I call it war, this matter of the Maoist rebellion in Chhattisgarh, and it is now nearly 20 years old

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

I call it war, this matter of the Maoist rebellion in Chhattisgarh, where democratically elected governments practice ineluctable undemocracy in this most permissive of battlefields.

This war, now nearly 20 years old, colours everything from the arrest and harassment of journalists to threatening human rights activists, to brutal “collateral damage” of non-combatants, to accusations that business is behind it all. It goes beyond statistics of, say, the death of seven troopers of the Central Reserve Police Force who died on 30 March in southern Chhattisgarh when their truck was blown up by Maoist rebels; or the eight Maoist rebels who were killed in the region on 1 March in a shootout with security forces. But attrition through battle is not the same as how the war is being conducted.

Chhattisgarh inherited this war. But it has since added much fuel to the fire. That’s where attitude comes in, which I shall address in a series of columns.

There is little to dispute that the Maoists moved into the Dandakaranya region encompassing present-day Chhattisgarh (earlier a superciliously administered part of undivided Madhya Pradesh), south-west Odisha and western Maharashtra in the 1980s. Maoists found fertile ground for expansion among developmentally ignored and procedurally harassed tribal populations, along with deep forests as shelter. Through the 1990s, the situation in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh proved increasingly untenable for them with that state’s police birthing a brutally efficient anti-Maoist force. Much of the Maoists’ new, assiduously cultivated sanctuary became part of Chhattisgarh in 2000.

The full impact of Maoist ingress in Chhattisgarh became evident after the merger of two major factions in 2004 to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Meanwhile, the somnolent police force of the new state had by 2005 been transformed by chief minister Raman Singh into a battering ram against Maoists, with tribal folk and other Maoist target groups of the vulnerable, as it were, firmly in the middle. With the full backing of his organization, the Bharatiya Janata Party, as well as security dons of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi at the time—which began the practice of saturating Chhattisgarh with paramilitary forces at the state government’s request—Singh blessed Salwa Judum in mid-2005. He had an able and willing co-architect in a Congress leader, Mahendra Karma.

While this vigilante effort of recruiting tribal youngsters, even minors, as special police officers, and forcible corralling of tribal people with the help of police and paramilitaries to deny Maoists their support base proved operationally successful to an extent, the Salwa Judum chapter remains among the worst state-led human rights atrocities in India. Besides killing, raping, maiming and beating non-combatants, burning hundreds of houses, and destroying food stock and crops, the modus operandi for breaking the stranglehold of Maoists also included threatening local journalists, and resident and visiting human rights activists. Anyone who spoke against the goings-on in Chhattisgarh was labelled a “Maoist” or “Maoist sympathizer”.

A former superintendent of police of Bijapur went as far as to order this (I have the intercept, confirmed to me as genuine by a former director general of police of Chhattisgarh): “If any journalists come to report on Naxalis—get them killed,” he instructs, using the term interchangeably used with ‘Maoist’ in this area.

More than 10 years later, even with the formal discontinuation of Salwa Judum and the formal disbanding of special police officers—unsurprisingly, banded together since then under different names and changed rules of recruitment—the attitude has not changed. Indeed, three terms into his tenure, Singh, who has meanwhile pitched himself as a favourite of metals, mining and power-generation companies in this abundantly mineral-rich state, has driven a government that is low on democratic niceties like freedom of speech and expression. (Success with farming initiatives and the public distribution system have, among other things—including a disarrayed opposition and solid buy-in by the business community—contributed twice to his re-election.)

Singh is an imperious man (he once termed Salwa Judum “Gandhian” and like the “fragrance of the forest in the summer”) who breeds imperious underlings in the administration and police. Several of them are located in southern Chhattisgarh, and have turned policing laws into lawless ones to curb criticism. Three journalists are today jailed on the slimmest of evidence; one hounded out; a well-known human rights activist threatened by an organization associated with the region’s top policeman.

More on such men, their methods—and madness as usual—next week.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.

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