peedit [victim] and to a certain extent I think it is a valid question to the human rights movement of this country as to what is our stand regarding the excesses or atrocities happening from that side. They are like sitting ducks. As they are under the protection of the police, they are targeted by the Maoists and therefore in some ways they are available constituency that the state can mobilise for its own purposes.”

It is an accepted fact that the Maoists occupied and became strong in areas where there already was an absence of governance. For decades, neither development nor administrative agendas of the Indian state acknowledged or ventured into these villages inside the forests. No electricity or irrigation or ration shop or school or any of the other structures associated with modernity was taken to these areas by the state. These were the forgotten people of the country. When the Maoists from Andhra Pradesh entered these zones and set up their own Janatana Sarkar, taking up and solving the issues of the most marginalised people of the country, the state suddenly woke up to their existence and launched a full-blown war against the most disadvantaged people. It is to be recalled that the Maoists became popular amongst Adivasis when they rescued them from the clutches of forest and police officials who used to harass them for cultivating land in the reserve forests and put an end to the domination of Adivasis by the Patel-patwari. The price an Adivasi could obtain for tendu leaves was substantially raised, and it became instrumental in bettering their lives.

Another observation about the anti-Maoist operation of the security forces is founded upon the existence of rich natural resources in Chhattisgarh, particularly the areas where the tribal people live. It has been repeatedly observed that corporate interests have directed the government policy and security drives in such a manner as to evict tribal people from their homeland and occupy those lands. There are, apparently, a number of senior security officials who boast that no amount of criticism against them in the media would work as they have been specifically sent to the region to help set up big projects for big corporates. On the ground, one can see increasing militarisation where new mines are found. Whenever a corporate sets up shop, forces would surround it to protect it from the so-called naxal violence and clear the area of Adivasis. There are several instances where those who refused to vacate have been branded naxalites and harassed. Until a decade ago, non-governmental organisations could work in these areas in the fields of education, women’s welfare or malnutrition. But any organisation that works sincerely is being hounded now. A case in point is the renowned Ramakrishna Mission, which used to help with the public distribution system and health care earlier. Evidently, the perpetrators of Mission 2016 do not want any witnesses to talk about their operation.

This is indeed a nuanced product from the Hindutva laboratory which has already become a model at the national level for the Sangh Parivar. The manner in which the BJP and other Sangh Parivar constituents have latched on to the nationalism versus sedition debate and advanced it underscores this. After all, several top BJP leaders, including party president Amit Shah, Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, have repeatedly claimed that fighting Maoist and jehadist tendencies is the contemporary form of upholding nationalism and countering sedition. Branding people Maoists and jehadists in the name of nationalism was what happened at JNU in Delhi and Hyderabad Central University in Hyderabad. Chhattisgarh has shown how this can be run as a state terror project.

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