Battle of Bastar must stop to give Adivasis a chance to live

Graves dot the landscape, Adivasis in the ‘war zone’ are held with suspicion, deemed to be Maoists. Many have fled while the rest live in fear of being killed or abducted by either side

Photo by Sattish Bate/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Sattish Bate/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Bela Bhatia

We have all been so caught up in understanding the contours of the war in Bastar, the shape of the beast so to say, that we have forgotten to fight against the ‘war’ itself. The twelve-year-old ‘war’ between the Indian government and the CPI(Maoist) in the heart of India has taken a severe toll on the lives of its tribal residents, not to speak of the combatants on both sides, tribal and non-tribal.

In so many villages, hidden amidst trees, foliage and rocks, are graves of those who died untimely deaths. As a new grave is dug and a body lowered, sometimes near older ones, more tears soak into the earth, but few really care.

Every time there is fresh violence, counting of the dead begins. Generally, the outcry is loudest when members of the paramilitary die. When the Maoists die, it is nobody else’s business but that of the Maoists. And when civilians die, it is a private matter. The combatants on both sides are hailed as “martyrs” and families are compensated by both sides in their own ways.

But when a civilian is killed by a state bullet, rarely is any responsibility taken, though the state steps forward to compensate those who are killed by the Maoists, if a police complaint is lodged to that effect. Whatever the details of the aftermath of each death, the plain truth is that too many people have died. There has been too much suffering.

In the villages and towns of south Bastar, where the ‘war’ has continued almost unabated since 2005, the people have been breathing it and living its moods. Their movements have become severely restricted in the last decade. Many of those who had run away across the borders to Telangana during the height of the first phase of the counter-insurgency (2005-2006) have become permanent settlers there. Families have got divided and communities dispersed. For many years, these displaced families could not cultivate their lands or could do so only furtively. Their unoccupied homes fell apart; in many cases, they were burnt by the security forces or the Salwa Judum. Their belongings were looted and their greatest wealth, cattle and livestock, died or became feral.

During these years, the government had also withdrawn all welfare services (schools, health centres, the public distribution system) from the conflict areas and restricted these services to those who were in the camps. Many schools were also demolished or blasted by the Maoists, who did not want them to be occupied by the security forces. Most of these villages in the interior regions are not electrified and road connectivity is poor. Thus, what the people had by way of public services was quite minimal in the first place; even that was taken away from them.

Those who had run away to Telangana were not eligible for these services there either. Over the years, even though many families have returned, rebuilt their homes and resumed farming, the situation is far from normal. Armed actions by Maoists as well as counter-insurgency operations continue. While the rhetoric of development carries on, and some developmental programmes have been taken up, in reality people’s survival is at stake.

Besides fake encounters, sexual violence, and the use of draconian laws like the UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967) and CSPSA (Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005), there are other methods deployed by the state, which are more “everyday” in nature. For instance, during the searching and combing operations by the security forces through the villages, it is very common to find them helping themselves to rice, cooking oil and other edible items like poultry. Cash and ornaments have been stolen. When women have demanded money, they have been beaten and even raped (as happened in the more than ten gangrapes in Bellamlendra village of Bijapur district in January 2016). Beatings are very common. This may happen while people are being questioned, or when they protest. Illegal and wrongful confinement is also routine.

Individuals, especially youth, may get picked up from public places like the market, or from the forest, and family members may not know about their whereabouts for a few days and may spend their time going from police station to police station looking for them, which in these areas is difficult since a lot of travelling has to be done on foot. Arbitrary arrests, false charges under Naxalite cases, and (more recently) fake surrenders are common.

Literacy levels are quite low. Villages in the ‘war zone’ are inaccessible and at a considerable distance from the police stations and district headquarters. Most of the people are also not familiar with government offices, police stations and courts. Since people from these interior villages, which are considered to be part of the Maoist stronghold, are generally looked at with suspicion by others, it becomes all the more difficult for them to overcome these biases and be regarded by the authorities as citizens who are also entitled to a legal recourse and due process.

Human beings are odd. We get used to anything. We don’t mind that an entire people, officially amongst the poorest of our country who were promised special protection by the constitution – the adivasis – are the ones who are suffering the most. A large majority of those who get killed, especially amongst the civilians, Maoists, and state police are adivasis. A large majority of those who get arbitrarily picked up by the security forces, jailed by the police, put behind bars as undertrials for many years, or convicted by the courts are adivasis. So are those who are kidnapped by the Maoists, killed on suspicion of being police informers, maimed or killed in IED blasts, or forced to leave their villages due to a threat to their lives or another reason.

And yet there is silence on the part of the ordinary citizens who live in the towns and cities of Chhattisgarh or elsewhere – people who know what is going on but do not speak out because their own lives are not affected. This also applies to people in Bastar, where speaking out entails a real danger of undesirable consequences. Among those who do speak out, some irresponsibly exhort the government to intensify the militarisation, conveniently forgetting that Bastar is already the most militarised zone in the country, and despite knowing that the brunt of the onslaught would be borne by the adivasi residents of the war zone.

From the Maoist side, there is a similar outcry for a fight to the finish. Depending on which side you are on, you count or ignore the dead. There are numbers and statistics on both sides. Both prefer to forget the third side – the civilian adivasi residing in the war zone, who may be caught in-between or sideways or whichever way. As far as the state is concerned, all those who reside in the war zone are Maoists or at least suspected Maoists. As far as the Maoists and their supporters are concerned, any suggestion that civilians are caught in the crossfire is seen as an undermining of agency of tribals, and, a reflection of one’s inability to take sides – mainly the Maoist side.

Both sides say that that they are waging the ‘war’ “on behalf of the people” and “to save them.” The ‘war’, like a conveyor belt, keeps rolling year after year even though evidence on the ground indicates that it has been counter-productive. We are familiar with the political economies of wars and know that there are many who gain, who become fat, and rich, and cynical on the blood money that they make. And whose interest it is to see that the war continues. A suggestion that nonviolent means of negotiation should be explored and exhausted before use of force is generally ridiculed.

Nonviolence is seen as a weakness in these quarters (not only in the Maoist camp). The government also shows its disrespect for nonviolence when open and democratic people’s movements are also dealt with a heavy hand. Today, Maoism has become a convenient excuse to silence all dissent in Bastar and beyond.

The ‘war’ in Bastar must end. There have been enough killings and counter-killings. Little has been achieved. Actions of both sides have contributed to taking the society backward instead of forward. A public call for ceasefire should be given. In the interest of the people of Bastar, both sides should respect it. Both sides should work towards finding a political solution. The ordinary citizen should no longer remain a mute witness to a ‘war’ that has lost all meaning and in which there will be no winners.

The author is a Bastar-based academician and researcher

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