Kolkata, India – “If I go, they will kill me,” says the voice of an Indian police officer fearful of retribution from left-wing rebels. He regrets not being able to visit his family in a village in central India.
In another audio recording, a poor local tribeswoman says her brother was jailed by the police last year after being falsely accused of being a guerrilla.
“Why has he stopped farming? Why does he sleep in houses other than his?” she says, parroting the police’s charges.
These are two of the many accounts recorded in an ongoing civil society effort to document the testimonies of those who have suffered from a long-running violent conflict between state forces and left-wing fighters, also called Maoists or “Naxalites”, in central India.
The Maoists are known as Naxalites because the left-wing rebellion began in 1967 in the Naxalbari village of the eastern West Bengal state.
Stories of loss and suffering
Titled the Victims Register, the ongoing initiative seeks to rally public opinion by bringing out such stories of loss and suffering.
The goal is to build pressure on both the government as well as the Maoists to put down their arms in an effort to restore peace in the region and have the victims’ problems resolved.
The Victims Register is modelled after similar initiatives in Colombia that preceded a watershed truce signed between its government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2016.
The conflict with Maoists, who claim to defend the rights of Indigenous tribes and other marginalised groups, is one of India’s oldest conflicts and affects vast swaths of the country.
It has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced many more since it began as an armed peasant rebellion in the late 1960s.
More than 10,000 lives have been lost since 2000 alone, according to data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal.
The register is an extension of a New Peace Process (NPP) that was launched by local civil society organisations in June 2018. It is aimed at devising new peace-building methods to end the left-wing conflict.
“The first step to resolution is to listen,” said Shubhranshu Choudhary, the NPP’s convener.
Efforts under this process have included campaigns to grant land ownership rights to communities affected by the conflict, protest marches as well as a crowdfunded campaign last year to send out menstrual hygiene kits to women, including those within the ranks of Maoists.
Initiating conversations and documenting stories of victims is the next step.
“What we need to do is intensify our agitation on the ground. This is what the Victims Register is aimed at,” adds Choudhary. “The victims are on all sides and the list grows every day. An eye for an eye cannot be the solution.”
The register’s accounts, backed by photos and as well as multimedia content, will be available for public viewing online on the website of the NPP – a “virtual monument” to victims of both state as well as Maoist violence.
A dedicated phone line was opened for the register in January to allow residents, many of whom live in remote reaches, to call and record their testimonies.
They have responded, sharing their stories in the Indigenous Gondi and Halbi languages – an average of three accounts every day. Residents are also being trained to record video interviews and share them using WhatsApp.
A peace committee, comprising activists, journalists and social workers, was also constituted in February to initiate a dialogue between the Maoists and the government.
At least two public attempts at talks between the two warring parties have failed since 2000, a key sticking point being the condition that the Maoists renounce violence.
This new bid for peace comes at a critical juncture because the Maoist movement today is saddled with an ageing leadership and lacks a second generation of leaders who can continue to give strategic vision and guidance.
In the absence of such a leadership, Choudhary says the Maoists’ “disciplined political violence” could degenerate into a “senseless gang war” as soon as within a decade.
Parts of central India, he fears, could then end up being riddled with factional violence perpetrated by disparate warlords with interests ranging from drug-dealing to abductions, rendering any possibility of peace even more elusive.
“So, we have this window of opportunity now because in another five years or so there will be not much left to try,” he adds.
The team running the register, which comprises around 10 full-time workers besides volunteers, has drawn up a list of around 20,000 victims who are being interviewed.
Their accounts are, however, not being fact-checked. “We will have the disclaimer that it is the people telling their stories,” said Choudhary.
Over the years, recurring violence in this conflict, which rarely makes it to the country’s front pages unless perpetrated through a major attack, has devastated many families.
This is something Rimjhim Gour, a freelance journalist who volunteered to document some of the victims’ testimonies, was moved by.
One of the stories she recorded was that of five children born to a policeman from a local tribal community who was killed by the Maoists in 2011.
He was married to two women – polygamy is an accepted tradition here – who died soon after because of illnesses that worsened from the trauma of their husband’s death.
The five orphans – three brothers and two sisters whose ages range from 18 to 10 – were adopted by Christian missionaries and are currently lodged in a government residential school, with little possibility of contact between them.
“The youngest ones don’t even have any memory of their parents,” she added. “When one starts seeing how the violence affects families, one starts empathising and empathy can lead to a lot of things.”
The state, however, has reacted cautiously to this initiative.
Subrat Sahoo, additional chief secretary (home) with the state government in Chhattisgarh, the epicentre of this conflict, said an “attempt to mitigate problems faced by those who have borne the brunt of Naxalite violence is welcome”.
“But this cannot be an official endorsement of a private individual’s attempt. Nor can the government directly lift or take off from what they do because we don’t know their modus operandi and what methodology they have adopted,” he added.
In 2019, Chhattisgarh’s chief minister Bhupesh Baghel had said that talks with Maoists were possible only if they give up violence and respect the Indian constitution.
Sahoo did not share any details of the state’s continuing attempts to broker peace with the Maoists, who have in the past publicly criticised the NPP’s campaigns.
Government support, though, is essential for any victims’ register to have a meaningful impact, according to Lina Marcela Cuartas Villa, a social communicator based in Colombia.
Cuartas Villa has been helping two Colombian state agencies implement the peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
She has also been offering advice informally to the Victims Register team in India.
“For any peace process to succeed, it is important that all parties involved and affected by the conflict demonstrate their commitment to the process and participate actively,” she said.
Colombia legislated the Victims and Land Restitution Law in 2011 with an aim to provide reparations to victims of the armed conflict, including through economic indemnity and restitution of land.
This included setting up the Unit for the Victims Assistance and Reparation and the Land Restitution Unit in 2012.
“The Victims Law has been an access door to reparation and a path to reconciliation,” said Cuartas Villa. “Since the state has a great role in providing rights to the citizens, it needs to have a great play in such an effort.”
The register in India has been inspired by the work that civil society organisations did in Colombia to document human rights violations, laying some of the groundwork for the state to intervene and enact the Victims and Land Restitution Law.
It is with the hope for a similar state intervention that the Victims Register is being set up.
Its team in India will organise a protest march of victims from both sides of the conflict on Friday to build public pressure on the government as well as the Maoists to negotiate a peace treaty.
The marchers will walk from Abujhmad in Chhattisgarh’s Narayanpur district, an area that serves as a key base for the Maoists, to the state’s capital Raipur – a distance of around 222km (137 miles).
March 12, the date of the protest march, is significant. It was on this day in 1930 that the iconic Indian freedom fighter Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi started his famed Dandi March, a non-violent civil disobedience movement against the British colonial regime.
“This will be our ‘satyagraha’ (non-violent resistance), our way to request the government as well as the Maoists to come to the discussion table and resolve the conflict for once and for all,” said Choudhary.