Inside Orissa’s Maoistan
Posted by Ka Frank on February 13, 2010
This article appeared in India Today on February 11, 2010.
Dinesh Manji is a local libero hero. In volleyball, libero is a defensive player position and allowed only underarm passes. In a clay court off Orissa’s Deomali mountains, Manji jumps and smashes every oncoming serve. I give a second to attune myself to the motion of the ball.
The unruly libero is my first exposure to the liberated zones, where Maoists are changing the rules of the game and setting up Janathana Sarkars – People’s Government – a Maoist Xanadu, a vital building block of the Maoist society based on ideological rhetoric. Janathana Sarkars collect “taxes”, decide on local disputes, fix prices of local products, run local amenities and provide basic healthcare. In the huge region of mineral-rich forests in eastern and central India from West Bengal through Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh, these committees, mostly managed by local villagers, but with severe Maoist mentoring, control all things in life – even tippling habits to eternal supply of volleyballs.
“Instead of explaining to you what we intend to do if we assume power in the country, I can show you what we do in the areas we hold power over,” says a Maoist leader, before sending me off on a bike of one of his cadres, my destination uncertain. Two hours into our journey, through narrowing road, often slipping down side-alleys, I ask him which village we are heading. He smiles with a glint of mischief.
In fact he has no clue. Before I conclude my journey on motorable road, I was made to travel with two other bikers – the last one with a spider tattooed on his chest, which gave him an air of defiance. As abruptly as the hellish ride began, the journey ends four hours later. I was handed over to the last “contact”, Lakshman Manji, at one of the areas within the Maoist compass in Mahendragiri Mountains — foremost of the seven Kulagiris or principal mountains of India — in the district of Gajapati, 51 km to the south-west of Brahmapur. The river Mahendratanaya flows down the mountain in the east through Mandasa and joins the Bay of Bengal at Barua. Off Mandimara, Mahendratanaya flows like a guide along cracked mud road to Manji’s village. One is easy to get lost in the path overgrown by shrubs and twists upwards in relentless climb. At his village, the muddy river drops its suspended silt and gains glass-like clarity.
The village with over 29 tribal hamlets recently changed its ways and got into collective farming. Manji is the village’s representative in Janathana Sarkar and is the pointsman of Maoists in the village. With heavy-lidded eyes and a broad sweep of forehead, he is without the weathered looks of a war-zone commander. “For the first time in ages, we have done collective farming last year. We have stopped approaching police over disputes and the committee decides over the disputes,” says Manji.
The CPI (Maoist) is not a top-heavy outfit. It is led by general secretary Ganapathi and13 other Politburo members with a clear division of tasks which includes ‘military’ operations, intelligence and budgeting. But it is Janathana Sarkars that have been helping them to focus more on overall armed offensive rather than on the nuts and bolts of administering their strongholds.
The “liberated zones” are not gated districts within the districts. These are the areas were Moaists have loose military control but have made strong roots among the villagers by engaging them in their life and livelihood – albeit under the vigil of guns. Without actually pitching tents at these places, they run their writ here. Most of these committees are in the Dandakaranya Special Zone, the vast forest area situated between the borders of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Orissa. Around 59 work teams with up to 70 members in each were set up last year to prepare land for millet, paddy and dal. In Bastar alone, around 1,436 acres of land were seized from landlords. Of this, 1,057 acres were distributed to 482 families and 310 acres was put under the control of the Janathana Sarkar and 65 acres were given to the militia.
The mode of adivasi agriculture in all these divisions was primitive, rarely using cattle for agriculture. “We are now using cattle to plough the fields. We were used to building tanks in areas were water collected naturally in earlier days and water was carried manually from these tanks. Now we are using canals to take water to these points,” notes Manji, before confiding that I am the first journalist he ever met, but maintaining a spokesman-like gravity. At first glance, the villages don’t look daunting. The slow pace of tribal life and absence of uniformed squads free them from any appearance of wary fear. I insist upon the villagers to tell me about Maoists but many comment in single sentences. “Maoists are good people and they help villagers,” is the refrain, a reminder of shared fear.
The Maoists gained control over the villagers over the years due to a variety of reasons. But the commonality here is straightforward: the Maoist sympathisers in the village are who couldn’t, didn’t, wouldn’t — you pick the verb — fit in the various development plans of the state. “If we are Maowadis, you are MoUwadis,” he tells me, indicating that displacement due to large scale land acquisitions resulted in the growth of Maoism in the region.
Government expenditure on health, education, child care, electricity, roads, water, etc is lacklustre in 28 of the 33 LWE (left wing extremism) districts in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Bihar. In percentage terms in Jharkhand, the expenditure for child care in the 10 worst affected districts is 15 while the state’s average is 86; the seven LWE districts in Chhattisgarh spend 15 per cent on water while the state spends 83 on average. Malkangiri in Orissa has a literacy rate below 25 per cent but it spends under 4 per cent of funds under Sarva Siksha Abhiyan.
There are no restraints on exercise of naked power — both by the Maoists and the security forces. At Rai Panga, Kornoil Bodo Roito, a 27-year-old farm worker shows me marks of the bullet wound from a CRPF raid on his village in November 2008. “When the CRPF came on their raid, the villagers went helter-skelter. At first I thought someone stabbed me on my neck. Then I realised that it was a bullet which brushed my neck,” he says.
He insists he never had any connection with Maoists. But Junus Roito, another villager, was less lucky and was shot down by the police in a cattle shed. Though his family insists that he is not a Maoist, a memorial was erected for him by Maoists. “I approached the government for compensation after the killing. While the cattle owners got Rs 20,000, I was given Rs 50,000 as compensation for my dead son,” says his father Rono Roito.
At times bronzed men with arms on their shoulders descend on the villages and preside over Jan Adalats held by these committees. I head to one of the “Jan Adalats” of Hathimunda in Gajapati district where Prasanth Bhima gets a hasty punishment. He had roughed up his neighbour over a financial dispute. The villagers gathered around are asked to give the verdict. Manji lets him off with a minor punishment – 50 sit-ups. Bhima does it smiling sheepishly. The gathered crowd breaks into laughter. But it’s not laughing matter every time. In many instances, the Maoists are just rights-abusing thugs. On June 15, last year the Maoists beheaded one of their surrendered cadres at Murgaon at Gadchiroli. Beheading of Inspector Francis Induwar in Jharkhand is the latest in the line. But Jan Adalats are not an easy run. It has caused unease even within the Maoist party. Yugal Pal, who was till recently a member of powerful Special Area Committee of Jharkhand, Bihar and Northern Chhattisgarh, left the party saying that party is forcing its decision on villagers via “Jan Adalats”.
But Maoists question the idea of leaving decision-making completely to the villagers. Recently in Andhra Pradesh, a village landlord was put on trial for raping a tribal girl. The villagers wanted the wife of the landlord to be raped in retaliation. “In such a situation you can’t leave it to the villagers. We have to intervene in such occasions,” says a Maoist leader.
As one move away from Koraput – the town hosts the Hindustan Aeronautical Limited factory which makes spare parts for the MiG jets – the land gets greener and settlements get sparser. Most of the tribal settlements here are beneath a colonnade of palm trees that offers eternal supply of toddy. Now liquor contractors across Orissa, who often pep up the brew with ammonium chloride, have been asked to stay away from selling the liquor by Kranthikari Adivasi Mahila Sanghatan, a Maoist frontal organisation. Drunk with the intrigue, I ask local carpenter Prasant Mantri about the new move. His hard face breaks into a boyish smile as he speak about prohibition. “This is our only pastime. How can we be stopped from dinking?”
In Chhattisgrah, the Mahila Sanghatan also took up the task of breaking the taboos. They launched a campaign against the tribal belief that women shouldn’t be allowed in certain agricultural activities like sowing seeds and reaping the harvest. The tribals are also being introduced to a new script for tribal languages, which has so far been scriptless. Chloroquine, an anti-malaria medicine, is given in packets replete with slogans – Soshiko Athanko, Soshito Shruthi (Terror for the oppressors, dear for the oppressed).
Near Hathimuda panchayat, the lone teacher at a primary school lowers the volume of a blaster, badly tuned into a radio station, to tell me about the school. “Teachers refuse to come to the school citing Maoist problem. Since then I have been deputed by the party to take classes.” The curriculum here has a new addition, a script for tribal languages introduced by the Maoists and developed by its leader Dasuram. One of the chapters in the textbook explains early 19th century Parlkot rebellion by tribals and had a cover-page slogan saying, “Aaj pade, aaj lade, janata ko aage le jayen” (learn today, fight today, take the people forward).
But every financial activity in these vast tracts is helping the Maoists to enhance their financial resources. Maoists run a huge financial empire by extracting commission form contractors of government projects, mining companies and in sale of tobacco leaves. In many Maoist-controlled southern districts of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, the fragrance of pine yields to the smell of ganja.
At the night camp, the kitchen bursts with busy chefs, preparing glutinous dal, brinjal and rice. The athithis (guests) get generous portions of desi chicken. I notice two other guests getting the benefit of chicken. Soon after the dinner, I side up to them and ask about their visit. “We are officials from state revenue department. We are here to finalise sketch of the village to give patta (land deed) to the villagers,” one of them says. The Maoists are allowing signposts of the state to come in, wherever it fits their plans. The NREG roads have been approved selectively, ensuring that they don’t make easy passage for security forces into Maoist hideouts. Indira Awaas Yojana is widely allowed, but with a pinch of salt. “Why is the Government keen on allowing the project only in Naxal areas? It is an effort to make the Government presence here,” says a Maoist pamphlet. But Rs 33,000 for constructing a home is alluring in this poverty stricken belt.
Sometimes dispensing “justice” becomes the darkest comedy. S. Dominic, a priest in Latehar district, ignored a Maoist leader who walked into a song and prayer session led by him. With his ego hurt, the leader later picked up the priest from the street and made him dance on hot rocks under the blazing sun for four hours. When the locals objected, the Maoist leadership brought the commander to the village and he was made to dance four hours on roasted sand.
On December 27, Maoists set ablaze four passenger buses of the Orissa State Road Transport Corporation near Nalaghat in Gajapati district late in the night during its Orissa bandh. Though passengers were not harmed, the Maoist attackers had taken mobile phones from passengers to stop them from calling police. After the operation, Maoists couldn’t return the mobile phones to villagers while they were fleeing in a hurry. “We are not petty thieves, we are revolutionaries. We never wanted to take it along with us,” says a Maoist leader. I rub further salt into the wound: “For the passengers, you may look like petty thieves.” “We want media to help us return the phones. But nobody is ready be an intermediary,” he complains.
And then there is a world of sleaze. “Akash was twice demoted in the party and pulled out of its armed unit for his “womanising habits”. He threatened to quit unless he was asked to return to the military unit,” says Manji as he gives first bits of Akash’s life. Ghasiram alias Akash, a resident of Kharikapadar village in Rayagada district, joined the Maoist ranks seven years ago and rose to become the outfit’s Ghumusar division commander a few years ago. I probe further on escapades, but the Maoist leader refuses to open up. “He believed in bigamy and refused to eat beef,” he says reluctantly. As the face-off stiffened, he surrendered to Orissa police. Now, the Maoists have brought out a circular saying that without Akash the party has become cleaner like “gold without dust”.
The gaps in governance and a host of other state failures have helped the Maoists to make fresh inroads in many areas — Orissa’s Narayanpatna, West Bengal’s Lalgarh and mining towns in Jharkhand are the latest examples. The long shadow of Maoists is visible in Telangana, where they wish for a smaller state, which could bolster their chances as in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. In communal violence-hit Kandhamal district, many young Christians are leaning towards the Left extremists.
Now there are many fresh recruiting areas. Uper Kandy, the last village in Similiguda near Andhra Pradesh border, has been bypassed by politics and signs of modernity till recently. As the vehicle approaches the village, the taxi driver throws his handkerchief over the miniature national flag on the dash board. “The Maoists are moving into the area,” he warns me. The 200-year-old got a road connecting it to the city just recently. “Now we are given notices to vacate so that the Government wants to hand over the place to a mining company here. We are ready fight to any extent to keep our land,” says Hanak Tading, a resident of the village.
Policing these vast tracts of land has become almost impossible with the lack of security force presence. Inspector in-charge at Adhaba police in Gajapati district, Devendra Mahapatra, is well-protected in his station with a cathedral-like gate and a platoon of CRPF stationed in the premises. As Maoists established grip over local dispute handling, the number of criminal cases filed in the station have come down from over 300 five years ago to 48 last year. Outside the station, he and his colleagues go around in civil dress to escape the Maoists’ attention. “After waiting for years, the station got a satellite phone recently. We are yet to fill up posts of two more sub-inspectors. We live in nearby irrigation guest house and are always under threat of attacks,” says Mahapatra. Though the CRPF makes routine route march to nearby forests, the terrain makes the task tough.
It’s not a bad prison, but it’s hard to be stuck here in the anteroom of Maoism. Like many of his buddies, Prakash was trying to adjust to passive life as farmers to active life as a squad member patrolling mountains, with combat gear complete with Insas rifles and butt bags. As we rumble through the forests, he moves close enough to whisper in my ear to say that it is fatal to wander from the routine path. “Mines are all around to trap the police,” he confides. In rotating shifts, the soldiers spent 14 hours on duty, mostly on patrolling neigbourhoods.
The CRPF rarely surprise the Maoists. “We get information the moment CRPF moves towards the forest. In many occasions, we don’t put up a fight. We retreat deeper into the forests, forcing the CRPF to camp in one of the hills and go back after a day or two,” he says. A combination of measures has helped Maoists to control the vast stretches of land – making their presence known by simply marching through villages, setting up strong intelligence system among villagers and resisting all forms of civil administration with stray attacks.
“Most of the beaten paths are mined. We avoid these roads, move forward using GPS in favour of a tougher journey by setting up new paths. The moment we enter into these forests, the Maoists light up torches and give signals to their counterparts around, making it easy for them to retreat,” says HK Jasoria, Officer Commander at CRPF station in Gajapati district.
You don’t need a crystal ball to recognize that the Government will face a list of tough tasks to clean up the menace. The Maoists are trying to outstrip the existing system with quick-fix solutions for people living on narrow margins of survival. While they are carrying out their plans with alarming ease, the state is on a retreat (see box). The Government is getting increasingly pre-occupied with military action and the Maoists are responding with fits of terror and competing with their own version of “democracy”, tearing down and constructing social and economic models.
In many instances, the Government is confused how to bring the people it once offended into its big-tent political system. In last February, police in Gajapati district decided to reach out to the villagers as a part of its ‘public-police contact programme’ by distributing volleyball kits in Kattama village. While the forces were on the way, an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), planted under a culvert, blew up before the bus could pass over it at Andharighati village in Mohana block. But the impact was such that it injured eight persons.
The police since then have abandoned the contact programme. Now, the Adhabha station spots a volleyball court, with a number of spare volleyballs. As I leave, policemen were preparing for a game of volleyball. I don’t wait to see whether the libero here follows the underarm rules.