Inside the republic of fear

With at least 16 panchayat leaders killed, and over 200 others forced to quit this year, TEHELKA travels to Gadchiroli to gauge the stranglehold of the Naxals on the region
Revati Laul

December 13, 2012, Issue 51 Volume 9

Where is the government? Less than 10 km from Jimalgatta police station, panchayat leaders were shamed at a Naxal-led Jan SunwaiWhere is the government? Less than 10 km from Jimalgatta police station, panchayat leaders were shamed at a Naxal-led Jan Sunwai

“If they say it’s 4 o’clock, you can’t argue and tell them it’s 5. If they say the sun rises from the west, you have to say it does.”

PULLAYA ERRA Veladi knew exactly what he was talking about. He had spent five days and nights in captivity, a blindfold around his eyes. Kidnapped by the Naxals from his village — Jimalgatta in Aheri, a tiny block in the south of Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra, the heart of Naxal country. Flanked by the Naxal ‘headquarters’ in Chhattisgarh on one side and their stronghold in Andhra Pradesh on the other. Veladi was kidnapped for being the sarpanch of the Jimalgatta gram panchayat for 20 years. It was part of the Naxal’s new game plan for Gadchiroli in 2012. A year when local elections were to be held in the district was a chance for the Naxals to turn what had been their ‘safe zone’ into a ‘liberated zone’. An extension of their own Jantana sarkar from one side of the Dandakaranya forest in Chhattisgarh, to the other side in Maharashtra. By capturing and killing some panchayat and zila parishad leaders so that the rest resign in fear.

It has been a bad year for Gadchiroli. The killing of sarpanches and other panchayat leaders had begun in January. On the 28th of the month, in Bhamragarh block, three members of the CPI(Maoist)’s quick action team shot dead Panchayat Samiti Chairman Bahadurshah Alam while he was sipping his morning chai at a tea stall in the town square. Eyewitnesses told the local media that they shouted “Alam Murdabad, Lal Salaam Zindabad” as they fled.

At least 16 other district- and village-level leaders were killed across Gadchiroli this year. By 15 July, over 200 elected members had resigned from panchayat and zila parishad posts. The last to be killed was a former sarpanch — Narayan Srirangi from the Sironcha taluka. Killed on 20 November, just a few days before TEHELKA visited the district.

“Thirty years ago, the first incident of Naxal violence took place in Gadchiroli when they chopped off the hands of a schoolteacher named Raju. Now they chop off heads,” says our guide Arvind Sovani, who teaches at Nagpur University and has surveyed the gram panchayats in Gadchiroli for the Central government’s Backward Regions Grant Fund programme. Sovani has a keen academic interest in issues of tribal rights, violence and the State.

ZOOMING OUT from the villages racked with fear, Gadchiroli’s violence may look like a small blip on the Naxal radar. But it represents a paralysis at the local level, spread over eight of the 12 blocks of the district, affecting 4 lakh people for whom the weakening of the local administration is a tangible loss. A sharp spike in Naxal violence in one of India’s most prosperous states is alarming even if its geographical extent seems small. That’s why the state’s Home Minister RR Patil and Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan have made frequent statements about attempts to contain Naxal violence. Most of those statements refer to this hotbed — Gadchiroli. That’s also why this district alone has 15,000 troops on patrol — CRPF, state police and Special Forces working on the ground to fight the Naxals. In March this year, the Naxals blew up a bus carrying a group of CRPF jawans, killing 12. But to tell that part of the story just yet would be to jump too far ahead.

First, it’s important to see how the kidnapping of former sarpanch Veladi finally unfolded. He and his other companions-in-captivity were released as part of a grand and very public ceremony by the Naxals in Jimalgatta village. More than 100 Naxals, including senior cadre and a charismatic leader with the code name ‘Madhu’, called their own kangaroo court — a Jan Sunwai at a public gathering of a clutch of villages. Many sarpanches — both former and current — were invited and made to stand in front of the gathering. It was a political show that went on for eight hours in broad daylight, less than 10 km from the Jimalgatta police station. The media, too, was invited. More than 2,000 villagers gathered to hear the Naxal leaders speak. One of them told TEHELKA, “It was a riveting experience. I took my wife along. People had even brought their kids. Their leader Madhu was a brilliant speaker. We wish our elected leaders were even half as charismatic.”

Before Veladi and his companions were released at the meeting, all the panchayat leaders present were asked to line up in front of the crowd and a Naxal leader asked them: “Tell us, as local representatives of the people, can you say, hands to your hearts, that you can wipe out the scourge of corruption in this country? Swear to your people that you can do that, or step down from your posts.”

It was a political masterstroke. Fear had forced many leaders to resign anyway. But to shame them in front of a crowd was to mop up massive political capital that the Naxals had been losing in other states.

A spate of resignations by local leaders followed. In Korchi block, nearly 60 officials resigned in one day. So great was the fear that not even one dared admit why they resigned; instead, they stated reasons like their demands not being met by the State.

Except for one panchayat leader, Rushi Portet, who in one brave and indignant act, turned his resignation into a political counter-manoeuvre. He wrote a letter that ended up cleverly to win him back his approval with the people. Portet, a tribal leader, had been working as the sarpanch of Dechli Petha for 10 years. He wrote: “A Jan Adalat was conducted where the Naxals asked all the assembled leaders if they could stop corruption… I said it is impossible for me to stop corruption as I belong to the smallest rung in the system. Therefore, I promised I would resign.” In so doing, Portet had admitted publicly what the other leaders had been too scared to do. That it was under fear of the Naxals that the resignations had taken place and that there had been a mass kangaroo court were now part of official lexicon. It was his way of fighting back.

In the neighbouring Etapalli block, however, a sarpanch who had quit, requested TEHELKA not to reveal his name or the village he was from. There was fear in his eyes as he listed the many ways in which the Naxals exercised control. “We cannot avail of insurance when someone dies, we can’t have roads built, and we can’t avail of agricultural or other government schemes.” In his village, the Naxals have replaced government schemes with some of their own. For a local pond to be dug, they gave the village some money. “But they don’t give as much as the equivalent government scheme,” he says. In Bhamragarh block, the Naxals had even held a cricket tournament in 2011 for school children with one of their commanders giving away prizes.

In Etapalli block, we also met Rama Raoji Naroti as she sifted some very lowgrade rice in her field. The rice looked more like a brownish gruel. It came from a farm that, our source informed us, was part of a scheme devised by the Naxals. Farming in the village was organised as if it were a commune. One part of the week is dedicated to tending to your own crop. The second part, to working your neighbour’s crop, and a third part, to looking after a patch reserved exclusively for the Naxals. In the block where Naroti’s village practised the Naxal way of farming, several local leaders had been killed. In April, a sarpanch, Chamru Kulle Joi, was kidnapped and killed by the Naxals. Two days later, the deputy sarpanch, and then a zila parishad member, were also killed.

As we entered Etapalli, we saw evidence of Naxal violence that had taken place just the previous night. Two large yellow JCB earth-moving machines had been burnt down to stop a road from being built.

On a signboard we passed in the block was emblazoned in red a message from the Naxals urging everyone to support the “people’s war” for Telangana — a clear indication that this was their turf.

GADCHIROLI HAS been on the Naxal radar since at least 1982. Thirty years on, the ‘people’s war’ is less and less about the people. But its sympathisers in universities in Nagpur and Mumbai still draw on the original idealism embodied by its leaders like Kobad Ghandy and his wife Anuradha, who had moved to Nagpur in 1982 to expand the Naxal movement in Maharashtra. Kobad, a Doon school and St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, alumnus, and Anuradha, an Elphinstone College, Mumbai, graduate with an MPhil in sociology, were magnets that attracted many to Naxalism. Two people who dropped out of their comfortable, city lives for a punishingly harsh guerrilla life in the forest.

With Kobad now in Tihar jail in Delhi and Anuradha having died of cerebral malaria contracted in the jungles, the next generation of intellectuals is far less mesmerised by ideas of forming a dictatorship of the people. But, in some loose sense, those ideas still drive an older generation of tribals, mainly because of local-level corruption and the indifference of the State.

“Most of the panchayat leaders in Gadchiroli operate as contractors,” says Sovani. With Gadchiroli listed as one of the 29 “most affected Naxal zones” in the country, for the local government, it’s raining money. The Centre pumps Rs 25 crore every year into the district. But this money goes into a peculiar loop that Devendra Gawande, the writer of a Marathi book Naxalwaadache Aahvaan, describes. He writes: “The total population of Gadchiroli is 9 lakh. Of that, one half — 4 lakh people — are in the Naxal zone. But whatever government funds come in, it all ends up benefiting the other half because no one dares to go into the Naxal areas.”

‘Because of Naxals, we can’t have roads built, or avail of government schemes,’ says a sarpanch who quit

If the local government is lining its pockets with money, so are the Naxals, whose tall speeches against local-level corruption come completely unstuck when we look at their track record. Gawande claims that after scaring sarpanches into resigning, the Naxals turned into extortionists. He describes how they knocked on the doors of scared local leaders, asking them to pay a fine for having contested elections. The fines collected this year alone amounted to Rs 4 crore, he says.

To make matters worse, the Naxals’ claim of being the protectors of the forests also has its sinister flip side. They have a tacit understanding with paper mills in the area, allowing them to cut bamboo from the forest for as much as 3 crore in a year. In return, the locals are terrorised by the Naxals into not cutting the bamboo. It’s a reality the local administration corroborated for TEHELKA, albeit off the record. Such is the fear of the Naxals in Gadchiroli that even the administration is guarded about the official statements they make.

Typifying the pathetic irony of a war zone, in Gadchiroli there is now an abundance of wealth. And it’s all being collected in the name of the impoverished, forgotten tribals. The local arm of the State collects it and spends some of it on itself, and so do the Naxal leaders. While the tribals remain ‘backward’ and poor.

THE NAXAL’s own record of protecting the tribals in these parts has a somewhat mixed legacy. On the one hand, they have traditionally supported tribals in all their agitations against mining companies that have displaced them. Such as a large mine proposed in the Surajgarh area. Things are somewhat blurred, however, in the mobilisation around another, much smaller mine of 65 hectares – in the Korchi block. People like Sovani claim that there is only sketchy evidence on the ground of potential tribal displacement in this case. However, the State’s track record in protecting the forests has been so poor that the Naxals are seen as the alternative force supporting the tribal agitations against displacement.

The Naxals knocked on the doors of scared local leaders, asking them to pay a fine for having contested elections

At least two sarpanches, in strict confidence, confessed to TEHELKA that they believe “if the Naxals go, the forests in these parts will disappear completely”. This is what had prompted the Gadchiroli Deputy Collector Rajendra Kanphade to make a rare admission during his visit to a Naxal-affected village. He said, “There is legalised violence committed by the State and illegal violence committed by the Maoists. I do not agree with the violence of any party, especially the Maoists, but I personally feel that the legalised violence of the State is far more destructive.”

Anecdotal evidence of State repression can be found all over the district.

Danshul Hallami from Dholdongri village in Korchi had just finished watching an exhilarating kabaddi match in his village. But the blood-rush soon turned to anger when he described how he is fighting as many as nine cases against the State, where he is accused of being a Naxal. Three years ago, he was picked up by the police for allegedly putting up Naxal posters and banners in his village. He spent eight months in jail and has since then fallen into a disturbingly familiar pattern. Where an accused in one case is also charged in many other cases, since s/he now appears on the State’s Naxal radar.

“If the Naxals come to your house asking for food and water, we are hardly in a position to refuse them,” Hallami pleaded. “The police come with their weapons and the Naxals, with theirs,” he says emphatically. He was arrested briefly again in April this year.

And then again, repression runs the other side as well. It’s perhaps the reason why the next generation of tribals isn’t buying into the Naxals’ Robin Hood rhetoric. After much coaxing, a frank opinion emerged from Bhimpur village in Korchi block. “Neither the government nor the Naxals have done anything for us,” said a brave girl from the village dressed in a black t-shirt and rolled up half pants. “The tribals want roads, factories, jobs and cellphones,” she continued. It was a lone voice in a crowd where, we were later informed, the Naxals were also present, watching. But it underlined the analysis that this is indeed the land of diminishing support and expanding fear.

We drove through Korchi on the first day of a bandh declared by the Naxals. Not a single shop was open in the three blocks we visited. On the way to a Naxal hideout in Tipagarh village, we saw a large red memorial dedicated to “Comrade Shrikant”. Signposting the fact that we were deep in Naxal-controlled territory. In Tipagarh, it was as if we were suddenly enveloped by a sheet of glass. Not a single villager was willing to speak to us. Or even show us the way up the hill. Finally, 17- year-old Ripesh Mangal Singh Durve admitted they had strict instructions from the Naxals not to talk to any outsiders.

Gadchiroli has been on the Naxal radar since at least 1982. Thirty years on, the ‘people’s war’ is less and less about the people

For the district administration, working a way into this closed circle of fear is a daunting task. But District Collector Abhishek Krishna believes that “you cannot just sit back and let fear dictate you”. As sarpanch after sarpanch resigned, he and the district police went in and got quite a few of the local leaders to take their resignations back. The CRPF also had their share of successes, the attack on their convoy in March notwithstanding; several Naxal commanders were caught by them this year, and many cadres made to surrender.

Turning Gadchiroli around has also become the pet project of Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, attracting much attention in the national media. Ramesh has zoned in on a village called Lekha Mendha that he is promoting as a model. The Naxal presence in this village is said to have become very weak. Many in the district administration, however, feel this village has been able to turn its economy around because it has access to an unusually large tract of forest — 1,800 hectares. And, crucially, the villagers are led by an able leader — Devaji Tofa. Either way, the results have been staggering. The village earned Rs 1 crore in sales of bamboo last year, Rs 2 crore this year, and is aiming for Rs 3 crore next year. Observers and state officials have used this to argue that Ramesh’s model village is more of an exception that proves the rule. Other villages do not have Devaji Tofas or access to large tracts of forest or the intensive attention from the Centre to protect them from the Naxals so they can go into the forests and cut bamboo.

For the rest of Gadchiroli, there may be no overarching solutions. Much will depend on small, sure-footed and bold steps taken by individuals in villages. For now, large parts of the district have slid out of the State’s control as the Naxals’ twin approach of violence and patronage has worked. Caught in its red hot snare are inhabitants of a growing republic of fear.

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
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