A 40-year long civil war has been raging in the jungles of central and eastern India. It is one of the world’s largest armed conflicts but it remains largely ignored outside of India.
Caught in the crossfire of it are the Adivasis, who are believed to be India’s earliest inhabitants. A loose collection of tribes, it is estimated that there are about 84 million of these indigenous people, which is about eight per cent of the country’s population.
For generations, they have lived off farming and the spoils of the jungle in eastern India, but their way of life is under threat. Their land contains mineral deposits estimated to be worth trillions of dollars. Forests have been cleared and the Indian government has evacuated hundreds of villages to make room for steel plants and mineral refineries.
The risk of losing everything they have ever known has made many Adivasis fertile recruits for India’s Maoist rebels or Naxalites, who also call these forests home.
The Maoists’ fight with the Indian government began 50 years ago, just after India became independent. A loose collection of anti-government communist groups – that initially fought for land reform – they are said to be India’s biggest internal security threat. Over time, their focus has expanded to include more fundamental questions about how India is actually governed.
In their zeal for undermining the Indian government, Maoist fighters have torched construction equipment, bombed government schools and de-railed passenger trains, killing hundreds. In the name of state security, several activists who have supported the Maoists have been jailed and tortured. Innocent people have also been implicated on false charges. These are often intimidation tactics used by the government to discourage people from having any contact with the Maoists.
The uprising by Maoist fighters and its brutal suppression by the Indian government, has claimed more than 10,000 lives since 1980, and displaced 12 million people. Many of the victims are not even associated with either side. They are simply caught in the crossfire. And the violence is escalating as both sides mount offensive after counter-offensive.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Garda travelled to the Indian states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal to get a secret glimpse into the world of the Naxalites and to meet with rebel fighters as well as those victimised by this conflict.
|Inside India’s ‘red corridor’|
By Imran Garda (with thanks to Nandena Saxena, Kamal Kumar, Kavita Bahl and Yasir Khan)
|India’s ‘red corridor’ covers a substantial chunk of the country, with many districts under Maoist control [Al Jazeera]|
The eye of the world has been focused on India’s meteoric rise as a future superpower – the billion people, the Bollywood blockbusters, the inimitable IPL cricket – but, as with everything, India has its more troublesome aspects.
We have some knowledge of the conflicts on the borders – the almost intractable tension over Kashmir and a nuclear standoff with Pakistan in an epic neighbourly story. We have learnt about the slums of Mumbai, the slumdog millionaires and the struggle to bridge the gap between the poor and the super-rich in a super-stratified caste system.
But, most of us know little about the silent war that rages within India’s central and eastern jungles.
At the bottom of all ladders
The Adivasis, the original inhabitants of the land who populate the jungle heartlands of the country, are caught in the middle of a conflict that has raged between India’s government and Maoist insurgents, known as Naxalites, for almost five decades.
The Maoists believe in armed agrarian revolution to establish a classless society and have their roots in the Naxalbari uprising of the 1960s. But they have taken myriad and often diametrically opposed forms over the decades.
The jungles of Jharkhand state, in eastern India, provide a vivid example of the poverty and neglect many of the estimated 84 million Adivasis endure. These are people at the bottom of all ladders – economic, social, cultural, and even psychological.
In ferocious summer heat we visited Basa Dera and Sabar Basti, villages that have faced frequent lockdowns by government paramilitaries as part of ongoing operations against the Maoists.
We met a young girl suffering from Malaria. The nearest clinic of any sort was 30km away and her father seemed almost resigned to losing her. He did not know who the Indian prime minister was, but had a strong belief in democracy and was adamant that it was necessary to vote in local elections. He went to the markets of Jharkhand every week to sell vegetables. This kept them alive. But barely. I often wonder if his daughter survived.
A short, bumpier ride up the dusty gravel road, we came across the Sabar people. Even among the Adivasis there are divisions and subdivisions, higher and lower castes, and the Sabar are the lowest of the low.
The simple village real estate looked worse here. Drunken adults roamed and smiled, fell and cursed. Children, with bloated bellies signalling chronic malnutrition were dotted all over. The reek of Mahua, the local brew that numbs their pain, was everywhere. Melancholy reigned.
Binayak Sen is one of the most outspoken advocates of Adivasi rights. Incarcerated on charges of sedition, after two years, and a sustained international campaign, he was released on bail. He says Adivasis are not only disenfranchised, but live on coveted land that is rich in mineral resources. This has led to a campaign against them that he equates with genocide: “These focused processes of expropriation are forcing these people who are already living on the brink of starvation off the land and into more severe poverty. And I would submit that the condition that is being created today in large sections of the population, particularly those living in the forest areas that are mineral rich … correspond to a genocidal situation.”
In Maoist-controlled territory, or Maoist “infested” areas as the state calls them, irrigation systems provide fresh flowing water and schools and clinics, although simple, provide basic services. This tends to win hearts and minds. But the state and big business needs the land to continue to fuel India’s rapid industrialisation.
In Khandadhar, in the eastern state of Orissa, we encountered the Pawadi Bhuiyan tribe – now considered squatters on their own ancestral land.
With glorious waterfalls and greenery of intense lushness, the idyllic setting draws parallels with James Cameron’s Pandora in Avatar. But the comparisons do not stop there. This paradise is coveted by a mining giant and the state government.
Khandadhar has rich deposits of high-grade iron-ore. In 2007, the Orissa government leased 2,500 hectares of this land to the Korean multinational POSCO.
Kandul Deori, whose family has lived here for many generations, says the threat of displacement hangs heavy in the air: “I’ve heard they will move us. We don’t want to go. They say we’ll be sent to Kalahandi, a drought-stricken place.”
Locals have protested against the acquisition by POSCO and the state high court has stayed the mining operation for now, but the battle has reached the Indian Supreme Court.
Those relocated 56 years ago to make way for the Rourkela Steel Plant in Orissa are still languishing in terrible accommodation that was meant to be temporary.
What the government calls the “red corridor” – which serves the dual purpose of sounding sexy for the media and adding a catchy commie-fighting punch – could in equal measure be called the “natural resources corridor”. The crown jewels of modern ‘progress’ are almost bursting out of the ground here.
‘Terrorism in deeds’
The “red corridor” is a substantial chunk of the country. More than 200 of India’s 640 districts are under Maoist control.
But my requests for a meeting with the Maoists were repeatedly denied. At one point, in a scarcely veiled threat, I was even told that they could not guarantee my safety. But we had access to some on-the-record statements from their leadership.
“You people say that India [has] got a republican, independent government, we say NO it is not so, and between these two there is a contradiction. You people say that India got independence on August 15, 1947, we say power-transfer happened. Semi-feudal, semi-colonial. Politicians, rich people and land owners are looting the country, and benefiting. You may know the current police law is from 1898, from Victorian times, so what has changed? What has changed is a few faces who sit in the parliament today. Like a new cap on an old bottle. The content of the bottle is still the same. So the common people are still deprived and they will rise,” said their spokesman Gaur Chakravarty.
But Maoists often terrorise the very people they claim to protect and Adivasis have been killed on suspicion of being police informers or collaborators.
I asked Ashim Chatterjee, a member of the original Naxalbari uprising who now mediates between the government and the Maoists, whether the tactics of execution and extortion could be described as terrorism.
“Without taking up the responsibility of organising the class struggle, if you launch an armed struggle, it will inevitably become terrorism. It degenerated into a terrorist campaign. I’ve given it a name; it’s an exercise in socialism in words, and terrorism in deeds,” he explained.
Sympathisers claim the Maoists once had a reasonably successful political movement, but it was fractured by a crisis of identity and a battle within. It is unclear whether the young, ragged fighters, deep in the jungles of Orissa or Chattisgarh even know what it means to be a Maoist or what Mao Zedong stood for.
In Jharkand, scores of Maoist splinter groups emerged, becoming notorious for beheadings.
Fighting tears as he relayed his story, Sakri Bandra described how he was almost beaten to death by Maoist fighters who suspected him of treason: “They did not tell us anything, they grabbed us and took us away, one of my brothers was living there and I was here, they took my elder brother earlier and tied him up and after that they took me and tied me as well. You can see I still have the rope marks. We were three of us who were beaten, I survived and the others died.”
But when it comes to brutalising the Adivasis, it is not just the Maoists who have been blamed. We met many who saved their fiercest anger for government paramilitaries.
‘Operation Green Hunt’
Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, has called the Maoist insurgency the “biggest internal security threat” faced by the county. The media calls it “Operation Green Hunt”.
India’s potent paramilitary force, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), is better known for its operations in Indian-administered Kashmir. But here, it is tasked with fighting the Maoist insurgency.
They stumbled upon us in one of the villages or perhaps it was the other way around. In plain clothes and wielding Israeli-manufactured submachine guns, they were keen to talk so I asked Commandant Sanjiv Nanda if he felt the government needed to provide greater development in these areas to prevent the villagers turning to the Maoists.
Nanda was convinced that Adivasi sympathies lay with his men: “Most of the villages … more than 90 per cent you can say … they are not with them [the Maoists] now. And the last 10 per cent they are with them out of fear only.”
I asked him about a recent incident, where my colleagues who travelled to Chattisgarh recorded unpalatable footage of the aftermath of 60 homes being burnt to the ground by CRPF forces. Nanda reminded me that 76 CRPF men were killed in an ambush that week.
“Was it done out of revenge?” I asked.
“No it was not revenge,” he fine-tuned his approach, “definitely something might have been misquoted I think. Because of the fact their supporters … we cannot burn villages or kill supporters. As per orders we should have sufficient reasons, we should have proof ….”
“So do you think there were sufficient reasons to burn down those [homes]?”
“I cannot say anything because I don’t know about the particular location and the situation changes from place to place … this is totally … I don’t think there is any fact in this.”
There are also instances of men disappearing if authorities suspect them of being Maoists – no charge, no trial, just gone.
When we got to Silpunji, we found people oblivious to the incalculable wealth of iron ore contained in the land beneath their feet. They scrape out a living from the surrounding forests, steering clear of the mining trucks that rumble through. What struck me about the village as we walked through it was that there were almost no men there.
I had come to meet local politician George Tirki, who told me that in 2009, CRPF paramilitaries raided Silpunji and arrested most of the men on suspicion of collaborating with the Maoists.
Chubby and doe-eyed yet with a regal air, Tirki played both activist and translator for us among villagers who had an absolute trust in him. We stopped outside a clearly distraught woman’s home: “We don’t know any Maoists. We have never seen them,” she protested. “The CRPF used to come looking for Maoists every day. They would ask us for water to drink. We would give them water. We did not know that they would do this one day. Arrest our men and take them away. That morning our men were not even properly dressed.”
The government has also armed and funded Adivasi vigilante squads, who are often accused of the greatest brutality. Salwa Judum at Chattisgarh is one such squad. Wherever they operate, accusations of rape, extortion and plunder follow.
Up against the full force of India’s “Operation Green Hunt”, success for the Maoists may be defined as mere survival. It may also not be a question of if, but rather when, India will deploy the army to root them out.
But the checks and balances of Indian democracy play their part in this war that has claimed more than 10,000 lives in the past three decades. When the government turned to aerial assaults, the Supreme Court intervened, ruling that the government could not use such force against its own people.
Faith in democracy
Caught between the Maoists and the state, many Adivasis seem convinced that the violence can only lead to their extinction. Their natural resources have become a burden, not a blessing.
Yet, these people living in the India we barely hear of, still have faith in democracy. But it is a democracy rooted in the needs and aspirations of the villages and local councils, which provides the bare minimum for its people, respects that the original inhabitants of the land have a role in charting their own future, and represents rural and urban alike.
Can the state capitalise on this faith in democracy before it is too late?
Driving through the streets of New Delhi at the end of my journey I was once again reminded of the other India: billboards with fair skinned Shahrukh Khans and Aishwarya Rais leading glamorous air-conditioned Western lifestyles burst out of the dusty haze above shanty towns choking with overpopulation.
Modernisation has brought much to the “fastest growing democracy on the planet”, including dreams that are for most of the billion-plus people, especially the Adivasis, distant and unattainable.