Bastar Today

Revolution fighting Counter-Revolution–I

Gautam Navlakha

Dandkaranaya straddles areas which fall under different states and encompasses roughly 45,000 sq kms, of which Bastar comprise roughly 40,000 sq kms. Population of Bastar is twenty three lakhs forty eight thousand, eight hundred and eight persons as per 2011 census. To manage them there are 58,772 central para military force and another 50,000 of state armed personnel, including "sahayak arakshak" in Bastar alone. A ratio of 1 armed soldier per 23 persons, an incredible ratio. Its jails are bursting at their seams, with jail population three times the capacity and with Adivasis implicated in a legal fiction called "Naxal offence", and wait their turn for the slow grinding wheels of India's criminal justice system to deliver justice. It is a place where crimes committed by soldiers, rape, murder, fake encounter, custodial torture, loot, are not registered despite the apex court in Lalita Kumar vs State of UP 2013 ruled that registering a FIR for a cognizable offence u/s 154 of Cr P C is mandatory. On the other hand what is not adequately taken note of is that Police are fond of filing FIRs using legal fiction of "Naxal Offence" against Adivasis on the slightest pretext, and very often without even the fig-leaf of pretext. The report of the High Level Committee headed by Virginius Xaxa and submitted to the Government in May 2014 is advised to the readers where it speaks about the persecution of Adivasis.

Suvojit Bagchi, who covered Bastar for the Hindu and BBC (1) reminds everyone of a long history of police atrocities in Bastar with police opening fire to kill, the so-called "police action" by drawing attention to how Dandkaranaya Samachar, an English language newspaper reported in November 1961 with a headline blaring "10 killed 2 died at Hospital: Police open fire on violent mob". No one prevented them from reporting. But "violent mob" was rather vintage bias too, where protests and agitations were routinely frowned upon. But more importantly Police enjoys impunity for very long. He then points out the difficulty of working/reporting from Bastar, investigate "encounters", get eyewitness accounts. Reaching the site after having crossed the hurdle getting the bosses to agree to the trip getting the Adivasis to speak to them, is another problem. After all that if media is critical of police or other authorities then one falls foul of them, then they face coercion and harassment and occasionally arrest on trumped up charges. Some give in and restrict themselves to rewrite police handouts, many do not. Most of them are stringers who also look after circulation and advertisement and can be thrown to the wolves, so to say anytime the media house has to cut losses. Media houses, besides, have huge stakes in iron ore and coal mining, power etc and are therefore in any case inclined to see the forests cleared of rebels and their entry for exploitation cleared and secured by the government forces. So their self-interest drives them to suppress unpleasant news from the viewpoint of investors. If despite all this news still filters through and war authorities are scared even by this, then it only shows the extent of use of repressive means to ensure that people do not get to know the truth. Not for no reason is the supposed middle ground being decimated.

Primary objective of COIN is to coerce the villagers to give up their support for the rebels. It is brought about through use of brute force and by humiliating the civilians eroding their will to resist. Rape, molestation, harassment, loot and plunder are routine. Indeed following any encounter/ambush it is the villagers who are the first target of the Government forces.

Those who believe that Maoists cause that happen will have to answer whether exploitation and oppression of Adivasis began after Maoists entered the scene or was it a part and parcel of life experience of Adivasis long before Maoists entered their abode. If, it is the everyday repression experienced by the Adivasis, at the hands of the Forest and Police officials, that characterized their lives.

Anthropoligist Mona Bhan in her dissertation based on field work in Kargil speaks of how Army practices "strategic exclusion" based on the presumption of disloyalty from Kargil Muslims was considered as "incipient terrorists." (2) She was drawing attention to how "Sadbhavna" operation was an integral part of COIN to "contain political discussion, regulate citizenship and normalize extensive militarization..." Situation on ground in Bastar is no different. Adivasis are "incipient terrorists" and the middle ground, invoking Rule of Law and Constitutional safeguards, is equivalent to supporters of "incipient terrorists" in the eyes of the military command, because they reveal the dirty nature of war, and raise doubts over Government's policy choice/s. For officialdom exigencies of war over-take everything else, including the Constitution we all swear by. What passes for "national" security, trumps human security. Suppressing truth or ensuring that truth does not come out, is intrinsic to COIN. Because teaching the Adivasis a lesson, for daring to come in the way of implementation of resource grab, is the leitmotif of the war.

The author of a research and the Survey of Army personnel, serving Colonel KC Dixit (3) speaks a truism when he writes that "(a)ny target is fair game in unconventional warfare, from uniformed troops to civilians, as the idea is essentially to weaken the enemy from the inside out, and forcing them to capitulate and negotiate surrender." The distinction between combatants and non-combatants is absent in every warzone. Everyone is a "target". So the report by women's organization and CL-DR groups about rape, molestation, torture, fake encounter, fake surrenders, fake cases and unlawful detention provides evidence of this and its preponderance. This the military abhors. For all their claims to bravery and courage truth is something they cannot confront. They fear that once it reaches the public domain and clamour grows for prosecution of war crimes it will end up dis-spiriting and demoralising the soldiers who have not joined this war for ideological reasons, but for sake of their livelihood, and would not countenance their own prosecution for war crimes. COIN can unravel where it most matters.

Military in Bastar carries out community outreach programs to provide ostensibly some succor to people in the midst of bloodletting while selecting and recruiting persons to join their ranks as combatants. Right now all political discussions are regulated and controlled. Conditions in the forest villages remain grim and many Adivasis have taken shelter inside the forests with the Maoists. The divide between the Adivasis and military is interesting in that they are as distant from Adivasis as Maoists are close to them.

Even The Week in its special issue "Naxalbari 50" (4) which more or less declares them to be virtually criminals, one still manages to glimpse the reality they cannot hide including acknowledging that Naxalbari and the Maoists have succeeded in empowering the lowest of the low. IN an eyewitness account of fortified police station (5) many facts also pour out. It speaks of the 75 fortified police stations in Bastar built to "resist attacks". These are two storey buildings, with high boundary walls, watch lowers with a sophisticated control room. They are equipped with satellite phones, IP phones, mobiles and regular radio frequency sets. They, "monitor" the school run by NGOs, especially food and medicines because the military has "reports", euphemism for suspicion, that those are reaching the Maoists. No wonder a civilian approaching the station "has to stand in open and speak from a distance". Military fears the civilian Adivasis.

Against this backdrop consider the statistics churned out by the Government. Patting its own back government claimed that they have killed 76 Maoists, arrested 665 and 639 surrendered in just four months of 2016. In 2015 they had killed 226 in 1088 incidents of which 168 were civilians, and 58 soldiers and as many as 89 Maoists. Robert Coase, a nobel laureate once reminded us that "if you torture data for long it will confess to anything". These numbers are simply the count government does unmindful of whether government forces killed civilians, practiced catch and kill, and how many of civilians were combatants, "secret police" / informer / tracker... Number of Maoists arrested gets inflated by including civilians in their count. And what these numbers show is that while government forces actually have been on the offensive and guilty of most of the crimes the 'psywar' demands that they say and propagate the opposite. But look closely another thing stands out if this is the level of attrition how come desertions from PLGA have been negligible? How come, put it differently, have the "subjective forces" managed to preserve themselves?

Besides, look at the quality of leadership provided by the government in Bastar. Senior police officer from IG to SP and SSP and others are accused of heinous crimes such as rape and torture and custodial killing and remain unprosecuted and indeed are winners of President's Medal of Honour for meritorious service to the "nation". But the example set by District Forest Officer Rajesh Chandol in Sukma, heart of the battle zone is another feat. He got constructed in this drought prone district in Bastar a swimming pool in his sprawling bungalow.(6) Or see how a district collector used his Facebook to malign a group whose members hold no brief for Maoists for simply equating Government with Maoists for using coercion against civilian Adivasis. Or how a notorious IG (Bastar) declared that only "nationalist" certified by him are allowed to work and live in Bastar. The same officer was accused in 2007 by CPI leadedr Pranab Bardhan for "eliminating" communists and for declaring that anyone carrying a red flag or greeting Lal Salaam is an enemy. Before that he had been seen as single mindedly wiping out Maoists from north Chattisgarh, and where he earned notoriety for custodial violence; torture, rape and killing. That he carried out a witch hunt of Left activists and still carries on is good example of the reality on the ground.

In such a situation where villagers are fleeing from villages out of fear of government forces and taking shelter with the Maoists or when even those not enamoured of Maoists see that they are being prevented from speaking out and a predatory capitalism is being pursued, then to believe that war can continue but constitutional order can also prevail, is an oxymoron.

But this raises another issue. Is CPI (Maoist) on the retreat in Bastar?
[to be concluded]

Vol. 49, No.17, Oct 30 - Nov 5, 2016