The Guardian (UK)–India’s Maoist Liberated Zones, part 1: “34 days with Maoists inside the forest”

Suvojit Bagchi spent over a month in Maoist hideouts in the forests of south Chhattisgarh.
SUVOJIT BAGCHI — 27th November, 2011
 CAMP IN THE FOREST
 After walking for eight hours in a forest that possibly had more hillocks and rivulets than trees, without any long pause, by early evening we entered a narrow barren table of land bounded on either side by two separate ridges. At the far end stood a few blue and yellow tents. Somji, one of the men who had met me at the edge of the forest, picked up speed as we approached the tents. With the amber red setting sun in the backdrop, I saw some activity in the camps as Somji reached the centre of the table.
A moderately tall man standing guard with a rifle flung over his shoulder whistled and heads in silhouette started rushing towards the centre of the narrow rectangular table. Under a minute, the camp members, a group of about 40, stood in formation and began singing a welcome song for us, which I realised through my stay, is a Maoist ritual:

Local Maoists evolved from tribals of Bastar, the Gonds. Their relationship is extremely cordial and friendly.

Lal lal salaam, lal lal salaam
Aanewale sathio ko lal lal salaam
Patrakar sathio ko lal lal salaam.
(Red salute to the friends who have come and to the journalists.)

Members in the queue raised their fist to whisper “lal salaam” — “red salute”. There were very young girls with hair cropped like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, they ended their “lal salaam” inevitably with a giggle. Rest, between 15 and 30 years, the men and women, wore rubber sandals, olive green battle fatigues and carried guns of various makes. Insas Standard rifle 5.56 mm, .303 rifles (antiquated), the Carbine 9 mm, LMG 7.62 mm, 12-bore guns, the SLR 7.62 mm rifle and standard Kalashnikovs were the recognisable ones.

The writer stayed in camps like these where life is pretty basic.

A thin and strongly built man in his 40s, armed with an AK and a whistle, introduced himself as Gudsa Usendi alias Sukhdev. Usendi is the spokesperson of the Maoist party in Dandakaranya. I was surprised. I had a different mental picture of Usendi. From the texture of his voice, which I heard over telephone, I thought of him as a tall, plump man. “But he is so thin,” I thought. “He looks like a martial arts instructor and not an irate spokesperson of a revolutionary party.”

Usendi is also one of the 20 members of the Maoists’ Chhattisgarh state committee, called the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee (DKSZC). He gave me the first instructions of guerrilla life: “Akash will be your guard. In case of an attack, if I say Bastar you will move towards the enemy and reverse if I say Narayanpur. Akash will cover you.”

Akash, my bodyguard, an 18-year-old Gondi boy, had an unusually pleasant smile and treated me almost like a kid while he was with me. “As we move forward or backward, while under attack, make sure that you are always behind me so that I can take the fire on me,” he repeatedly told me.

Maoist platoons normally set up their camps in a semi-circle with one tent in the centre, which was referred to as the “headquarter”. Every time a camp is set up, the camp commander does a roll call and gives a fresh set of passwords that may help to regroup later if the camp comes under attack from the security forces.

Akash slept for about four hours at night as he spent two hours every night guarding the camp from under a mohua tree in incessant rain. Nevertheless, he never failed to wake me up early for my walks through several kilometres of rain-drenched forest. Though the purpose of these walks was to take me to villages and camps in the Maoist-controlled forest, I later realised that Maoist platoons normally walked for long distances almost every day to ensure safety, collect local intelligence and imbibe a sense of purpose in young mind.

JANATANA SARKAR

The Maoists have three regional committees in DK called North, South and West. The regional committees have 10 divisional committees supervising 25 to 30 area committees. The size, name, number and jurisdiction of the divisions change as per strategic and political requirements.

The party has three main wings — the military, the mass organisations and the government, called Janatana Sarkar (JS). Next morning I was taken to witness the functioning of one JS. It was in Bastar district and the name of the JS, I was told, was Mettagaon Panchayat.

The head of the JS in Mettagaon, Suder, was a young man from the community. He was a dark, thin man with a red scarf with yellow dots wrapped around his forehead, a bit like a bandana. He was wearing several brass earrings. On our way to the village well, which he claimed was dug by the members of the JS, he showed me something that may well be the basis of the Maoist network in a village.

Suder’s chart

Suder took out a yellow file with loose A4-size white paper neatly tucked inside. Vertical red lines were drawn on the white sheets to mark several columns. The names of heads of each family, the number of families, the number of humans and animals in each family, births and deaths in Mettagaon and per-family landholding were all recorded in these pages. It could well be called the “Census report of Mettagaon”.

The chart enumerates five villages, called paras, under the Mettagaon village council. Those are marked under Column 1 as “Serial Number”. Column 2 marks the total number of men in each village and Column 3 marks the number of women. Columns 4 to 8 mark the number of animals: Column 4 for cows, 5 for buffaloes and the rest for goats, pigs and chickens.

Three things, I felt, are significant in this chart.

First, the household animals are registered so that after every paramilitary/police offensive a comprehensive fact-finding of “missing” animals can be made and the cumulative damage calculated. Thus each village unit has a ready database that keeps an account of the collateral damage of the conflict. Second, the census is also conducted to document if any villager has abandoned the village. Such unwarranted disappearances are potentially dangerous if such villagers are picked up by the police, or worse, if they join the administration as “special police officers”. Third, the total number of men to women was 427/445 in Mettagaon village council.

Suder and the team told me that they had 153 families in the Mettagaon village council. The total occupied land is 543 acres. Each family has land for farming and constructing a house. There was a difference of opinion among the JS-Mettagaon members about the exact size of unoccupied land. It could be between 150 and 200 acres. Five families in Mettagaon region were given five acres of land each by the party.

However, I could not locate any of the beneficiaries in Mettagaon who were given land; rain and other logistical reasons, like time and security, prevented such meetings.

Instead, I met a farmer called Sahitram, in the village Kilem in the Maoist council Kharenar, somewhere north of Indrawati. Sahitram showed me his farmland and mud-and-thatch house and told me that he used to be a landless farm worker six years ago. The party gave him eight acres of land, five for farming and three for constructing a house and he joined the party because of that. He informed me that five families in his village council got land from the party.

Maoists claimed, in a press release in November 2010 that so far they had “confiscated three hundred thousand acres” of forestland in Dandakaranya, presumably for redistribution among landless peasants. And that’s what made them a potentially dangerous party for the companies wanting to acquire land for setting up mining industries in south Chhattisgarh.

Later, the officials of Chhattisgarh police told me the party was at its strongest in areas where they had managed to form a JS.

“Maoists normally form party units first, then the military, then the mass organisation. Finally, when they are confident about the security of villagers they form a JS,” the officer told me while having a swig at Stella Artois in a south Delhi restaurant. If the officer is correct, then I would say that Maoists control Dandakaranya’s forest area — equivalent to a 15 or 20 thousand square kilometre in size — equivalent to a medium sized European state.

Suvojit Bagchi works as a ­Correspondent with BBC World Service in Delhi. This is the first of a three-part article

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