Malaria, guns and jungle beer

One of the largest armed conflicts in the world is also the most under-reported. Al Jazeera’s Imran Garda looks at the war between India’s Maoists and government forces.

These are segments from my notebook, while filming India’s Silent War between the Maoists and the government – a battle that affects many of India’s almost 90 million “Aboriginals” or Adivasis – the original inhabitants of the land Indians who live deep in the jungles of the east and central parts of the country. 

Over 10,000 people have been killed over the past 3 decades alone. Adivasis have faced brutality from both sides and millions of them have been displaced to make way for mining projects and factories on their fertile, mineral-rich land in an area the government calls “The Red Corridor”. This is one of the world’s forgotten stories.

Adivasi woman, Orissa State, India. [Imran Garda]

Jamshedpur’s Adevasi villages are no further than an hours’ drive from the city. The roads seemed decent, forcing me to question the claim that the government doesn’t invest in infrastructure here. Our local fixer said, where there are Maoists, the government ensures the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) has good roads to get to them. I was unconvinced.

The first village we visited, was called Sabar Basti. We met a family whose story was far too prevalent in these rural outposts. A father, begrudgingly showing us his daughter, tossing and turning on a cot that was placed in one of the few shady corners of the village sweating profusely, teeth clenched and irritable while he patted her with a damp cloth. 

“Malaria,” he said – “She has Malaria.” The closest clinic was 30km’s away, and in walking terms, a half-day’s journey away. 

He didn’t know who Manmohan Singh was, but was adamant that it’s necessary to vote in local elections and he made his way to the markets of Jharkhand each week to sell vegetables. This kept them alive. 


When Maoists are seen in there area, often asking villagers for their food and water, the hapless Adevasis oblige them. The CRPF is usually next to visit, imposing a lockdown, and lockdowns mean hunger.

A short, bumpier drive further, we encountered the Sabar caste. Even among the Adevasis, at the bottom of the social ladder, they had (perhaps less rigid) divisions and subdivisions, higher and lower castes.

The Sabar were called the “criminal” caste. The simple village real estate looked worse here. Drunken adults roamed and smiled, fell and cursed as we drove in. Children, with the bloated bellies which signpost chronic malnutrition were dotted all over. The reek of Mahua, the local brew, was everywhere.

We visited the “brewery”. The fumes stung my eyes, I needed to puke but couldn’t. A stray dog dived in, then splashed around in the half-complete brew. This is the drink that numbs their pain. A young couple sang a delightful, if poignant, song of their plight.

These people knew little of ideology of the left or right, of capitalism or communism – but they do know suffering, and this is fertile recruitment ground for the Maoists.

One of them, a young woman, was recruited. We were told it was a love story – not only is she a cadre, but now a companion of a Maoist leader.

We pressed on to meet Saakree Banda. The heat was unbearable. 

The Maoists burnt this man’s home down and beat his brother to death. Four of them attacked the village with guns during one frightening day a year ago.

“They kept asking us, ‘why do you talk to everyone?’, but we didn’t,” he said. Tears were flooding down now, like a torrent.

“They also accused us of poisoning a Maoist who came here for food. We didn’t poison anyone. They killed my brother, he was an old man, and they beat me up so badly, I was in the hospital. I had to pay for my own bill.”


Adivasi man, Jharkhand State, India. [Imran Garda]

Competing symphonies of birds and insects opened another muggy, sticky sunrise.

My body was running out of real-estate for mosquitos to attack next. I kept agitatedly murmuring to myself, “Don’t ever buy anti-insect spray again, waste of time, it doesn’t work.”

Sickly sweet Indian tea kick-started another day, grinding towards another village – Chaati Jarna.

“Be Alert. Be Alive. Not Alert. Not Alive” – Signs, broadcast from the simplicity of the military camp, reminding young paramilitaries about their duties, beaming out as we drove past, as superfluous as those signs you see at restaurants that remind kitchen staff to wash their hands.

The message in both instances, for the outsider. Indirect, direct marketing. “If only the CRPF gave interviews,” I thought. Filming with small DSLR cameras was a blessing here. We needn’t hide our equipment when we drove by any structures that whisper “police” to us.

We’re inconspicuous, under the radar. We could easily be Arundhati Roy-reading internal Indian tourists trying to visit and make a connection with the locals, understand the war within we could be the tolerable intolerables, the inside outsiders.

I told a half-lie on my visa application too. Officially, no Indian authorities knew we were doing a film on this subject. A McCarthyesque storm tended to brew near anyone, Indian or non-Indian, who dared tackle this story.

The words “terrorist-sympathizer” “sedition” “radical” – crept up on these journalists like a virus. We had to keep a low profile at the slightest hint of authority, and we’d been successful so far.

The red sand beneath us, was acned with bumps and potholes to prevent any dosing South African journalists from drifting away. Today would be the day of surprises.

We passed bamboo scaffolding, innovative and well formed, at the head of an open, dirty, littered field. 

“Probably a wedding or some celebration for the locals,” said my colleague Kamal. We climbed the hills, more bumps, revving towards Chaati Jarna.

Swarms, swarms of people surrounded us when we got there. “We only got electricity last year,” said one Adivasi agitating for our attention.

“Police beat up the villagers when they are looking for Maoists,” said another. “The district commissioner doesn’t even visit,” complained another.

“Our village head office, our panchayat, was here, and they’ve moved it elsewhere, we wrote to the government head office and they haven’t responded so we are angry…”

It was Bahadur Singh’s voice which drowned out the rest. He emerged from the crowd as their leader, the village chief. Or was he?

“Let me bring you our political head, my daughter Permilah Singh.”

A girl, no more than 20, dressed far too formally for the setting, was nudged forward by the crowd, next to her father. She pulled out a piece of paper, crumpled, housing Sanskrit script. Permilah began reading out the demands of the people. Shyly avoiding eye contact with the crowd, and tangibly, nervously conscious of our camera.

She would read, and then look to daddy for approval. He’d correct her when necessary.

It felt like a post-colonial, feminist, Gandhian, window-dressing gone wrong. 

The crowd stuck to us, and Permilah and daddy expressed their gripes. Were they awaiting us or is this the routine drill anytime an outsider comes to visit – signaling an opportunity to help, to hear, to listen?

I’m struggling to keep up as my southpaw hurriedly scribbles in my notebook:

We have a school – but only two teachers. We have a hospital – but the doctor only comes once a week. We have 10 water wells – but 5 don’t work. We don’t own the land – we pay rent to the government. 

I asked, “don’t you want to own the land?”

Bahadur Singh’s honesty was lucid: “We are not educated. We don’t know how to administer…” but every time I asked about the Maoists, that honesty, I felt, was questionable. Was it due to trepidation? Fear? 

“What the Maoists are doing is not right, we want to live by the law,” he declared.

“3, or 4 years ago we kicked them out. They demand our boys and children, wanted to recruit them, we are poor, we can’t feed ourselves, so sometimes our boys went…”

Cue the men with submachine guns.

THA-THUMP. THA-THUMP. THA-THUMP. My heartbeat is into overdrive.

Who were these men? They looked taller than the villagers, lighter skinned…they’re in the distance, maybe 300 metres away, getting closer, 250 metres, plain-clothed. Ten, fifteen of them maybe?

I’m a little scared, but am scanning through every corner of my intellect to figure them out as they get closer, are we in danger? Even if we are, what the hell can I do? My fear evaporates as the villagers scamper towards them, rather than away. 

These are the CRPF, from the nearby camp. 

I took a deep breath, and walked towards them too, all the while sharpening my diplomatic skills – one of the more absurd passages of the journey was about to get started…

The film India’s Silent War will be aired as part of Al Jazeera’s Correspondent Series from October 20.