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Up Close

Notes from GROUND ZERO


Before I set out, someone who knows the troubled terrain well warned: "On the surface, everything appears normal. It is deep in the forests that things are happening. It's difficult to capture those dark tales. There is that invisible barrier..."

I realised this as soon as we crossed into Chhattisgarh from Andhra Pradesh. Our contact had switched off the phone. We were confronted by a huge wall of silence. People disappeared when it was time to meet them. Some who met us requested anonymity. A policeman in Konta ordered us not to talk to anyone, not to elicit any information and not to photograph anyone without permission. This silence spoke volumes -- of intimidation and fear, perhaps from both state agencies and Maoists. Slowly one learnt how to "hear" and figure out the Chhattisgarh conundrum.

The map of Chhattisgarh is well-defined but there are areas of demarcation in the Bastar region that do not show up on the map. Besides difficulties of the terrain -- deep jungles where there are no roads and where mines have been laid -- there are zones and lines of control created by the conflict. And there are the sounds of silence. It can be days before details of any incident filter out -- be it an alleged Maoist attack or a state-engineered one.

A local journalist explained, "First are areas where the district administration is in full control -- with schools, anganwadis and so on. Life appears to flow normally. Next are areas where Maoists hold considerable influence. They may not be visible, but demonstrate their presence by blowing up a school or burning trucks that belong to Essar. Finally there are 'liberated zones' where the Maoists are in full command and have set up sanghams and their own administration. "

The Chhattisgarh government has signed two MOUs with Tata and Essar for proposed steel plants. Maoists who claim that adivasis are being displaced and coerced into giving up their land have often targeted Essar which already has a 267-km long iron ore slurry pipeline that carries iron dust from Kirandul to the Essar pellet factory in Visakhapatnam. The pipeline was breached near Visakhapatnam last year and now is not in use.

Moving freely through these zones and gathering information is something no one can just presume to do. At Konta, a small frontier town from where we entered, a policeman said we could not even board the bus to Dantewada. We had to take a circuitous route back to Visakhapatnam and then a bus to Dantewada.


Feigning concern, the cop said there was a possibility Maoists might deliberately blow up the road to impress travelling "outsiders. " It took a call to the DIG of Dantewada to enable us to get into the bus. We learnt later that such bizarre tactics are the norm to discourage outsiders. It took several hours to get to Sukhma (70 km away) as the bus inched along terrible roads. We were crammed along with scores of adivasis returning from the haat (village market) with their bamboo sticks, utensils and vessels that contained heady mahua. Periodically, we stopped to retrieve one of the sacks of rice that had fallen off the roof of the bus.

On either side was the Dandakaranya forest -- now almost bare with just spindly branches jutting into the sky. This is the season when combing operations against the Maoists are intensified because visibility is good in a relatively bare forest. But the sun beats down mercilessly as temperatures shoot into the forties.

Just ahead is Dornapal -- one of the earliest camps set up to house villagers who were moved out of Maoist-dominated zones in 2005. These settlements, officially designated 'internally-displaced persons' (IDP) camps, are more commonly known as Salwa Judum camps. A few slogans hailed the Salwa Judum and there was a guard with a gun and a sand bunker. Inmates of this camp had been attacked and blown up by Maoists in April 2007.

Here too was another "invisible line" of demarcation. The BJP government of Raman Singh has categorically declared that those in the camps are with us and "those in the forest are Maoists. " It is not necessarily the viewpoint of adivasis themselves, many of whom complain of being coerced into leaving their villages.

Occasionally overladen trucks carrying gargantuan bales of tendu leaves went by. We were to learn of the significance of tendu in the history of the conflict. (See 'Genesis of a Conflict')

It was night when we got to Dantewada. For a town that is the district headquarters, Dantewada boasts of precious little. One hotel, no petrol pumps, no auto rickshaws, no cinema and "not even the mandatory Sardarji'', as one local resident joked with us. Dantewada does have a jail, though, to which hundreds of villagers were reportedly carted away when they resisted land displacement. It was attacked by Maoists on December 16, 2007 and 299 inmates escaped.

Next day we drove to Kirandul where the National Mineral Development Corporation operates three mines and has set up its iron ore extraction plant. The Bailadila (meaning hump of oxen) hills contain some of the best sources of iron ore in the world. Adivasis who must literally be squatting upon huge wealth still wear just the simple lungi and find it a challenge to make ends meet.

Another day we drove through the thick forests of Bijapur to the IDP camp at Cherpal. Sandwiched between two CRPF camps the settlements wore an empty look. Row upon row of locked doors told their own story. Many inmates had gone back to their villages despite government promises of highly subsidised food grains, medical facilities and NREG works.

The PHC (public health centre) was deserted and it was in our vehicle that we rushed a seriously ill child to the hospital. One inmate who had managed to procure a little work said sarcastically that he could hardly eat the roof that was above his head.
He added that nothing can really replace one's own home. This then is the ultimate tragedy of Chhattisgarh -- a state that was carved out in the interests of the adivasis, but has at least half its adivasi population displaced. Some have been pushed out because of the Maoists, some have been coerced by the Salwa Judum to stay in camps and several thousands have fled the state to adjoining Andhra Pradesh.

Originally consisting of two feudatory states, the Bastar region was ruled by Kakatiya kings who migrated from Warrangal in the 13th century AD. Bastar, which includes the districts of Dantewada and Bijapur, is located in a densely forested belt rich in mineral resources. It is home to the Murias (also known as Ghoti Khoya in Andhra Pradesh), Dhurwas and Halbis. Their status as de facto owners of the forest was challenged by forest laws that came to be framed during the British rule and after Independence. Their major source of income is the tendu leaf used to make beedis. The Maoists gained a strong foothold in the region at a time when the only visible face of the government were forest officials and when adivasi livelihood was dependent on tendu leaf contractors. Maoists enabled adivasis to secure a better price for the tendu leaf and helped them deal with forest officials. In 2005, Maoists called for a strike in picking leaves because of the government's bid to do away with contractors and bring in cooperatives. Some adivasis resented this move and fuelled by other factors the counter Maoist movement or Salwa Judum was born.

Since then the conflict in the state has only escalated. Bastar is one of the most backward regions in the country and has perhaps the lowest literacy rates -- hardly 25 per cent. Health is a major problem. Tuberculosis is rife and with a population that is constantly on the move even routine health safeguards like innoculation are difficult.


One of the questions this correspondent probed was whom does the state consider Maoist apart from the uniformed cadres?
SP Amresh Mishra, taking his cue from the state government, said he considers anyone who is in a zone "where he has no business to be" a Maoist or Maoist sympathiser. He added that he tries to differentiate between "willing and unwilling participants".

This state lexicon can view anyone, even a teacher, carrying corrugated sheets used for building purposes with suspicion and label him a Maoist courier or agent. Any journalist, for that matter, can also be under the scanner because the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (Jan Suraksha Kanoon as it is commonly known) makes it unlawful for anyone to write or utter words that can create danger for public order, peace and public tranquility.

At least two journalists have been jailed for writing accounts of violence unleashed by the Salwa Judum. While the cases were dismissed later, they want to remain anonymous because they have received threats. Even criticism of the state's policies can invite wrath.

Maoists, too, have their own definition and have killed villagers on suspicion of being informers.

It is this language that makes one wary of state reports on encounters. An independent journalist from Jagdalpur alleges in an eight-page pamphlet that from August 10 to October 24, 2009, 44 adivasis have been killed in the villages of Gompad, Murregudum, Gacchanpalli, Gattapada, Palchelima and Singanmudgu by security forces in what are termed encounters. Among them were a 65-year-old man and a 10-year-old child. The pamphlet alleges that only two of the 44 were true Maoists. The rest were innocent adivasis. The pamphlet calls for the incidents to be probed further.

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