Gautam Navlakha is a journalist and human rights activist. In 2014, he published a series of articles on the living conditions, the struggles, the resistance and the repression in Bastar. The Bastar is a tribal area of the state of Chhattisgarh where the CPI(Maoist) entered in 1980 and created a powerful movement that New Delhi now terms as “India’s biggest internal security threat”. Let us note that today, Bastar is still occupied by the Maoists and the state’s repression is intensifying day after, both towards the guerrillas, their sympathisers and the tribals.
A police officer told the Asian Age correspondent (22/03/2014) that Salwa Judum camp inmates are returning home, after having established contact with their villages and striking deals for their homecoming. He complained that “(t)hey are now speaking Naxal language”” But why would Maoists stop camp inmates, many of whom were pushed into camps against their will, from not returning to their villages, when they have let even Salwa Judum hoodlums, those who recanted and atoned for their crimes, to return? If by Salwa Judum camp inmates he meant the hoodlums who guarded and exploited the adivasi peasant families, then there are compelling reasons for seeking help of kith and kin for their return. That the villagers seeking to return would take Janatam Sarkar into confidence is but natural, because they are present on the ground and are running a parallel administration. Had their presence been weaker than before there would have been less concern over the need to inform them. But the clear giveaway is the reference to Naxal language. What is “Naxal language”? It is not a different script and grammar or sound. It is their political vocabulary that is being referred to. Now is this not the language exhorting people to end exploitation and oppression and build a new India? So what the unnamed police officer was probably drawing attention to was that those who return identify themselves with the cause being spearheaded by the CPI(Maoist). That this will be a morale booster for the beleaguered Maoists goes without saying.
But there are other straws in the wind too, so to say, which point towards a consolidation. It is reflected in the recent shift towards increased use of IEDs in areas beyond their guerilla bases. Let’s look at the evidence.
Let us start with this season’s tendu leaf collection in Chattisgarh which accounts for best quality of tendu leaves and accounts for 20 per cent of the total output in the country. Collection season lasts between 3rd week of April to last week of May. It starts earlier in south Chattisgarh. Procurement of tendu leaf is approximately 1.64 million standard bags. Each standard bag in Chattisgarh comprises 1000 bundles of 50 leaves each. Price is Rs 1200 per bag. 1.3 million families are engaged in this collection. Payment of wage in cash during the plucking season forms main source of cash to see the Adivasi peasantry through the lean months.
Now collection of leaves and payment of wages to the “pluckers”, who are largely female labourers, is done by the state promoted Primary Cooperative Society set up under the auspices of State Minor Forest Produce Corporation. But this year, as of second week of May, 900 Primary Forest Produce Cooperative Societies collected only 350,000 standard bags. This is 15% or so of annual collection. In Sukma Forest Division only 10,000 standard bags were collected against the annual average collection of 75,000 standard bags. State government prohibited “illegal collection and transportation of tendu leaves out of the state” by the justification that this causes a loss of tax revenue to the state exchequer and deprives laborers of their bonus. (Economic Times 13th May, 2014). But because Societies had no buyers they suspended collection from pluckers.
What is more, in 2004 Chattisgarh government allowed contractors to buy leaves in advance instead of lifting from the godowns. This year there was lukewarm response, says RK Das of Business Standard (Tendu Leaf Collections in Chattisgarh Forests, May 14, 2014).
If one revisits PUDR 2005-06 report on Bastar (When The State Declares War Against its own People. See Box 5 on p 16; www.pudr.org) the tussle between government and rebels over selling it to the government or to the beedi manufacturers/contractors directly purchasing from pluckers becomes clear. Because with emergence of organization Dandkaranaya Adivasi Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan (DAKMS) they succeeded in negotiating better wage rates and preferred this over lower wages they fetched in cash when selling to the government. What does this signify? One reason for poor collection by the government appears to be the re-emergence of organized negotiating power of the labour force, which is largely female.
The identification of Party as their own and the confidence they repose on it has a material foundation of a long shared struggle. Boycotting government collection has been a recurring phenomenon with DAKMS spearheading the struggle throughout late eighties, till 2004-05. Only when the organization got into disarray due to Salwa Judum and the subsequent step up in the war did the State manage to impose its will on the tribal people. But collection appears to have suffered a setback once again this year.
Look at another factor. In February 2014 the state police headquarters shot down a proposal for a 35-40 day operation comprising 3000 CRPF soldiers. The objective was to carry out an operation through the “red bases”. This was also meant to pre-empt Maoist Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign in March. CRPF’s IG in Chattisgarh confided that “best” soldiers from across CRPF battalions were selected. The idea was to send twenty units, each comprising 150 soldiers, to cover Datewada, Bijapur, Sukma, Abhuj Madh areas (see Indian Express 16th March, 2014). Apparently, a letter by Bijapur SP to his senior officers said that he did not have enough forces to lend for the operations. Very simply, he did not have forces to secure the perimeter for CRPF. He also complained that these “new forces” (non-state government forces) open fire without provocation. He referred to June 2012 and May 2013 incidents in which 19 and 8 villagers respectively, including children, lost their lives. He implied that he feared that such killings will recur. What he left unsaid was that such killings of unarmed people, including children, shows that their training and image of “enemy” as essentially an Adivasi. Sukma SP candidly acknowledged that “the local people…maybe feeling alienated from us. Maybe that is why we are not getting the kind of information we should get” (Mail Today 14th March, 2014). State police know that local population has not been won over.
And for the CRPF, thirsting for revenge to boost their soldiers’ morale, the mission was fraught with risks. It entailed, among other things, taking on the PLGA. There are few instances in last many years where PLGA has been bested by the government soldiers. It is their covert operations that have caused maximum damage to the Maoists.
Think of this. In the last few years, especially, 2009-2012 they had suffered losses, ‘subjective forces’ were decimated and area of operation had shrunk, by their own admission. The fact of popular discontent cannot be hidden.
So, failure to foist primary cooperatives, which also restores yet another arena where forest bureaucracy was pushed back earlier, shows that control over Adivasi peasantry has loosened. The refusal to sell leaves by pluckers or suspension of collection by the cooperatives i.e. the authorities, shows that movement has managed to bounce back to foil Government’s efforts to decimate them.
Significantly, electoral results for 2014 polls too suggest some positive development for the Maoists. Where they exercise influence their boycott campaign exhorted people to either boycott polls or to go cast for NOTA. Wide use of NOTA in “naxal affected areas”, wrote The Times of India, meant that Naxals “prompted” voters to go for it. As a result Bastar saw 38,772 NOTA; 24,488 exercised this in Gadchiroli; Adilabad saw 17,084. NOTA found 32,384 takers in Rajnandgaon, where Rowghat movement is strong. Use of NOTA was highest in Aheri assembly constituency of Gadchiroli parliamentary seat, with 7544. (19th May 2014). In other words Maoist “writ” runs in fairly large part of Dandkaranaya. (1)
Since Dandkaranaya zone comprises Gadchiroli some recent developments which occurred there are significant. Use of NOTA was of course highest in Aheri assembly constituency of Gadchiroli with 7544 (ToI, 19th May 2014).
On 11th May there was an IED explosion at around 9.30 am in an area which lies in the plain and where police emphasized that previous to this “there was no Naxal activity here” (12th May, 2014, Indian Express). The jawans were returning from an operation in Pavimundra Forest area after spending 3 days, and were being transported in police vans. It was claimed that prohibition against travelling in bus was not violated because this was a “sanitised”/safe area. They have been able to strike inside area dominated by government forces.
Seven jawans Deepak Ratan Vighave from Ahmendnagar, Sunil Madavi from Chnadrapur, Rohan Damabare from Charmoshi in Gadchiroli, Subhansh Kumre from Etapalli in Gadchiroli, Tirupati Allam from Sirncha in Gadchiroli, Lakshman Munde from Parbhani and Duryodhan Nagtode from Deasiganj in Gadchiroli died and two grievously injured in the explosion. Times of India (May 12, 2014) reported quoting “sources” as telling them that “Maoists might have delayed the explosion on seeing a civilian on a bicycle”, during which time first two vehicles managed to cross the site. Only a couple of “rebels” were involved.
Gadchiroli, like other districts does not figure in media, unless something dramatic takes place. But the explosion drew attention to another facet of the warfare when the Western Regional Committee of CPI(Maoist) issued a statement on 10th May, 2014 addressed to jawans fighting them [Murmuri ambush ko anjaam dene wale gurillaon ko lal salaam]. Among other things, it says:
“With the spread of revolutionary movement people from hundreds of villages, tribal peasant women and men, got organized by people’s organization. You know they are your own relatives. We Adivasis have waged struggle against generations old exploitation and oppression. We fought against rural tribal chiefs. We fought the anti-people Aheri royal family and against its tradition-bound exploitation. We fought for cultivable land. We fought for increasing wages. It’s through these struggles that people won many facilities…Think of all the changes brought about in last 35 years….. Why were you recruited to C-60 commando force? Why have you been given modern weapons? Why are you being incited to attack your own Adivasi people? …..Why is it that very name C-60 commando is considered hateful? Why is it that names of Motiram, Gangaram Sidam, Rama Kudmethe, Sukku Vidip, Vinod Himachi, Koko Narate, Munna Thakur invites hatred? What turns you into this (killer)?…Have you ever thought of this?”
It also says –
“people are fighting with all their might to transform their lives. They are fighting for their development. They are fighting to protect their water, forest and land. You have joined the commando force to suppress the movement. Why have you picked weapon to protect the interests of moneyed people and rapacious rulers? Why have you put on ‘khaki’ uniform to divest people of Surjagarh, Damkodi etc of their land and possessions? Will you accept that every task carried out by you is against the interests of people and benefit of the ruling classes?…..You are offering your lives to protect the ruling classes…..The loss suffered by your family will it be filled by the money given to your family?……”
C-60 soldiers form part of huge deployment of troops to wage war against the Maoists. Reaching out to these soldiers and reminding them of their shared background with other toilers is part of their counter-propaganda.
Many believe that since Maoists claim to be fighting for the oppressed and exploited how can they kill people who come from the same echelons of society? The very people they are supposed to be emancipating?
Let us pause and ask, what is the difference between a government soldier and a rebel one? In the Indian context, what propels a person to join the Armed Forces of the Union? There are both pull and push factors. If the push factor is poor employment generation in rural as well as urban areas and/or non-availability of jobs, the pull factors are the burgeoning growth in employment generation in the Armed Forces of the Union compared to other branches of the government and at a time when the majority of the working people put in long hours, receive poor pay and benefits and are denied any right to form unions because of the short-term nature of employment on contract, which acts as an impediment to their fighting for their rights. A study of the first volume of Expenditure Budget of the Government of India over the years reveals that whereas employment generation is negligible in different government departments, particularly the social sector for instance, the combined strength of armed forces of the union at nearly 2.3 million is 45% of total central government employees. Military is one sector which has been more or less immune to the problems of fiscal deficit, inflation targeting.
But whatever gloss is placed on these jobs, it cannot be denied that such employment generation meant to enhance the military’s suppressive role is neither socially useful nor an effective way to utilize human resources. Indeed most of those who become cannon fodder, so to say, come from among those who are most oppressed.
Regularly, the Armed Forces of the Union (AFU) make demands for higher salary and benefits. One cannot blame the soldiers for demanding more and better facilities because, if they are not ideologically convinced, and are in the Armed Forces of the Union for want of better alternative they have to draw inspiration from somewhere else. Seeking money and perks and better “working” conditions or regular peacetime postings as compensation for the time served in war zones is not an unfair demand. It’s obvious that all those who work for wages tend to demand more. Recently, when the Union government announced a rethink on LPG and reduced the number of cylinder for each family to 6, the AFU protested and demanded that they be treated at par with army soldiers and continue to get subsidized LPG. Their argument was that “we are also fighting a war”. Then there is the demand that every personnel, even those fighting their own people, should be considered a “shahid” (martyr) and receive the same benefits as the army personnel get when they are either disabled or die in the line of duty. This has been conceded and for the first time in 66 years, a jawan or an officer who dies fighting his own people will be considered a “martyr”. The fact that a soldier or an officer of the Indian military—suppressing a people who are either calling for something eminently democratic and peaceful such as the right of self-determination or a people fighting for their land, forest and livelihood against a capricious establishment determined to enable foreign and domestic mineral conglomerate’s access to exploit the buried wealth—is accorded a status of a “martyr” tells its own story of the iniquitous system and how those fighting for their self-preservation get reduced to the status of “non-persons”.
It is not as though the soldiers fighting war at home get nothing. But clamour for more never ceases. Government investment behind each C-60 soldier is Rs 70 lakhs (total grants for each soldier from state and union governments). The point is that the armed forces personnel join the services for wages, and a better compensation package is a recurrent demand. While the simulated concern over the plight of the “soldier” helps him in getting his demands fulfilled, if a similar demand was raised by any other section of the population, they would be damned and castigated for being irresponsible. Thus para-teachers getting Rs 3000 per month for years in most parts of India dare not raise their voice lest they not only suffer lathi blows, but also lose their jobs. In contrast, when soldiers make a demand, the government has to accommodate it. Not a whimper will be heard against this. And there is no end to security personnel “woes”—they routinely complain about the quality of food and shelter provided to them. There is also the constant refrain that these soldiers fighting wars on behalf of the ‘nation’ are being short-changed and/or getting demoralized, which is a way of exacting more resources from the exchequer. So what is it that motivates such soldiers? Is it the lure of job and the compensation package, or is it about selfless service to the nation?
This is in marked contrast to the Maoist guerrilla.
A pamphlet, for Maoist recruitment drive for People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, carries an appeal to unemployed boys and girls of Bastar not to join the government’s armed forces. The leaflet says that when one joins PLGA,
“you will not get any salary but food, clothes, personal needs will be fulfilled and your families would be helped by the Janatam Sarkar. What you will earn will be love and affection of the people. Whereas those who join government armed forces will get salary and right to loot, kill and rape but also earn undying hatred of the people and you will not be remembered. Instead your death will be celebrated.”
Another leaflet tells the personnel of the government armed forces that their war is akin to the wars waged by foreign aggressors against our own people. And addressing those joining the government armed forces:
“Government does not regard you as anything more than animals. Indeed, no better than slaves. Sometimes you are called dogs (Greyhound), sometimes snakes (Cobra) and sometimes cats (Black Cats).”
There is substantiation for this. In an interview with Supriya Sharma for the Times of India, an unnamed SPO, formerly with the Maoist squad, says:
“If you work for the Naxals you don’t get any money. Once a year a pant and a gamcha (towel). If it tears you have to stitch it and wear it again…..The poor are their biggest support base …. First I trained with the Nagas (CRPF Naga Battalion). Then I was sent to train with the Army in Kashmir. But I tell you, the training was nothing in comparison with the training given by Naxals. They have a lot of ‘jazba’ (enthusiasm) . . . (police) still do not fully trust us (adivasis).”
It is only self-motivation that can overcome the normal human response to a “do or die” situation.
The difference between a guerrilla and a professional soldier could not have been better described.
To make the distinction even sharper let us take a look at Maoist recruitment policy. In an article written for the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies [Issue Brief # 253/May 2014] the author Uddipan Mukherjee addresses the issue of “regular cadre supply” of the Maoist Party and how to stem it. This he does by taking a look at the cadre policy of Maoists based on information provided by former party members turned informers/surrendered. He mentions that there is a probation period for membership of Party. And different treatment is meted out to candidates from different social classes he calls ‘categories’. “For instance, the lower end of the Lower Castes (LCs) have only 6 months period of probation. Whereas, middle class peasants, petty bourgeoisies & urban middle classes (both LCs and UCs) have a one year probation; and the upper section of the Upper Castes undergoes a two year probation. Such differential treatment is meted out both before and after admission” (p 4).
He points out that aspiring UC candidates are expected to exhibit a basic minimum behaviour that they have no prejudicial attitude towards LCs. As a matter of fact Naxalites expect de-castisation….LC candidates are not expected to show any prejudicial attitude against other Lower Castes… And then reminds also that “Party manifesto mandates…relinquishing private property as a pre-requisite for joining.” And observes that “numerically speaking LCs outnumber the UCs”.(p. 5-6). Quite apart from the fact that it rubbishes the myth that upper castes leaders lord over lower castes, and that Maoists lure people with “attractive financial package” as claimed by the Jharkhand police, it in fact, points towards how “abnegation” and rigour of life as member plays a role in filtering candidates and makes difficult infiltration by “informers”. And then points towards how it was Suchitra Mahato, someone inside whose “defection” paved the way for the killing of Kishanji. While author’s attempt is to draw on significance of “defection” the point I find interesting is the class/cast composition of the organisation. And the emphasis on ideological grounding of the member.
Thus class/caste origin plays a critical role in selection of candidates as well as in the actual period of training/trial. This being the case the allegation of Maoists abducting and recruiting child soldiers or forcing recruitment makes little sense. The rigorous training and period of probation etc ensures not only steady trickle of recruits but also makes the social composition of the Party predominately lower castes/class and significantly feminine.
Revolutionary war, by its very nature, is a self-consciously political project. Only then can it restrain the war from degenerating into bloodletting or else getting unhitched from popular support. In other words, the motivation of a professional soldier and a revolutionary is vastly different. Both may fight heroically, bravely, but the one fighting without wages and is self-motivated is vastly different and far superior to one fighting for wages and on whom discipline has to be imposed. The possibility of commission of crime by a government force is also far higher because they aim to force people to snap links with the rebels, whereas for the guerrillas without people’s support the very survival is at stake. An anonymous soldier explained to Tehelka magazine that
I always wanted to be a sainik (soldier) to serve my country, but now I feel I will be dying for nothing. I have seen so many illegal things happening. We have to blindly follow orders. When we go for operations, we don’t know who a Maoist is. Poor Adivasis are being beaten and innocents are being killed. I don’t feel that I am doing anything for the nation. My patriotism is dead.
So after suffering major setbacks , in 2014 a shift is noticeable in form of their consolidation. Motivation shows no sign of decline. Recruitment of women soldiers in larger numbers points towards longevity of the movement because women’s phenomenal capacity to communicate and become carriers of ideas and become role models, has not been adequately researched. Participation of young adivasi women, their identification with this movement as their own, without underestimating the role of their male comrades, reflects the robustness and vitality of a movement. In the process of consolidation, several crimes did get committed. The spokesperson of the CC of the Party admitted this and accepted the criticism emanating from autonomous civil liberties and democratic rights organizations. That this self-criticism has gone farther than any time before is evidenced in admission of serious lapses in Jangalmahal. Besides, their innovative electoral boycott campaign, with few evidence of over-stepping of rules of war, restricting the government of Chattisgarh’s attempt to coerce pluckers to sell tendu leaves to government for nothing else but purposes of revenue generation too point towards recovery. The fact that chief secretary of Chattisgarh had to exhort the DG of Police in “sensitive areas” to ensure “uninterrupted and systematic collection of tendu leaves” (See Economic Times May 13, 2014), firms up support for the view that there has been a consolidation.
However, a bigger challenge looms large. Between 2007-2011 over 8000 projects were granted permission to clear 203,000 ha of forest land. Up to 2005-06 contribution of forestry and fisheries to growth was 5.2%. By 2009-10 it turned negative while mine and quarrying registered a growth rate of 8.7% rising nearly seven times from 1.3% in 2005-06. The process of reversal of gains made by the struggling people, which had begun under UPA II, is going to be speeded up under the Modi-led government with many pending applications for mining bids getting clearance or likely to get clearance. Opinion makers have pointed out that UPA II had cleared projects valued at Rs 6.5 lakh crores since January 2013, but these made no progress. It was said that the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (euphemism for forest rights) and UPA II’s Land Acquisition Act stalled them. With possibility of removal of such “road blocks” push into forest and mineral bearing areas will speed up. The then DG of Police Ramniwas told Indian Express (5th January, 2014) that industrialization and land acquisition in Chattisgarh have an intricate link with spread of Maoists. He had referred to the tribals as being “cheated, (and) deprived of their land and rights by the mighty and powerful”. Commissioner of Bastar, K Srinivas, had cancelled 73 cases of sale of tribal lands to non-tribals in 2012 and ordered inquiry against officials who were involved.
Possibility of coal de-nationalization also threatens to pose a challenge. Thus the question of land grab, displacement etc will re-emerge as contentious issues. However, unlike before, a number of struggles which once held out promise of a broad-based resistance, today they show a decline, with many struggles on the back foot. Weak and disunited they do not resonate in the same way as they did earlier.
So while consolidation augurs well for the Maoists and reverses their decline, they remain weak outside their guerilla bases. This is something which affects reaching out and blunting the propaganda-monopoly of sorts that the State enjoys, and mobilizing the toilers. That is why they are unable to use urban presence as a force multiplier for reaching out to the public at large even as they are being compelled to bear a larger burden of infusing life into these struggles. In short while there has been consolidation, much bigger challenges are posed to us all by the election to the 16th parliament, which has catapulted a right wing, big corporate-patronised government to power.
In short their biggest test is here and now.
(1) It is worth noting that there has been a more nuanced approach towards election boycott this time. For once there was clarity in Maoists’ pronouncement and the nature of campaign. The interview of the spokesperson of the CC of the Party reflects this in more than one way (see www.bannedthought.org for the full text). As a result there were IED explosions targeting buses carrying soldiers. In Dumka and Bijapur incidents civilians too died. But other than that in all other incidents combatants were targeted (see the statement of Western Regional Bureau of the Party in www.banedthought.org).