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Forests of the night

How Chhattisgarh became a sanctuary, and then a laboratory, for Naxals

Some time ago, Chhattisgarh hit the headlines because of a Maoist attack on state Congress leaders, in which V.C. Shukla and Mahendra Karma died. Since then, the Congress has accused the BJP government of a conspiracy, and some BJP leaders have accused former chief minister Ajit Jogi of being part of a conspiracy himself. Politicising this tragic episode is not the best way to understand why Chhattisgarh has become a Maoist stronghold.

Today, the state is the worst affected by Maoist-related violence. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, between 2005 and June 2013, 2,055 lives have been lost in this guerilla-like war, including 755 members of the security forces, 662 militants and 638 civilians. That is twice more than in Jharkhand and about four times more than in West Bengal and Orissa.

There is a history behind the entrenchment of the Naxals in Chhattisgarh. It started in the late 1970s, when Maoists from Andhra Pradesh initiated the Go to Villages Campaign, which prepared them to work among the Adivasis, then subjugated by landlords and the state. The latter limited their access to forest products such as tendu leaves, not to mention the violent scorn with which the police treated tribal people. When the Naxalites were repressed by the Andhra government in the 1980s, they used southern Chhattisgarh, and more especially Bastar (roughly equivalent to the region known as Dandakaranya), as a base, because the jungle made them difficult to track down.

This sanctuary gradually turned into a laboratory. Militants from the cities learned the local dialect, sometimes married tribal women and, above all, obtained better wages for Adivasis who gathered tendu leaves and bamboo stalks for paper mills. These successes were made possible by intimidation and an effort to organise the tribal people, which in 1989, culminated in the foundation of the Dandakaranya Adivasi Mazdoor Kisan Sangh. Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian activist who established his ashram in Dantewada (Bastar South), has given valuable testimony to these reasons for the Maoists’ popularity.

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