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Understanding the Bastar bloodbath

Gross exploitation of tribal people of Bastar over decades has led to building of what has come to be known as the ‘Maoist insurgency.’ It culminated in gruesome killing of 27 Congressmen including as important leaders as Mahendra Karma, Chhattisgarh PCC  president Nand Kumar Patel and grievously injuring senior leader V C Shukla. As a matter of fact, almost the entire leadership of the state Congress has been wiped  out. This was, perhaps, for the first time that Maoists targeted leaders of a political party. Their target has generally been security forces. The brazenness with which the Naxals carried out one of their biggest attacks killing at least 36 policemen, including a Superintendent of Police, in Chhattisgarh in second week of July 2009, had left the security establishment shaken.

Karma has been Maoists’ enemy number one and he was on their hit list for a long time. This explains attack on the convoy of Congress leaders. Also came handy the PCC president Patel and his young son. Maoists had known the route of the convoy and also presence of Karma and Patel in it. Karma had spearheaded two major anti-Naxalite movements in tribal Bastar region, of which Salwa Judum, which started in June 2005, being the most controversial. Earlier in the mid-1990, he headed a ‘Jan Jagaran’ campaign against the Naxalites. The Supreme Court had later imposed a ban on Salwa Judum, in 2011.

The history of exploitation of poor and simple adivasis has been gruesome and written about extensively. An elaborate account is given in a well-researched book — HELLO BASTAR, The untold story of Maoist movement — by Rahul Pandita.

Here are some examples of the magnitude of exploitation. Bastar has 76 varieties of forest produce. The Mahua flowers and tamarind collected throughout Dandakaranya are of premium quality. The Adivasis use Mahua for making alcohol and as a food item as well. Then there are the businessmen to whom they would sell it used it for extracting oil, making soap and for other purposes. For kilo of tamarind, an Adivasi is paid less than a rupee. The same would be sold in international market for 400 rupees.

The ignorant Advasis would be fleeced by businessmen who visited nearby towns. In exchange for a kilo of salt, the tribal would be made to part with a kilo of dry fruit or eight kilo of jowar. Those who collected bamboo sticks (for paper production) and tendu leaf (used for rolling bidis) were paid a pittance for their hard labour. For a bundle of 100 tendu leaves, an Adivasi would be paid five paise. Similarly, one rupee would be paid for 120 sticks of bamboo. The young tribal girls were sexually exploited and some even forced into prostitution.  

Years of exploitation and humiliation made tribal youth rebel against the system and they joined the Naxal movement. It has an endless supply of men and women, victims of state apathy to their condition joining its ranks, which shows that many still believe in the cause. Maoists’ entry into Bastar has ended the reign of contractors who looted and cheated, and policemen who abused. Today, tribal women can walk in the forests alone. Starvation deaths do not take place in Maoist areas. Prostitution is a thing of past; so are human sacrifices. The Maoists have helped tribal construct dams to store rain water; set up mango, guava and lime orchards; rice mills in several villages where grain can be husked at nominal rates. Adivasis are provided basic education, and medicines that they have never got from the government.

Times changed and, it appeared, the Maoist movement had been losing its momentum. Maoist cadre itself became exploiter of a different type, though not as ruthless as outsiders. The poor tribal suffered from both sides; he came under pressure from the ruling establishment as well as Naxalites. Maoists also faced recruitment problems; the movement was no longer attracting youth as it did in 1970s and 1980s. It became very difficult to work in areas where enemy is strong and in trade union movements where revisionists have entrenched themselves.

The administration, on its part became lax, and there was no accountability. A Commissioner once called a meeting of agriculture officers and asked them to give an account of work in their respective areas. An officer boasted that he bored half dozen wells in his area and, as a result, the yield has gone up many fold. The next day the commissioner was visiting the area; he asked the officer to accompany him. The next morning the officer was missing but the commissioner got caught hold of him and took him the area. He found there was not a single tube well bored.

An angry Commissioner submitted a damning report to the government against the agriculture officer and asked for stringent action. No action was taken against the officer and he has been roaming free. The Commissioner, now retired, told me about this incident while talking about how the Maoists came up in Bastar.

Facts, now coming to fore of 25 May attack on Congress convoy, have been shocking indeed. Though Karma was provided Z-plus security, meaning that he should have 16 armed security personnel guarding him, in reality only six accompanied them.They were armed with revolvers and scant ammunition while they are supposed to carry automatic weapons. Even V C Shukla was moving with less security than assigned to him. The convoy  did not have a pilot or an escort car. IPA
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