Is the Government really winning the war against Maoists in Bastar, asks a former diplomat and NHRC member
The government of Chhattisgarh says it is winning the war against the Maoists with means that are just and humane, but the terrible reports coming out of Bastar again show that neither claim is true. The pity of it is that these searing accounts of killings, rapes, tortures and false arrests are so familiar. The even greater pity is that they have been told for so long. And the greatest pity of them all, is that the “nation” seems without a care, indifferent to what is being done in its name, though the Adivasis who are the victims are among the most vulnerable of its citizens and need help, support and solidarity the most. They might ante-date the nation but they are not “anti-national”.
In 2013, when the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) held hearings in Raipur, two of us, Justice B.C. Patel and I, flew first to Bastar. From visits to other districts in the red corridor, I knew they had no-go areas, like Jamui in Bihar, for instance, where the SP said the Maoists might attack me if I went unprotected to the tribal villages, but if he sent a police escort, they certainly would. In Chatra in Jharkhand, the SP did take me to villages from where the Maoists had withdrawn deeper into the forest, but we went in a convoy, with a road-opening party sent ahead. The Commission’s work took me to swathes of our country, up its spine and in the north-east, where the writ of the government does not easily run.
Nothing though prepared me for Bastar. We had asked to go to villages in Bijapur and Sukma where massacres had been reported, but in Raipur the DGP pleaded with us to reconsider. This was the heart of Maoist territory, he said, and if we insisted, he would have to deploy 1500 men to ward off the inevitable attacks. We decided it was pointless to go under these circumstances: the villagers we wanted to talk to would either have fled into the jungle or have been locked away, leaving behind only those the State wanted us to meet.
We went only where the State could take us in Bastar. That was on the metalled roads, in bullet-proof SUVs, surrounded by heavily armed convoys led by huge mine-protected vehicles, with armed police deployed on both sides of our route.
I first saw those mine-protected vehicles in South Africa in 1991 in the black townships, where they were the sinister and hated symbols of apartheid; I had never thought I would ride behind one in India. And I had been driven at speed once before, with tense soldiers on both sides of the route, backs turned to our convoy, fingers on triggers as they watched out for possible attacks. That was in Pakistan in 2007, when I was taken with some other Ambassadors to Gwadar through the moonscape of coastal Baluchistan, where it was clear the government hardly had control. Then, I had felt rather superior. It was chastening to relive the experience in India.
The maps we were shown made it clear that the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) and police had garrisoned defendable strong points, from where they sallied forth for operations against the Maoists. What happened in the villages before and after these operations, we asked. We heard brave words in Raipur, but in Bastar the District Magistrates (DMs) confessed that the only government programme that ran well in the villages was the PDS (public distribution system), because this suited the Maoists, who took a share for themselves. Schools, health centres, anganwadis, MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) sputtered at best because civil servants could not enter areas where the Maoists were dominant.
Which was ironic, really, because the Maoists had established themselves by offering services which, for generations, the State had not. This of course is not unique to Chhattisgarh. It is a problem the NHRC saw throughout the villages of the red corridor.
In Jharkhand, for instance, a team we sent to investigate a complaint that food distribution, child development services and primary health centres had been shut down in Operation Green Hunt, had to trek through jungles for two days, because there were no roads, spent two nights under canvas in the forest, and found, when it got to the villages, that it was true that the Adivasis had been denied these services, but not by the counter-insurgency operation. They had never had them. That, we heard, though we could not get there, was also true of the remote villages in Bastar which were now Maoist bastions.
We went only where the State could take us in Bastar. …And I had been driven at speed once before, with tense soldiers on both sides of the route, backs turned to our convoy, fingers on triggers as they watched for possible attacks. That was in Pakistan in 2007, when I was taken with some other Ambassadors to Gwadar through the moonscape of coastal Baluchistan, where it was clear the government hardly had control. Then, I had felt rather superior. It was chastening to relive the experience in India.
In the briefings that the DMs gave us, and in our tours around the district headquarters, we heard about and then visited the cluster schools for Adivasi children. These were large new structures in the heart of these towns, well protected, where boys and girls studied and lived from the age of seven until they graduated, when there were vocational training centres next door for those who could not make it to college.
We saw thousands of children in these schools, well-fed, well taught, but this brilliant initiative has a very dark side. The children are deracinated, alienated from tribal culture. Most met their parents very rarely, if at all; none wanted to go back to the village after they graduated. The State was solving the Maoist problem by ensuring that, in a few years, there will be very few young people in the adivasi villages to indoctrinate and recruit. But the Adivasi way of life, its traditions and culture, will also die out. (When we heard thatthousands of needless hysterectomies had been performed on healthy young adivasi women in Chhattisgarh by unscrupulous doctors to claim fees under the RSBY (Rashtra Swasthya Bima Yojana), I wondered if this had been just greed or if the State’s campaign to deny the Maoists a new generation of cadres had taken an altogether more diabolic turn.)
The DMs told us the State would shut down schools in the villages which were the catchment area for the cluster schools. I was not surprised to read that in 2015 it closed 782 schools in Bastar. For Adivasi parents, therefore, the choice is between sending their children off to these schools, when they drift away from them, or to the schools set up by the Maoists to become their foot-soldiers, or have them grow up illiterate. Since the government and the Maoists fight over these villages and those who live there, it is moot how much of a choice the parents (or the children) have.
If the plan works and produces well-adjusted young men and women, accepted by and integrated in the wider society, the government can argue that the price was worth paying. The danger is that our caste-ridden, insular system will keep them at arm’s length as not quite us. In Europe, many young Muslims, brought up as Europeans but not accepted as such, have turned violently against the society and values their parents urged them to embrace; the first rebels turned to Marxism but abandoned it swiftly to return to what they thought were their roots, embracing a distortion of Islam and pledging their violent allegiance first to Al-Qaeda and now to ISIS. We can only hope that the social engineering of Chhattisgarh does not replace the Maoists with something even worse.
They already have a Frankenstein, the Salwa Judum, killed off by the Supreme Court in 2011 but revived by the State in the avatar of an auxiliary police, the Parthasarathis to the COBRAS. We met some of them in the refugee camps. They were the prosperous families in their villages in the Abujhmar, they told us, and therefore the first victims of the Maoists. They live in the camps nursing their loss, have no hope of returning to their homes, and the fight against the Maoists is for them deeply personal, fought savagely and for revenge. (It is a pattern seen throughout the world: the Hutu refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, breed the Interahamwe, the militia responsible for the worst atrocities in its civil war.) Since the Abujhmar, true to its name, is still terra incognita, the government perhaps does not have the ability to rehabilitate these refugees, but neither does it have the incentive to try when the camps give it a ready supply of young Adivasis, at home in the jungle, and eager to comb through it to take revenge on the Maoists and their supporters.
The Salwa Judum makes no distinction between the Maoists and the villagers on whom they batten. What surprised me then and does now is that the State government also seems to believe that anyone who questions their policies, or tries to temper the impact of their mistakes, is a closet Maoist, who must be silenced, through fair means or foul.
Binayak Sen and Soni Sori are the names the rest of India now knows, symbols of resistance and victims of the rancorous cruelty of the State, but we met many others who said that they had had to evade roadblocks set up by the police to stop villagers coming to meet the NHRC, some who told us that ever since they had sent a written complaint to us, they had been harassed by the State, others who said in despair that any protest against a local functionary’s despotism or corruption meant that the protester would have to suffer. We wondered why a government run by an educated and able Chief Minister should let itself be ruled by such vicious and self-defeating paranoia.
Tragically, from the latest reports in the media, the government is now even more insecure and intolerant, persecuting anyone who draws attention to the sufferings of the Adivasis or stands up for them. The list includes some of their most able and committed defenders – Bela Bhatia and Malini Subramaniam, who have apparently been threatened and told to leave, and the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, who have been hounded out.
Soni Sori, whose refusal to be cowed seems to bring the worst out in the State, has been threatened with eviction, and has now been attacked, something corrosive rubbed on her eyes and face by cowards to blind and disfigure her. She has endured worse, much worse, as I know from reading the reports of the doctors who examined her in Kolkata after she was first arrested, and from what she told the NHRC officer who met her in jail. It is foolish of the State to think this will deter her.
The Maoists are a cure worse than the disease; they are no one’s saviours. The Adivasis deserve better. Elsewhere in India, State governments seem to have woken up at last to their needs, and are trying to address them. But not, it seems, in Chhattisgarh, where the more things change the more they remain the same.
(The writer is a former Indian diplomat. He served as India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, and as a member of the National Human Rights Commission)