Literary Review

Elusive peace in Bastar

In this Nov 2009 photo, special police officers are seen inside a Salwa Judum camp in Dantewada, Chhatisgarh. Photo: AP  

James Cameron’s Avatar made waves some years ago not just for its use of cutting-edge motion capture techniques but also for its storyline. A hunter-gatherer tribe called Na’avi was shown taking on the humans invading their planet for the mineral unobtanium. Aided by conscientious humans, the Na’avi emerge victorious against the mercenary earthlings.

Nandini Sundar’s The Burning Forest — on the strife, civil war, and displacement of adivasis in Bastar in southern Chhattisgarh — is a similar story, except this time, it is rooted in reality.

The author argues that the primary purpose of the over decade-long counter-insurgency strategy of the Indian state against Maoists, resulting in a civil war in Bastar, had a lot to do with the latter’s presence being an obstacle to land acquisition and the exploitation of minerals in the region. The deployment of central paramilitary forces and the setting up of a jungle warfare programme were all done to eliminate Maoists from these areas.

Sundar argues that the Salwa Judum campaign (that peaked between 2005 and 2010) was orchestrated as a counter-insurgency measure that used area domination ideas from old playbooks on guerrilla warfare. The strategy required the displacement of villagers and their en masse encampment to wean them away from supporting the Maoist “insurgents”, while creating an armed force consisting of local volunteers and special police officers to deploy against adivasi sympathisers of the Maoists.

The strategy was used in Mizoram in the 1960s and drew from the experiences of the counter-insurgency forces led by the British in Malaya during the same period. The author elaborates on the Salwa Judum strategy both as a chronicler and as an academic who reflects on the devastation wreaked upon adivasi communities by pitting them against each other.

She also sheds light on the Maoists’ dual role as they operated out of their forest strongholds to the north of Indrawati river, where they sought to establish a functional alternative state.

The Maoists’ first role was as a force that significantly impacted the economic and social lives of the mostly Gondi-speaking adivasi people. This was especially true of the Peoples’ War Group after its years of political activism following a tactical shift to Bastar as base area after setbacks in the then Andhra Pradesh. The Maoists’ ‘janathana sarkar’ (peoples’ governments), which consisted of components of the CPI (Maoist) party and adivasi village representatives, helped organised collective agrarian work, land and harvest distribution, regulation of collection of forest produce and sales to contractors. The Maoists thus became a counter-hegemonic force who helped villagers stave off repression by arms of the Indian state such as the forest department.

The other role played by the Maoists was a militaristic one seeking to limit the presence of the state in its strongholds, by not allowing the welfare efforts of the state — roads, rations and other measures — to reach these areas. The Maoists adopted a quasi-authoritarian stance using the threat of violence against adivasis. The author suggests that this approach, in addition to repression by the state, has endangered the already precarious lives of the adivasis. Many adivasis were forced to migrate across Chhattisgarh into Andhra Pradesh and face new travails because of this.

The Judum’s officers killed adivasis suspected to be members of the sanghams sympathetic to Maoists, and there were also many instances of rape of adivasi women. The indiscriminate killings and rapes reduced somewhat between 2011 and 2013 after receiving judicial attention, only to resume again from 2015. The impact of the Judum has been the persistent militarisation of Bastar. It has featured, on the one hand, the wanton repression unleashed by the state, and on the other, brutal violence by the Maoists against the adivasis to prevent them from becoming “informers”. The civil war between the paramilitary forces such as the CRPF and the Maoists has seen an egregious number of deaths.

The outcome of the civil war has been a substantial reduction in welfare: schools, for example, have been shut down, since the buildings were used by the Judum and other forces. There is also a shortfall in doctors and health centres.

The author relates several anecdotes about individuals and their families that reflect the misery of those caught in this conflict featuring the Salwa Judum and, later, Operation Green Hunt. She, along with Ramachandra Guha and E.A.S. Sarma, had filed a PIL against the Salwa Judum in the Supreme Court in 2007, resulting in its ban in 2011. But following the filing of a review petition by the Centre, and with the Chhattisgarh State government passing an ordinance to regularise the SPOs, the Supreme Court order was not implemented.

Sundar does not agree with the liberal notion that the adivasis have been merely caught in the crossfire between the state and the Maoists. She correctly identifies severe flaws in the ideological thinking of the Indian democratic firmament on the one hand and the Maoists on the other. The political class and the bureaucracy limit Indian democracy merely to the conduct of elections, refusing to acknowledge dissent beyond its parliamentary expression. The author argues further that electoral democracy has been “used as a weapon” against dissent, even as Maoists have refused to acknowledge even the “symbolic importance of elections as a moment for popular demands”. She points to the anomalies in the Maoist insistence on electoral boycott, and their tactical manoeuvres that have only helped the power status quo.

The militarisation of Bastar has meant that rampant human rights violations and repression by both state and non-state actors have remained unaddressed by the state, leaving civil society and the judiciary to take it up. But the limiting of civil society campaigns for human rights to personality-centric ones has not helped bring substantive intervention. Rather, it has resulted in the renewal of the Judum-like vigilantism in a somewhat different form since 2015.

The book ends on a bleak note pointing to the non-implementation of the 2011 Supreme Court judgment providing justice to the victims of massacres carried out by the Judum, which had also sought an end to the vigilantism.

Sundar’s book is a must-read for those interested in the genesis and the nature of conflict in Bastar and for those willing to think beyond ‘development’ achieved through dispossession of land from the adivasis to whom it belongs and for whom it is a source of livelihood. It would have been even more comprehensive if she had brought out more facts about the Maoists and their organisational structure. It is difficult to assess from the author’s observations whether the Maoists had indeed managed to set up a parallel state in Marh.

This is vital to know, as any change in the Maoist position on violence and the possibility of talks — which the author says is overwhelmingly sought by the people in Bastar — is incumbent upon assessing the real strength of the Maoists, an aspect that has been either under-reported by journalists or romanticised by partisans.

Did the Maoists’ recourse to armed methods provoke a military response by the state resulting in the state of affairs today? The author is ambivalent on this. She also believes in the counter-fact that the forests would have been overrun by mining companies if not for the Maoist resistance. This is a difficult argument to accept, as successful resistance to land acquisition in places such as Singur has been possible through non-violent means, suggesting that the Indian state is somewhat responsive to popular movements if they have strong agency.

India’s democracy is a work in progress and a large section of its citizenry are still ‘victims’ of the democratic deficit that persists in various parts such as Bastar. The author's contention is that the Indian state is limiting the understanding of the conflict in Chhattisgarh to a matter of security and question of development that can only be answered through expropriation. This will only exacerbate the deficit rather than narrowing it. The book should help interested citizens understand this.

In the above article, the sentence — “Sundar is limiting the understanding of the conflict in Chhattisgarh to a matter of security and a question of development that can only be answered through expropriation.” — has been recast to read: “The author’s contention is that the Indian state is limiting the understanding of the conflict in Chhattisgarh to a matter of security and a question of development that can only be answered through expropriation”.

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 11:44:48 PM |

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