War in the Heart of India

Even in India this war receives little attention in the media; outside India scarcely anyone is aware of it at all.

War? I can’t call it anything else.

It’s happening in the districts of Bastar and Dantewada, in the south of the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. These are remote rural districts, and the traditional home of various Adivasi tribes. Adivasi is a Hindi word that translates pretty nearly to Aboriginal, or Indigenous – and many of the Adivasi folk are fiercely proud that they’re the original inhabitants of India, even if they are now mainly driven back into remote, inaccessible regions. The two districts total just under 20,000 square kilometres, and have a total population of just over two million, 70% of them Adivasis (according to official statistics, which almost certainly significantly undercount Adivasis).

But now big industrial interests (including Vedanta, who are quoted on the London Stock Exchange) have their eyes on the land, mainly to mine it for bauxite. The local people want to keep their land, as it’s their only livelihood, and they know that people who’ve been dispossessed by opencast coal mines and huge dams in India in the past haven’t been properly compensated, and have ended up destitute. The big industrial interests have co-opted most of the local politicians to their cause, and thereby taken over the whole machinery of administration, including the police.

Desperate circumstances make people desperate and desperate people resort to desperate actions. A small but significant minority of the people, joined by outside activists, turned to an armed struggle against this encroachment on traditional tribal lands. This isn’t principally aimed against the local people, but of course they get caught in the crossfire sometimes.

There is some direct threat to the local people from the Naxalites (as these armed insurgents are called), because the Naxalites raise their funds from the local people, generally under duress. It’s quite common, for example, for the Naxalites to stop a bus at gunpoint and make everyone hand over all their money. It’s also common for a group of Naxalites to turn up at a random, remote house late in the evening and demand to be fed. People whom the Naxalites suspect – correctly or incorrectly – of being informers are likely to be killed, as are people who refuse to hand over money. All these things have happened to people I know or knew, some of them relatives of my wife, as well as to many others I’ve heard about.

Banditry poses a bigger threat. The general lawlessness of the situation means that people other than Naxalites are liable to hold up buses and so on simply to fill their own pockets. Such bandits are significantly less predictable and harder to cope with than the Naxalites, but it’s not necessarily easy to tell which are which.

I’m used to these real but small risks – all that has been going since before I first started to frequent the area. All that also applies to a very much larger area than just Bastar and Dantewada.

What’s new is that Chhattisgarh, which used to be the remote, poor, eastern end of the large and powerful state of Madhya Pradesh, has been divided off into a separate state of its own. (Incidentally, neighbouring Jharkhand was similarly cut off the southern half of Bihar, at the same time.) The tribal people were mainly very much in favour of this bifurcation of Madhya Pradesh, because they saw it as gaining independence from a remote and uncaring state government in distant Bhopal. What they did not anticipate was that their new state would be very much weaker in defending their interests against the big industrialists than Madhya Pradesh had been.

The state machinery has been very much more effectively co-opted by the big industrialists since Chhattisgarh became a separate state. People became more desperate, especially in Dantewada and Bastar, where the industrialists’ main interests lie. More people joined the Naxalites. Insurrection grew more significant. A supposedly grass-roots opposition to the Naxalites, the Salwa Judum, was set up by a powerful local politician. It attracted massive funds from big industry, and gained the official support of the state. The state appointed large numbers of Special Police Officers – untrained and underpaid, but still paid enough to seduce many unemployed Adivasi youths – to support the Salwa Judum. The Salwa Judum then organized the evacuation of the villages into refugee camps “to protect the villagers from the Naxalites”, and undertook massive raids “against the Naxalites”.

The Salwa Judum have killed huge numbers of ordinary villagers, calling them Naxalites. Conditions in the camps are atrocious, with rapes and murders commonplace – far less safe than the villages from which the people were evacuated, and with no means of livelihood other than handouts. The food intended to be handed out often never reaches the camps anyway, being syphoned off by corrupt officials before it even gets there.

The abandoned villages have in many cases been razed to the ground. The crops and livestock have been lost in every case.

All of which is very convenient for the big industries who want to annex the land.

Information derived from a combination of personal experience and conversations with local people over many years, and reading whatever material I’ve been able to get hold of – often reading between the lines of very skimpy reports that have filtered out through very tenuous and often partial chains of reportage.

A good starting point for further information if you want it is War in the Heart of India (now from the Wayback Machine). It’s from 2006, but the situation is still much the same today.

This was hard – harrowing – to write. It had been in the pipeline a long time.

©Clive K Semmens 2007

Update 2016: Things are no better today – possibly worse. Listen to Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi – two people who have personal, direct experience of all this.