A War in the Heart of India
The growing presence of Maoists in tribal India is also explained by geography. In these remote upland areas, the officials of the Indian state are unwilling to work hard, and are often unwilling to work at all. Doctors do not attend hospital; schoolteachers stay away from school; magistrates spend their time lobbying for a transfer back to the plains. On the other side, the Maoists are prepared to walk miles to hold a village meeting, and to pitch camp in the forest and live off its bounty. It is from the jungle that they emerge to preach to the tribals, and it is to the jungle that they return when a police party approaches.
Last summer I traveled with a group of colleagues through Bastar to study the impact of a new, state-sponsored initiative to combat Maoism. Known as Salwa Judum (a term that translates, ironically, as "peace campaign"), the scheme had armed hundreds of local villagers and given some the elevated title of Special Police Officer (SPO). While the state claimed Salwa Judum to be a success, other reports suggested that its activists were a law unto themselves, burning villages deemed insufficiently sympathetic to them and abusing their women.
The first thing I found I knew already from travelogues: that the landscape of Bastar is gorgeous. The winding roads we drove and walked on went up and down. Hills loomed in the distance. The vegetation was very lush: wild mango, jackfruit, sal and teak, among other indigenous species. The forest was broken up with patches of grassland. Even in late May the terrain was very green. The bird life was as rich and as native as the vegetation--warblers and wagtails on the ground, the brainfever bird and the Indian cuckoo calling overhead.
The scenery was hauntingly beautiful and utterly desolate. Evidence of the former lay before our eyes; evidence of the latter, in the testimonies of those we met and interviewed. As a means of saving Bastar from the Maoists, the Salwa Judum and the state administration have uprooted more than 40,000 villagers and placed them in camps along the road, recalling the failed "strategic hamlets" used by the US military in South Vietnam more than forty years ago. While some tribals came voluntarily, many others came out of fear of the administration and the goons commissioned to work with it. Whether refugee or displacee, they live in primitive conditions--in tents made of plastic sheets strung up on bamboo poles, open on three sides to the elements. Some permanent houses have been built, but these are inappropriate to the climate and context, being small and dark, with asbestos roofs. Worse, the residents of the camps have been given no means of livelihood. Once independent farmers, hunters and gatherers, they now had to make do with the pickings that came from coolie labor. In the camps we visited, the men wore sad, simple lungis and banyans; the women, crumpled and torn saris; the children, sometimes nothing at all.
Moving away from the camps into the villages off the road, we found evidence of depredations by vigilante groups. In one hamlet we photographed ten homes burned by a Salwa Judum mob. This village lay close to a hill where Maoists were said to sleep by day; the villagers were alleged to sometimes give them refuge at night. Among these tribals the feelings against the Salwa Judum ran very high. Before a clump of mahua trees with golden orioles calling in the background, a tribal woman demonstrated the humiliations she was subjected to. The men were equally bitter--wishing to live quietly in their homes, but forced to report to a nearby camp and spend the nights there.
On the other side, the Maoists had made a particular target of the freshly recruited SPOs. In one especially gruesome incident, the guerrillas kidnapped fifty villagers, some of them Salwa Judum members. They later set thirty-seven free, but killed the thirteen identified as SPOs. Maoists also attacked village headmen and village council representatives, whom they consider part of the bourgeois political system.
The armed officials of the state, we found, patrol only in the daytime and mostly along the roads. Bunkered in their stations, they are mainly interested in protecting themselves. Meanwhile, Salwa Judum has been given a free hand. A local journalist summed up the attitude of the police as follows: "Let the villagers fight it out among themselves while we stay safe."