Ear To The Ground

India’s continuing usfailure to listen to Chhattisgarh’s adivasis

Mainstream media often ignores the fact that Chhattisgarh’s adivasis are distinct from the Maoist rebels. TRIBHUVAN TIWARI / OUTLOOK
01 July, 2013

ON THE EVENING OF MAY 25, the all-consuming TV coverage of the Indian Premier League (IPL) spot-fixing scandal paused briefly to accommodate the news of a Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh. The rebels had waylaid a convoy of cars carrying Congress leaders and party workers near the village of Darbha. Once it was known that among those killed was Mahendra Karma, a former legislator and Maoist opponent who had led Salwa Judum, the controversial anti-rebel civil militia supported by the state, the attack further eclipsed the IPL saga. But it would take the morning light to momentarily blank it out by revealing the blood splattered bodies of Nand Kumar Patel, the politician who headed the Congress in the state, and his young son, Dinesh Patel, lying not far from the bend in the highway where 30 kilos of explosives had burst through the earth. Like Karma, the Patels had survived the explosion but had been singled out by the Maoists, taken away, and shot dead; unlike Karma, they had done little to antagonise them and invite a grisly death. Nor had the 25 others who had fallen to the indiscriminate gunfire of the guerillas.

Over the next few days, condemnations of the Maoist attack would ring loud in every form of media. Louder still were the voices that condemned the government for being soft on Maoist ‘terror’. An army of analysts advocated that the government show some spine by sending more security troops to Chhattisgarh. Writing for the Hindustan Times on May 27, Kamal Davar, a retired lieutenant-general in the Indian army, called it an “opportune time for the Indian Army to take a call on its reluctance to participate in internal security operations,” adding that there was a case to provide “dedicated air support in the form of helicopters, light aircraft and drones.” On May 31, the primetime debate on Times Now asked, ‘Is an all out offensive against the Maoists the only option now?’

But by the first week of June, the detour to the jungles of southern Chhattisgarh ended as abruptly as it began. The outrage on TV returned to the familiar territory of cricket controversies, and the adivasis of the region were the only ones still struggling to interpret the Darbha attack and make sense of how it had altered their lives.

“The president has decided that adivasis should be killed,” a teenaged adivasi boy told me in a conspiratorial whisper, leaning forward, pulling his chair closer in the roadside eatery where we sat with two other young people. It was more a question than a statement. I had first met the boy, about 18 years of age, in his village a few months earlier. Ten days after the attack, I had run into him quite by chance in the town of Dantewada. Before long, our conversation turned to recent events. “Who told you so?” I asked, stunned at what he had said. “This is apparently what is being shown on TV,” he responded.

The boy had been hanging out with his friends at the weekly bazaar in Potali, a village on the fringes of Maoist-controlled territory, when an older boy had swung by and delivered information he claimed to have picked up from the television. “Once the president issues the order, there will be hungama by the police. Wherever they spot an adivasi, they will shoot him dead.”

“This is not true.” I found myself vigorously shaking my head, trying to impress on the boy that the premise was false and far-fetched. “Why would the president say so?” The more pertinent question, I thought later, was this: why would young adivasis believe it?

In the days following the attack, the president had issued a statement to the press but had not spoken on television. The prime minister gave sound-bites to journalists’ cameras, all seemingly anodyne, none remotely belligerent. Perhaps an anchor on a local television station had amplified Manmohan Singh’s call to “pursue the perpetrators of the crime with urgency”; analysts in the studios had asked for a security offensive; or tickers had flashed, suggesting the government planned to flood the region with more police and paramilitary men. The aggression on television, filtered through a young adivasi’s functional knowledge of Hindi, had possibly created an apocalyptic vision. And past experience had made it easy to believe it could be true.

Two years ago, the young boy I was speaking to had seen first-hand the inability of government troops to distinguish between rebels and villagers. In the raids made in his village, several adivasi men had been beaten and taken away to the local thana. Beatings of unarmed, ordinary adivasis are too commonplace to make it to the papers. It usually takes a full scale massacre, like the one in Sarkeguda village last year when 17 villagers were gunned down by paramilitary men, or the killings in Edesmetta village this May, in which eight people perished, for the rest of India to glimpse the ghastly outcomes of Chhattisgarh’s counter-insurgency operations.

“If you send in more troops to Bastar, there will be four more Sarkegudas.” This startling comment came not from a civil liberties activist but from a senior officer of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), whom I met in the aftermath of the attack. I had begun by asking him if more battalions were on their way. “Sending more troops to Chhattisgarh does not serve any strategic objective,” he replied, “but if there is a political objective, then who can say.”

India’s oldest and largest paramilitary force has been long embroiled in the conflicts of Kashmir and the north-east. But in the short span of a decade, the CRPF has come to fear Chhattisgarh’s Maoists more than insurgents elsewhere. In the summer of 2010, 76 of its troopers were killed by the rebels in three hours. For several months, jawans would arrive from distant corners of the country, only to stay within the closed confines of their barracks.

Officers are keen to emphasise that things have changed. In 2010, the CRPF lost 116 men, 104 weapons, and 13,138 rounds of ammunition to the Maoists. In 2012, the figures were down to 7 men, one weapon, and 60 rounds of ammunition. “The most significant change is that we are now exchanging fire with them several kilometres away from our camps”—the officer turned to a map to explain—“which shows that our men are venturing out.”

But such excursions run the risk of causing collateral damage, he admitted. In both Sarkeguda and Edesmetta, the troops had failed to make out that the people massed ahead were not Maoists but peaceable adivasi villagers, gathered for the occasion of Bija Pandum, the seed festival. “Our men do not know any better,” he said, “because they do not know the local culture and language.”

Those given to theorise on counter-insurgency might not dwell on minor concerns like language, but those engaged in it have come to see its enormous significance, which is why, earlier this year, the CRPF woke up to the idea of introducing Gondi and Halbi, southern Chhattisgarh’s main tribal languages, in the pre-induction training of its troopers.

Language features even in discussions on the failure of the state’s surveillance arm. In Chhattisgarh, technical interception—or the tapping of phones—is done out of the state capital, Raipur. Stationed more than 300 kilometres from the conflict zone, intelligence operatives struggle to decipher scrambled snatches of conversation breaking out in the multiple, confusing tribal dialects. It is no surprise, say officers, that crucial details are most often missed.

The state cannot fight an insurgency that it does not understand. But the state is not alone in its inability to listen. Even the institutions of mainstream Indian society that are sympathetic to the predicament of adivasis have done little to gain direct access to their lived experience. An insurgency as intense as the one in Chhattisgarh can be, like the early years of the Naxalbari rebellion, a magnet for academics, anthropologists, journalists. But not many scholars are trawling through the thickets of southern Chhattisgarh. And the number of journalistic forays seems directly proportional to the number of times violence erupts. In a study of more than 500 stories published in four newspapers in the year 2011, I found nearly half were simply accounts of violent events. An analysis of sources showed that 62 percent of the stories were based on information supplied by security personnel and government spokespersons. Only 5 percent of the stories quoted the Maoists. And just 5 percent gave voice to the villagers.

That the adivasis are distinct from the rebels is a fact that needs some underlining. In its third decade in Bastar, the Maoist movement is overwhelmingly adivasi. Barring a few senior leaders, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), as the rebel outfit is known, is entirely made up of locals. This has led many sympathetic writers to argue that the insurgency is nothing but an adivasi rebellion sustained by mainstream India’s encroachment of tribal lands and livelihoods. While it accurately identifies the groundswell of anger and alienation among adivasis, this postulation runs the risk of conflating all adivasis with the rebels.

We have neither the results of a referendum nor deeply grounded scholarly research to make strong claims on the extent of support among adivasis for an armed struggle. This is not to say the Maoist insurgents do not enjoy wide appeal in Bastar. They are deeply embedded in the community, but a part of the support they receive may originate from familial and social networks, rather than the force of ideology. For instance, a young adivasi running an errand for the party might be motivated by the fact that his uncle is a member, and not necessarily by an independent belief in the party’s ideology; even those adivasis who concur with the party’s powerful critique of the state and who wish to protect their jal, jungle, zameen from the depredations of capital, might not want to endanger their lives by engaging in violence. Sometimes the villagers do not have a choice—adivasis who have acted in ways seen as inimical to the party have been killed or evicted from their area. In the din over the Maoist insurgency, large numbers of unarmed adivasis who go about their lives, picking mahua, harvesting grain, collecting firewood, are simply going unheard.

“I think that a majority of adivasis—and that is a huge number—are turning to the Maoists because no one else is able to communicate with them,” the journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary writes in Let’s Call Him Vasu, his 2012 book on Maoists in Chhattisgarh. This may well be an overstatement. Young adivasis who pick up weapons may be motivated by more than just the desire to be heard—but the ability to wield words and not just weapons remains crucial to winning wars. By that yardstick, it is clear who holds the advantage in central India. The Maoist press rolls out books, magazines and pamphlets not just in Hindi but also Gondi. Every guerilla is also trained to be a scribe. Their dull haversacks hold an assortment of pens, and it does not take them long to spin around banners and posters in bright ink. The rebels’ repertoire of songs is vast and engaging. And in their areas, they have a monopoly on the news.

A fortnight after the attack, I travelled to villages inside the Maoist-controlled territory, where adivasis told me that it was “the party” that brought them the news of the latest “victory.” The crux of what was conveyed to them was that “janata ka dushman” (enemy of the people) Mahendra Karma had been killed. Many rejoiced since they had suffered in the pogroms of the Salwa Judum, the anti-Maoist militia that Karma had assembled. Few adivasis were aware that along with Karma, the Patels, too, had been pointedly shot dead, or that many civilians had perished in the attack.

In rebel territory, the only other source of news is the radio. But as Choudhary points out in his book, the state-run radio does not have a single news bulletin in Gondi. “According to the census of 2001, there are twenty-seven lakh [2.7 million] Gondi speakers in the country,” he writes. “The number of Sanskrit speakers, by contrast, is 14,000. Yet All India Radio broadcasts several Sanskrit news bulletins every day.”

If there are no broadcasts in Gondi, there are no Gondi speaking guests in TV studios to fervently debate future strategy either. In the avalanche of opinion triggered by the attack, not a single piece was written by an adivasi, or for that matter by anyone who lives in the conflict areas of Chhattisgarh. That explains the ferocity of the battle cries heard last month. It would be infinitely more difficult to advocate that the army be sent into Chhattisgarh’s jungles if you had family living there—family that might not be able to defend its innocence to soldiers who do not understand the local language. A young boy once narrated the poignant story of how he saved himself the night CRPF troopers swarmed his village and knocked on doors. For a few moments, his mind turned blank and he cowered in fear. Then, finding his voice, he shouted from inside his hut, “Main Naxalite nahi hoon, sir” (I am not a Naxalite, sir). The Hindi he had learnt in school had come to his aid. But the older village folk were not as lucky—many of them were dragged out and beaten.

Young adivasis who go to school have picked up enough Hindi to save themselves from beatings, but not enough to sift between fact and fiction on television. If they had access to news in Gondi, the adivasi boys who met in the bazaar of Potali might not have gone home with the terrifying thought that the President of India had decided to exterminate their people. Had mainstream news been less of a hurry to get back to cricket, it might have done more to listen and share their fears with the rest of India.