Disinheriting Tribals

Ground Zero: Gadchiroli

By a Correspondent

In a statement issued on April 16th 2018, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) claimed that the 'National Policy and Action Plan' to combat Left Wing Extremism (LWE) is 'a multi-pronged strategy involving security and development related measures'. This new policy, apparently in place since the NDA government came to power at the centre, claims to have 'zero tolerance towards violence coupled with a big push to developmental activities so that benefits of development reached the poor and vulnerable in the affected areas'. The statement talks of substantial improvement in the LWE scenario by indicating reduced incidents of violence over the last four years. Within a week of this statement to the press, several Maoists were killed in an alleged encounter in Gadchiroli district of Maharastra and, then, in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh. The Maharashtra state police immediately issued press notes and organised a press conference on April 24th declaring the operation an unmitigated success. A week later, Chhattisgarh police did the same. Even as the death count of Maoists kept rising, the police claimed that none of their personnel, primarily the elite C-60 force in Maharashtra and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), were seriously injured, let alone killed in action.

In the hours following the alleged encounters, think tank executives started predicting 'revenge attacks' by the Maoists. One such report in a leading national daily went on to say, "(w)ithin the logic of war they (Maoists) are waging, executing dramatic retaliation for security forces' success in Gadchiroli will certainly be high among their priorities. Revenge attacks may come wherever and whenever the opportunity presents itself". Meanwhile, talking heads on news channels, editorial teams in media houses and the police were scrambling to get their story straight and goose step to the narrative of the state. Questions raised by independent journalists, lawyers, and human rights organisations in the days following the encounters seem to rankle the establishment. Can such large scale losses on one side be termed an 'encounter'? If it was a large Maoist camp, how was no one captured alive? Besides contradictions in the police narratives, the official report and inquiry is throwing up inconsistencies in police action, forcing officials to run for covert. Since more is known about the incident in Gadchiroli, it is worthwhile to assess what happened in order to unravel the purpose of such operations for security forces, its significance for the political establishment, the way in which the corporate owned media reports on it and, finally, its impact on the people of Gadchiroli.

The alleged encounter, it seems, took place over the two days of 22nd and 23rd April; first in the Boriya-Kasansur area on the banks of the Indravati River and, then, the next day over 40 km away in the Nainar forests near Rajaram Khandla. In the days after the alleged encounters, the count of those killed rose to 40, with majority being women, some suspected to be civilians and several minors. With this, the jingoistic narrative of the first few days changed to suit the political expediency of the time. Visible in the sudden caution of the officials when addressing the media, the police started speaking of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the incidents. But the questions kept coming. Questions like the unusually large number of deaths of Maoists; lack of injuries, let alone casualties faced by the C-60 forces, lack of efforts to capture, arrest, detain or interrogate those shot; the deliberately slow recovery of bodies from the river advancing the rate of decomposition, the awkward images of bodies that appeared to have been dressed in ill-fitted fatigues post-mortem; the presence of nearby villagers among the dead; and, the heartbreaking account of the 8 missing children of the village of Gattapalli all appeared to sully the designed narrative and cloud over their "best operations in the last 38 years since the Naxal problem began".

It appears that the C-60 personnel of the Maharashtra police chose indiscriminate firing and, thus, preferred killing all combatants and non-combatants to arrest, detention and interrogation. The police planned this attack in advance and carried heavy artillery including Under Barrel Grenade Launchers (UGBLs) that are designed to have a long and wide range and cause large-scale damage. The officers claimed that the alleged encounter in Boriya-Kasansur was swift and the Maoists were completely encircled before being gunned down. But, it is curious that the site was not secured post operation. Several key documents, letters, pictures and evidence remained scattered at the site, ostensibly for the benefit of concerned journalists. This became amply clear when it was revealed that select journalists were especially airlifted to the site by the police officials immediately after the incident. In the second site of the alleged encounter in the Nainar forest, the villagers heard gunshots but nothing to indicate cross-firing as claimed by the police. On closer examination of the site, it appears that six of those captured in Boriya-Kasansur, were transported across the district and shown as killed in Nainar forest. Those living in the area believe the police captured and tortured them to reveal money 'dumps'. On locating the dumps, the police officials shot and killed them and called it an 'encounter'.

In the Gadchiroli district alone, a combination of police including C-60, CRPF, State Reserve Police Force and CoBRA Commandos roughly number 12,000 personnel. In the first press conference at the Police Headquarters, the officials claimed that two teams of the C-60 force encircled the Maoist camp and fired in retaliation, thus declaring the firing an act of self-defense. Oddly enough, this was followed by boastful claims of egregious use of UBGLs with 12-13 grenades and over 2,000 rounds fired. This incongruity in police claims reveals an anxiety about public perception of such brutal acts. It is important to note that UBGLs are normally issued to the army and other higher levels of military organisations. These assault weapons, mounted on INSAS and AK-47 rifles, issue large calibre projectiles with a range of between 28-400 metres at 5-7 rounds per minute at 76 m/s velocity. These weapons are intended to cause large-scale damage. Incidentally, each year the Ministry of Home Affairs, under whose jurisdiction the entire Central Armed Paramilitary Force functions, provides ample funds for the purchase of such weapons. These are to be used, not against enemy soldiers but against internal armed resistance, all the while denying to the international community that such an internal armed conflict even exists, presumably to avoid facing UN observers. Along with these assault weapons, the CRPF is provided with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and drones, thermal reflex vision sights, night vision goggles, bullet proof vests, shields, among other such gears. 0ne would think that the police force that is fitted in such finery is expected to uphold the law of the land responsibly. That does not appear to be the expectation of the senior officials of the police, the political establishment or the media. Senior police officers claimed that as per their estimate roughly 40 Maoists were present at Boriya-Kasansur, and so, "while we have been able to kill 31, a few have managed to flee. Operations are now on to locate them." There was absolutely no effort to capture those who may have escaped; just kill. The brutality engendered in the policy of the security forces is accentuated by the self-righteous exuberance of the officials while videos of security forces dancing to popular misogynistic music were doing the rounds of the TV news circuit. This was also visible as the images of bodies on tarpaulin and several floating on the Indravati River, bloated beyond recognition, in advanced stages of decomposition enveloped in plastic sheets started doing the rounds of the media. In this manner, encounter killings are normalised as the practice for dealing with political crisis. These extra-judicial killings are not just justified but declared necessary implying both the inevitability of brutal action against the people and celebrated as the ideal method of crushing resistance. This disingenuous argument shows the impunity enjoyed by the security forces and is meant to instill fear in the people. But, what it also does is to reveal the desperation of the Indian State to be seen as effective, decisive and dominant.

Historically, the adivasis of Gadchiroli have stood up to the colonial state and its efforts to exploit forest resources to feed the monstrous imperial machine. These forest resources include trees, forest produce, and minerals. The colonial state attempted to acquire it for timber for shipbuilding and minerals for export to the metropolis. The adivasis are dependent on the forests for food, fuel, fodder and medicines; that is, their entire way of life. Today, the people of Gadchiroli are standing up to the corporate state and opposing its efforts to acquire, exploit and export these resources to multinational corporations, entities that have no intention of working for anything other than their own profit. Although calling itself the world's largest democracy, the Indian government has continued the colonial policy of paternalistic benevolence by asserting that the people of Gadchiroli do not understand what is good for them. A decade ago, the UPA government's Expert Group appointed by the Planning Commission issued a report called "Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas". It said, "...the Naxalite movement has to be recognised as a political movement with a strong base among the landless and poor peasantry and adivasis. Its emergence needs to be contextualised in the social conditions and experience of people who form a part of it. The huge gap between state policy and performance is a feature of these conditions. Despite the report by the Expert Group, the previous government minced no words when it linked the crushing of Maoist movement in the mineral rich parts of the country having a direct effect on the 'climate of investment'. Following this pattern, the model of development, sustained by the current government, does not consider the will of the people as worth acknowledging. How has this huge gap between state policy and performance been addressed in the last decade? In what ways has the benefit of development reached the poor and the vulnerable? In Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, Surjagarh is one such roar of anger waiting to explode into a massive uprising. In 2007, Lloyd Steel Ltd procured a lease for 348 hectare of forest land to mine in Surjagarh hills in Gadchiroli. The hills have over 180 MMT of high quality iron ore. The hills under question have historically been sacred to Oraon, Madia Gonds and other adivasi communities from Jhar-khand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. Thousands of people from across these states annually come to Surjagarh and Damkondwani for pilgrimage to the deity Thakurdev's shrine. The opposition of the people to this open-cast mining project has been immense and unanimous. Thus, despite starting mining in 2016, it was quickly shut down after protests all across the district. It is possible to understand the ever increasing brutalities of state forces through political, administrative and military techniques in order to crush all forms of resistance when one sees that it is done to strengthen the economic interests of a few. The policy on LWE, increasing incidents of 'encounter killings', the signing of hundreds of Memorandum of Under-standings (MOUs) with corporations with mining interests, and the blatant violation of the rights of adivasis living in these forests are the keys to unlocking this game plan.

Vol. 51, No.3, Jul 22 - 28, 2018