Walking With The Comrades 3/4
[Go to Pt. 1/2/3/4]
We’re going to a celebration of the centenary of the 1910 Bhumkal rebellion in which the Koyas rose up against the British. Bhumkal means earthquake. Comrade Raju says people will walk for days together to come for the celebration. The forest must be full of people on the move. There are celebrations in all the DK divisions. We are privileged because Comrade Leng, the Master of Ceremonies, is walking with us. In Gondi, Leng means ‘the voice’. Comrade Leng is a tall, middle-aged man from Andhra Pradesh, a colleague of the legendary and beloved singer-poet Gadar, who founded the radical cultural organisation Jan Natya Manch (JNM) in 1972. Eventually, JNM became a formal part of the PWG and in Andhra Pradesh could draw audiences numbering in the tens of thousands. Comrade Leng joined in 1977 and became a famous singer in his own right. He lived in Andhra through the worst repression, the era of ‘encounter’ killings in which friends died almost every day. He himself was picked up one night from his hospital bed, by a woman Superintendent of Police masquerading as a doctor. He was taken to the forest outside Warangal to be ‘encountered’. But luckily, Gadar got the news and managed to raise an alarm. When the PW decided to start a cultural organisation in DK in 1998, Comrade Leng was sent to head the Chetna Natya Manch. And here he is now, walking with me, for some reason wearing an olive-green shirt and purple pyjamas with pink bunnies on them. “There are 10,000 members in cnm now,” he told me. “We have 500 songs, in Hindi, Gondi, Chhattisgarhi and Halbi. We have printed a book with 140 of our songs. Everybody writes songs.” The first time I spoke to him, he sounded very grave, very single-minded. But days later, sitting around a fire, still in those pyjamas, he tells us about a very successful, mainstream Telugu film director (a friend of his) who always plays a Naxalite in his own films. “I asked him,” Comrade Leng said in his lovely Telugu-accented Hindi, “why do you think Naxalites are always like this?”—and he did a deft caricature of a crouched, high-stepping, hunted-looking man emerging from the forest with an AK-47, and left us screaming with laughter.
At our new campsite, we have to fall-in again. Another roll call. And then instructions about sentry positions and ‘firing arcs’—decisions about who will cover which area in the event of a police attack. RV points are fixed again.
Boy, What A Smile: Comrade Kamla, 17, wearing a pistol on her hip. Also, a miracle.
An advance party has arrived and cooked dinner already. For dessert, Kamla brings me a wild guava that she has plucked on the walk and squirrelled away for me.
From dawn, there is the sense of more and more people gathering for the day’s celebration. There’s a buzz of excitement building up. People who haven’t seen each other in a long time meet again. We can hear the sound of mikes being tested. Flags, banners, posters, buntings are going up. A poster with the pictures of the five people who were killed in Ongnaar the day we arrived has appeared.
I’m drinking tea with Comrade Narmada, Comrade Maase and Comrade Rupi. Comrade Narmada talks about the many years she worked in Gadchiroli before becoming the DK head of the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan. Rupi and Maase have been urban activists in Andhra Pradesh and tell me about the long years of struggle by women within the party, not just for their rights, but also to make the party see that equality between men and women is seen as central to a dream of a just society. We talk about the ’70s and the stories of women within the Naxalite movement who were disillusioned by male comrades who thought themselves great revolutionaries but were hobbled by the same old patriarchy, the same old chauvinism. Maase says things have changed a lot since then, though they still have a way to go. (The party’s central committee and politburo have no women yet.)
Around noon, another PLGA contingent arrives. This one is headed by a tall, lithe, boyish-looking man. This comrade has two names—Sukhdev, and Gudsa Usendi—neither of them his. Sukhdev is the name of a very beloved comrade who was martyred. (In this war, only the dead are safe enough to use their real names.) As for Gudsa Usendi, many comrades have been Gudsa Usendi at one point or another. (A few months ago, it was Comrade Raju.) Gudsa Usendi is the name of the party’s spokesperson for Dandakaranya. So even though Sukhdev spends the rest of the trip with me, I have no idea how I’d ever find him again. I’d recognise his laugh anywhere though. He came to DK in ’88, he says, when the PWG decided to send one-third of its forces from north Telangana into DK. He’s nicely dressed, in ‘civil’ (Gondi for ‘civilian clothes’) as opposed to ‘dress’ (the Maoist ‘uniform’) and could pass off as a young executive. I ask him why no uniform. He says he’s been travelling and has just come back from the Keshkal ghats near Kanker. There are reports of 3 million tonnes of bauxite that a company called Vedanta has its eye on.
Bingo. Ten on ten for my instincts.
Sukhdev says he went there to measure the people’s temperature. To see if they were prepared to fight. “They want squads now. And guns.” He throws his head back and roars with laughter, “I told them it’s not so easy, bhai.” From the stray wisps of conversation and the ease with which he carries his AK-47, I can tell he’s also high up and hands-on PLGA.
Jungle post arrives. There’s a biscuit for me! It’s from Comrade Venu. On a tiny piece of paper, folded and refolded, he has written down the lyrics of a song he promised he would send me. Comrade Narmada smiles when she reads them. She knows this story. It goes back to the ’80s, around the time when people first began to trust the party and come to it with their problems—their ‘inner contradictions’, as Comrade Venu put it. Women were among the first to come. One evening an old lady sitting by the fire got up and sang a song for the dada log. She was a Maadiya, among whom it was customary for women to remove their blouses and remain bare-breasted after they were married.
Jumper polo intor Dada, Dakoniley
Taane tasom intor Dada, Dakoniley
Bata papam kittom Dada, Dakoniley
Duniya kadile maata Dada, Dakoniley
(They say we cannot keep our
blouses, Dada, Dakoniley
They make us take them off, Dada,
In what way have we sinned, Dada,
The world’s changed, has it not Dada)
Aatum hatteke Dada, Dakoniley
Aada nanga dantom Dada, Dakoniley
Id pisval manni Dada, Dakoniley
Mava koyaturku vehat Dada, Dakoniley
(But when we go to market Dada,
We have to go half-naked Dada,
We don’t want this life Dada,
Tell our ancestors this Dada).
This was the first women’s issue the party decided to campaign against. It had to be handled delicately, with surgical tools. In 1986, it set up the Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (AMS) which evolved into the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan and now has 90,000 enrolled members. It could well be the largest women’s organisation in the country. (They’re all Maoists by the way, all 90,000 of them. Are they going to be ‘wiped out’? And what about the 10,000 members of CNM? Them too?) KAMS campaigns against the adivasi traditions of forced marriage and abduction. Against the custom of making menstruating women live outside the village in a hut in the forest. Against bigamy and domestic violence. It hasn’t won all its battles, but then which feminists have? For instance, in Dandakaranya, even today women are not allowed to sow seeds. In party meetings, men agree that this is unfair and ought to be done away with. But, in practice, they simply don’t allow it. So, the party decided that women would sow seeds on common land which belongs to the Janatana Sarkar. On that land, they sow seed, grow vegetables and build check dams. A half-victory, not a whole one.
Comrade Rinki has very short hair. A bob-cut, as they say in Gondi. It’s brave of her, because here, ‘bob-cut’ means ‘Maoist’. For the police, that’s more than enough evidence to warrant summary execution. Comrade Rinki’s village, Korma, was attacked by the Naga battalion and the Salwa Judum in 2005. At that time, Rinki was part of the village militia. So were her friends Lukki and Sukki, who were also members of KAMS. After burning the village, the Naga battalion caught Lukki and Sukki and one other girl, gang-raped and killed them. “They raped them on the grass,” Rinki says, “but after it was over, there was no grass left.” It’s been years now, the Naga battalion has gone, but the police still come. “They come whenever they need women, or chickens.”
Rest Station: A Maoist ‘camp’. When they move, all that will remain is the ash from the kitchen fire.
Ajitha has a bob-cut too. The Judum came to Korseel, her village, and killed three people by drowning them in a nallah. Ajitha was with the militia and followed the Judum at a distance to a place close to the village called Paral Nar Todak. She watched them rape six women and shoot a man in his throat.
Comrade Laxmi, who is a beautiful girl with a long plait, tells me she watched the Judum burn 30 houses in her village, Jojor. “We had no weapons then,” she says, “we could do nothing but watch.” She joined the PLGA soon after. Laxmi was one of the 150 guerrillas who walked through the jungle for three-and-a-half months in 2008, to Nayagarh in Orissa, to raid a police armoury from where they captured 1,200 rifles and 2,00,000 rounds of ammunition.
Comrade Sumitra joined the PLGA in 2004, before the Salwa Judum began its rampage. She joined, she says, because she wanted to escape from home. “Women are controlled in every way,” she told me. “In our village, girls were not allowed to climb trees; if they did, they would have to pay a fine of Rs 500 or a hen. If a man hits a woman and she hits him back she has to give the village a goat. Men go off to the hills for months together to hunt. Women are not allowed to go near the kill, the best part of the meat goes to men. Women are not allowed to eat eggs.” Good reason to join a guerrilla army?
Sumitra tells the story of two of her friends, Telam Parvati and Kamla, who worked with KAMS. Telam Parvati was from Polekaya village in south Bastar. Like everyone else from there, she too watched the Salwa Judum burn her village. She then joined the PLGA and went to work in the Keshkal ghats. In 2009, she and Kamla had just finished organising the March 8 Women’s Day celebrations in the area. They were together in a little hut just outside a village called Vadgo. The police surrounded the hut at night and began to fire. Kamla fired back, but she was killed. Parvati escaped, but was found and killed the next day.
That’s what happened last year on Women’s Day. And here’s a press report from a national newspaper about Women’s Day this year:
Bastar rebels bat for women’s rights
Sahar Khan, Mail Today, Raipur, March 7, 2010
The government may have pulled out all stops to combat the Maoist menace in the country. But a section of rebels in Chhattisgarh has more pressing matters in hand than survival. With International Women’s Day around the corner, Maoists in the Bastar region of the state have called for week-long “celebrations” to advocate women’s rights. Posters were also put up in Bijapur, a part of Bastar district. The call by the self-styled champions of women’s rights has left the state police astonished. Inspector-general (IG) of Bastar, T.J. Longkumer said, “I have never seen such an appeal from the Naxalites, who believe only in violence and bloodshed.”
And then the report goes on to say:
“I think the Maoists are trying to counter our highly successful Jan Jagran Abhiyaan (mass awareness campaign). We started the ongoing campaign with an aim to win popular support for Operation Green Hunt, which was launched by the police to root out Left-wing extremists,” the IG said.
This cocktail of malice and ignorance is not unusual. Gudsa Usendi, chronicler of the party’s present, knows more about this than most people. His little computer and MP3 recorder are full of press statements, denials, corrections, party literature, lists of the dead, TV clips and audio and video material. “The worst thing about being Gudsa Usendi,” he says, “is issuing clarifications which are never published. We could bring out a thick book of our unpublished clarifications about the lies they tell about us.” He speaks without a trace of indignation, in fact, with some amusement.
“What’s the most ridiculous charge you’ve had to deny?”
He thinks back. “In 2007, we had to issue a statement saying, ‘Nahin bhai, hamne gai ko hathode se nahin mara (No brother, we did not kill the cows with a hammer).’ In 2007, the Raman Singh government announced a Gai Yojana (cow scheme), an election promise, a cow for every adivasi. One day the TV channels and newspapers reported that Naxalites had attacked a herd of cows and bludgeoned them to death—with hammers—because they were anti-Hindu, anti-BJP. You can imagine what happened. We issued a denial. Hardly anybody carried it. Later, it turned out that the man who had been given the cows to distribute was a rogue. He sold them and said we had ambushed him and killed the cows.”
And the most serious?
“Oh, there are dozens, they are running a campaign, after all. When the Salwa Judum started, the first day they attacked a village called Ambeli, burned it down and then all of them—SPOs, the Naga battalion, police—moved towards Kotrapal...you must have heard about Kotrapal? It’s a famous village, it has been burnt 22 times for refusing to surrender. When the Judum reached Kotrapal, our militia was waiting for it. They had prepared an ambush. Two SPOs died. We captured seven, the rest ran away. The next day the newspapers reported that the Naxalites had massacred poor adivasis. Some said we had killed hundreds. Even a respectable magazine like Frontline said we had killed 18 innocent adivasis. Even K. Balagopal, the human rights activist, who is usually meticulous about facts, even he said this. We sent a clarification. Nobody published it. Later, in his book, Balagopal acknowledged his mistake.... But who noticed?”
Remembering The Martyrs: Pictures of slain comrades displayed on Bhumkal Day
I asked what happened to the seven people who were captured. “The area committee called a jan adalat (people’s court). Four thousand people attended it. They listened to the whole story. Two of the SPOs were sentenced to death. Five were warned and let off. The people decided. Even with informers—which is becoming a huge problem nowadays—people listen to the case, the stories, the confessions and say, ‘Iska hum risk nahin le sakte (We’re not prepared to take the risk of trusting this person)’, or ‘Iska risk hum lenge (We are prepared to take the risk of trusting this person)’. The press always reports about informers who are killed. Never about the many who are let off. So everybody thinks it is some bloodthirsty procedure in which everybody is always killed. It’s not about revenge, it’s about survival and saving future lives.... Of course, there are problems, we’ve made terrible mistakes, we have even killed the wrong people in our ambushes thinking they were policemen, but it is not the way it’s portrayed in the media.”
The dreaded ‘People’s Courts’. How can we accept them? Or approve this form of rude justice?
On the other hand, what about ‘encounters’, fake and otherwise—the worst form of summary justice—that get policemen and soldiers bravery medals, cash awards and out-of-turn promotions from the Indian government? The more they kill, the more they are rewarded. ‘Bravehearts’, they are called, the ‘Encounter Specialists’. ‘Anti-nationals’, we are called, those of us who dare to question them. And what about the Supreme Court that brazenly admitted it did not have enough evidence to sentence Mohammed Afzal (accused in the December 2001 Parliament attack) to death, but did so anyway, because “the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender”.
At least in the case of the Kotrapal jan adalat, the collective was physically present to make its own decision. It wasn’t made by judges who had lost touch with ordinary life a long time ago, presuming to speak on behalf of an absent collective.
What should the people of Kotrapal have done, I wonder? Sent for the police?
The sound of drums has become really loud. It’s Bhumkal time. We walk to the grounds. I can hardly believe my eyes. There is a sea of people, the most wild, beautiful people, dressed in the most wild, beautiful ways. The men seem to have paid much more attention to themselves than the women. They have feathered headgear and painted tattoos on their faces. Many have eye make-up and white, powdered faces. There’s lots of militia, girls in saris of breathtaking colours with rifles slung carelessly over their shoulders. There are old people, children, and red buntings arc across the sky. The sun is sharp and high. Comrade Leng speaks. And several office-holders of the various Janatana Sarkars. Comrade Niti, an extraordinary woman who has been with the party since 1997, is such a threat to the nation that in January 2007 more than 700 policemen surrounded Innar village because they heard she was there. Comrade Niti is considered to be so dangerous and is being hunted with such desperation not because she has led many ambushes (which she has), but because she is an adivasi woman who is loved by people in the village and is a real inspiration to young people. She speaks with her AK on her shoulder. (It’s a gun with a story. Almost everyone’s gun has a story: who it was snatched from, how, and by whom.)
Her father sings back: my beautiful daughter, don’t cry today. Everyone who is born must die. These trees around us will fall, flowers will bloom and fade, one day this world will grow old. But who are we dying for? One day our looters will learn, one day Truth will prevail, but our people will never forget you, not for thousands of years.
A few more speeches. Then the drumming and the dancing begins. Each Janatana Sarkar has its own troupe. Each troupe has prepared its own dance. They arrive one by one, with huge drums and they dance wild stories. The only character every troupe has in common is Bad Mining Man, with a helmet and dark glasses, and usually smoking a cigarette. But there’s nothing stiff, or mechanical, about their dancing. As they dance, the dust rises. The sound of drums becomes deafening. Gradually, the crowd begins to sway. And then it begins to dance. They dance in little lines of six or seven, men and women separate, with their arms around each other’s waists. Thousands of people. This is what they’ve come for. For this. Happiness is taken very seriously here, in the Dandakaranya forest. People will walk for miles, for days together to feast and sing, to put feathers in their turbans and flowers in their hair, to put their arms around each other and drink mahua and dance through the night. No one sings or dances alone. This, more than anything else, signals their defiance towards a civilisation that seeks to annihilate them.
I can’t believe all this is happening right under the noses of the police. Right in the midst of Operation Green Hunt.
At first, the PLGA comrades watch the dancers, standing aside with their guns. But then, one by one, like ducks who cannot bear to stand on the shore and watch other ducks swim, they move in and begin to dance too. Soon there are lines of olive-green dancers, swirling with all the other colours. And then, as sisters and brothers and parents and children and friends who haven’t met for months, years sometimes, encounter each other, the lines break up and re-form and the olive green is distributed among the swirling saris and flowers and drums and turbans. It surely is a People’s Army. For now, at least. And what Chairman Mao said about the guerrillas being the fish and people being the water they swim in, is, at this moment, literally true.
Chairman Mao. He’s here too. A little lonely, perhaps, but present. There’s a photograph of him, up on a red cloth screen. Marx too. And Charu Mazumdar, the founder and chief theoretician of the Naxalite Movement. His abrasive rhetoric fetishises violence, blood and martyrdom, and often employs a language so coarse as to be almost genocidal. Standing here, on Bhumkal day, I can’t help thinking that his analysis, so vital to the structure of this revolution, is so removed from its emotion and texture. When he said that only “an annihilation campaign” could produce “the new man who will defy death and be free from all thought of self-interest”—could he have imagined that this ancient people, dancing into the night, would be the ones on whose shoulders his dreams would come to rest?
It’s a great disservice to everything that is happening here that the only thing that seems to make it to the outside world is the stiff, unbending rhetoric of the ideologues of a party that has evolved from a problematic past. When Charu Mazumdar famously said, “China’s Chairman is our Chairman and China’s Path is Our Path,” he was prepared to extend it to the point where the Naxalites remained silent while General Yahya Khan committed genocide in East Pakistan (Bangladesh), because at the time, China was an ally of Pakistan. There was silence too, over the Khmer Rouge and its killing fields in Cambodia. There was silence over the egregious excesses of the Chinese and Russian revolutions. Silence over Tibet. Within the Naxalite movement too, there have been violent excesses and it’s impossible to defend much of what they’ve done. But can anything they have done compare with the sordid achievements of the Congress and the BJP in Punjab, Kashmir, Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat.... And yet, despite these terrifying contradictions, Charu Mazumdar was a visionary in much of what he wrote and said. The party he founded (and its many splinter groups) has kept the dream of revolution real and present in India. Imagine a society without that dream. For that alone, we cannot judge him too harshly. Especially not while we swaddle ourselves with Gandhi’s pious humbug about the superiority of “the non-violent way” and his notion of trusteeship: “The rich man will be left in possession of his wealth, of which he will use what he reasonably requires for his personal needs and will act as a trustee for the remainder to be used for the good of society.”
How strange it is, though, that the contemporary tsars of the Indian Establishment—the State that crushed the Naxalites so mercilessly—should now be saying what Charu Mazumdar said so long ago: China’s Path is Our Path.
Upside Down. Inside Out.
The Damned: Villagers from the submergence area of the proposed Bodhghat dam
China’s Path has changed. China has become an imperial power now, preying on other countries, other people’s resources. But the Party is still right, only, the Party has changed its mind.
When the Party is a suitor (as it is now in Dandakaranya), wooing the people, attentive to their every need, then it genuinely is a People’s Party, its army genuinely a People’s Army. But after the Revolution how easily this love affair can turn into a bitter marriage. How easily the People’s Army can turn upon the people. Today in Dandakaranya, the Party wants to keep the bauxite in the mountain. Tomorrow, will it change its mind? But can we, should we let apprehensions about the future immobilise us in the present?
I lie awake on my jhilli, thinking of Maase’s protracted sadness, listening to the drums and the sounds of protracted happiness from the grounds, and thinking about Charu Mazumdar’s idea of protracted war, the central precept of the Maoist Party. This is what makes people think the Maoists’ offer to enter ‘peace talks’ is a hoax, a ploy to get breathing space to regroup, re-arm themselves and go back to waging protracted war. What is protracted war? Is it a terrible thing in itself, or does it depend on the nature of the war? What if the people here in Dandakaranya had not waged their protracted war for the last 30 years, where would they be now?
And are the Maoists the only ones who believe in protracted war? Almost from the moment India became a sovereign nation, it turned into a colonial power, annexing territory, waging war. It has never hesitated to use military interventions to address political problems—Kashmir, Hyderabad, Goa, Nagaland, Manipur, Telangana, Assam, Punjab, the Naxalite uprising in West Bengal, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and now across the tribal areas of Central India. Tens of thousands have been killed with impunity, hundreds of thousands tortured. All of this behind the benign mask of democracy. Who have these wars been waged against? Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Communists, Dalits, Tribals and, most of all, against the poor who dare to question their lot instead of accepting the crumbs that are flung at them. It’s hard not to see that the Indian State is an essentially upper-caste Hindu State (regardless of the party in power) which harbours a reflexive hostility towards the ‘other’. One that, in true colonial fashion, sends the Nagas and Mizos to fight in Chhattisgarh, Sikhs to Kashmir, Kashmiris to Orissa, Tamilians to Assam and so on. If this isn’t protracted war, what is?
Unpleasant thoughts on a beautiful, starry night. Sukhdev is smiling to himself, his face lit by his computer screen. He’s a crazy workaholic. I ask him what’s funny. “I was thinking about the journalists who came last year for the Bhumkal celebrations. They came for a day or two. One posed with my AK, had himself photographed and then went back and called us Killing Machines or something.”
The dancing hasn’t stopped and it’s daybreak. The lines are still going, hundreds of young people still dancing. “They won’t stop,” Comrade Raju says, “not until we start packing up.”
On the grounds I run into Comrade Doctor. He’s been running a little medical camp on the edge of the dance floor. I want to kiss his fat cheeks. Why can’t he be at least 30 people instead of just one? Why can’t he be one thousand people? I ask him what it’s looking like, the health of Dandakaranya. His reply makes my blood run cold. Most of the people he has seen, he says, including those in the PLGA, have a haemoglobin count that’s between five and six (when the standard for Indian women is 11.) There’s TB caused by more than two years of chronic anaemia. Young children are suffering from Protein Energy Malnutrition Grade II, in medical terminology called Kwashiorkor. (I looked it up later. It’s a word derived from the Ga language of Coastal Ghana and means “the sickness a baby gets when the new baby comes”. Basically the old baby stops getting mother’s milk, and there’s not enough food to provide it nutrition.) “It’s an epidemic here, like in Biafra,” Comrade Doctor says, “I have worked in villages before, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Apart from this, there’s malaria, osteoporosis, tapeworm, severe ear and tooth infections and primary amenorrhea—which is when malnutrition during puberty causes a woman’s menstrual cycle to disappear, or never appear in the first place.
“There are no clinics in this forest apart from one or two in Gadchiroli. No doctors. No medicines.”
He’s off now, with his little team, on an eight-day trek to Abujhmad. He’s in ‘dress’ too, Comrade Doctor. So, if they find him, they’ll kill him.
[Go to Pt. 1/2/3/4]