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Notes from the Red Corridor

by Chandrahan Choudhoury, LiveMint (WSJ), January 26, 2008

[T]he Salwa Judum movement aims to co-opt the tribals themselves into the fight against the Maoists by ushering them into large, easily guarded “resettlement” camps and employing and arming some of them as Special Police Officers (SPOs).

Asian Centre for Human Rights Naxal Conflict Monitor here.

Naxalite Rage blog here.

Naxal affected districts in India 2009Mao is alive and kicking in India, and how. Jailbreaks, frequent guerrilla attacks on security forces, the emergence of parallel governments in so-called “liberated zones”, and the victory of Maoists in neighbouring Nepal have woken Indians up to realities that for decades they could afford to ignore. Not only have the persistent failures and the eventual retreat of the state been clearly exposed, the dismaying possibility of a “Red Corridor” stretching, like a gash on the Indian subcontinent, from Nepal all the way down to Andhra Pradesh has also been raised.

Who are these Indian citizens who want nothing less than the total destruction of the Indian state, of the Constitution, of democracy? What does their rise reveal about the apathy of the Indian state towards some of its poorest and most marginalized subjects, particularly the tribals? To what extent has the state’s response only exacerbated the problem, and what is the condition of the innocent people trapped between two ferociously warring forces? All these questions are answered by Sudeep Chakravarti’s fascinating work of reportage Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country.

Although Chakravarti wanders through Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Nepal, the region for which he reserves his closest attention is the tribal-dominated area of Chhattisgarh. The reason for this is that Chhattisgarh is not only a hotbed of Naxalism but also of a controversial state response, the Salwa Judum (a phrase from the local dialect translated either as “Peace March” or “Purification Hunt”). In contrast to Andhra Pradesh, where the counter-insurgency is run by a specialized police force, the Greyhounds, the Salwa Judum movement aims to co-opt the tribals themselves into the fight against the Maoists by ushering them into large, easily guarded “resettlement” camps and employing and arming some of them as Special Police Officers (SPOs).

This with-us-or-against-us approach views tribals one-dimensionally—as the potential constituency of Naxalism which must be pre-emptively herded away—and only further aggravates the squeeze made by the Maoists on the tribals for food, cash and manpower. In one heart-rending section, Chakravarti moves from the squalor of a Salwa Judum camp, which looks like any urban slum, to a cleared-out forest settlement nearby, one in which the tribals at least eked out a living no matter how perilous.

Although the Maoists feed off decades of class and caste oppression in the Indian heartland, and exploit the angst of the widening gulf between the booming urban India of the haves and landlessness and joblessness of the rural have-nots, they are themselves by no means as principled or as selfless as they sound. Sometimes the door they open reveals only a new chamber of horrors, such as that of their gruesome Jan Adalats, their internal justice system that perpetrates outrages every bit as heinous as those of the state. Their rejection of democracy as a bourgeois sham and their dogged adherence to Maoist doctrine would be comical were it not so troubling—Chakravarti meets several revolutionaries, both current and lapsed, whose genuine anger and despair gutters into talk of the “objective conditions” for a full-fledged revolution that will topple the state.

And sometimes the Maoists themselves become co-opted into the very nexus they decry. A recent piece by the journalist Prashant Jha in Himal described a convenient détente between Maoist forces and Madhu Koda’s government in Jharkhand—one in which both parties siphon off funds released by the Centre for counter-insurgency—and showed that the “new man” extolled by Maoist rhetoric is not all that different from the “old man” he seeks to exterminate.

The form of Chakravarti’s book is quite distinctive, and almost mirrors its subject. Just as there is something shadowy and amorphous about the Maoists—now advancing, now lying low, at times rejecting the state and at times participating in elections, their commanders working under aliases and their cadre secreting themselves away in the great jungles of the Indian hinterland—so too the sprawling narration of Red Sun proceeds in a piecemeal, zigzag fashion, as if working through a low-visibility zone.

Chakravarti mixes travelogue, interviews, reportage and analysis, quoting here from a Maoist document, there from a taped exchange between police officers, and ferreting out both state apathy and revolutionary excess with an unflinching and often mordant gaze. Red Sun proposes no easy answers, but the author succeeds in his aim of “tearing the veil” off a crisis from which we have averted our eyes for too long.

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Chandigarh Tribune, October 29, 2006

The tribals allege that Chhattisgarh is strategically important as it contains a lot of minerals and forest wealth, including high-grade iron ore, limestone, dolomite and diamonds etc. The government, they allege, is very keen to allow MNCs and Indian mining companies to operate from here. They allege that the government has drawn up a plan to oust them from their land and to make way for investments from the big companies. They allege that in May, 2005, the ‘salwa judum’ was launched by the government of Chhattisgarh and it was within this year that the Chief Minister went and signed an agreement with a US power company, Texas Power Cooperation. In June, 2005, an MoU was signed with the Tatas for iron ore mining in Dantewada. They allege that the government finds it difficult to implement these agreements as long as Maoists have their presence over there. They allege that people who were at one point of time punished by the Naxal movement have been appointed as special police officers after being trained and are sent to the tribal area as to hunt down the Adivasis in the name of eliminating the Maoists.

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Far Eastern Economic Review, April 4, 2008

In one chapter, Mr. Chakravarti recalls a magazine poll in which 36% of the participants expected India to Balkanize within the next half century. But for him, there is another equally grim possibility.

In a parallel life, Mr. Chakravarti is a professional futurist affiliated with the World Future Society, and he makes one startling prediction. Over the next three decades, he writes, India will break out into a rash of City States, gated urban sprawls that would exclude vast swathes of rural populations. Rural India “would likely be abdicated by the central government, if there is one, to bands of various ‘people’s governments,’ Maoist or otherwise,” writes Mr. Chakravarti. “The Republic of India could become the Republic of South Asia, a gathering of always-on-the-edge confederacies.”

But there is also the worst-case scenario of rampant warlordism in “other India,” a scenario that Mr. Chakravarti predicts not for two or three centuries down the line but two or three decades. The process, he believes, may already have begun in some states, and the seething and disaffected can rapidly become new Maoist conscripts.

State-sponsored violence may take out the Naxal leadership, but it can never remove the reasons for their appeal, and that powder keg is no mere caveat; it can be the most formidable danger to Indian prosperity. However much economists and governments may argue for patience and for trickle-down time, time may be the one commodity in increasingly short supply.