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Bookshelf: The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar

From Juggernaut publishing: There’s a hidden war going on in central India away from the headlines — and Bastar is at the centre of it. Sociologist Nandini Sundar, who has written about Bastar and its people for nearly three decades, has now authored a gripping account of the war between the Maoists and the State.

‘Salwa Judum split families and villages apart in Bastar’

Nandini Mehta, The Lowdown – Juggernaut

When did you first go to Bastar? What first took you there as a sociologist?

For my PhD in anthropology at Columbia university, I wanted to study rebellions against colonial rule because ‘Subaltern Studies’ was fashionable then. I knew that the Bastar rebellions had not been studied yet. In 1990, I went to check the place out, and my local contacts — a journalist called M.A. Iqbal and his wife Kala — were so welcoming and helpful and the place so charming that I decided this was it. I then spent a year between 1991 and 1993 in a Dhurwa village, where I learnt about daily life, rituals, land records etc. But I wrote very little on that experience, because I was under pressure to finish my thesis. As a result, my thesis was mostly historical.

Why do you think the Maoists were able to establish themselves in Bastar? And how did the people react to them and their message?

The main problems people faced were restrictions on their access to the forest, and land shortages, because there is very little irrigation and agriculture is unproductive. The forest guard, the patwari and the police took bribes from them, wanted to be carried around from village to village on cots, and exploited women. The Maoists helped on all three fronts, by taking people’s side against the hated bureaucracy, and helping them to cultivate forest land, build irrigation ponds etc. Slowly, they managed to establish an almost parallel state. What is important to remember is that the Maoist movement in Bastar has been as much, if not more, shaped by adivasi needs and culture, as it has by Maoist ideology.


Tell us about Salwa Judum. What did it achieve, and what did it do to the lives of the the adivasis?

The Salwa Judum will always be remembered as a period that utterly transformed south Bastar – so many people were displaced, so many families separated, and so many villages divided. Adivasi communities are known for their village solidarities. But by burning villages and forcing some people into Salwa Judum camps and others into the forests with the Maoists, villages were split. Families that had lived together for generations began suspecting each other. Then there was the terrible fear as security forces and Salwa Judum vigilantes went on combing operations – anyone could be killed and passed off as a Maoist. A lot of women suffered sexual assault and rape.

Your book tells us how thousands of villagers fled their villagers and were forced into camps — describe one such camp and what the villagers experienced there?

These are extracts from my fieldnotes:

Bhairamgarh camp, 2005: ‘K. Dhakad said that his whole village had shifted to Bhairamgarh camp after the Naxalites killed the son of the sarpanch and the upsarpanch, who were taking people to Salwa Judum meetings. They just couldn’t live in camp though – there was knee high slush, and rain which the tarpaulin covers simply didn’t keep out. So they left and went to his wife’s family in Kondagaon.

Maraigudem camp, 2007: ‘There were several men sitting around vacantly. There are 3,500 people here from 16 villages. Here too, there were frequent checkposts with sullen kids manning them. We saw three SPOs [Special Police Officers, many former Maoists who had surrendered and acted as informers for the police, or jobless village youth recruited by the government] with guns, slouching towards the Andhra Pradesh part of Maraigudem village, which is vastly more developed than its Chhattisgarh counterpart.’

Bastar is enormously rich in minerals, and many big corporations are setting up plants to exploit these. What has this done to the ecology and the culture of Bastar?

Product DetailsOver the last 20 years, the forests have come down dramatically. People say that climate patterns have changed – there are rains when they are not expected, or no rains at all. It is noticeably much hotter than it used to be. Villagers also complain of strange illnesses, perhaps because many of them are now eating PDS rice rather than growing their own organic millets. If the Raoghat mines come up, there will be a huge loss of rare fauna and flora, including endangered species. The famous Bastar myna is also disappearing.

The culture is also changing – perhaps beyond repair. The young are losing their own languages and knowledge of their own festivals. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad is active in many areas, fomenting tension. Jagdalpur, the capital of the former princely state of Bastar, has been almost completely overtaken by outsiders, and the famous Bastar Dussehra is being drowned out by other festivals, or reduced to just a administrative showpiece.

A civil war has raged in Bastar for over 10 years in which thousands of civilians have been killed, raped , tortured, arrested and made homeless. You say this is now the most militarized part of the country. Have the institutions of our democracy — elections, the judiciary, the media, human rights organizations — been effective in protecting the people?

We have had a real institutional failure here [in Bastar]. The state government and the security establishment — i.e. the police and the paramilitary forces — both at the Centre and in the state are simply not interested in following Constitutional norms. They have even ignored the Supreme Court’s clear orders to stop state support for vigilantism, and to disband civilians who were recruited as special police officers. Everyone says the police want the war to continue because of the unaccounted security money they get. Institutions like the National Human Rights Commission or the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes are either too weak or uninterested. For political parties and the media, large-scale adivasi deaths simply don’t matter. Human rights organisations have also focused more on a few individuals than the overall situation. The bottom line is that adivasis are simply not treated as proper citizens of this country.

‘Because I Want Peace’

Because I want peace

And not war

Because I don’t want to see

Hungry children

Or emaciated women

Or men with silenced


I must keep on fighting…


Because there are territories

Now liberated

Where those who don’t know how to

Are learning to read

And the sick are treated

And the produce of the land

Belongs to everybody

I must keep on fighting

Because I want peace

And not war

Claríbel Alegria, ‘Because I Want Peace’

The Hindi-speaking Chhattisgarh government constantly describes Maoists as Telugu-speaking outsiders, even though by now over 90 per cent of theMaoist cadre and even high-level commanders in Bastar are local adivasis, and all meetings are conducted in Gondi. But Bastar has always been a zoneof north–south crossings, and the two movements that have changed the course of Bastar’s history have both been from south to north. In the fourteenth century, the Kakatiya king Annam Deo fled from Warangal (nowin Telangana) and established the kingdom of Bastar, which lasted till its accession to the Indian state in 1947. The second fateful journey north was of Naxalite squads in 1980.

The Early Years

Q: When and how did you join the People’s War?

A: In the 1980s, KS [Kondapalli Sitaramaiah] told us to go into the forest. We asked why we should go to the forest when there were so many problems in the plains, and the forests appeared to have no problems. KS told us, ‘Wherever there are people, they will have problems. Find out what their problems are.’

Interview with A. Reddy, 2010

The mostly young Telugu men (and later women) who came to Bastar in 1980 were steeped in Maoist ideology and long family traditions of sacrificeand resistance. I interviewed several in 2009–10 in Warangal. Some came from families and villages that had participated in the Telangana armed struggle (1946–51). Some villages were known for their contribution of cadres. One woman activist, Manju, came from a village where 11 people had been ‘martyred’, including her brother who ran the local youth club and was killed when a grenade left by a squad leader in their house exploded. There were a few older and married men like Sivanna, who came from acaste of toddy distillers and had directly experienced feudalism in their villages. When he went underground, his wife supported the family by rolling beedis. Yet others had spent time in jails during the Emergency. Many were swept up by revolutionary student politics, including a 1978 campaign exhorting them to go to villages and learn from the people. Some joined barely out of school, like Lachanna whose elder brother was killed in an encounter and who went underground at the age of 15. Another leader, Prashant, was 17 when he joined the party in 1985 and left it only 28 yearslater. Jannu Chinnalu, a local organizer, played an important role in recruiting youth in Warangal.

Few parents were happy with their children’s decision to abandon career and comfort for the hard and dangerous life of a ‘professional revolutionary’, but equally, few of them came in the way, since they too were in general sympathy with the party. Even today, in less selfless times, parents writing to their children in the forest tell them that while home is always open forthem, they are free to continue living their ideals. The mothers simply ask the questions that all mothers ask: ‘Are you well, are you eating?’ Through the 1980s and up to the 1990s, despite the severe repression, entire localities inWarangal were with the movement. If there were police on board a bus, the driver would sound a special horn so that any guerrillas in the area would be alerted and run away.

These recruits belonged to the CPI(ML) People’s War, founded by Kondapalli Seetharamiah, and traced their genealogy to the CPI (ML) of Charu Majumdar. Armed struggle remained the ultimate line, but the People’s War also advocated mass organizations, and indeed the party was well entrenched in the popular imagination through the Revolutionary Writers’ Association or Virasam (founded in 1970), the Jan Natya Mandali (1971), and mass fronts like the Radical Students Union, the Radical Youth Leagueand the Ryotu Coolie Sangham which took up, among other things, the issue of agricultural wages and unpaid labour for landlords. As the movement spread, police repression intensified.

The government helped reinforce the notion that peaceful resistance wasimpossible through incidents like the one at Indravelli in Adilabad in 1981. A meeting of the Girijan Ryotu Coolie Sangham, which had been scheduled tocoincide with market day, was refused permission at the last minute. But people did not know this and congregated in large numbers. The police opened fire without warning. Officially, 13 Gonds and one police constablewere killed; the unofficial figure is about a hundred deaths. For the anthropologist Christoph von Fürer Haimendorf, hardly a proponent of armed struggle, the Indravelli massacre merely confirmed his bleak prognosis for adivasi futures. In a postscript to Tribes of India, he wrote that the‘sentiments of protest and revulsion’ in a few Indian publications comparing Indravelli to Jallianwala Bagh were ‘the only ray of hope in an atmosphere ofotherwise unrelieved gloom’.

In 1979, the party decided to take military matters seriously. As the party history, 30 Years of Naxalbari, notes:

The movement in AP by 1979 had reached such a critical stage. To advance now meant making necessary preparations to take on not only the landlord classes, but also the police and para-military forces. Preparation for such an eventuality meant not only adoption of newforms of struggle, not only new methods of organisation, but also the military preparation of the party.

The party drew up a ‘Perspective for a Guerrilla Zone’, in which the Dandakaranya forest was to be used as a rear area to escape to when repression intensified on the Andhra side of the Godavari. Organizing local adivasis was a secondary task. From there begins the story of Bastar.


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