Kafka in Chhattisgarh: The bureaucratization of violence in India

At ground zero of the Maoist insurgency, surrendering as a guerrilla is the only way of proving one’s innocence

A Maoist notice declaring a strike is set up on a road by the forests of southern Bastar in Chhattisgarh, India.

In a photo from photographer Poulomi Basu’s project, “A Quiet Revolution,” a Maoist notice declaring a strike is set up on a road by the forests of southern Bastar in Chhattisgarh, India.
Poulomi Basu

BASTAR, India — When the List caught up with Kartam Joga in October last year, he couldn’t quite believe it. He reached into his breast pocket for a talisman to wave away this ill omen: a notarized photocopy of his acquittal papers, shrunken down to the size of a playing card and laminated in clear plastic.

“What List?” he asked the soldiers who apprehended him at a bus stop along a broken highway in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh.

“The List of suspected Maoists.”

“But I can’t be on the List. I’ve been freed by the courts.”

Kartam Joga is a widely respected figure in these parts. Amid an insurgency that pits nearly 30,000 Indian troops against the guerrilla army of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist), Joga stands out as a politician known for speaking for civilians caught in this vortex of violence. His activism has enraged Chhattisgarh’s security apparatus, which imprisoned him for nearly three years, prompting Amnesty International to declare him a prisoner of conscience. He was eventually acquitted of all charges by the courts.

This time too, the soldiers handcuffed him and whisked him away to one of the many fortified military encampments that dot the hardwood forests, rolling hills and patchwork rice fields of southern Chhattisgarh, in a region known as Bastar.

At the camp, Joga told me, an officer of the Central Reserve Police Force, or CRPF, a paramilitary force, offered him two ways to get off the List: “Go back into jail for a few years, or you could just surrender as a Maoist.”

“I said, ‘Why surrender when I’m not a Maoist?’” Joga continued. “But the officer said, ‘According to the List, you are a Maoist. Once you surrender, your name will be struck off, and you definitely won’t be a Maoist. If you can bring along a gun when you surrender, you can get some money as well.’”

The beginning

In 1967 in Naxalbari village in the state of West Bengal, an extrajudicial killing by police — referred to euphemistically in India as an “encounter” — of villagers wielding bows and arrows sparked the dream of a countrywide, peasant-led Maoist revolution that has persisted to this day. In the half century since the uprising, India’s Maoist movement, also known as the Naxalite movement, has transformed into a militarized insurgency spread across what is known as the red corridor: an area the size of Maine spanning nine states from West Bengal and Odisha in the east, down to Maharashtra in the west.

Unlike India’s other insurgencies, the Maoists’ goal is not to establish a separate nation, but to capture state power and install their own national government.

In Bastar, believed to be the center of the insurgency, the Maoists focus on exacerbating what they perceive to be the fundamental contradiction in the relationship between the Indian state and the adivasis, India’s indigenous peoples, who primarily live in forested hamlets settled atop the country’s richest deposits of coal, iron ore and bauxite. The state claims to care for the development of Bastar, where most villages have no schools, hospitals, electricity or clean water. Yet successive governments have sought to acquire adivasi lands by force and allocate them to mining companies even as development projects worth millions of rupees have languished.

Maoists school

The education of tens of thousands of marginalized children is being disrupted by the ongoing Naxalite conflict in southern Bastar. Security forces have occupied government school buildings as bases for anti-Naxalite operations; the guerrillas blow up government schools, including those not occupied by security forces.
Poulomi Basu

In the past decade, the Maoist conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 7,000 civilians, suspected Maoists and security forces across the country, with Chhattisgarh accounting for a third of all fatalities, according to government data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, ICM.

The killings are part of a broader war in which both sides purport to enjoy the support of the adivasis, on whose behalf this battle is ostensibly fought. While the Maoists claim the state has failed to safeguard the interests of the adivasis, successive governments have pointed to the staging of regular elections and the participation of adivasis in state-run development programs as evidence of adivasi support for the state. The Chhattisgarh government and police have seized the “surrender” of large numbers of Maoist cadres as evidence that adivasi support for the guerrillas has waned, and adivasis have decisively chosen to support the state in this conflict. The Indian press has reproduced this narrative: Phrases such as “shun the path of violence” and “join the mainstream” appear repeatedly in stories about surrenders, and media observers suggest that reporters are doing little more than regurgitating police press releases.

The “List,” wielded by the soldiers who confronted Joga last October, appears to be part of this state objective and has produced a more bureaucratic form of violence: arrests, surrenders, paperwork and the weaponization of India’s painfully slow judicial process.

The “List”

How did the List come to be?

Inspector General S.R.P. Kalluri, the senior-most police official in the Bastar region

Inspector General S.R.P. Kalluri, the senior-most police official in the Bastar region
Alan McCarty

“We prepared a list, a master database, of all villagers with family members who are Maoists,” said Inspector General S.R.P. Kalluri, the senior-most police official in the Bastar region. “We sent them letters telling them to ask their sons and daughters to surrender and explained their child could be killed if he or she is caught in an encounter with the armed forces.”

The List, Kalluri told me, was based on information from intelligence sources, police records and tips from local informants. It is hard to say how many people are on it — the List contracts and expands with the ebb and flow of information to the police. At beginning of 2015, Kalluri said, the list contained over 1,000 names.

So how does he know if these people really are Maoists?

“We are not examining these surrenders with a fine-toothed comb to see if they correspond to some mathematical formula of a surrender,” Kalluri responded. “I don’t see this as a surrender of arms. I see this as a surrender of an ideology by the adivasis.”

According to the police officer, the surrenders are of great value at a time when a purely military anti-Maoist strategy is proving counterproductive; the unintended civilian casualities of military operations, officers say, have alienated the adivasis.

Arms seized from alleged Maoists are displayed at the district police headquarters after a gun battle with the guerrillas near Padia, on the border of Odisha and Chhattisgarh states, on Sept. 14, 2013.

Arms seized from alleged Maoists are displayed at the district police headquarters after a gun battle with the guerrillas near Padia, on the border of Odisha and Chhattisgarh states, on Sept. 14, 2013.
AFP / Getty Images

Last year, 413 supposed Maoists surrendered — as compared with only 28 in 2013. The local papers are awash with accounts of Maoists shunning their violent past to join the mainstream. One day in November 2014, the press celebrated the surrender of 63 Maoists in a single day. The trend has continued in 2015; official data isn’t available yet, but a preliminary report by ICM indicates that at least 120 alleged Maoists surrendered from January to September.

Yet villagers I spoke with said that most of these supposed Maoists are ordinary adivasis coerced into participating in an elaborate propaganda campaign that has put them at risk of reprisal from actual Maoists. The List of potential suspects has acquired a life of its own as a means for policemen to harass villagers like Kartam Joga by claiming their names are on it. Everyone who surrenders must provide names of other “Maoists,” and so the list grows by suspicion and implication.

Some on the list are actual Maoists implicated in violent crimes but usually beyond the reach of the police; others, like Joga, simply asked inconvenient questions; and a majority are civilians who must negotiate the uncomfortable middle ground between soldier and guerrilla on a daily basis.

Their stories, shared on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals from the police and the Maoists, offer a portrait of a hidden war in which it is possible to assist both the Maoists and the police without supporting either, and a former policeman can be passed off as a Maoist and a former Maoist can become a policeman.

The prisoner

The Communist Party of India is the country’s oldest communist party. It participates in parliamentary elections and is a distinct political entity from the Communist Party of India (Maoist), to which the guerillas belong. Kartam Joga is a member of the CPI, and in 2007 he and fellow member Manish Kunjam filed a petition called a Public Interest Litigation in the Indian Supreme Court.

Adivasi graves

Graves of adivasis on Dantewada road, Chhattisgarh.
Poulomi Basu

The Chhattisgarh government, police and civil administration, the petition said, had recruited and armed an army of young, untrained adivasis called the Salwa Judum. The Judum was set up in 2005 and took the form of lynch mobs that moved from village to village, killing suspected Maoist sympathizers, raping women and setting entire settlements afire. (According to the government, “Salwa Judum” means “peace march” in the local Gondi language, but critics like Joga and Kunjam translate the phrase as “purification hunt.”)

From 2005 to 2007, the petition claimed, Judum mobs killed 537 adivasis, raped 99 women and burned over 1,000 homes. Another petition was filed by sociologist Nandini Sundar, who exhaustively documented the damage caused by the Judum.

During that time 47,000 villagers fled their homes in fear and were living as internally displaced people in barricaded police camps and across the state border in Andhra Pradesh.

An SPO military police training camp.

An SPO military police training camp.
Stanley Greene / NOOR / Redux

From 2005 onwards, the vigilantes were absorbed into the state security apparatus in small batches, initially as “special police officers,” or SPOs, an ambiguous designation that reflected the ad hoc nature of their training and recruitment.

As the case gained publicity and made its way to the Supreme Court, Joga and Kunjam began receiving threats from the police. In September 2010, Joga was arrested and accused of participating in an April ambush in which Maoist cadres killed 76 troops from the Central Reserve Police Force, a heavily armed federal unit. The police had no evidence against Joga except for eyewitness accounts, several of which I discovered to be forged in the course of my reporting from the time.

In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the Judum was illegal and SPOs could no longer be used in anti-Maoist operations in Chhattisgarh. “A society is not a forest where one could combat an accidental forest fire by starting a counter forest fire,” Justice Sudershan Reddy wrote in his judgment, adding that the SPOs were to be stripped of their weapons.

The Judum officially ended with Reddy’s order, but rather than demobilize the SPOs, the Chhattisgarh government simply absorbed them into a specially created unit called the Chhattisgarh Auxiliary Armed Police Force. Joga remained in jail till January 2013, when he was finally acquitted and freed.

Central Reserve Police Force troops on duty in the southern Bastar region of Chhattisgarh.

Central Reserve Police Force troops on duty in the southern Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. Since the conflict began, more than 75,000 paramilitary troops have been deployed. 
Poulomi Basu

Data collated by the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, or JagLAG, a Bastar-based collective of women lawyers, reveals that Joga’s experience is typical of how the system works. From 2005 to 2013, the aid group found, an astonishing 96 percent of cases in Chhattisgarh’s Maoist-affected districts ended in acquittal of the accused, compared with a national average of 61.5 percent. Yet, in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, almost 70 percent of prisoners awaiting trial in these districts spent more than one year in prison before they were either acquitted or granted bail, compared with a statewide average of 30 percent. JagLAG’s analysis also revealed instances in which the police fabricated evidence or were overzealous in charging suspects. In one case, for instance, an adivasi was booked under the Arms Act, intended to regulate the use of firearms, for possessing kitchen knives and a large kitchen utensil.

According to JagLAG’s Shalini Gera, “Our analysis suggests that Chhattisgarh is using the criminal justice system as a weapon of war.”

“Putting people on this List puts pressure on people that they can be arrested at any time,” Joga says. “This fear of arrest can be used to force people to work as police informers.”

So most people accused of being Maoists prefer to surrender rather than spend years in jail trying to clear their name. Thus the due process of criminal investigation, arrest of suspects, charging suspects and judicial remedy has been compressed into detaining suspects, forcing them to “surrender” and denounce their supposedly violent past before a phalanx of journalists and allowing the police to claim a propaganda victory over the Maoists.

Lawyers, like those in JagLAG who question this policy, are targeted as well. On Oct. 3 this year, the Bastar District Bar Association passed a resolution, at odds with Indian law, banning JagLAG from practicing in Bastar courts on the grounds that Gera and her colleagues were “outsiders.” The bar association has refused to share a copy of the resolution with JagLAG or the press, but its members have taken to appearing in court and interrupting JagLAG lawyers as they argue cases. The presiding judges have refused to curb this practice, creating a strange situation in which the only lawyers willing to represent financially impoverished adivasis have been barred from court by a completely illegal social boycott.

The policeman

In September 2014, a man called KT stood before a constellation of popping camera flashes, a scarf wrapped around his face, a homemade muzzle-loaded shotgun placed on a table before him. He was, he realized with a start, in a press conference.

“A policeman told a group of reporters that dreaded Maoists had surrendered and were ready to join the mainstream,” he recalled.

An alleged ex-Maoist and SPO (name withheld) acts as a witness at a court hearing in Jagdalpur. He is one of the many surrenders under S.R.P. Kalluri’s surrender policy.

An alleged ex-Maoist and SPO (name withheld) acts as a witness at a court hearing in Jagdalpur. He is one of the many surrenders under S.R.P. Kalluri’s surrender policy. 
Poulomi Basu

In 2008, when the SPOs were still running amok, someone spread the rumor that KT was a Maoist. Terrified that the Judum mobs would kill him, KT approached a cousin who had become an SPO. KT’s cousin offered an elegant solution: become an SPO yourself and work for the police — “then no one can call you a Maoist.” So he did.

He left the force a year later and became a salesman in a government-run cooperative. Shortly after, the Maoists picked him up and threatened to kill him.

“I told them I was forced to become a policeman and had run away at the earliest opportunity, so they let me live,” he said.

This summer a friend in the police told him his name had come up on the List for ferrying food supplies to the Maoists.

“He told me to lie low, but I was worried,” KT said. “What if they shot me in the forest and passed me off as a Maoist?” This is a worryingly routine occurrence in Chhattisgarh’s violent conflict.

A police station since the 1950s, Jagargunda expanded into a major government-backed settlement during the Salwa Judum, which housed more than 3,000 civilians and a contingent of CRPF troops.

A police station since the 1950s, Jagargunda expanded into a major government-backed settlement during the Salwa Judum, which housed more than 3,000 civilians and a contingent of CRPF troops.
Poulomi Basu

So KT decided to surrender. He found an intermediary to take him to the CRPF camp in Sukma where a clerk ceremoniously struck his name off a printed list, made him sign a form printed in English, covered his face with a scarf and ushered him into the press conference, where he was not allowed to speak.

Once the conference ended, KT took off his scarf and went home. The next day, he was issued a “surrender certificate” signed by a CRPF commandant, which states KT — a former SPO — is “now officially declared as Surrendered Naxal.”

“I was told that if the police ever harasses me again, I should simply show this paper.”

The intermediary

A common concern for those considering surrender is that the police may kill them en route to the police station and win acclaim from their superiors for eliminating an allegedly dangerous terrorist.

“We could kill most of the people on this list and defend ourselves in court,” admitted a senior police official, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

So most villagers take along a well-connected intermediary to ensure that the surrender goes smoothly. Of late, these middlemen have caught the attention of the Maoists.

“Don’t call me an intermediary,” said Uncle K with a worried look, one of those middlemen. “The Maoists will get very angry.”

Uncle K is a village elder whose nephew, a peon in a government office, was put on the List. “He works for the government; how can he be a Maoist?”

When Uncle K went to the local police station to plead his nephew’s case he was given two options: jail or surrender. “My nephew chose to surrender and in a few hours his name was struck off the list,” K said.

When five other villagers who were also on the list learned how Uncle K had helped his nephew surrender, they asked him to accompany them to the police station when they surrendered.

The road to Dantewada through the forests

The road to Dantewada through the forests. 
Poulomi Basu

Then one evening in October 2014, the five men who had surrendered disappeared. A day later, Uncle K and his nephew vanished as well.

“When three days passed without any news, the villagers got worried,” the village headman said, who requested anonymity for fear of Maoist reprisal. So a large group of villagers gathered in the forests and set out in search of the men. They walked for three days before they were intercepted by a group of Maoists, who assured them the men were safe.

“It was during the hurricane Hudhud,” the headman recalled. “We sat in the pouring rain as the Maoists brought the men forward and asked each one to explain why he went to the police.”

“Everyone was scared, so we said Uncle K told us,” said the headman, who was among the men who surrendered. Uncle K was called forward and he explained his case.

“The Maoists accused me of making money from each surrender,” he said. “That is not true. I was only trying to save people from imprisonment.”

Eventually everyone was given a stern lecture except Uncle K. “To set an example they confiscated part of my field,” he said. “It is crazy. First you surrender before the police, then you surrender before the Maoists.

“The police ask you why you went to a Maoist meeting; the Maoists ask you why you went to the police station.”

The phantom fighters

A Maoist named Mandu is on the move at the break of dawn.

A Maoist named Mandu is on the move at the break of dawn. Everything moves with him, the backpack, the rice, vegetables, pots and pans, radio and rifle. The group will move to another camp where they will find a day’s work building fencing around village houses. Pictured in the forests on Narayanpur-Abujhmargh, in northwestern Bastar.
Poulomi Basu

One morning in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring, I sipped sweet black tea with a Maoist company in a forest in northwestern Bastar. A young fighter tweaked the radio’s antenna, and the BBC’s Hindi service brought news that Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s intransigent dictator, had been ousted by Tahrir Square’s young protesters.

Fresh cups of tea were brewed on discreet fires; we discussed how revolutions sometimes occurred without advance notice. At a distance, the guerrillas jogged in circles and practiced squats and forward rolls as part of their morning exercises.

“Who would have thought that Mubarak would go the way he did?” a fighter named Anil asked, offering a plausible reason why a few thousand lightly armed adivasis felt they could triumph against one of the world’s largest standing armies.

Life in the jungle is hard: The party assumes control of all aspects of life, incorporating cadres into a routine of patrols, exercises, group study sessions and recreation. Cadres cannot carry money or cellphones without permission, and each fighter carries a standard backpack with a plate, mug, toothbrush, a small bar of soap, hair oil, a single olive-green shirt and trousers, a few basic medicines such as acetaminophen, an anti-malarial drug and a Maoist textbook.

Our camp had no tents, no generators, no plastic bags and few indications that 80 men and women had cooked and rested there. The night before, the guerrillas had slept on tarpaulins spread on the ground — two to a blanket with a weapon on each side.

“There is no private life here. There is only community life,” a Maoist spokesperson who went by the nom de guerre Gudsa Usendi told me. “In the starting years of a revolutionary life, you need a strong foundation. … Otherwise there will be anarchy.”

Comrade Nirmala, 26, saw her village burn down in the early 2000s during the peak of the Judum years.

Comrade Nirmala, 26, saw her village burn down in the early 2000s during the peak of the Judum years. She ran for her life and joined the Maoists after the attack and the rape of three of her friends. “I will never forget that horrifying night and I will never forgive them. This use of rape as a weapon will never stop as long as the police are here,” she says. 
Poulomi Basu

Yet this sterile enforcement of discipline was often cited as a reason when I asked former Maoists why they left the party. Most of them were young men and women who signed up in their late teens in 2005 and 2006, when they saw the devastation of the Judum and vowed to take revenge against the state and its SPOs.

Ten years on, as the memories of the Judum have faded and patrols by the security forces have intensified, some of these fighters are exhausted by the prospect of walking the jungles for the rest of their lives.

But Bastar is no place for those who have tired of war: battle-weary guerrillas who lay down their guns soon find they must take up arms once more and march back into the endless jungle, this time on behalf of the state.

Hardened Maoist fighters, policemen admit, rarely surrender. Once they quit the party, they usually wander the forests in search of a safe haven until the police eventually capture them.

Very few such fighters are presented before the press.

“If we publicly reveal the details of the fighters and their past crimes, we will have to jail them and prosecute them. But we can’t just let them go free,” explained a senior police official, “so we keep them under surveillance and use them in anti-Maoist operations.”

Such fighters are put on the rolls as “gopniya sainiks,” literally secret soldiers or informants, and are paid 5,000 rupees a month from discretionary departmental budgets to guide policemen to their former hideouts.

Asmati, a 21-year-old comrade who served as a Maoist field nurse for five years, in the forests of Narayanpur–Abujhmargh in northwestern Bastar.

Asmati, a 21-year-old comrade who served as a Maoist field nurse for five years, in the forests of Narayanpur–Abujhmargh in northwestern Bastar.
Poulomi Basu

There is no official record of how many such secret fighters are out there, since many hope that switching sides in the war that consumed their youth may finally buy them their freedom.

“My wife and I keep thinking of the time when we can return to farming our land in our village,” said a gopniya sainik in his mid-20s who surrendered in 2012 with his wife after nine years in a Maoist platoon. “But the police officers say, ‘Wait some more time. We will do something.’”

His wife, also a former Maoist fighter, told me that she had wanted to leave for years, but her husband would say, “‘Let’s wait for a little while longer.’ Our commander would shout and curse us for the smallest mistakes,” she continued. “If your soap finished before the end of the month he would shout. If you fell ill he would shout. If you were on cooking duty and the food was too salty he would shout.”

The breaking point, said the man, came when his mother died of a prolonged illness and he could not be with her. So they both decided it was time to leave the party.

“We were picked up by the police and told we would have to go jail,” he said, “but I refused, so they made me a gopniya sainik.”

Now he exists in legal limbo — a spectral presence absent from all official paperwork, deployed alongside policemen to hunt down his former comrades. His wife has found employment stitching police uniforms.

“I really want to go back home,” he said again. “But the police say go out on patrols. Bring back bodies, bring back heads, make people surrender.”

Surreal surrenders

At the end of the summer, I called a senior police official for an honest, off-the-record assessment of the surrender policy. A number of supposed Maoists had surrendered in his district, and I asked if he felt this made a difference to his job of policing.

“It has shown adivasis that they can surrender before the police and they will not be penalized,” he said, but admitted, “There are all kinds of people on the List of suspects.”

Like whom? I asked.

There was a brief pause at the other end of the line. “Well, a few police informers have surrendered as Maoists as well,” he said, explaining that many informers were interested in low-level government jobs offered to surrendered Maoists.

It was a kind of reward by the police for the people they had relied on to compile the List and make arrests, the officer continued. “They’ve been working with us for years, providing information at great personal risk. So we felt we had to do something for them as well.”