Launching the Congress party’s ‘Parivartan Yatra’ (March for Change) on Thursday in Bastar, a senior Central Minister, Jairam Ramesh, compared Mahendra Karma, the tribal leader, with a “slow tiger.” “Mahendra Karma was called the ‘Bastar Tiger.’ But the tiger has slowed down over the years,” said the Minister in the presence of Mr. Karma and about two thousand Gond tribals. Sitting on the dais, Mr. Karma’s reactions changed from surprise to utter disgust as the Minister, known for his proximity to the Gandhi family, kept repeating this formulation.
Mr. Karma was already getting sidelined in the Congress but perhaps was also planning a comeback. After an attack in 2012, the fourth time in the last few years, he told this correspondent that he would fight back. “I will make a come back like a film star,” he laughed. After Saturday’s bloodbath, the ‘Bastar Tiger’ will go into the history books as one who fought his own clan to rise and perhaps to fall as well. But on the way, he also challenged the upper caste, English speaking segment of the Congress by getting elected as the Leader of the Opposition in 2003. Prior to that, the 62-year-old leader was a Minister in the Ajit Jogi cabinet and a MP in the 11th Lok Sabha. He lost the 2008 Assembly election.
Mahendra Karma came from an affluent family of Bastar. His father was the ‘Bada Manjhi,’ or the one who is the head of the heads of several villages. Being a landowner, Mr. Karma’s natural choice would have been Congress, but he chose the Communist Party of India which had an important presence in the region. “He was a committed student leader and later went to the Assembly. His performance inside the House was outstanding. He was twice our MLA,” said veteran CPI leader Chhitaranjan Bakshi.
But Mr. Karma changed teams after initial defeats. His cousin Lakhsman Karma, also a Congress leader, told him “to join Congress, to make it big.” Mr. Karma indeed wanted to make it big, so big that people would recognise him in Bastar, in Delhi and perhaps even in Hungary. “I went to Hungary once, it’s a lovely country,” Mr. Karma said once, with his usual, affable smile.
Salwa Judum years
“In 1991, I started the Jan Jagran Abhiyan against the Maoists, but without any support. But, now everyone is serious, because the TATAs could not acquire the land in Lohandiguda [for their project],” said Mr. Karma. The Maoists also felt that Mahendra Karma got alarmed by their presence even before the Indian state did. “Karma realised, like other landowners, that we are going to distribute their land, so they started arming tribal boys against us,” said Dandakarnya spokesperson of CPI (Maoist), Gusda Usendi, to this correspondent in 2010.
What started as a drive to save his farmland slowly changed into a fulltime job for Mr. Karma and his associates. Soon after forming the anti-Maoist “armed civilian vigilante” movement, Salwa Judum (SJ) in 2005, Mr. Karma realised that there was big money in the anti-Maoist operations. A member of a business family of Bastar told this correspondent that they started financing Salwa Judum, sometime after its formation. “We wanted land prices to escalate, so we could sell it off. We felt if Maoists disappear and industries arrive, the prices will go up and SJ provided a solution,” he said. Eventually, Mr. Karma started getting state funding as well.
However, it is also believed that the ruling BJP pushed Mr. Karma to head SJ. In 2005, he allegedly got involved in the illegal business of teak wood, along with some forest officials and was facing arrest. “Karmaji was told to work closely with the administration and they will postpone his arrest, that was the understanding,” said an SPO and a close associate of Mr. Karma. The BJP denies these allegations.
At the peak of SJ, several villages of south Chhattisgarh were evacuated and tens of thousands of tribals were forced to shift to camps in the vicinity of police stations. Hundreds were killed and tortured, many were raped and an unaccounted number migrated to neighbouring states. But Mr. Karma became famous and important, as he managed to garner support for SJ, cutting across party lines.
After an initial setback, the Maoists started challenging SJ at multiple levels. “Primarily, our recruitment escalated,” the military chief of North Regional Command of CPI (Maoist), Jagesh, told this correspondent in 2010. At another level, Mr. Karma and his movement got a hostile press across the world and eventually a Supreme Court judgment declared the movement as “unconstitutional.”
Mr. Karma’s political career started waning as SJ collapsed. Finally, last Thursday, a Central Minister made it clear that ‘Bastar Tiger’ is no more the mascot of the party in Bastar. Perhaps the party realised that Mr. Karma had lost his base among his people after SJ. Out of this realisation his political masters announced his end on Thursday. His rivals, some of whom could well have been from his clan, killed him two days after.