Odisha, India: Inside the war theatre

A report from India’s Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 11, Dated 19 Mar 2011

Days after a volatile hostage crisis, TUSHA MITTAL treks into Odisha to question the Maoist party on strategy, violence and power

THE KIDNAPPING of Collector RV Krishna in Odisha’s Malkangiri district has been the most recent flashpoint in the battle between Maoists and the State. Days after, at a remote village in the mountains of Odisha, TEHELKA met Maoist divisional spokesman (Koraput-Srikakulum) Gasi alias Sannu. The division is a part of the Andhra-Odisha Zonal Border Committee responsible for the abduction.

On the prowl Maoist spokesman Gasi alias Sannu


The meeting was originally scheduled with divisional president Daya. When Maoist cadres accompanying us received surprise alerts that troops were present inside villages on our route, we had to suddenly backtrack. Any combing operations at this point are a violation of the agreement between the Maoists and the State. Interviewing villagers in the area, it became clear that BSF was conducting a different kind of combing. “They are forcing us to work in the BSF camps,” says Sudhir Nachika from Tolorenga. “We were threatened with raids if we refused. We are scared they will come back.”

That this feeling of terror comes at a time of fragile peace shows why Operation Green Hunt cannot be stalled temporarily. Shrill questions were raised when the Odisha government agreed to the Maoists demands: Is the State soft? Nachika’s terror is proof that it has not, that ground realities are more nuanced than the binaries of the State and its enemy.

In this interview, the man responsible for several murders explained why the dark acts of kidnapping and violence are political tools. He spoke of what makes his party relevant, of land and the law, of justice and welfare. It is a strange overlap. Questioning the meaning of ‘public purpose’, a term often used to acquire land for private projects, the SC has asked courts to view land acquisition through the lens of a welfare state. In essence, it has said the poor must not lose land to benefit the rich. If there is anything that can curb Naxalism, it is not Operation Green Hunt, it is such attempts at justice. Curiously, whether or not the government understands this equation, it is evident from the answers that the Maoists do. Excerpts:

When did you join the Maoists?
I came to the party in the 1990s while I was a part of student organisations in Andhra Pradesh. Participating in protests about student problems got me thinking about local community issues. I went to work in the villages for a month. Immediately, I felt the need to address and resolve village problems. I became interested in Naxalism. One summervacation, I decided to stop my education and join the party. I have been underground for the past 21 years.

The most recent flashpoint is the kidnapping of the Collector. Can you explain the purpose or strategy?
Kidnapping is part of our larger political fight. It is a political strategy to focus on an issue and solve it. It’s not going to be the same everywhere at all times. Kidnapping is tied to circumstance. The decisions to capture, demand, release, and negotiate are based on people’s issues, which are also Maoist issues. We use kidnapping as a tool to further our political aims, to publicise our goals, and also to meet our political demands.

What was your primary motive in kidnapping Krishna? Why choose to kidnap someone who is seen as a pro-people Collector?
We decided to kidnap after taking into account what is happening in Koraput and in Odisha. We decided to focus on one issue: to investigate what is happening inside the jails. Hundreds of innocent Adivasis, poor people, and many human rights activists are languishing in jails on the pretext of being Naxalites. We wanted to make the public, government and intellectuals think about this. Whether the collector is a good person or pro-people is not relevant. We have nothing personal against him. People have been protesting about these arrests, asking for investigation and bail. Are the authorities listening? By kidnapping Krishna, we were able to focus attention on plight of people inside jails, to put people’s problems before the public and the government. We are the people’s voice. Did India hear the people’s voice because of this kidnapping — Yes or no?

‘Didn’t India hear the people’s voice because of the kidnapping?’

There is an argument that this is a warning for all good officers who enter villages. I want to say, we won’t come in between. It’s not about what we have to do. It’s about what the government has to do, about what the government has to think. There is a clear agreement. Now, it’s upto the government to fulfill it. Keeping with the agreement, we have not called for boycotting the current district elections. Now the government should do what it’s supposed to do. It’s an obligation. We are appealing to the intellectuals and the public to make sure the government abides by the agreement. The party will also abide by it.

Two days after the Collector’s release, posters appeared in Narayanpatna signed by the Maoists saying ‘Kalam chhodo, banduk uthao’.
We have not done it. The Maoists firmly deny this. We might say this when the time is appropriate, but not now. Given the negotiations, we would never put such posters. Whoever has done this wants the negotiations to fail. It is a conspiracy to break the whole process.

Besides the release of tribals, you also asked for the release of some of your leaders. What would you have done if the government had not agreed to your demands?
This is a political kidnap, not a military kidnap. The kidnapping and the decision to kill or not is as per our political aims. If you think killing is our only objective, then what about all the occasions where we haven’t killed people? We kidnapped a tribal MLA for 26 days. There was no response from the government. We released him. We kidnapped people in Chhattisgarh. When Swami Agnivesh came we released them. We kidnapped people in Jharkhand and the government wasn’t prepared to do anything, so we had to take action.

In a military kidnap, we kidnap policemen during an encounter. We kidnapped six police officers and let them off. We kidnapped a jail superintendent and subinspector. One of the demands was to expel cases against Adivasis serving life. We threatened punishment if the government doesn’t release the Adivasis. We succeeded. In another case, we kidnapped four people, killed one and left the other three. On what grounds did we kill? We looked at things from the same perspective and angle.

We evaluate what the government is thinking on what we are demanding. Whether to kill this person or not, it depends on the situation, the government response, and on whether the demand is fair. We don’t kill people each time. We want to take it before the public. We want to explore it politically.

Unwitting target Collector RV Krishna, freed after nine days


What stage of revolution is the party in now? What are you hoping to achieve in the next two-five years?
First, we have to unite all sections of the society and strengthen their relationship to run the revolution effectively. Second, we have to change the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army to People’s Liberation Army. Third, we have to form an army. At present, our guerrilla squads are transforming and developing. We are marching towards forming an army. An army is also a tool to solve the people’s problems. Our revolution in India depends on how effectively we strengthen these three aspects.

What do you consider your biggest achievement so far?
As the People’s War party, we were limited to five to eight states. After we merged with PU (People’s Unity) we spread to 11 states. In 2004, when we became CPI (Maoist), we became an all-India party — this is our biggest success. That we have united all revolutionaries who have taken up arms is a victory for the party. At present, given the issues of globalisation and displacement, people across India are protesting against the government, the MNCs, the mining policy. The Maoist party offers answers for all these things. This is what people are expecting from a revolutionary party. The Maoist party is the solution. We’re not just talking about one issue. All people’s issues are Maoist issues. Despite the suppression against us, the revolution will go forward because of the economic policies adopted by the government, because of the manner of globalisation.

India has agreed to cater to the world needs of bauxite. How much of this is being used in India? Is there any assessment of how much bauxite India needs? Does development mean sacrificing the lives of people in mining areas? Has the government shown people any alternate means of survival? This development is for companies and foreigners — not for the people. As long as there are people’s problems that are a matter of life and death for them, the Maoist party will take these issues forward.

Several provisions in the Indian Constitution address concerns of tribal welfare. They are not being implemented, but they exist. Do you believe in the Constitution? Will you ever consider functioning within the framework of the Indian Constitution?
Before you ask whether we have faith in the Constitution, you should ask whether India is a democracy. Whether the Constitution is being honoured. Whether the law is being allowed to take its own course. Many current political leaders should be in jail. Are they? Those arrested in big scams are easily let out on bail. What Constitution or what law is this? If you think the law is taking its own course, look at Narayanpatna. People are fighting for their legal right to their land, against moneylenders, landgrabbers and liquor mafia.

If this Constitution was meant to benefit the lower caste, the lower rung, then where is 1/70 Act? Where is the 2/56 Act? Where did the 5th Schedule and 6th Schedule go? Has it been implemented? This Constitution should have been the Constitution of the people. Today, the Constitution has become a tool to serve the upper classes. Our aim is to change the Constitution.

(2/56 refers to the Orissa Scheduled Area Transfer of Immovable Property Act and 1/70 refers to the Andhra Pradesh equivalent. Both are significant amendments to the 5th Schedule, which allows transfer of tribal lands to non-tribals with the permission of tribals. This clause has often been misused. The amendments were meant to correct that. They prohibit any transfer of tribal land and place the burden of proof on the non-tribals. After the 2/56 amendment in 2000, every nontribal in Orissa in possession of tribal land must prove that the land has been acquired legally. Failing this they can be prosecuted and the land returned to the original tribal owner. The Maoists allege that this is not being implemented in letter and spirit.)

Moving appeal Well-wishers in Puri hold a vigil for Krishna

What is more important: tribal welfare or political power?
The fight, the struggle, the andolan is first. Development is secondary and it is a part of the struggle. At present, we don’t have any political power or exclusive liberated zones. Our first motive is to limit the troops, or eliminate them, or put them under the control of the people. Development can only come after that. Look at medical services we have introduced, the land struggles, the struggle for fair price, our attempts to change the demand and supply relations, is this not for development? But to develop a particular zone, you need hold, you need power. That’s why we look at development as part of the struggle. If you must look at the two distinctly, then struggle for political power comes first. If we have no power how will be bring about tribal welfare?

But in your quest for political power, the tribals you claim to represent are suffering the most. That hundreds of Adivasis are in jail on false charges of Naxalism has as much to do with you as it has to do with the government’s offensive.
The death of the downtrodden is what makes this revolution difficult. This is not something we have created. The deaths and arrests are not because of us. It is an outcome of the government policies. The government is not thinking about the issues we are bringing up. Look at what happened with POSCO, look at Kalinganagar. There was police firing when there were no Naxals in the area. The government started this. The government is one who first used force, used arms. People have had to resort to arms to defend themselves.

This not a fight of the Maoists. The Maoists are part of the people. They are not two separate entities. They are one. In this fight people die, so do the police. The police are also part of the people, only that they are wearing uniform. That is why this is a fight of the people.

To halt our political aims, the government’s only strategy is to use police force, to first suppress the people, then the party and to sever the ties between the people and party. There will be arrests, deaths, casualties, torture and confinement. Any loss that people suffer now is part of the struggle. But who is using force, the government or the Maoists? Who is in power — the government or Maoists? Who should think of the people — the government or us?

In power, people’s parties have become as oppressive as the governments they overthrew. How will you ensure this does not happen? Is there room for dissent?
The party manifesto is reviewed every five years. It is approved from the grassroots to the higher Congress. We function according to it. There is a democratic process. There is debate even at grassroot levels. If there are two schools of thought, there will be a discussion and the congress will finalise. There may be a majority and minority, but we go by the majority opinion.

‘We’re marching towards forming an army. It will be a tool to solve the people’s problems’

Will middle-class India ever support you?
I can’t say how many years it will take, but we will get to urban India. The people who were killed in this week’s Sompetta police firing were well-off peasants, the middle classes of the village. Even their condition is deteriorating day by day. The middle classes are living well now, but a day will come when they will also suffer due to privatisation, globalisation and rising prices. When they suffer, the people who have no jobs will come to us on their own.

How has the presence of Maoists benefited the tribals in your division?
Before the Narayanpatna land struggle, (in which the Chasi Muliya Adivasi Sangh has reclaimed 3,000 acres of land), our land struggle was successful in two gram panchayats within Koraput district. We were able to take back tribal land illegally occupied by non-tribals, and to give land for the landless. We decided how much land is to be reclaimed based on who the land grabber is, if they are poor, or if their livelihood is linked to the use of land. The redistribution of land was also done according to the social hierarchy. After providing land, we help generate yield. Our agricultural committee, consisting of full-time cadre, provides irrigation facilities and suggests changes to cropping patterns to increase productivity. This is part of the development we do.

What about allegations of extortion and accepting bribes from contractors?
There is no instance where we have taken money from a contractor. Whether we give them permission to go ahead depends on the people. In fact, we recently killed a corrupt contractor Chawla who promised to giveRs. 50 lakh. The party refused the money. After Chawla was killed, the road was shut.

Pivotal role The three mediators who secured the release

But isn’t this keeping the good contractors away? How will killing Chawla help the tribals have a better road?
The people are opposed to the road. It is not for them. The roads are in violation of the PM’s Grameen Sadak Yojna. They don’t even meet the requirements.

Why is that a ground for murder? Why do you feel an army and violence is necessary to achieve change?
We do not resort to aimless violence; it is only to resolve a dispute. Politics is first. Violence is second. The majority of India depends on agriculture. The problems of cultivators should be the problems of India. Land is the biggest concern. Why are 70 out of 100 people landless? Because the land is in possession of the landlords. Have the laws meant to give land to the landless been implemented? If we appeal to the government, they say the pattas are with landlords. In this confrontation, either we have to eradicate them or they respond to the concerns and come before the public. We only resort to violence when it’s unavoidable. Would the 1/70 Act have been possible without the Naxalbari and Srikakulum movements? The new roads, new schemes which have come, are they for the people? No. The government is introducing these schemes only to sidestep the Naxal movement. Without Naxalism, would there have been development in these areas? That’s the reason the movement is growing bigger.



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