There are two broad ways to interpret the Chhattisgarh government’s callousness towards the recent killings of three adivasis in police firing and the ongoing protests in Bastar. First, this is what the Congress really is: no different from the Bharatiya Janata Party as far as the adivasi and the Naxal issue is concerned. Second, the party’s Chhattisgarh leadership wants to soon finish the war in Bastar, irrespective of the damage to the adivasis and their forest.
But notwithstanding both these explanations, let’s understand how the Bhupesh Baghel government’s stand amounts to the betrayal of its promises to the adivasis.
The great betrayal
Just when the hashtag ‘Bastar mein narsanhar band ho’ (stop the massacre in Bastar) began trending on Twitter after the police firing in Silger earlier this week, one of the Congress’s adivasi politicians from Bastar had a conversation with a police officer involved in the operation. The adivasis were protesting against a police camp that was established on 12 May at Silger village in Sukma district of south Bastar, just a few kilometres from the Bijapur border. Don’t be deterred by the deaths, the politician conveyed to the policeman, continue with the offensive against the Naxals.
This Gondi politician, a genuine representative of Bastar’s adivasi culture, in conversations and interviews with me over the last decade, had consistently maintained that “security forces are evil” and “should be expelled from Bastar”.
One could still expect the Chief Minister’s Office in Raipur or the secretariat favouring only an armed solution to the conflict, because being totally removed from the battlefield, they hardly understand the issue and never bear any collateral damage. But coming from a Gondi leader, this amounted to an unprecedented abandoning of the adivasi cause.
Not long ago, as the party in opposition, the Chhattisgarh Congress aggressively took up the killing of the adivasis in fake encounters. Its leaders quickly reached the spot and issued statements, but, now in power, it has not even cared to announce a customary inquiry into the deaths. When the Bastar-based activist Bela Bhatia was threatened during Raman Singh’s rule, both Rahul Gandhi and Bhupesh Baghel had stood for her. Now the Congress government has prevented Bhatia and several other activists including Jean Dreze from reaching Silger.
Congress, like BJP
However, anybody aware of the history of Naxalism knows that, notwithstanding occasional disagreements and posturing, both the Congress and the BJP have broadly insisted on a military solution.
The Congress speaks of negotiations with the rebels when in opposition, but makes no move to that effect after coming to power. It was Congress’s Mahendra Karma who launched Salwa Judum, fully supported by the BJP’s Raman Singh. As Union Home Minister, P. Chidamabram presided over several fake encounters of adivasis and the treacherous killing of the Maoist emissary, Cherukuri Rajkumar, in the middle of the negotiations with the rebels. In public perception, ‘urban Naxal’ is a BJP’s invention, but the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), in a November 2013 affidavit in the Supreme Court, had stated that the urban ideologues “have kept the Maoist movement alive and are in many ways more dangerous than the cadres of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army”.
The bigger question is this: Why does the Congress, at a time when all guns are set on the Union government for its failure in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, risk a considerable political capital and turn insensitive towards the adivasis? Here are a few clues I have gathered after speaking with multiple people in the Chhattisgarh establishment in the last few days.
The Congress wants to end the war in Bastar or at least seize a considerable territory from the Naxals before Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s term gets over in November 2023. To this end, it is prepared to face any damage to the adivasi lives and their forest. The Congress recalls that exactly eight years before, in May 2013, the party had lost its tallest leaders when the Naxals killed state Congress president Nand Kumar Patel, Mahendra Karma and former Union minister V.C. Shukla in the biggest ever attack on a political party in India. “Humne apne log khoye hain. Humen koi na samjhaye, jivan ki keemat kya hoti hai (We have lost our people. Please don’t tell us the value of lives),” a top person in the establishment told me.
The Silger camp is one of the several being erected along the ambitious 70 km Basaguda-Jagargunda road, which pierces a massive wilderness, the strongest zone of the Naxals in south Bastar. A thick forest, the habitat of many adivasis, is being uprooted for constructing this road that would be decisive in the state’s battle against the Naxals. I have been travelling in this zone for a decade now. Until recently, even riding a bike was difficult here but on my last visit in January this year, I could drive a four-wheeler.
The stakes are high, perhaps none bigger than this. Silger has a polling booth for the Konta assembly seat, represented by excise minister Kawasi Lakhma, the Congress’ most popular adivasi leader in Bastar. The Polling Booth Number One, as the Silger booth appears in the Election Commission’s records, has not seen any polling in living memory. There is no political presence or any activity because politicians are fearful of visiting the area due to the Naxal presence. If the area gets cleared, many adivasis will get to cast their first vote. While that would mean the substantial retreat of the Naxals, it’s impossible to reach that vote without losing countless adivasis and their habitat.
With the Congress government unyielding, Silger has been converted into a de facto border between the police forces and the adivasis, fully barbed, with both sides digging their heels in.
As has been the template in Dandakaranya, following the government suppression of the adivasis, the Naxals step in as their only saviour. Over a decade ago, when the administration ignored the adivasis’ resentment against the proposed steel project of the Tatas, many youth quickly joined the Maoist ranks. The Tatas eventually had to shelve the project, but those adivasis continue to carry the rifle.
The Congress government may be prepared for the losses, but it will eventually fall upon the adivasis. Bastar voted for the Congress hoping that the party would bring peace with minimum losses. The party has now lost both its face and the moral authority to speak for the adivasis.
Soon after becoming the CM in 2018, Baghel had said that the “Naxal issue cannot be tackled with the barrel of gun”, and added that in order to “reach a concrete solution”, “the most important thing is first we should talk to the affected people, specially tribals”. As his government sheds all the pretences, a betrayed and humiliated Bastar may take a turn that the Congress still doesn’t fully anticipate.
The author is an independent journalist. His recent book, The Death Script, which traces the Naxal insurgency, received the Atta Galatta Best Non-fiction Book of the Year 2020 award. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)
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