THE ILL WINDS THAT BLOW ACROSS BASTAR
NEW DELHI: Ill winds are blowing across Bastar in southern Chhattisgarh, scorching this forested homeland of many tribal communities. Fear and carnage stalk this deeply troubled terrain.
The development state has almost completely collapsed in these parts, with schools, health-centres, ration shops and pre-school centres rarely functioning. The state instead appears to be in a state of war with its own people, in its bid to suppress by all means the decades-long violent Maoist insurgency.
The settlements and forests of the region are over-run with nearly a lakh armed security personnel and police persons, making this – as observed by the Campaign for Peace and Justice in Chhattisgarh – one of the most militarised regions in the country.
Recent months have seen a huge spike in the numbers of extra-judicial killings and ‘surrenders’ of Maoist militants. The Campaign observes: ‘The police and CRPF have been raiding villages and picking up men en masse. They are kept in the police stations or CRPF camps for several days, before some of them are shown as arrested. Others are shown as having “surrendered” in grand ceremonies…In the police version, these are spontaneous gatherings of the villagers determined to support the police and oppose the Maoists’. The Indian Express reported that of the 377 alleged Maoists who ‘surrendered’ in Bastar division between June and November, 2014, at least 270 are just ordinary villagers not part of any Maoist group or routine criminals.
Journalists who question the police version of events in the region are being openly harassed, dubbed unpatriotic. A fact-finding team of the Editors Guild expressed its disquiet that journalists are being intimidated and harassed by the local police administration and feel unsafe reporting. Four journalists – Santosh Yadav, Somaru Nag, Prabhat Singh and Deepak Jaiswal – have been arrested by the police, charged with a range of crimes and alleged Maoist sympathies, meaning effectively that they are not reporting the police version exclusively.
Vigilante groups have been encouraged to harass the landlords of journalist Malini Subramaniam and human rights lawyers Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Collective (and vandalise Subramaniam’s car), forcing them eventually to leave Jagdalpur. Social scientist and activist Bela Bhatia was similarly harassed, but issued a courageous statement that she would not leave Bastar. She also refused the police security that she was offered, saying that it was the ordinary people of Bastar who needed security.
This was anyway one of the most dispossessed enclaves of the country. Outsider settlers savagely dispossessed local tribal communities of their lands and forest produce, trapping them in cycles of debt. Dispossession from their lands and forests continued in the hands of the ‘developmental state’, for roads, factories, mines and the so-called ‘scientific management of forests’, sometimes replacing rich natural forests with mono-culture and severely limiting the tribal people’s symbiotic life-support dependence on the forests.
This dispossession became even more acute with the advance of the neo-liberal state, as for-profit powerful companies became impatient to extract the forest and mineral wealth of the lands occupied by indigenous tribal communities, unencumbered by the rights of tribal communities and the imperatives of ecological sustainability.
This ferocious, sustained and multi-armed oppression and dispossession led some tribal people to support and join far-left Maoist groups, who promised them justice and protection. The state responded primarily, not by addressing the massive injustices and exploitation that led to the alienation of some of India’s most dispossessed people, but by constructing this in the public discourse as a grave security challenge to the integrity of the nation.
It unleashed what is not less than a civil war, with various arms of the state using every weapon in its arsenal. Extra-judicial killings are customary, and it is standard drill for villages to be routinely raided and for hundreds of villagers to be rounded up and detained for alleged Maoist sympathies or for harbouring Maoists. Some do support the Maoists against what they see as an oppressive state, whereas many of them were only by-standers and persons coerced into support, caught in the cross-fire.
Their predicament and insecurity was aggravated further, when the state encourages and armed vigilante groups of surrendered Maoists, renegades, ordinary criminals and others, to turn upon their own people with rape, arson, intimidation and killings, silently supported by the police. The Salwa Judum for four bloody years between 2005 and 2008, undertook mass burning of villages and forced the residents into camps, as well as unleashed massive killings and rapes. Although Salwa Judum is banned by the Supreme Court, new vigilante groups in new names and guises are being openly encouraged by the police administration.
The Maoists in the meanwhile have also splintered into rival factions, and often are riddled with violent rivalries and corruption. They enjoy some real support from oppressed tribal people, especially some young people, but also are known not infrequently to resort to brutal intimidation, targeted killings of alleged ‘informers’, and periodic violent assaults on security forces, leading to the tragic loss of life of large numbers of usually junior members of the police and security forces.
Matters are further complicated by the upsurge of right-wing Hindu nationalism, targeting Christian converts. The Alliance Defending Freedom reports 147 incidents of attacks on Christians because of their faith in 2014, of which the highest numbers were in the state of Chhattisgarh, especially in the Bastar area. In May 2014, Christian families were denied rations and ration cards after they refused to contribute 200 rupees per member towards Hindu festivities initiated by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in Sirisguda village.
When Christians reported this matter to the district authorities, activists of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal beat them up. The Gram Sabha, the village council, of Sirisguda passed a resolution outlawing non-Hindu from the village. A section of the Panchayat Raj Act (129 G) was used to adopt a resolution proscribing all religious activity in the village areas which did not adhere to the Hindu faith. Since then more than 60 villages are reported to have passed similar resolutions in the area. There have been frequent reports of Christians being beaten up in various villages of Bastar.
Caught in the unending cycles of violence of a security state, militants of the extreme left, renegades and state-supported armed vigilante groups, and an upsurge of right-wing groups, there seems no end to the suffering of the indigenous communities which have long inhabited the forested plateau and hills of the seven districts of Bastar.