Lal lal salaam, lal lal salaam,
Jaane wale saathiyon ko lal lal salaam
(Red Salute to departing comrades)
Phir milenge, phir milenge
Dandakaranya jungle mein phir milenge
(We’ll meet again, some day, in the Dandakaranya forest).
It’s never taken lightly, the ceremony of arrival and departure, because everybody knows that when they say “we’ll meet again” they actually mean “we may never meet again”.
Comrade Narmada, Comrade Maase and Comrade Rupi are going separate ways. Will I ever see them again?
So, once again, we walk. It’s becoming hotter every day. Kamla picks the first fruit of the tendu for me. It tastes like chikoo. I’ve become a tamarind fiend. This time we camp near a stream. Women and men take turns to bathe in batches. In the evening, Comrade Raju receives a whole packet of ‘biscuits’. News:
- 60 people arrested in Manpur Division at the end of Jan 2010 have not yet been produced in Court.
- Huge contingents of police have arrived in South Bastar. Indiscriminate attacks are on.
- On Nov 8, 2009, in Kachlaram Village, Bijapur Jila, Dirko Madka (60) and Kovasi Suklu (68) were killed
- On Nov 24, Madavi Baman (15) was killed in Pangodi village
- On Dec 3, Madavi Budram from Korenjad also killed
- On Dec 11, Gumiapal village, Darba Division, 7 people killed (names yet to come)
- On Dec 15, Kotrapal village, Veko Sombar and Madavi Matti (both with KAMS) killed
- On Dec 30, Vechapal village Poonem Pandu and Poonem Motu (father and son) killed
- On Jan 2010 (date unknown), head of the Janatana Sarkar in Kaika village, Gangalaur, killed
- On Jan 9, 4 people killed in Surpangooden village, Jagargonda Area
- On Jan 10, 3 people killed in Pullem Pulladi village (no names yet)
- On Jan 25, 7 people killed in Takilod village, Indravati Area
- On Feb 10 (Bhumkal Day), Kumli raped and killed in Dumnaar Village, Abujhmad. She was from a village called Paiver
- 2,000 troops of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) are camped in the Rajnandgaon forests
- 5,000 additional BSF troops have arrived in Kanker
- PLGA quota filled.
Some dated newspapers have arrived too. There’s a lot of press about Naxalites. One screaming headline sums up the political climate perfectly: ‘Khadedo, Maaro, Samarpan Karao(Eliminate, kill, make them surrender).’ Below that: ‘Vaarta ke liye loktantra ka dwar khula hai’(Democracy’s door is always open for talks).’ A second says the Maoists are growing cannabis to make money. The third has an editorial saying that the area we’ve camped in and are walking through is entirely under police control.
The young Communists take the clips away to practice their reading. They walk around the camp reading the anti-Maoist articles loudly in radio-announcer voices.
New day. New place. We’re camped on the outskirts of Usir village, under huge mahua trees. The mahua has just begun to flower and is dropping its pale green blossoms like jewels on the forest floor. The air is suffused with its slightly heady smell. We’re waiting for the children from the Bhatpal school which was closed down after the Ongnaar encounter. It’s been turned into a police camp. The children have been sent home. This is also true of the schools in Nelwad, Moonjmetta, Edka, Vedomakot and Dhanora.
The Bhatpal school children don’t show up.
Bob-Cut Brigade: In Bastar, women with a bob-cut haircut can get you killed
Comrade Niti (Most Wanted) and Comrade Vinod lead us on a long walk to see the series of water-harvesting structures and irrigation ponds that have been built by the local Janatana Sarkar. Comrade Niti talks about the range of agricultural problems they have to deal with. Only 2 per cent of the land is irrigated. In Abujhmad, ploughing was unheard of until 10 years ago. In Gadchiroli on the other hand, hybrid seeds and chemical pesticides are edging their way in. “We need urgent help in the agriculture department,” Comrade Vinod says. “We need people who know about seeds, organic pesticides, permaculture. With a little help we could do a lot.”
Comrade Ramu is the farmer in charge of the Janatana Sarkar area. He proudly shows us around the fields, where they grow rice, brinjal, gongura, onions, kohlrabi. Then, with equal pride, he shows us a huge but bone-dry irrigation pond. What’s this? “This one doesn’t even have water during the rainy season. It’s dug in the wrong place,” he says, a smile wrapped around his face. “It’s not ours, it was dug by the Looti Sarkar (the government that loots).” There are two parallel systems of government here, Janatana Sarkar and Looti Sarkar.
I think of what Comrade Venu said to me: they want to crush us, not only because of the minerals, but because we are offering the world an alternative model.
It’s not an Alternative yet, this idea of Gram Swaraj with a Gun. There’s too much hunger, too much sickness here. But it has certainly created the possibilities for an alternative. Not for the whole world, not for Alaska, or New Delhi, nor even perhaps for the whole of Chhattisgarh, but for itself. For Dandakaranya. It’s the world’s best-kept secret. It has laid the foundations for an alternative to its own annihilation. It has defied history. Against the greatest odds it has forged a blueprint for its own survival. It needs help and imagination, it needs doctors, teachers, farmers.
It does not need war.
But if war is all it gets, it will fight back.
Over the next few days, I meet women who work with KAMS, various office-bearers of the Janatana Sarkars, members of the Dandakaranya Adivasi Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan (DAKMS), the families of people who had been killed, and just ordinary people trying to cope with life in these terrifying times.
I met three sisters—Sukhiari, Sukdai and Sukkali—not young, perhaps in their 40s, from Narayanpur district. They have been in KAMS for 12 years. The villagers depend on them to deal with the police. “The police come in groups of two to three hundred. They steal everything: jewellery, chickens, pigs, pots and pans, bows and arrows,” Sukkali says, “they won’t even leave a knife.” Her house in Innar has been burned twice, once by the Naga battalion and once by the CRPF Sukhiari has been arrested and jailed in Jagdalpur for seven months. “Once they took away the whole village, saying the men were all Naxals.” Sukhiari followed with all the women and children. They surrounded the police station and refused to leave until the men were freed. “Whenever they take someone away,” Sukdai says, “you have to go immediately and snatch them back. Before they write any report. Once they write in their book, it becomes very difficult.”
Sukhiari, who as a child was abducted and forcibly married to an older man (she ran away and went to live with her sister), now organises mass rallies, speaks at meetings. The men depend on her for protection. I asked her what the party means to her. “Naxalvaad ka matlab hamara parivaar (Naxalvaad means our family). When we hear of an attack, it is like our family has been hurt,” Sukhiari says.
I asked her if she knew who Mao was. She smiled shyly, “He was a leader. We’re working for his vision.”
I met Comrade Somari Gawde. Twenty years old, and she has already served a two-year jail sentence in Jagdalpur. She was in Innar village on January 8, 2007, the day that 740 policemen laid a cordon around it because they had information that Comrade Niti was there. (She was, but she had left by the time they arrived.) But the village militia, of which Somari was a member, was still there. The police opened fire at dawn. They killed two boys, Suklal Gawde and Kachroo Gota. Then they caught three others, two boys, Dusri Salam and Ranai, and Somari. Dusri and Ranai were tied up and shot. Somari was beaten within an inch of her life. The police got a tractor with a trailer and loaded the dead bodies into it. Somari was made to sit with the dead bodies and taken to Narayanpur.
I met Chamri, mother of Comrade Dilip who was shot on July 6, 2009. She says that after they killed him, the police tied her son’s body to a pole, like an animal and carried it with them. (They need to produce bodies to get their cash rewards, before someone else muscles in on the kill.) Chamri ran behind them all the way to the police station. By the time they reached, the body did not have a scrap of clothing on it. On the way, Chamri says, they left the body by the roadside while they stopped at a dhaba to have tea and biscuits. (Which they did not pay for.) Picture this mother for a moment, following her son’s corpse through the forest, stopping at a distance to wait for his murderers to finish their tea. They did not let her have her son’s body back so she could give him a proper funeral. They only let her throw a fistful of earth in the pit in which they buried the others they had killed that day. Chamri says she wants revenge.Badla ku badla. Blood for blood.
I met the elected members of the Marskola Janatana Sarkar that administers six villages. They described a police raid: they come at night, 300, 400, sometimes 1,000 of them. They lay a cordon around a village and lie in wait. At dawn they catch the first people who go out to the fields and use them as human shields to enter the village, to show them where the booby-traps are. (‘Booby-traps’ has become a Gondi word. Everybody always smiles when they say it or hear it. The forest is full of booby-traps, real and fake. Even the PLGA needs to be guided past villages.) Once the police enter a village, they loot and steal and burn houses. They come with dogs. The dogs catch those who try and run. They chase chickens and pigs and the police kill them and take them away in sacks. SPOs come along with the police. They’re the ones who know where people hide their money and jewellery. They catch people and take them away. And extract money before they release them. They always carry some extra Naxal ‘dresses’ with them in case they find someone to kill. They get money for killing Naxals, so they manufacture some. Villagers are too frightened to stay at home.
Dressed To The Nines: Adivasi boys in colourful traditional gear for Bhumkal day celebrations
In this tranquil-looking forest, life seems completely militarised now. People know words like Cordon and Search, Firing, Advance, Retreat, Down, Action! To harvest their crops, they need the PLGA to do a sentry patrol. Going to the market is a military operation. The markets are full of mukhbirs (informers) who the police have lured from their villages with money. I’m told there’s a mukhbir mohalla (informers’ colony) in Narayanpur where at least 4,000 mukhbirs stay. The men can’t go to market anymore. The women go, but they’re watched closely. If they buy even a little extra, the police accuse them of buying it for Naxals. Chemists have been instructed not to let people buy medicines except in very small quantities. Low-price rations from the Public Distribution System (PDS), sugar, rice, kerosene, are warehoused in or near police stations, making it impossible for most people to buy.
Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it as:
Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [or] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
All the walking seems to have finally got to me. I’m tired. Kamla gets me a pot of hot water. I bathe behind a tree in the dark. But I can’t eat dinner and crawl into my bag to sleep. Comrade Raju announces that we have to move. This happens frequently, of course, but tonight it’s hard. We have been camped in an open meadow. We’d heard shelling in the distance. There are 104 of us. Once again, single file through the night. Crickets. The smell of something like lavender. It must have been past 11 when we arrived at the place where we will spend the night. An outcrop of rocks. Formation. Roll call. Someone switches on the radio. BBC says there’s been an attack on a camp of Eastern Frontier Rifles in Lalgarh, West Bengal. Sixty Maoists on motorcycles. Fourteen policemen killed. Ten missing. Weapons snatched. There’s a murmur of pleasure in the ranks. Maoist leader Kishenji is being interviewed. When will you stop this violence and come for talks? When Operation Green Hunt is called off. Any time. Tell Chidambaram we will talk. Next question: it’s dark now, you have laid landmines, reinforcements have been called in, will you attack them too? Kishenji: Yes, of course, otherwise people will beat me. There’s laughter in the ranks. Sukhdev the clarifier says, “They always say landmines. We don’t use landmines. We use IEDs.”
Another luxury suite in the thousand-star hotel. I’m feeling ill. It starts to rain. There’s a little giggling. Kamla throws a jhilli over me. What more do I need? Everyone else just rolls themselves into their jhillis.
By next morning the body count in Lalgarh has gone up to 21, 10 missing.
Comrade Raju is considerate this morning. We don’t move till evening.
One night, people are crowded like moths around a point of light. It’s Comrade Sukhdev’s tiny computer, powered by a solar panel, and they’re watching Mother India, the barrels of their rifles silhouetted against the sky. Kamla doesn’t seem interested. I ask her if she likes watching movies. “Nahin didi. Sirf ambush video (No didi. Only ambush videos).” Later, I ask Comrade Sukhdev about these ambush videos. Without batting an eyelid, he plays one for me.
It starts with shots of Dandakaranya, rivers, waterfalls, the close-up of a bare branch of a tree, a brainfever bird calling. Then suddenly a comrade is wiring up an IED, concealing it with dry leaves. A cavalcade of motorcycles is blown up. There are mutilated bodies and burning bikes. The weapons are being snatched. Three policemen, looking shell-shocked, have been tied up.
Who’s filming it? Who’s directing operations? Who’s reassuring the captured cops that they will be released if they surrender? (They were. I confirm that later.)
I know that gentle, reassuring voice. It’s Comrade Venu.
“It’s the Kudur ambush,” Comrade Sukhdev says.
He also has a video archive of burned villages, testimonies from eyewitnesses and relatives of the dead. On the singed wall of a burnt house, it says, ‘Nagaaa! Born to Kill!’ There’s footage of a little boy whose fingers were chopped off to inaugurate the Bastar chapter of Operation Green Hunt. (There’s even a TV interview with me. My study. My books. Strange.)
At night, on the radio, there’s news of another Naxal Attack. This one in Jamui, Bihar. It says 125 Maoists attacked a village and killed 10 people belonging to the Kora tribe in retaliation for giving police information that led to the death of six Maoists. Of course, we know that the media report may or may not be true. But, if it is, this one’s unforgivable. Comrade Raju and Sukhdev look distinctly uncomfortable.
The news that has been coming from Jharkhand and Bihar is disturbing. The gruesome beheading of the policeman Francis Induvar is still fresh in everyone’s mind. It’s a reminder of how easily the discipline of armed struggle can dissolve into lumpen acts of criminalised violence, or into ugly wars of identity between castes and communities and religious groups. By institutionalising injustice in the way that it does, the Indian State has turned this country into a tinderbox of massive unrest. The government is quite wrong if it thinks that by carrying out ‘targeted assassinations’ to render the CPI (Maoist) ‘headless’, it will end the violence. On the contrary, the violence will spread and intensify, and the government will have nobody to talk to.
On my last few days, we meander through the lush, beautiful Indravati valley. As we walk along a hillside, we see another line of people walking in the same direction, but on the other side of the river. I’m told they are on their way to an anti-dam meeting in Kudur village. They’re overground and unarmed. A local rally for the valley. I jump ship and join them.
The Bodhghat dam will submerge the entire area that we have been walking in for days. All that forest, all that history, all those stories. More than 100 villages. Is that the plan then? To drown people like rats, so that the integrated steel plant in Lohandiguda and the bauxite mine and aluminium refinery in the Keshkal ghats can have the river?
At the meeting, people who have come from miles away say the same thing we have all heard for years. We will drown, but we won’t move! They are thrilled that someone from Delhi is with them. I tell them Delhi is a cruel city that neither knows nor cares about them.
Only weeks before I came to Dandakaranya, I visited Gujarat. The Sardar Sarovar Dam has more or less reached its full height now. And almost every single thing the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) predicted would happen has happened. People who were displaced have not been rehabilitated, but that goes without saying. The canals have not been built. There’s no money. So Narmada water is being diverted into the empty riverbed of the Sabarmati (which was dammed a long time ago.) Most of the water is being guzzled by cities and big industry. The downstream effects—saltwater ingress into an estuary with no river—are becoming impossible to mitigate.
The Long March: Maoists on the move in Bastar, single file as always
There was a time when believing that Big Dams were the ‘temples of modern India’ was misguided, but perhaps understandable. But today, after all that has happened, and when we know all that we do, it has to be said that Big Dams are a crime against humanity.
The Bodhghat dam was shelved in 1984 after local people protested. Who will stop it now? Who will prevent the foundation stone from being laid? Who will stop the Indravati from being stolen? Someone must.
On the last night, we camped at the base of the steep hill we would climb in the morning, to emerge on the road from where a motorcycle would pick me up. The forest has changed even since I first entered it. The chiraunji, silk-cotton and mango trees have begun to flower.
The villagers from Kudur send a huge pot of freshly-caught fish to the camp. And a list for me, of 71 kinds of fruit, vegetables, pulses and insects they get from the forest and grow in their fields, along with the market price. It’s just a list. But it’s also a map of their world.
Jungle post arrives. Two biscuits for me. A poem and a pressed flower from Comrade Narmada. A lovely letter from Maase. (Who is she? Will I ever know?)
Comrade Sukhdev asks if he can download the music from my Ipod onto his computer. We listen to a recording of Iqbal Bano singing Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge (We will Witness the Day) at the famous concert in Lahore at the height of the repression during the Zia-ul-Haq years.
Masnad pe bithaiye jayenge
(When the heretics and the reviled will be seated on high)
Sab taaj uchhale jayenge
Sab takht giraye jayenge
(All crowns will be snatched away
All thrones toppled)
Fifty thousand people in the audience in that Pakistan begin a defiant chant: Inqilab Zindabad! Inqilab Zindabad! All these years later, that chant reverberates around this forest. Strange, the alliances that get made.
The home minister’s been issuing veiled threats to those who “erroneously offer intellectual and material support to Maoists”. Does sharing music qualify?
At dawn, I say goodbye to Comrade Madhav and Joori, to young Mangtu and all the others. Comrade Chandu has gone to organise the bikes, and will come with me to the main road. Comrade Raju isn’t coming (the climb would be hell on his knees). Comrade Niti (Most Wanted), Comrade Sukhdev, Kamla and five others will take me up the hill. As we start walking, Niti and Sukhdev casually but simultaneously unclick the safety catches of their AKs. It’s the first time I’ve seen them do that. We’re approaching the ‘Border’. “Do you know what to do if we come under fire?” Sukhdev asks casually, as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Yes,” I said, “immediately declare an indefinite hunger strike.”
He sat down on a rock and laughed. We climbed for about an hour. Just below the road, we sat in a rocky alcove, completely concealed, like an ambush party, listening for the sound of the bikes. When it comes, the farewell must be quick. Lal Salaam Comrades.
When I looked back, they were still there. Waving. A little knot. People who live with their dreams, while the rest of the world lives with its nightmares. Every night I think of this journey. That night sky, those forest paths. I see Comrade Kamla’s heels in her scuffed chappals, lit by the light of my torch. I know she must be on the move. Marching, not just for herself, but to keep hope alive for us all.