First Hand Account: People’s War in India, Part 1
Posted by irisbright on November 14, 2008
This is a first hand account of how Naxalite fighters live in India. It was originally titled: “Karl and the Kalishnakov: Notes from the diary of Chindu Sreedharan, who spent 82 hours with the People’s War guerillas [in 1998]” Though this piece is ten years old, it gives a sense of the movement grouping among India’s oppressed. The photos are original to the article. This is part one. Part two can be found here. Thanks to Behrooz Navaii for sharing this article with us.
By Chindu Sreedharan
As our vehicle carries me past Chandrapur, right into the heart of Naxal country, I know what to expect in the coming few days. I would be walking the sweltering Dandakaranya jungles in the company of the banned People’s War Group guerrillas, surviving on what the tribals can get us past police eyes and running the risk of malaria. If it rained, I would be wading through leech-filled sucking slush. And sleeping in the open on plastic sheets, an easy prey for any snake or centipede that cares to crawl my way.
As bonus, I stand a good chance of getting shot by the cops. Or, if more fortunate, catching the wrong end of their rifle right in my face.
Yet, all I can feel is exhilaration.
Days later, as I write this in Bombay, soothing my arms that have become a mass of mosquito bites, I can feel the adrenalin pumping. My fingertips tingle as they rush over the keyboard. Is being on the wrong side of the law always so thrilling?
Yes. There were moments of apprehension. Once we had to flee camp to dodge an encounter with the law. That maneuver curtailed my trip to a little over 80 hours. Then again, on the way out with incriminating notes and photographs, the bus we were traveling in was surrounded by nearly a dozen policemen. But that is not to say there are regrets. There aren’t. And if the countless mosquitoes that feasted on my petty bourgeois blood gift me malaria, so be it.
Our third hour in Naxal area. For us city-dwellers, this night is unlike any other we have seen. The darkness is near total. The disorientation frightening. In this nowhere land we wait for our contact. Outside a tribal hut.
A kerosene lamp hangs in the doorway. Its small circle only adds to the darkness. But there’s enough light to see each other.
We are four. R, a short, stocky middle-aged hack, is from a Marathi newspaper. G and H, like me, come from Bombay and represent the national press.
My glow-watch reports 2030 hours. The journey from Nagpur, I realizes, has taken more than six-and-a-half hours. “Tum baith ke rahena,” (“Just wait”) consoles the villager whose hut and light are keeping us anchored in this wilderness. Another helpful soul, who met us on the road to the village, borrows H’s pen-torch and disappears into the night, looking for our contact, I presume. He has been our only guide thus far.
The owner of the hut, I will call him X, is in G’s words “piss drunk”. He takes G aside, ostensibly to establish our identity, and in the process tries to extract money.
“Is there a chance we’ve missed the contact?” H wonders.
“No, we are early.” G is confident. “This man is not the key person. His job is only to make us wait. Anyway, he is too drunk to be of any help to anyone. Luckily, our guide seems to know what he’s doing.”
Twenty minutes go by as we wait for the uncertain to take shape. I revise my backgrounder on the outlaws I am to meet:
I am here to gather material for an article on the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War. The revolutionary party made famous by the media as the People’s War Group. But those closer to their reality prefer an austere PW.
The genesis of PW can be traced to Comrade Charu Mazumdar, once of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, and the 1967 uprising of peasants against landlords in Naxalbari, a remote village in North Bengal.
Two years after that first fight against feudalism, the revolutionaries in the CPI-M broke away to establish the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) that has its ideology rooted in the Maoist school.
The movement, by now dubbed Naxal after the village where it all began, spread like wildfire through the campuses of West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Bombay and Delhi, sucking in thousands of students and youth, mainly from the middle class. By 1969, the CPI-ML was operating guerrilla squads in many rural areas of AP, UP and Bengal.
So much so that the central government had to move in paramilitary forces by October 1969.
In 1972, Mazumdar, who by then was the most wanted Naxal, was arrested by the police. Following his death in custody, the movement was thrown into disarray.
Out of this emerged the People’s War.
The PW’s agenda, like that of most communist parties, is to establish a classless society. The group, which is a banned Organisation today, believes that the way to power is by winning over the rural folks.
It has, in the last decade, established two guerrilla zones, an area where neither the state nor the outlaws have complete control: North Telengana in Andhra Pradesh and Dandakaranya, or DK, which includes parts of Maharashtra, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.
The guide returns. Our contact is waiting at some other place. For the time being, our luggage is to remain near the hut. We set off in a single file along a mud-path bathed in the stench of cow-dung. Barking dogs mark our progress for 10 minutes.
Then appears another hut. Suddenly a piercing beam of light blinds us more than the night could. The party freezes in its tracks.
The guide picks our names. Next, he is behind the light, whispering into the torch-shiner’s ear. A satisfied click turns off the torch and my straining eyes make first contact with a PW guerrilla.
He is a slight man, this one. When he signed up, the PW called him Ganesh, put him in olives and slung a .303 over his shoulder. For the next few hours, we will put our lives in his hands. There are two outlaws with Ganesh. He dispatches one to watch the road and asks our names once again.
“Karan ne beja hai (Karan has sent us),” he proclaims after double-checking our identities. “Let’s talk.”
Karan, I know from past discussions, is the secretary of the Gadchiroli Division. He’s also one of the seven members of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee.
DK, once it was declared a full-fledged guerrilla zone, was granted the status of a state by the party. Its special zonal committee is directly responsible to the 12-member central committee, the PW’s apex body.
Ganesh places a cot in the open, away from the hut. We sit huddled together and the outlaw produces a sealed letter that he hands over to G. It’s from Karan, asking us to come with his men. He would meet us the next day.
“We will have to go on foot from here,” Ganesh says, “It’s a two-and-a-half-hour march.”
G asks him whether we can stay the night and set off early in the morning. Ganesh says no. They have been waiting in the village since morning. “We have to leave now,” he insists. “It is not safe to stay any longer.”
We collect our backpacks and return to where Ganesh is waiting. X, who has been watching the proceeding, gets into his drunken brain that we are being kidnapped and need rescuing.
He rushes to Ganesh, telling him not to take us, that it would give him, X, a bad name. The outlaw assures him that we are willing travelers and he must not worry.
We are to move directly into the jungles, which are very close, and join up with two others in Ganesh’s gang. Then we double our tracks and cross the same road that has brought us to the village at a higher point. It’s 2200 hours.
We walk in a single file. Ganesh and a couple of villagers show the way. R falls in. He’s followed by G and then H. I begin the tail with the other PW men bringing up the rear. H has his pen-torch out but all I can see is his jeans-clad legs. I make sure that I follow in his footsteps, literally!
It is a bit unreal, this whole atmosphere. Here we are, four city-breds, in the jungles, moving in darkness, not talking, making as little sound as we can, bar the eerie owl screech which Ganesh uses to communicate. In our minds, the fear of a police encounter lurks to the fore…
There’s the smell of rain in the air. Far away, the heavens rumble. But Ganesh is keeping up a grim pace. We are sweating profusely. My backpack is beginning to weigh a ton. I had thought I was pretty fit but this trek is proving me wrong. No stamina, I tell myself miserably, and keep plodding on.
Twenty-five minutes later our eyes pick up a small fire. “Lal salaam,” (Red Salute) comes a greeting from the general direction of the camp. This is Vishwanath, who, I am to find out, is the deputy commander of the Ahiri dal, or dalam, meaning squad.
We halt. Ganesh tells us there’s mutton for dinner. The mutton, it turns out, is a euphemism for lizard meat. Ghorpad is a massive lizard famous for its fantastic grip on rock faces. In fact, legend has it that Shivaji’s troops tied a rope around it to scale the walls of the impenetrable Pratapgarh Fort.
Ghorpad is a delicacy that the tribals in these parts greet honored visitors with. I am not fond of lizards for dinner, but, surprisingly, it turns out to be the tastiest, tenderest meat I have ever had!
It is 2247 hours. Dinner over, we are made to fall in once again and pick up the trek we had abandoned. There are no visible tracks but the villagers seem to know the way. They take us over two dry streams, a couple of hillocks and countless fallen trees till we reach a tarred road. Here the villagers take leave. Now there are nine of us. Re-entering the jungles across the road I find myself on a forest trail, one of the many that are used to transport bamboo from the woods.
Another 20-minute march and Vishwanath, who’s now in command, calls for a halt. I lower my backpack and take a few grateful swigs from somebody’s waterbag. “Life in the jungles is like this, bhaiyya (brother),” one of the outlaws smiles. “Thoda takleef to hota hai!” (There’s bound to be some discomfort) he taunts.
Seeing our sweat-streaked, tired faces, Vishwanath finally calls it a night. We will move another 10 minutes into the jungles before we sleep, he announces. We lug our backpacks and stumble on in the darkness to the left of the road. A little later, the guerrillas stop at a clearing. Plastic sheets are unrolled and spread on the ground. This is where we will sleep tonight.
No sooner do we sit down than an army of mosquitoes descends on us. These are nothing like those I have fought in Bombay. The country cousins are a bloodthirsty mob. Probably tasting urban blood for the first time, their attack is unrelenting. H dives for his Odomos repellent cream that all of us hurriedly apply on every inch of our exposed skin.
Vishwanath has, meanwhile, arranged for a sentry.
The outlaws take the duty in turns of normally an hour and a half in the night and two hours in the day. We sleep, sticky and sweating and continuously at the mercy of mosquitoes a little before 2400 hours.
July 24: “They shoot first, ask questions later.”
Our first day in the jungle. It’s 0530 hours. The sentry has woken us. As per guerrilla rules, it is the last sentry’s job to wake the camp.
We wash our faces, roll up the plastic sheets and stuff whatever we have out into our bags, which takes us roughly 10 minutes, and are off. There’s an hour’s march to reach the outskirts of the village where Karan is scheduled to meet us.
I can see my outlaw companions clearly now. And am quite surprised at the sight. They do not at all match the image that I had in mind. These are young men, open, eager, without a trace of hostility on their face. True, they may fight, and fight to death, if threatened by the law, but I can’t for the life of me see them as blood-thirsty men of violence, as fierce communists brandishing bloody sickles at any and every bourgeois — a picture which I feel the media, especially the vernacular press, is guilty of creating by eagerly headlining every police press release that came their way.
There are five Naxals with us. Three are local guerrilla squad members while Ganesh and Vishwanath belong to a central guerrilla squad.
An area committee of the PW, known as the SAC or squad area committee, will have a CGS, which forms its backbone. The SAC secretary and its members are usually part of this main body. The LGSs — there may be more than one in some areas — of roughly seven members function under the CGS and may be responsible for anything up to 20 villages.
A CGS normally has 9 to 11 members, including its commander and deputy commander. The commander, in many cases, is the SAC secretary. All members of the CGS and LGS are armed — with anything from .303 rifle, double-barrel gun, shotgun and self-loading rifle to AK-47. Besides, each squad is equipped with a couple of grenades and a Claymore mine (an explosive device which can be set off from afar).
The squads have a dual role — political as well as military. The former involves educating the villagers about Maoism, and the latter to fight the State. The guerrillas generally move in the night. The days are spend on the outskirts of whichever village their work takes them to — holding political meetings, organizing and motivating the villagers to fight exploitation, educating them about health and welfare measures…
Over the years, the PW has succeeded in winning the trust of the tribals. In a sense, it is the villagers who are the guerrillas’ protectors today. They give them food and shelter, and, on many occasions, provide vital information about police movements.
It is towards such a Naxal-friendly village we are moving now.
We make it to our second camp safely. The sun is not up yet, but it is hot, hot, and all of us are pouring sweat. The village is some 15 minutes away. Vishwanath sends two men to get water. The others are asked to fall in, and are given their orders for the day. Two of them start a fire and put the kettle on for tea…
We have finished breakfast — of tea (with tinned milk and enough sugar to sweeten a wild boar’s disposition) and biscuits. There’s a slight change in the plan.
Prabhakar, another guerrilla who joined us an hour earlier, has brought news that Karan is sick. Chronic malaria. We would have to go and meet him. That’s fine with us. Now we are waiting for lunch and the sun to go down a little bit before we start. I decide to get my notes up-to-date.
In the background I can hear H and G discussing plans for returning to Bombay. H is exploring the possibility of starting back on 27th evening, but G tells him that isn’t possible. “The Martyr’s Day celebrations start on July 28 and they would want us to cover it,” he says, “I should think the earliest we would be able to reach Nagpur is on the 29th.”
I move off to corner Vishwanath. He is sitting cross-legged on his blue plastic sheet, one hand on his .303 which rests by his side, gleaming clean. One thing that a guerrilla does religiously every day is clean his weapon. They generally do it right after the morning parade. As Karan later tells me, a guerrilla’s best friend is his gun, and he’s taught to take care of it like he would his child. It’s always there, within reach, even while he’s sleeping.
Vishwanath, this wiry, young revolutionary, who treks from village to village with his hand-stitched backpack, water bottle and Maoist messages, is from Ahiri, a village nearby. He is regarded as one of the best guerrillas in the area. He is literate, can even read a bit of English, and is deputy to one of the four woman commanders in DK, Radhaakka.
In the PW, it is considered very rude to address a woman without the suffix akka or didi, both meaning elder sister. “Only the landlords call their servants by name,” I am to be told later.
I ask Vishwanath about ammunition. Is it rationed?
“Yes. Unlike the commandos (of the Maharashtra police), who come in with blazing guns, our ammunition is very limited,” he tells me, “Not only that, we have to account for each bullet we fire.”
A rifle-wielder like him, thus, would get 30 cartridges a month while the quota for an SLR is 60. The ration for the AK is 75 and that for a double-barrel gun 30.
Vishwanath is well aware of Marxism and Maoism. But not in the wide, world-encompassing sense. His world is small, his views matching it. His fight is for a classless society, yes — but in a narrower sense of the word. He wants betterment. He wants escape from exploitation. He wants an end to the ‘police repression’ which he sees ‘all around.’
“I know the risks involved in a Naxal’s life,” he says, “But the party is doing so much for us poor people that I don’t mind laying my life for it.”
Prabhakar, who’s listening to our conversation, is a commander in his own right. Thirty-four years old, he joined the movement in 1991.
“I used to work on a farm before,” he says, “The PW guerrillas used to come to our village. I saw that they were the friends of the poor, so I joined them.”
I wander around the camp watching the other guerrillas. Except for the two on sentry duty — one ‘main’ and the other ‘support’ — the rest are relaxing. One is reading a Telugu book, one of the PW’s own publications.
That’s one thing that needs mention, this thirst for knowledge of the PW members. They are always peering into tattered books, the illiterate stumbling along the basics with guidance from the literate, and the latter striving to read more on what their fight is all about.
Vishwanath calls us over a little later. He and Prabhakar have been discussing something.
“What will you do if we get into a police ambush?” he asks.
R is of the opinion that nothing untoward would happen to us — after all, we are journalists and have credentials to prove it.
“The point is they shoot first and ask questions later,” G tells him, and the guerrillas nod in agreement. Turning to them, G says, “We would take cover behind one of the trees, I guess.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Vishwanath agrees, “You should take cover and then retreat with Prabhakar. We will hold them off till you get out safely.”
A few minutes later, the villagers arrive with food. There are five or six of them. Tribals, farmers, I would say, carrying big aluminum containers, their curious eyes sparkling at us from sun-blackened faces.
I am a bit surprised to see the rapport that exists between the Naxals and the villagers. Outside, the general impression is that the PW gets the villagers to co-operate at gunpoint. (For instance, I am to be asked by a colleague on my return why Naxals kill so many innocent villagers — a doubt for which I don’t blame her one bit.) But that is proved wrong in front of my eyes. It’s difficult to believe the kind of comradeship that I see now arises from fear. There is no fear here, only trust.
In fact, one of the touching scenes of the trip is to happen a few hours later: As we walk towards Karan’s camp, we stop just beyond an open field for a breather. A young cowherd — he mustn’t be more than 10 or 11 — instead of fleeing from the dreaded Naxalwadis, comes eagerly to meet us. I can still see one of the guerrillas, with a paternal hand on the boy’s head, inquiring kindly about his whereabouts.
Now the villagers serve us lunch. Rice and hot dal. Cooked in the simple way of rural folks. As guests we get first preference, and are served in steel plates. There are no spoons; the servings are by hand. Two huge helpings are placed on my plate. I am so hungry that I gulp it down in no time.
“Thoda aur lenge (Will you have a little more)?” a guerrilla moves towards me, threatening me with another severe helping. I back off hurriedly.
“Na, bahut khaya (No, I have eaten a lot),” I tell him, making him laugh.
“Arre, thodasa khaya aur yeh bol rahe ki bahut khaya (He ate a little and he is saying he has eaten a lot!),” he says.
I am no moderate eater, but my appetite is hardly a match for that of these outlaws — their metabolism, just as it requires loads of sugar, calls for frightening intakes of rice too.
After lunch, we try to get some shut-eye. But it is difficult. I must mention about this terrible heat. It’s not the killing dry heat of Delhi you have here, but an unbearable sticky hotness. High with humidity, it settles like a wet, hot blanket on you. Stifling, unmoving, making you sweat like mad. And in DK, your body doesn’t stick to the civilized ways of sweating which a flimsy handkerchief or tissue can remedy. Here sweat pours. It oozes out of every part of your body, in amazing quantities, and it would be a very, very cool day if you were not wet all over after a 20-minutes trek. Life in DK definitely has its own flavor.
Before we start, Vishwanath again explains what we should do in case of trouble. He and two others would form the pilot team. We four, with two guerrillas between us in the line, would be the main body. And Prabhakar would bring up the rear.
“Stick close to them. They will take care of you,” the Naxal tells us, pointing to the two men among us. “In case of trouble,” he tells them, “you will meet us at —village.”
Cops: will we have to run for it?
The first halt is after 40 minutes. There is nothing much to record, except that I had a narrow escape from snake-bite. Because it didn’t want the bother of turning around and biting me, the reptile exhibited amazing speed in disappearing into the underbrush seconds before I blundered on it. The incident left me a little shaken, and with my raised right foot frozen in mid-air, but it taught me to watch where I was stepping.
R, soon as we stop, puts a jungle flower to minute inspection and gets stung by a wasp. He becomes a bit hyper about it.
“Kuch hoga (Will something happen to me)?” he asks anxiously.
The Naxals find this very amusing. G tries to console him, but Vishwanath chooses the moment to tell him about other poisonous creatures of the jungle that can prove deadly. R looks more worried.
The 10-minute rest over, we line up. This time the guerrillas lead us across a couple of open fields — an exercise they avoid as a rule — which cuts our distance by more than 30 minutes.
The next halt is almost an hour later, just beyond a green field. In the corner nearest to us, I can see a villager grazing a calf. Both are very matter-of-fact, completely unimpressed by our little procession. When Ganesh approaches him for water, the villager listens, nods and walks away. Is it fear that prompts this unquestioned obedience? I don’t think so.
As the guerrillas make tea, the conversation shifts to the Naxal movement in Bihar. Vishwanath talks about the Maoist Communist Party. The fight there is still in the initial stages, he says.
“They don’t have enough weapons, and no training. One of our people had gone there recently to train them. We sent them an AK and a few SLRs from here,” he reveals, “In DK, we have passed that stage. Here (unlike Bihar where the biggest enemy of the movement is the landlords) the State is our biggest enemy.”
H, meanwhile, is going about his photography. He has made good use of the IV tube that Vishwanath provided him earlier — the extra lens he has with him is now slung on his shoulder, tied to the end of the tube.
R, I can see from the corner of my eye, is in deep conversation with a couple of guerrillas. A little later he comes hurrying to where G and I are standing. “You know what?” he says, breathlessly, “These people take a bath only in 15 days!”
“When it is a question of survival, as it is the case with them, then other things take precedence,” G tells him. However, that doesn’t stop any of us from contemplating the possibility of a bath this evening.
G and I talk about the risk we are running and the chances we would have if we ran into an encounter. The cops, we have learnt from the Naxals, usually retreat only after their guns are empty. Yet, none of us seem to be overtly apprehensive. We arrive at the conclusion that it is because though all of us know the risks theoretically, it hasn’t really sunk in. That would happen only when we are fired upon.
We reach the periphery of Karan’s camp at around 1700 hours. Two scouts are immediately dispatched to let them know about our arrival. We set to wait their return.
It’s while I am trying to escape from under the weight of my rucksack that its straps break. Not to worry, Vishwanath assures me, it will be fixed. On his request, one of his colleagues removes a thick needle, thread and a piece of canvas. By the time he finishes, it is stronger than before.
An hour passes. There is no sign of our scouts yet. The guerrillas are squatting, oblivious to the formation of mosquitoes that are attacking us, lazily fanning them away with leaves. I try the same technique, but the squadron that is concentrating on me is more ferocious than the rest. Mere fanning produces no effect. I am forced to jump up and keep pacing.
The scouts return at 1845 hours. We meet our first woman guerrilla 10 minutes after that. Two of them are waiting just where we enter the camp, with wide smiles and outstretched hands. Both are short and stocky, their hair in a boy-cut.
“Lal salaam,” they say, raising their right fists in air. I am a bit confused at how to respond, but decide the best course is imitation.
“Lal salaam,” I respond, feebly raising my fist.
The camp is set in a natural clearing, surrounded by trees on all sides. Till you are actually in, you don’t realize there is anything here. The guerrillas are all lined up. They greet us with Lal salaams and wide smiles. As we move past returning their greeting, they introduce themselves: Murli, Saraswati, Indira… Karan.
Karan, the man whom I have been hearing about since I first contacted the PW, is 33, of medium height, dark and wiry. Originally from Andhra Pradesh, he has been with the movement for the last 15 years. Before coming to DK about two-and-a-half years ago, he had been active in Telengana and Karnataka.
Now he leads us to a plastic sheet spread on the ground.
“Tired?” he asks in Hindi, as his comrades offer us water, “Sorry I couldn’t come down to meet you. I was not well. Had to take an IV before I could move down till here.”
He tells us there are two squads with us now. They had arrived at the site only about 45 minutes earlier. Two women members are starting a fire near where we are sitting to smoke green leaves and bushes — this is the outlaws’ sole protection against mosquitoes.
“What are your plans?” Karan asks, “How long can you stay?”
Arrangements have been made for us to stay till August 3. I tell him I would like to stay as long as possible, but H, G and R are all for starting back on July 28, immediately after the Martyr’s Day meeting.
Karan says there won’t be much of a celebration this time. In the light of the huge meetings the PW had conducted in previous years, deep in the forest, the police would be out in force. This year the repression (by Naxal definition, any police action against them is repression) is more than usual.
“You must cover us well,” he tells R, trying to convince him to stay back longer, “The local papers only publish the police version. Till now, every news item about us has been fed to them. You must tell the people the truth. Idharka log aap ka paper zyada padthe hain (The people of this area mostly read your paper).”
It has grown dark now, and one of the guerrillas brings a candle. Next to us, three women are sitting, listening to our conversation. Behind Karan there is another outlaw, Arun, who is from West Bengal. Karan alternates between Hindi and English, mostly English, which he speaks haltingly, each word segregated by a slight pause, his accent heavily South Indian. I am sure none of the outlaws around us, except Arun, follow the conversation. Their presence appears more as Karan’s bodyguards than anything else.
Karan is telling us about the increased police repression in the area. According to him, atrocities on villagers have been rising in the past couple of years. He tells us about two notorious police inspectors, Pandu and Trivedi, who ‘unleashed a reign of terror.’ Both are alleged to have shot many tribals in cold blood. The Naxals had their revenge on Pandu when they killed him in an ambush. But Trivedi escaped as he was transferred out of the region.
R interrupts to ask him how the villagers react when policemen are killed.
“They celebrate the occasion,” Karan replies, “For instance, when Pandu was killed, there was a lot of celebration in the villages. They congratulated us wherever we went.”
I ask him about Union Home Minister L K Advani’s all-out move to eliminate the PWG.
“The first enemy of communism is communalism,” Karan says, “The BJP and RSS are reactionary fascist forces. Now that they are in power, it is only natural for them to start another round of repression. We expected it. We will fight them. By increasing our mass base, by consolidating our party, by extending it, and using guerrilla war techniques, we will fight them.”
We soon exhaust the immediate topics, mainly because all of us are tired and hungry. I lie back, waiting for food. A little later, there’s a message for Karan. The sentry has seen a jeep in the village. Cops? Karan calls for Vishwanath, instructs him in Gondi (the dialect of the local tribes), and sends him to investigate. We wait apprehensively. Will we have to run for it? That too on an empty stomach?
End part one. Part two can be found here.