The days after the Naxal attack in Jeeram valley was an eye opener on how India has changed.
I thought of writing posting this after the tervaa, or thirteenth day of mourning, for those killed in the May 25 Jeeram Ghati attack was over. But then, former union minister VC Shukla succumbed to his injuries sustained in the attack on June 11. While the two biggest national parties traded charges over the attack in the past month, I realised that the country I grew up in had become an unfamiliar place.
I was five when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu. My father, a DMK voting Tamil nationalist, disliked Mr. Gandhi for sending our army to fight Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka. But when the prime minister was killed, he was shell shocked. Our family was in grief. I’ve heard similar tales of a friend, who’s father— a former naxalite trade unionist— broke down in tears when he heard that prime minister Indira Gandhi, whom he militantly opposed, had been killed.
I’ve always considered the idea of mourning the death of someone you dislike or being filled with compassion for a rival in pain, very South Asian. This is perfectly portrayed in Sudhir Mishra’s 2005 film Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. In the film, a naxalite named Siddharth Tyabji— played by K. K. Menon— realises revolutionary reality when Dalits he has instigated to avenge a rape, rush to save the life of the landlord they come to lynch when the latter has a heart attack.
More than two decades after the Sriperumbudur bombing, I was checking out of a hotel in Mandla, an eastern district of Madhya Pradesh bordering Chhattisgarh. As I cleared the bill, the ticker on a TV screen flashed that naxals had attacked Congressmen in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district. My photographer A. M. Faruqui and I intended to reach Jabalpur, the nearest rail head, before nightfall. So we didn’t bother to catch up on the news.
In intermittent bouts of mobile connectivity on the road, we gathered that Mahendra Karma— the leader of Chhattisgarh’s Opposition and the founder of the anti-Maoist Salwa Judum vigilantes— had been killed. He topped the Maoist hit list. As we entered Jabalpur, news of Chhattisgarh Pradesh Committee President N. K. Patel’s death came in too. “Why did they kill him! He was such a nice man,” exclaimed Faruqui, who knew both of them when they were ministers in undivided MP.
He turned pale, as if he had lost someone dear. Our driver, a Gond tribesman like Karma, had silently observed Faruqui ji’s expressions of grief and frantic phone calls. Just before he dropped us off he said, “Mahendra Karma bahut danger aadmi thha.” (Mahendra Karma was a dangerous man)
After we had seen TV visuals of the attack loop several times, I went to bed. But Faruqui ji couldn’t sleep. He stayed on the phone all night. My dreams that Saturday night had bullets, blood and names like Uday Mudaliar, Karma and Patel narrated by Faruqui ji.
The following day, the streets were abuzz with talk of the attack. “They surrounded them and killed them,” said one commuter in a share auto. “They came down from the hills,” said another. “Arey (Chhattisgarh CM) Raman Singh must’ve done it,” said the driver. “No, it is (former Chhattisgarh CM Ajit) Jogi,” said a woman.
The attack was the part of the day’s gossip for the boatmen of Bedaghat too. “They selected them and shot them,” said an older boatman. “Hah, even our policemen can’t read ID cards as well as those naxalis,” replied another.
A policeman I got friendly with said that he was happy the state was bifurcated. “If it was still one MP, they would have sent me to get killed by those naxalis in the jungle.”
The following day, Youth Congress boys on bikes enforced a half day bandh. They were thrilled to see TV cameras and posed for them. Though there were reports of scuffles with a few irritated shopkeepers, the police let the Congress have its bandh.
The tragedy of the bandh was that neither its enforcers nor the shopkeepers looked as if they were in mourning. I ran into a Congress squad near Jabalpur’s Russel Square. A youth went up to a few stationery shops and said, “It’s only a half day bandh. Don’t think about your profits all the time. So many people have been martyred.” A shopkeeper replied, “You guys just want to enjoy at our expense.”
“If you think you will become an Ambani by keeping the shop open, then open it all night,” replied the Congress youth. As a few shopkeepers downed their shutters, they muttered abuses on those killed. Even the Congress youth agreed that it was unwise to go into “naxal territory.”
This bandh of mourning was like a formality. The Congress leadership of a neighbouring state had been wiped out. The people attacked included widely popular personalities like Karma, Patel and Shukla. Yet there was the visible absence of grief on the streets, that had followed Mr. Gandhi’s death.
When I checked out of my hotel the next day, the receptionists were still talking about the attack. “They should do this in Delhi. Take out leaders from their cars and shoot them,” he said. I looked at him, stunned, not knowing what to say. “Kyon bhaisaheb, Karma sant thha kya,” ("Why, brother, was Karma a saint") he asked me rhetorically.
It seemed then that Faruqui was the only one in Jabalpur mourning the fallen cops and Congressmen. India had changed. Some blame the movement against corruption for making politician bashing the norm. Perhaps it was them or, as blogger Aesha Datta suggests, our democracy has bled dry. If people must care again then politics will have to change.