Writing Wrongs

Holding the war in Bastar up to scrutiny

Indian Maoists salute a memorial in Bijapur district, built after a 2012 encounter between the Maoist rebels and security forces in Chhattisgarh. What’s happening in the central Indian state is in every sense a civil war. NOAH SEELAM / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
Indian Maoists salute a memorial in Bijapur district, built after a 2012 encounter between the Maoist rebels and security forces in Chhattisgarh. What’s happening in the central Indian state is in every sense a civil war. NOAH SEELAM / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
01 January, 2017

The first casualty when war comes,

is truth.

– US Senator Hiram Johnson

IN EVERY WAR WE LEARN ABOUT—from the Greco-Persian wars that featured Leonidas and his Spartans to the Mahabharata, from the First World War to modern India’s continuing border clashes with China and Pakistan—ordinary citizens have had to grapple with what’s offered to us as truth. Just a few months ago, for example, the Associated Press summed up the fallout of India’s “surgical strike,” the operation the army launched across the Line of Control, with this headline: “Dueling truths follow Indian raid in Pakistani Kashmir.”

The anthropologist Nandini Sundar’s new book, The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar, gets you thinking along these lines. On page 305, she even offers a variant on the famous line by Hiram Johnson. “Truth, whatever it is,” she writes, “is an object of war.”

What is going on, after all, in that broad belt of middle India with Bastar smack in its middle? Really, what is the truth of this Maoist phenomenon? Is it a people’s uprising, an expression of frustration at endless injustice, misgovernance and non-governance? Is it such an uprising turned corrupt and sour? Is it terrorism? Is it a heroic defence against an overbearing government that suppresses people’s rights? Is it a heroic defence of the Republic of India against treasonous insurgents?

In the years that I’ve followed the issue, I’ve heard all those descriptions—those “dueling truths,” if you like. But whatever the truth is, let’s make no mistake: what’s happening in Bastar is in every sense a civil war—one that has been fought for at least three decades and eats away at India from deep within. The killing, the hatreds, the lines drawn between people, the lies, the competing claims, the atrocities, the labelling, the weapons, the thugs: it’s all happening in Bastar right now, even as you read these words. That’s worth underlining because it’s too easy for too many of us to forget that this conflict rages on; that it has done so, arguably, for half our independent history. It’s also too easy to ignore the daily brutality of the war, the misery and bloodshed that have become routine for tens of thousands of our fellow Indians.

The Burning Forest holds nothing back in telling us about this brutality. There are testimonies of the violence unleashed on Chhattisgarh by the state’s Central Armed Police Forces, the infamous state-sponsored militia Salwa Judum and by Maoist insurgents. Sundar takes care to detail not just specific atrocities, but also the processes that lead to and result from them. After all, war is not just about suffering and death, but also about the complex workings of bureaucracies, militaries, political groups and societies that form its scaffolding.

Sundar came to her intimate understanding of Bastar through many years of anthropological study in the area, starting as a PhD student “researching colonialism and resistance” and “discovering the intricacies of village politics.” As many others—Binayak Sen, Aruna Roy, Medha Patkar—have found, it’s the kind of work that inevitably opens your eyes to the state’s failures, and that in itself becomes a position taken, a political stance assumed. So even if Sundar accounts in this book for the crimes Maoists commit, in political and police eyes, she is also one of the petitioners in the cases that, with a Supreme Court judgment in 2011, led to the Salwa Judum being declared unconstitutional. (The Judum later returned in another avatar). And if you’re against the Judum to the extent that you ask the judiciary to shut it down, why, say minds that like their issues served up black and white, you must perforce love the Maoists.

It’s the price Sundar must pay for her work.

The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar, Nandini Sundar, Juggernaut, 432 pages, ₹699. COURTESY JUGGERNAUT BOOKS

Consider that in the light of recent news from Bastar: on 5 November 2016, Sundar herself, with several others, was booked in absentia at Tongpal police station in Bastar for the murder of an Adivasi man called Shamnath Baghel. Consider, too, that this FIR was filed in the middle of ongoing hearings into a 2011 assault by police and Salwa Judum, documented in Sundar’s book, on the residents of Tadmetla village, and also on the spiritual leader Agnivesh. The Central Bureau of Investigation has booked 31 men for these crimes; the inspector general of police in Bastar, SRP Kalluri, has accused the CBI of lying.

If you’re wondering about the substance in the allegations against Sundar, here are two possible indicators. One, just days after the police registered Baghel’s wife Vimla’s complaint against Sundar and five others, Vimla told NDTV “that she didn’t name Nandini Sundar or anyone at all.” Two, on 15 November, the Supreme Court passed an order that prevents the police from investigating and arresting Sundar and the others “accused” in that FIR.

ON THE FIRST PAGE OF HER BOOK, Sundar writes that the Maoists established themselves in Bastar in the early 1980s by “helping the villagers resist the petty tyrannies of the bureaucracy.” As she points out, a history of the Maoist insurgency in India would include “the desperate struggle of the dalits of Bihar against upper-caste landlords for wages and dignity,” and “the tragic story of the Kuis of Odisha, whose entirely constitutional agitation for land rights was labelled Maoist by the state and repressed.” You might even trace that history back to 1967, “when a small village in West Bengal, Naxalbari, became synonymous with hope”—hope that a movement born out of a peasant uprising there would put an end, once and for all, to indifference and injustice from the Indian state. The promise the Maoists held out was that they would bring to these areas—indeed, maybe eventually to India itself—equality and justice for all.

But in offering that utopian vision to Bastar’s inhabitants, Maoists inevitably ran into the muscle of the state. “Years of sporadic battle followed,” writes Sundar, and “in 2005, the Indian government began concerted operations to bring the area back under its control.” That meant the nurturing of the “Salwa Judum”(“which in Gondi,” Sundar tells us, “translates literally as ‘purification hunt’”), a group of mostly young, barely-trained vigilantes, armed and paid by the Chhattisgarh government to fight the Maoists. The Salwa Judum, the efforts to battle it in the courts and outside, and the effect of this tussle on Bastar—these themes form the framework of Sundar’s book, and the framework, indeed, of the continuing war in those parts.

Take, for example, the mind-numbing accounts of violence that took place over a period of time in several villages of Konta block in southern Bastar. These are taken from public testimonies offered by villagers at a June 2007 rally held in Cherla, a mandal in the Khammam district, across the border in Andhra Pradesh.

Members of the Salwa Judum had attacked these villages repeatedly, ostensibly because of their support for Maoists. One old man tried to run away during an attack, but was “axed to death.” A man was told to carry all the “fowl of the village” to the river. There, the assailants “knifed him” dead and took away the poultry. A six-year-old girl was “killed and thrown into the pond by the Judum.” A three-year-old girl “was beaten unconscious and her hand was broken.” In one instance, some residents fled, but those who couldn’t, “especially the old and sick—were killed, sometimes burnt alive.” Elsewhere, “the Judum burnt 24 houses”; “a three year-old girl and a three month-old child died when they could not be extricated” from a fire; also, an old woman “was forcibly pushed into the fire.” One man “was tied to a post … and axed in the neck and back. His corpse was left there, still tied up.” Bodies lay around after an attack, according to a witness who spoke to Sundar, “looking like broiled fish.”

In May 2013, Maoists ambushed Congress workers, killing 27 people. Sundar does not shy away from writing about atrocities by the Maoists. AP PHOTO

There’s a lot more in those testimonies. But there come limits even to testifying to such violence, as Sundar found: “Eighty-three Maraipalli villagers signed off on a tragic letter that ended—‘We want to say and write much more but our pen fails us here. We end this report with an urge to please understand our problems.’”

If this is what happened in just one block, it’s positively frightening to try to comprehend the scale of the conflict across all of Bastar. But Sundar’s book documents plenty more such brutal violence.

And give a thought, too, to the task Sundar has taken on in telling the story of this war. If she recounts atrocities—“Sarkeguda where 17 people had just been killed by the CRPF”—she also writes of “localized protests when people were killed or arrested (for instance, the Soliwada protest of June 2009),” or how when the police are “under pressure for any extrajudicial killing,” they “get the families of the victims to take compensation and then record it as a killing by Naxalites.” Such are the processes and scaffolding I mentioned above, the wider ramifications of the war that also must be recounted. Nor does Sundar shy away from writing about killings by the Maoists. The book tells us about atrocity after atrocity committed by them, and their own slide into anarchy.

In September 2005, for example, Maoists “killed the patel and sarpanch” of Patnad village, “along with two Mahara boys who had joined the Judum.” The next April, they held a jan adalat, or people’s court, in Manikonta village, in which “13 people were killed.” A boy who saw this happen explained to Sundar that “they were beaten to death” at the trial. (Sundar writes elsewhere that “villagers describe Maoist beatings as brutal, saying that sometimes spouses and even the children of the accused person are forced to participate in the beating, or at least look on.”) Three months after these Manikonta murders, “as part of a strategy of ‘liberating’ people” from Salwa Judum camps, “the Maoists struck Errabor camp.” The liberation turned sour: a fire broke out that killed 32 people, “including a small child.”

In 2005, the government began recruiting and arming “special police officers” to form the Salwa Judum—“which in Gondi,” Sundar tells us, “translates literally as ‘purification hunt.’” DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

In April 2010, Maoists ambushed and killed 76 CRPF men between Mukram and Tadmetla villages. In May 2013, Congress workers “returning from a political rally” were ambushed by Maoists “in the foothills of the Kanger forest,” killing 27 people, including the Congress leader Mahendra Karma. Both these massacres were meticulously planned and executed. For the Congress workers, Sundar writes, “the Maoists had stationed a force on an alternative route as well.” For the CRPF men, a Maoist document explained that “eight platoons were used for ambush, six for assault and two were used as stoppers.”

There are senseless deeds on smaller scales too. In 2015, Maoists “attempted to ban PDS (public distribution system) rice on the grounds that it was bringing in strange diseases.” In 2013, they killed a journalist who had earlier—flag irony here, or maybe flog it—been “arrested by the police for having Maoist links.” They produced “a convoluted and self-serving” justification for this murder, attributing it to a failure to “properly” inform the “lower ranks” not to kill him.

This sordid accounting tells us how far the Maoists have come since their earliest days, from the hope for better days they offered so many. As Sundar writes, the Maoists are “blinded by certitudes.” This blindness explains how they can justify committing exactly the kinds of crimes they have always accused the establishment of.

Sundar is not the first author to tell us about Maoist crimes. But an earlier book—Rahul Pandita’s 2011 Hello Bastar—cared little for explanations like those she gives us. “After a landlord was killed,” Pandita writes in a typical passage, “a big tank on the land he owned was occupied by the local Maoist platoon.” Presumably, he means the same platoon killed the landlord—but really, why did they kill him? Pandita doesn’t tell us, expecting us to simply gloss over such murders. And in his take-no-prisoners 2010 Bastar travelogue, Jangalnama, the late Punjabi journalist Satnam is simply contemptuous of the urban middle class and elites who criticise Maoists: these critics spread “muck and filth,” he says. But his contempt too often turns his otherwise commendable journalism into rants against the elite, detracting from the power of his narrative.

The trial of the doctor Binayak Sen, accused in 2007 of carrying letters for the imprisoned Maoist ideologue Narayan Sanyal, gave some indication of the perverse situation that the appearance of the word “Maoist” forces many people into. REUTERS

Sundar asks for no glossing over of any kind. And while she is clearly passionate and angry about all she has seen and heard, there are no rants in the book, which makes it a thorough, diligent and finally credible effort.

WHILE SUNDAR'S PETITIONS AGAINST the Salwa Judum were supported by plenty of evidence of their atrocities, the core of the case in those petitions was really very simple. First, that in giving arms to untrained youth and sending them to battle the Maoist insurgency, the state makes vigilantes of them and effectively condemns them to death. Second, that in employing the militia, the state abdicates a fundamental duty towards the citizens it serves: that of ensuring their security via a trained police force. Not so simple, though, was the struggle to get these arguments heard and win a measure of justice. In that sense, there were parallels with two other cases I have followed.

The first is a petition that my father—a former chief secretary of Maharashtra—JB D’Souza, and the journalist Dilip Thakore filed in 1993. It asked the Bombay High Court to direct the Maharashtra government to prosecute the Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray for his inflammatory editorials during the massacres in Bombay in late 1992 and early 1993.

The petition contended that those editorials violated Section 153A and 153B of the Indian Penal Code. Both of these define and restrict hate speech. Section 153A makes it a crime to promote “enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” Section 153B says that you are forbidden to pronounce “that any class of people cannot, by reason of their being members of any religious … group or caste or community, bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India.”

In that light, consider what Thackeray wrote in his party’s mouthpiece, Samana, on 9 December 1992: “Now Pakistan need not cross the borders for launching an attack on India. Twenty-five crore Muslims loyal to Pakistan will stage an insurrection. One of those seven bombs made by Pakistan lies hidden in Hindustan.” A clearer violation of Section 153B would be hard to dream up, and there were other similar editorials too.

The petition wound its way through changing benches, innumerable adjournments demanded by the Shiv Sena for the flimsiest reasons (for six weeks once, because their lawyer said he had a detached retina), delays because the court could not keep up with its daily caseload, and so on. This was similar to Sundar’s experience with the Salwa Judum petitions. The Shiv Sena lawyers routinely called the petitioners in the Thackeray case anti-Hindu, as if that somehow invalidated their legal arguments. Compare that to the Chhattisgarh government’s strategy of claiming in their responses that, for example, “the petitioners were fronts for the Maoists” and their petition “indirectly trenches upon eulogizing the ideology of Naxalism.”

The Thackeray case was finally thrown out in September 1994. Thackeray’s mention of “25 crore” in his editorial was just a “typographical mistake,” said Justices GR Majithia and ML Dudhat of the Bombay High Court. They also said that “much water had flowed under the bridge” since the massacres, and asked the petitioners if they really wanted to “rake up” these issues. A few months later, the Supreme Court refused to entertain an appeal against their judgment.

The whole thing made a pessimist of me when it came to our courts. This is why, when the Salwa Judum case was finally decided in July 2011, I felt that I had new faith in the judiciary. The Supreme Court upheld the argument about the Salwa Judum’s unconstitutionality, and thus the judgment was, in every sense, a victory for the constitution. Justices BS Reddy and SS Nijjar, Sundar writes, “held that the use of poorly trained, low-paid SPOs”—special police officers, which is what members of the Salwa Judum were called—“in counter-insurgency operations violated their right to equality (Article 14) …and also endangered the lives of others (Article 21).” They ordered the union government “to stop funding SPOs in Naxalite operations,” and the Chhattisgarh government “to prevent the operation” of groups such as the Salwa Judum.

Sundar continues, “The principle that we started out with, that state support for vigilantism was unconstitutional, had finally been established.” It’s another matter that, as she explains again, the union government and the Chhattisgarh government found ways to ignore this principle and keep the Salwa Judum alive. They don’t call it Salwa Judum anymore, but you still find state-armed vigilantes in Chhattisgarh, ostensibly fighting the Maoists.

The second telling example came after the arrest of the doctor Binayak Sen, accused in 2007 of carrying letters for the imprisoned Maoist ideologue Narayan Sanyal. In writing my 2012 book about his trial, The Curious Case of Binayak Sen, I learnt a great deal about both the functioning of the judiciary and the perverse situation the word “Maoist” forces many people into.

The Chhattisgarh government was determined to make that label stick to Sen, and to damn him with it. He was, after all, a long-time and vocal critic of civil-rights violations in the state. The government charged him with all kinds of offences, from sedition to being a member of a terrorist organisation to waging war against the state. The more I read about the case, the clearer it became that the Chhattisgarh government had pursued it with a certain arrogance.

The prosecution was filled to the brim with fabrications and fantasies, absurd assumptions and foolish logic, recognising all of which hardly needed a legally trained mind. At one point, the prosecutor, TC Pandya, waved in court a letter Sen’s wife, Ilina, wrote to the director of “ISI, New Delhi,” about a paper she was submitting. “ISI, as we all know, means Pakistan,” Pandya said, referring to the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence. No matter that the “ISI” in this case was the Indian Social Institute, on Lodhi Road in Delhi. He also read out in court a letter Ilina received from a friend in the United States. This friend was clearly no fan of the US President George Bush, and indicated as much: “We have a chimpanzee in the White House.” Certainly this was not a compliment, but it was no different from what a lot of people had felt and written about Bush. Only, Pandya told the judge, “This email has been written in code. It is significant because terrorists oppose the US President.” This, Pandya said, “proves that Dr Sen and his wife Ilina were part of an international terror network.”

As I went through the Sen case papers—with an increasing sense of baffled wonder—I could not help thinking that any judge would look at this pile of nonsense and ask the prosecution: “Seriously, is this what you are offering me as evidence? This garbage about ISI and chimpanzees? If so, I’m throwing out this case right now.” But Justice BP Varma, of the Raipur Sessions and District Court, did nothing of the sort. This “evidence,” he decided, proved the charge of sedition. In 2010, Varma sentenced Sen to life imprisonment. The doctor is out on bail, granted by the Supreme Court in April 2011. But worth noting is that the case has been appealed by both sides: by Sen, against his conviction; and by the Chhattisgarh government, against his acquittal on such charges as waging war against the state.

With Binayak Sen, the Chhattisgarh government pursued the case relentlessly, got the life sentence it wanted and is now as relentlessly intent on overturning his acquittals. In Bastar, as Sundar’s book tells us, it is just as intent on waging war against the Maoists as it has always been, the 2011 Supreme Court judgment against the Salwa Judum notwithstanding. That same arrogance holds, it seems to me, whether in court or on the ground. The government knows it can label any criticism as “eulogizing Naxalites” and being “anti-national,” and the rest of us—or enough of the rest of us—will fall in line to applaud its heroic battle against nefarious and bloodthirsty insurgents.

“We got almost all the orders we wanted,” Sundar writes sadly near the end of the book, “but no implementation.” As a result, Bastar “has become a liberated zone in more ways than one—liberated from the protection of the Constitution.” Perhaps that liberation is the real story of Bastar, the real story this book tells us.