War drums are getting louder since the arrival of the NDA government as far as plans to tackle the Maoist violence in central India are concerned. Chhattisgarh will be given 10,000 extra paramilitary troops. Bastar has been chosen as the next concentrated area of operation. Mobile tower installations for Bastar will be expedited. Helicopters will now be allowed in anti-Maoist operations.
These are some of the news reports we have been reading lately.
The Maoists must be very happy.
Beginning in 2005, the Chhattisgarh government ran a disastrous military campaign called Salwa Judum with the Centre’s help. Though it was shown as a spontaneous people’s movement, it ended up strengthening the Maoists as never before. Top Maoist leaders wrote articles in their internal magazines in Gondi language with headlines like, “Thank you, Salwa Judum”.
One of their leaders told me, “We called our movement People’s War but Salwa Judum made it a real people’s war. Our recruitment is up many times. Now, there is no chance of fence-sitting for Adivasis and obviously a huge majority has chosen us.”
I remember meeting an old Adivasi man during one of my trips to a Maoist-controlled area. He must have been 80.
Feeling that he will tell the truth as he may be uncaring of threats from the Maoists at this ripe age, I asked him, “Who is better — Dadas (as the Maoists are called in Bastar), or the State?”
Dadas, he replied without hesitation. Then he added, “We need water, medicine and schools, and we know Dadas can’t give us that. They have not given us these things in 30 years, but the State only sends the police, who beat us unnecessarily. That’s why I say Dadas are better. They at least don’t beat us without warning.”
During the Salwa Judum years, the State could not kill more than 50 uniformed Maoists. However, it killed more than 1,000 civilians (around 200 of them were non-uniformed Maoist cadres) and created thousands of new Maoists in return. If the recent reports are correct, the State seems to have learnt very little.
“Bastar is not Kashmir,” say CRPF officers who are posted in the remote areas of Bastar and have served in Kashmir and the Northeast before. “The forest is very thick here. There is almost no direct fight here as we faced in Kashmir. It is impossible to encircle the whole area, it is too big. And the most important point is, we get no intelligence. You have given us Co-BRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action), but that has no eyes.”
During a recent incident in Bastar in which 15 policemen were killed, newspapers reported the next day that all the parents in the area knew about increased Maoist presence as the attendance that morning in all nearby schools was almost zero. But no one told the police.
No, peace talks with the Maoists will not help. We need to talk to the people.
There is absolutely no communication between the lower-class Adivasis in Bastar and mainstream India. We only talk to the tiny, creamy layer of Adivasis, who have got a little educated and speak Hindi. They have become sarpanches, teachers and rubber-stamp MLAs and MPs. The same people who advised and also formed part of the Salwa Judum. The interests of upper-class Adivasis are often different from those of the majority lower class, which is the backbone of the Maoist movement, especially women.
We need to understand that there are two wars going on in Bastar. One by fanatic communists, and the other by lower-class Adivasis who have lost patience with the system, which has given them nothing so far, has only appropriated their resources and has no respect for them. Both will have to be dealt with differently.
Most Adivasis in Bastar don’t support the Maoists for the cause of creating a communist raj all over the world. Most of them have not seen state capital Raipur, forget about Delhi. Lal Qile pe lal jhanda (red flag on Red Fort) can’t be part of their imagination.
The top-most Adivasi Maoist commander today is called Venkatesh (not his real name). He was educated until Class II. He has never been to Raipur. He saw trains when he went to pluck chillies as a daily-wage labourer in Andhra Pradesh (now Telangana).
These are the people the State should also be talking to. They are our future Laldengas. They are fighting for respect, their forest, their culture, their languages, maybe Sixth Schedule status, maybe a new state of Dandakaranya.
A communist revolution may be a good idea, but that looks a distant reality today. But there are other real revolutions that one can make use of.
Recently, a team from CGNet Swara travelled through Adivasi villages and weekly haats in Adivasi districts across six states for a month. We were trying to teach them how they can use their mobile phones to tell the world about what is happening around them. They need not wait for a reporter anymore.
We went to many villages where there is no electricity and no drinking water. They walk kilometres to fetch drinking water, but they have mobile phones.
They also walk kilometres to get their phones charged and even pay for it.
They often also don’t have any mobile signal in their villages.
While walking with Maoist Adivasi young boys and girls when I was writing my book, I had noticed their sixth sense in finding the source of water and their impeccable sense of direction. Wherever you are, how ever deep in the jungle that may be, they will find a source of water for you. And we hardly lost our way ever, though we were walking most of the time in the dark, sometimes in the middle of the night.
Now, one more thing needs to be added to that list. Wherever I visited this time, they took me to a place where you can get a mobile phone signal — sometimes it was up in hills, sometimes next to the river or in their weekly market.
Mobile phones are a one-way tool here. You can’t reach them as they are out of range all the time, but they can reach you.
This mobile phone revolution must be used to create a dialogue as we are doing with the CGNet Swara experiment in a very small way.
Shortwave radio, which is effectively utilised today only by foreign broadcasters and religious fanatics, should be used to access all these remote villages. If we link mobile phones, Internet and shortwave radio, we can create a democratic communication platform for oral communities like the Adivasis.
This will help Adivasis in talking to each other and also to the outside world. Bengalis got Bengal, Gujaratis got Gujarat, but the Gondi-speaking people were divided into six states, maybe not by design.
Recently, at a meeting we organised, we saw that educated Gond Adivasis from four states could not talk to each other because there is no education in their mother tongue and they learnt the language of the state in residential schools and forgot Gondi. This must change.
Adivasi drums, which were used to communicate across long distances, like telegraphy, should be helped with new drums such as mobile phones, Internet and shortwave radio to make it a two-way dialogue model.
This kind of platform will empower scattered Adivasi groups to make a stronger community. There can’t be a community without communication.
But if that strengthened community decides one day in future that they will not give land for mining, as a democracy, we must accept that. As a community, if they decide that they will vote for Maoists, we must accept that too.
They can bring Maoists to electoral politics, collectively. We can’t.
It is time for drum diplomacy, not war drums.
Shubhranshu Choudhary is the author of Let’s Call Him Vasu: With the Maoists in Chhattisgarh