Shimla: “People are coming from Tetemadgu, that’s a 15-hour hour walk from Silger.”
Speaking to Article 14 over phone on 30 May, the former-Maoist-turned-police informer could not contain his surprise over growing support for Adivasi protests against a police camp inaugurated on 12 May in a village called Silger in the Sukma district of Chhattisgarh’s south Bastar, the heartland of a Maoist insurgency now in its sixth decade.
The former Maoist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had seen countless protests over the years but nothing like this in a state run by the Congress party since November 2018, after 15 years of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Soon after the inauguration of the police camp just a few kilometres near the border of neighbouring Bijapur district, Adivasi men and women, in frayed saris and torn vests, walked from villages in both districts through the forests that blanket a region with sparse electricity or phone signals and marched to Silger.
The police opened fire on protestors on 17 May, killing three Adivasis—Kawasi Wagha, Korsa Bhima and Uika Pandu. A pregnant woman, Poonem Somli, injured during a stampede that followed, died a few days later. On 19 May, the police described those killed as Maoists, but on the same day, the local administration gave a compensation of Rs 10,000 each to the family of those shot, a tacit recognition that they were not Maoists.
"We are holding a rally against the camp. We oppose the camp because they detain our men and women and lodge us in jail. We are not against roads, but we don't want this camp," Nandram, a protestor, said in a video, rejecting the police claim that the Naxals were organising these protests. "Maobaadi (Maoists) have not taught us anything. We are coming here on our own."
Uika Basanti, niece of the one of those shot, Uika Pandu, a resident of Timmapuram village in Sukma, said in another video that the police handed over her uncle’s body after three days. “They (police) even kept his Aadhaar card,” she said.
Protestors refuted the police claim that the dead men were Maoists. "These were villagers, not Naxals. Our gathering didn't have any Naxal. The police are lying," Nandram said, surrounded by other protestors.
Since the firing, the protests in Bastar—a region known as the Dandakaranya in the Hindu epic Ramayana, have intensified and continued—unhindered by rain.
‘It’s Going To Be A Long Haul’
On some days, Silger has seen the presence of several thousand Adivasis, and—in reactions similar to those witnessed during the era of the previous BJP government—the Congress government has stopped several activists from visiting the area, including those whose right to travel there the Congress defended when in the Opposition.
Spread over a region of mostly forests larger than Kerala, Bastar division, a former kingdom—then a district that was split into two in 1998, and after more divisions, now seven districts—is inhabited and shared by Adivasis, scheduled tribes who comprise 67% of the population, and Maoist rebels or Naxals.
The current protests are not digitally-empowered or supported by celebrities, such as those against the government’s new farm and citizenship laws. There has been scant media coverage, but the protests are only growing, as many locals confirmed.
Raja Rathour, a journalist from Dornapal, a small town in Sukma district that once housed a big camp for refugees from violence perpetrated by a former government-run paramilitary called the Salwa Judum, said Adivasis were pouring in from distant villages in batches, one replacing the other after a few days.
“It’s going to be a long haul,” said Rathour.
“The whole of Sukma and Bijapur seemed to be walking towards Silger,” said a government doctor, concerned about the effect the marches might have on the spread of Covid-19.
Another intelligence officer termed it “Shaheen Bagh”, a reference to a Delhi protest site in 2019 and 2020, even as the Chhattisgarh police have officially labelled the protest as a “conspiracy” with involvement of, they alleged, 17 unnamed “urban Naxals”, a term that has moved from the world of right-wing online trolls to official lexicon.
“We have gathered photographs, videos and other documentary evidence about the involvement of these people,” Bastar inspector general of police P Sundarraj told Article 14. “We are not in a position to reveal their names because that would be detrimental to the investigation. Once we get more information, we will disclose their names.”
Soni Sori, a former school teacher turned Adivasi leader, told Article 14 that they were demanding action against those who opened fire; a two-member judicial enquiry with one Adivasi judge; a memorial to the dead at the spot; and the removal of the Silger camp.
“We are not going to withdraw before our demands are met,” said Sori, previously arrested and allegedly tortured in police custody.
Why A New Road Sparked Protests
The camp in Silger is part of an ambitious union home ministry and Chhattisgarh government plan to construct roads in Bastar, a strategy they believe is crucial to defeat the Naxals.
Of the many roads under construction in the Naxal zone over the last few years, the 90-km Basaguda-Jagargunda road, over 80% complete, connecting Sukma with Bijapur, is one of the most ambitious, slicing through the vast forests of south Bastar, one of two remaining Maoist strongholds in India, the other being the neighbouring area of Abujhmad.
I have travelled the region for a decade. Not long ago, it was difficult to even negotiate a motorcycle through the backcountry, but on my last visit to Silger in January 2021, I found that large swathes of forest, the habitat of many Adivasis, had been uprooted, and I could drive a four-wheeler.
There has been sporadic opposition (here and here) against the presence of police in the area, but the camp at Silger appears to have been a tipping point.
Bastar’s Adivasis have often protested against mining companies and police camps; often such local unrest continues for weeks and months. The police often arrest such protestors; in March, they arrested an Adivasi leader Hidme Markam who had been protesting against a mining project in Dantewada. However, there has rarely been any firing by police on locals.
Eight years ago, on 19 May 2013, hundreds of women gathered outside a police station in Bijapur district and protested the killing of Adivasis in firing by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). They hurled stones and utensils at the police station and the CRPF camp. But the security forces did not fire.
What changed this time?
The police said they fired in self defence after Naxals mingling with the crowd attacked the camp, an accusation that Adivasis deny. “"We have not done it (attacked the police). They are lying,” Nandram said. The backdrop to the protests was a volte face by the Congress, which came to power in Chhattisgarh on promises of a new deal for the state’s Adivasis.
Congress Volte Face Aggravates Adivasi Resentment
As the opposition party, the Congress in Chhattisgarh stood by the Adivasis. When 19 Adivasis were killed in CRPF firing in Bijapur in June 2012, the party raised the issue in the state assembly.
On 17 December 2016, current Congress Chief Minister (CM) Bhupesh Baghel criticised the BJP government for not registering a first information report (FIR) after an adivasi died in CRPF firing. “An adivasi has died in CRPF firing, and the police are not registering a murder case,” Baghel had said. “What kind of justice is this?”
Soon after becoming the CM in 2018, Baghel had said that the “Naxal issue cannot be tackled with the barrel of gun (sic)”. He said to “reach a concrete solution...the most important thing is first we should talk to the affected people, especially tribals”.
When activist Bela Bhatia faced threats during BJP rule in 2017 after supporting Adivasi rape victims, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Baghel stood by her. On 23 January 2017, he asked Chief Minister Raman Singh to “ensure that Bela Bhatia is able to work in Bastar.”
On 20 May, it was Baghel’s government that stopped Bhatia and several others, including economist Jean Dreze, from travelling to Silger. A team of activists who had again been stopped from visiting Silger on 7 June met Baghel the next day. “We demanded action against those who opened fire on the protestors, and urged him to talk to the protestors and find a peaceful solution to the crisis. The CM expressed his desire to meet the protestors, but he has not yet met them," Alok Shukla, a Chhattisgarh-based activist, told Article 14.
“When the Congress came to power in 2018 following the oppressive rule of the BJP, we were hopeful that the situation would improve at the ground level in Bastar,” Bhatia told Article 14. “But the Congress is paying a mere lip service to the Adivasis. We do not see much difference on the ground.”
Disregarding Adivasi resentment of mining efforts backed by the government has almost always strengthened the Naxals. In June 2005, for instance, when the BJP government ran Chhattisgarh, the Tata Group signed a MoU with the Chhattisgarh government for a steel plant in Bastar. Protests soon erupted, and many teenage boys and girls joined the Naxal ranks.
Among them was a boy of 14, who joined Balak Sangathan—the children’s wing of the main Naxal organisation, the Communist Party of India (Maoist)—before he rose to head a “Local Organisation Squad”, as Maoist units are called, and was rechristened Jaylal (In 2014, I lived with his squad in Abujhmad and wrote about my experiences).
The Tatas eventually shelved the project, but those boys and girls continue to bear arms and, regardless of the party in power, it now appears that whether the BJP or the Congress, the security playbook is likely to remain the same.
“We had seen during Salwa Judum times that both the BJP and the Congress had a similar approach to the Adivasis, but we hoped that the Congress would emerge as an alternative, and reclaim its space,” said Bhatia. “But the Congress has disappointed us. We see the continuation of the same old policies.”
After a “short lull” in extra-judicial killings, Bhatia alleged such incidents were rising again. “The state police do everything they can to conceal the truth about these encounters,” she said. “When we go to the police station, they don’t even admit a complaint, leave alone register FIRs.”
Bastar IGP Sundarraj rejected the allegation. “Bastar police is (sic) committed towards the well being of Adivasis,” he said. “Unfortunately certain quarters are trying to create an atmosphere of mistrust between the security forces and the people. We have faced such criticism and challenges earlier also. Our efforts to make Bastar a better place for Adivasis would continue undeterred.”
An Inquiry That Betrays Its Intent
Advasi resentment grew after the 17 May police firing because instead of an independent judicial enquiry, the Sukma collector announced a magisterial probe by his deputy collector on 21 May, three days after the incident.
The “terms of references” of the inquiry betrayed its intent, ignoring as it did the main incident and the killings. It read like a guide to secure a favourable judgement for the security forces.
“When and where did the encounter between the police and the Naxals take place?” said one of the terms, presupposing that there was a firefight and ensuring that the probe would not entertain the Adivasi contention that there wasn’t one.
As the protests intensified, on 1 June the Congress government set up an inquiry panel, composed of its own party members, headed by Bastar member of Parliament Deepak Baij. The team visited the protest site and met the villagers on 3 June, when they repeated their demand for the removal of the police camp. Baij submitted the report to chief minister Baghel on 7 June.
However, the Congress continues to disregard the protestors, using vocabulary similar to that used by the previous BJP government.
Congress And BJP Share Sentiments, Ambitions
Agriculture minister Ravindra Chaubey dismissed the protests by claiming that Naxals had infiltrated the ranks of Adivasi protestors. Congress spokesperson R P Singh said: “Naxals will not let those villagers who don’t join the protest do any farming for five years.”
These statements are similar to those one heard during the BJP rule, when ordinary citizens were termed “urban Naxals”. In July 2013, Raipur-based journalist Prafulla Jha became the first journalist in the state to be convicted of sedition because he had translated into Hindi, articles on Nepalese Maoists from a special issue of the Economic and Political Weekly. The case also saw the conviction of several others, including a tailor and two cloth merchants, with the police claiming to have busted an “urban network” of Naxals.
The BJP, both in Chhattisgarh and in New Delhi, has supported the Congress’ hard stand on Silger and its aftermath. Several senior BJP leaders, who refused to come on record since the agreement with the Congress is a tacit one, told Article 14 that police camps were “necessary” to combat the Naxals.
Both parties want the State to gain control of the region for political objectives. Silger, for instance, comes under the Konta assembly constituency of Congress minister Kawasi Lakhma, and has a polling booth, but the locals have always stayed away from exercising their franchise, either voluntarily or for fear of Maoist wrath.
When Congress leaders visited Silger on 3 June to meet protestors, it was perhaps the first time in decades that politicians had come by. Politicians of both parties now hope that the new police camp will enable canvassing and voting in the 2023 state elections. At stake is the last Maoist bastion in India.
The attitudes of the BJP and the Congress coalesce, too, in using the tactic of diverting attention from the issue at hand, which India’s ruling party is often accused of, as in this September 2020 op-ed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, where he writes about the BJP’s art of “mass distraction”.
On 22 May, when a video of Ranbir Sharma, collector of a district in north Chhattisgarh, slapping a person went viral on social media, many journalists and others immediately demanded action.
After the officer was transferred to the secretariat in Raipur as joint secretary, there was praise (here and here) for chief minister Baghel. The deaths of Adivasis in police firing, which gained only limited attention only five days earlier, quickly faded from public view.
Enter The Naxals
The police claim that the protests near Silger are guided by the Naxals may not only be inaccurate but, as a step towards a solution, overlooks the complex realities of Bastar.
The Maoists challenge the Indian State by running a parallel government in large tracts of wilderness in Dandakaranya. Most Adivasis in the region follow an informal dual citizenship, so to say.
Allegiance is never absolute, as many who have travelled and studied the area report. The Naxals inhabit the same wilderness as the Adivasis and most are Adivasis themselves. As my experience has shown, they collect food and supplies from villagers—sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not—occasionally asking them to purchase goods from towns.
The Adivasis are locked in a tense bond with the rebels, as I have written before. The Naxals have, often, destroyed Adivasi ghotuls or youth dormitories, harassed, even killed them for being police informers but have also been able to convince them that the forests are safe as long as the Naxals retain control.
The Maoists have supported the protests near Silger. They have issued several statements of solidarity, and some of the videos and photographs in circulation have come from the Naxals.
For instance, this video of a massive funeral procession of the dead bears an unmistakable Naxal imprint. The slogan “amar rahe, amar rahe”, or may they live eternally, is in Hindi not the local Gondi language. I have never known of an Adivasi funeral where such slogans were raised, and I have seen quite a few over the past decade.
It appears that the Naxals organised the funeral to gather sympathy for those shot dead by the police, to garner support for the protests and cement their own relationship with the Adivasis.
The Congress’ Great Gamble
The Congress’s betrayal of its own promises to the Adivasis springs from a gamble.
The party believes that it can end the war in Bastar or almost reach the finishing line before Baghel’s term is over in November 2023. That would imply losing a few hundred Adivasi lives but, as a person in the Chhattisgarh establishment, speaking on condition of anonymity for him and his affiliation, told Article 14: “If this battle stretches for another decade, those lives would anyway be lost”.
As many as 8,126 civilians died in the conflict between the Indian security forces and the Naxals between 1999 and 2019, or 400 deaths every year or more than one a day, according to union home ministry data published by the South Asian Terrorism Portal.
The Congress’ iron-handed approach, as we said, is not new.
The Bastar of 2021, to be sure, is not the Bastar of 2005, the era of the terror unleashed by the Salwa Judum before the Supreme Court ordered it disbanded in July 2011, or even 2010 when the union home ministry under P Chidambaram considered, as I reported in my 2020 book, The Death Script, using the air force in Bastar.
The Naxals then controlled much more land than they do now. But security forces have made significant inroads across the forests of Bastar over the last three years.
A journey to Abujhmad in 2011 evoked fear. As one began westward from the district headquarters of Narayanpur—one of the seven districts in Bastar division—to Abujhmad, Kurusnar was the last police post, the last signpost of the State.
Beyond Kurusnaar began rocky paths and streams. You can now drive up to Sonpur, a village in Abujhmad, with a helipad and police camps along the road. Similar roads have come up in Dantewada, Sukma and Bijapur districts of south Bastar.
The first CRPF battalion entered Chhattisgarh in 2003; by 2017, Bastar had 28 battalions of paramilitary forces. Today there are more than 50, roughly 50,000 paramilitary troops, besides other battalions of Chhattisgarh police forces, making it one of India’s most militarised regions after Kashmir.
The Naxals have also faced a substantial depletion in their ranks. In military terms, it could be that the war can be ended by 2023. Several police posts like Bhejji in Sukma district that once operated in wilderness, where supplies once had to be airlifted, can now be reached by vehicles.
“With these roads and security camps, the Naxals won’t have any space left,” said a police officer involved in the ongoing operations in Silger. He requested anonymity since he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Can the State achieve its objectives of pacification and political assimilation of south Bastar without compromising with the lives of the Adivasis and their forest?
That is a fraught question, said experts, given the mineral resources beneath the forests, the big corporations waiting to exploit them and the government’s willingness to bend or break environmental and other laws for mining.
Big Stakes And The Embattled Adivasi Way Of Life
In March 2021, despite local protests, the Chhattisgarh government approved 1,252 hectares of the Hasdeo forest in central Chhattisgarh, about 650 km north of the Silger protest site, promised in 2007 as an elephant reserve, for open-pit coal mining, with Adani Enterprises Limited, an Adani group company, as the mine developer and operator.
Such take over of Adivasi land, wrongly (here and here) using what are known as “eminent-domain” powers over all land within its territory, on behalf of companies in violation of laws that protect indigenous communities’ rights to their land, intensifies Adivasi unrest in the Naxal zone of Bastar.
Apart from the Tata case that we mentioned previously, in 2012 Bastar division commissioner K Srinivasulu struck down as many as 73 sales of tribal land to non-tribals. In March 2020, the Dantewada collector found that the consent of the local gram sabha was not taken, as it was meant to, before leasing land with a rich vein of iron ore, whose mine developer and operator was to be Adani Enterprises Limited.
Similar stories are playing out across south Bastar, as mining companies, aided by the government, try to reach the rich veins of minerals buried below the lush forests that are home to the Adivasis.
Chhattisgarh is India’s leading producer of coal, accounting for a fifth of national output, and second-largest producer of iron ore, according to government data, and large reserves of these and many minerals exist in south Bastar, an area of ancient geological activity. But to reach these reserves, often, requires the clearance of ancient forests where Adivasis live.
For instance, a 2018 study of the Kirandul iron ore mine in Dantewada—where 60% of the land is forest and 79% of the population tribal—found that mining had led to “total destruction of forest areas within the core zone”.
The battle to save their “jal (water), jungle aur jameen (and land)”—a slogan given to Adivasis nearly a century ago by a colonial-era tribal leader in what is now Telengana —often forces Adivasis to choose the Naxals.
(Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an independent journalist and author. His recent book, The Death Script, was chosen as the Atta Galatta non-fiction book of 2020.)