Photos by the Author
If you’re going just by natural resources, Chhattisgarh is India’s richest state. Hardwoods like teak and saal come from here, and there are huge supplies of steel, bauxite, diamonds, and gold. In spite of all that however, Chhattisgarh is jam-packed with Indian hillbillies (Indians call them “backwards”).
There are some 30 tribes in Chhattisgarh, and they all have different languages and levels of socioeconomic development ranging from Paleolithic hunter-gatherers to factory workers. What unites them is poverty and isolation. In Chhattisgarh, a common cure for financial trouble is to murder your family and then commit suicide. A common thing for young girls to do here is get raped by a forest officer. A local cure for hemorrhoids is to cut out your sphincter. A cure for being born with extra teeth is to marry a dog. People have names like Michael Jackson and are dead by 40.
The reason things in Chhattisgarh have remained so fucked despite 60 years of official concern for the backward population is basically this: Money allocated for development of tribal areas gets wheedled away by corrupt officials at every level of India’s bureaucracy. It doesn’t reach the poor, and the poor get upset, and that’s where Naxalism comes in.
Naxalism is a revolutionary movement that exists in 11 of India’s 26 states. Its leaders follow a Maoist strategy of protracted armed struggle. That means they want to give guns to poor people, form a national peasant army, and overthrow the existing government. It was born in 1967, in the Naxalbari region of Bengal, with an uprising among some tea farmers. While this revolt is often called spontaneous, it was actually carefully orchestrated by communists. The Naxalites, in practice, are heavily-armed jungle nomads who wear camouflage uniforms, extort “party donations” from peasants, raid police stations for weapons, blow up bridges, and behead “police informers.” They travel in squads of 12 to 30 members, establish local governing bodies called Jan Adalats that mete out justice in the form of corporal punishment, and, as a cursory nod to their roots, teach peasants basic farming techniques such as building reservoirs and planting seeds. But the Naxalites’ main business today is their war with the local police.
No one knows what is going on, who is winning, or how to keep score. The Indian police have armed peasants with ax handles and cooking knives and often send them into remote areas to perform surveillance and checking. They call these guys the Salwar Judam—Peace March—but they should be called the Where’d My Arms Go? March because most of these stool peasants are hacked to bits.
In early June of this year, the Central Reserve Police Force and the Naxalite revolutionaries had a gun battle in the Dornapal region of Chhattisgarh. This happens almost daily there, but this time the police took three prisoners who said they were high-ranking, hardcore Naxalites. The CRPF commanding officer, Ashok Bali, said that when the Naxalites were arrested, they were heavily armed and in full uniform. He considered this a pretty big deal so I went to go check it out.
The prisoners were in a hospital in the city of Jagdalpur. It was a two-story building without any sort of reception area. You opened the doors and you were in it: Nurses, doctors, and the awful stink of sickness. The two male Naxalite prisoners were upstairs in a ward of 20 bedridden men. It was even worse up there: Bloody sheets, delirious patients, and broken legs in grimy, brown splints. The two prisoners’ beds were adjacent, guarded by armed and uniformed CRPF men, and the wall behind them was exposed to the sun. There was no AC or fans, so it was almost unbearably hot.
The first Naxalite looked about 19. He was compact and muscled, shirtless, with a plaid scarf tied around his waist like a loincloth. He had thick black hair, acne-scarred cheeks, and a four-inch bandage on his upper arm. Speaking through two translators—from English to Hindi to Gondi—he said he was 28 and his name was Miriam Nonga.
He said, “I am an only child raised by my mother in Toya Gura. My father died when I was six years old. I had uncles but they lived in different villages. My mother and I supported ourselves by farming. We owned five acres of land and my mother cultivated it with my assistance. Also we would collect forest produce to sell at the market.”
Did you have many friends as a kid?
“I had one friend growing up, named Marom Joga. I last saw him about three months ago. He had surrendered from the Naxalites and joined the police. I visited him at a relief camp. About a month later, he was murdered. A man named Satam, who belongs to the Ponan Pali squad of the Naxalites, killed him. I was not a witness but I heard this from other villagers.”
Didn’t that make you want to leave the party?
“I was angry, but I was helpless to do anything.”
Why did you join the Naxalites in the first place?
“The Naxalites said they would give me land and money. They said, ‘You are a poor boy.’”
What’s life like with the Naxalites?
“While I was with the Naxalites, I lived a routine life. I was married a year ago, and I now have a baby son. I lived a routine life in my village most of the time, until my leader summoned us to some duty, then we would go. I never had a uniform or a gun. I had only a bow and arrow. I had clothes like this.” He pointed to the translator’s shirt and pants.
Then why did the police shoot you?
“They fired on us without thinking who was Naxalite and who was not.”
The commanding officer denied this, saying, “They are trained to lie. Even if you are beating them, you will not get the truth.”
Om Prakesh Rhator is the director general of the police in Chhattisgarh. His office is in Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. It is an L-shaped city that feels impossible to navigate, and getting to his fortress of an office proves it. After an hour or so of well-tended gardens that manifest out of nowhere and are then replaced by another jumble of half-constructed, fully-inhabited houses surrounded by runnels of slime I arrived, went through a million security checks, and sat down. “The tribals once enjoyed absolute freedom,” he said from his massive desk. “Good music, good wine, good life, forest produce... all in all, they were a happy lot. They had limited needs, and all of them were provided for by the abundant forests. However, when Kondapali Sitamamma, a professor from Andrah Pradesh, got it into his head to come in with his outdated, impractical philosophy, he and his so-called cadres very easily intoxicated these gullible people and fooled them by bewitching their minds with the dialectics of Marx. Then these so-called Naxalites took the gullible boys, put guns into their hands, and told them, ‘You go into the next village and you kill. You kill the have-nots.’”
Why do you call them so-called Naxalites?
“Because the real Naxalite movement began in the 70s, in the Naxalbari region of Bengal.” He gave the history, which was boring. “We put it down. Then there was a second wave in the 80s, and now this is their third attempt, and this one we will put down as well.”
Why would the Naxalites tell new recruits to kill innocent people?
“To incite terror. And through terror, to collect P.C.—Party Chanda. It means donations. It is extortion. Also, to isolate the boy from his village, to make him a fugitive from the law. I have seen it again and again. Recently they kidnapped a group of villagers and did horrible things to them, tied their hands, made them drink their own urine. They killed some of them.”
Is it possible to meet those who survived the recent kidnappings?
“They are back at their villages.”
Do you have their names?
“Write that down and Santosh can find the information for you later.”
Santosh rustled some papers. When Rhator turned to him, Santosh whispered that the Naxalites had, according to police statistics, killed 214 innocent people in the last year.
“Two hundred and fourteen. They are guilty of robberies, looting, rape. They force village women to join and tell them they can no longer have children. We confiscated from them a store of items, including musical instruments they would play and force women to dance. We also found thousands of condoms. Local doctors attested to the fact that they had done many forced abortions on these women. They plant land mines without keeping maps of their locations. Even demons are ashamed of such actions.”
I asked him about Gadar, a man I had a meeting set up with who was considered the voice of the Naxalite movement. “These people do not believe in their own ideology,” he said. “If you get them privately, they will admit that there is no hope of their movement ever succeeding. I even have this admission from Gadar, the so-called author of revolutionary poems.”
|Photos by the Author|
Gadar is a loud and impassioned, long-winded man. When I met him he immediately began trotting out the history of the movement, beginning with that uprising in Bengal, and then came to the communist rhetoric. After a few minutes I got a word in: “It’s too dense. What is the basic Maoist ideology? Tell me it like I’m a five-year-old kid.”
He said, “The problem is the uneven economic development of this country. The entire political-social-cultural economics and the sovereignty of this country have gone into hands of the World Bank through American imperialism. You see, the philosophy of imperialism is the market. Its God is profit, and its method is cheap labor. To achieve this they have taken triangular attack: Cultural inundation! Economic inundation! Political inundation!—and so it is that our entire economy has been replaced by Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola! Drinks you can take anywhere in the world. It used to be you could take nimbu water, lime water, sugarcane juice, coconut water. Buttermilk! Where once there was an option in our country, today one drink of imperialists is replacing four. This is the result of the dominant economy of the World Bank.”
OK. But what are Naxalites doing in the forests?
“Land to the tiller has not been solved. Health education and basic needs of people have not been fulfilled. America is a police state—dependant only on the army. They produce bombs. They only produce the weapons.”
He said a lot more stuff like that, and as happens with Maoists, you start to zone out. Then he started to enthuse about our upcoming joint entrance into the jungles of Dantewada. He reached a fever pitch of Mao rhetoric and I stopped taking notes. At the end I had to say something else, so I just muttered, “So you want a democracy without capitalism?”
He said, “If we were together at this moment, I would recite an impromptu poem out of joy.” I still don’t know what the fuck he was talking about.
The next few days were spent talking to everyone even remotely linked to the Naxalites. I was told they were rapists. I was told it was a lie and it was the police who raped. I was told that the police force you to help them and then the Naxalites punish you severely for doing so, and vice versa. Eventually I found myself at a Naxalite camp. When I met the commander there he was very skeptical of my intentions.
He asked me who else I’d talked to at that point, and I rattled off the list: “G.P. Singh, John Lankumar, O.P. Rhator, Ramesh Nayyar, the home minister, Dr. Ajai Sahni of the Southeast Asian terrorism watch group, the Naxalites’ lawyer and representative in the 2004 peace talks, the director general of jails, Gadar, countless journalists, a wedding of anti-Naxalite bandits in Bihar, K.P.S. Gill, Mr. Narayan of the—”
“What did K.P.S. Gill say?” He had sat up. He cocked his head.
“He said Naxalites are murderers. He said they cut off the hands of policemen, they kill poor people, they are nothing but bandits. He spoke generally. He thinks the movement is doomed to fail because it is founded on an illogical premise.”
There is not a good word for what he had in his eyes. Whatever it was, it was more than smart or educated or certain—it was resolve so heavy he did not in any way need to make it apparent. I was like a schoolgirl swooning. (Later I found out what the mysterious quality in his eyes was: He was in mourning for his leader and closest friend, who had been murdered several days before.)
He took my number and said he would call. I asked if there wasn’t any way we could speak for 15 minutes now. There wasn’t. His call didn’t come. And five days later, the Naxalites in his district killed seven tribals—slicing open their stomachs and slitting their throats—and kidnapped twenty-five.
That was the closest I came to understanding. There were more jungle meetings—there were more stories—there was endless shit. There was a day of strange sleep on a string bed in the hut of two tribals before I was pedaled by a 13-year-old over half a mile of dirt road to a spot 15 feet from a Naxalite squad, only to be sent back. And there was, finally, a meeting with one of the seven members of the Coordinating Committee. Arranged by a senior journalist in India, it took place in a home in the city of Ranchi. Approaching the home, having waited eight days, led by the boy through crowded back alleys, I felt like I was about to meet Colonel Kurtz. But it was just a Naxalite boy of 29. He was soft and smooth-skinned. He was full of smiles. After listening to his programmed talk about the downtrodden for one half of our allotted hour, I interrupted. I said, “Yes, but tell me, what do the Naxalites actually do?” It took some time to make my question clear to the translator, but when he grasped it, he turned to the commander, Sagar, and put it to him. Sagar’s eyes lit up. He spoke with animation and enthusiasm for close to ten minutes, punctuating his thoughts with gestures, speaking in a lively tone and with an engaged alternation in pitch. And then the translator turned to me, and he began: “In 1967, in the region of Naxalbari, there was a spontaneous uprising...”