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A War in the Heart of India | The Nation

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A War in the Heart of India

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According to the Asian Centre for Human Rights, close to 400 people were killed in the civil war in Bastar last year. Of these, about fifty were security personnel; about a hundred, Naxalites or alleged Naxalites; the rest, civilians caught in the cross-fire.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that two Muslims have held the positions of chief justice and president of India. In fact, there have been three Muslims in each of these posts, which actually strengthens the author's point: M. Hidayatullah, M.H. Beg and A.M. Ahmadi in the former and Zakir Hussain, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in the latter.

About the Author

Ramachandra Guha
Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi Before India has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Also by the Author

His first mention in the US media occurred well before he became a leader of the Indian national movement—in The Nation magazine, in 1897.

Inside the great social historian Eric Hobsbawm there was an aesthete waiting to come out.

Bastar forms part of a contiguous forest belt that spills over from Chattisgarh into Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. In the Ramayana epic this region is known as Dandakaranya, a name the Maoists have integrated into their lexicon. They have a Special Zonal Committee for Dandakaranya, under which operate several divisional committees. These in turn have range committees reporting to them. The lowest level of organization is at the village, where committees known as sangams are formed.

We got a sharp insight into the Maoist mind in an extended interview with a Maoist senior leader. He met our team, by arrangement, in a small wayside cafe along the road that runs from the state capital, Raipur, to Jagdalpur, once the seat of the Maharaja of Bastar. There he told us of his party's strategies for Bastar, and for the country as a whole.

Working under the pseudonym "Sanjeev," this revolutionary was slim, clean-shaven and soberly dressed in dark trousers and a bush shirt of neutral colors. Now 35, he had been in the movement for two decades, dropping out of college in Hyderabad to join it. He works in Abujmarh, a part of Bastar so isolated that it remains unsurveyed (apparently the only part of India that holds this distinction), and where no official dares venture for fear of being killed.

Speaking in quiet, controlled tones, Sanjeev showed himself to be deeply committed as well as highly sophisticated. The Naxalite village committees, he said, worked to protect people's rights in jal, jangal and zameen--water, forest and land. At the same time, they made targeted attacks on state officials, especially the police. Raids on police stations were intended to stop police from harassing ordinary folk. They were also necessary to augment the weaponry of the guerrilla army. Through popular mobilization and the intimidation of state officials, the Maoists hoped to expand their authority over Dandakaranya. Once the region was made a "liberated zone," it would be used as a launch pad for the capture of state power in India as a whole.

Sanjeev's belief in the efficacy of armed struggle was complete. When asked about two landmine blasts that had killed many innocent people--in one case members of a marriage party--he said that these had been mistakes, with the guerrillas believing that the police had hired private vehicles to escape detection. The Maoists, he said, would issue an apology and compensate the victims' families. However, when asked about other, scarcely less brutal killings, he said they were "deliberate incidents."

We asked Sanjeev what he thought of the Maoists in neighboring Nepal, who had laid down their arms and joined other parties in the framing of a republican Constitution. He was emphatic that in India they did not countenance this option. Here, they remained committed to the destruction of the state by means of armed struggle.

How many Maoists are there in India? Estimates vary widely. There are perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 full-time guerrillas, each armed with an AK-47, most of them conversant with the use of grenades, many with landmines, a few with rocket launchers. They maintain links with guerrilla movements in other parts of South Asia, exchanging information and technology with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and, at least before their recent conversion, the Nepali Maoists.

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