#India – The Brechtian choice in the Red Corridor

Photo: Shailendra Pandey


Photo: Shailendra Pandey

It was a Sunday morning and Om Shanti Om was playing on television. For a tiny shack, the TV was too big – a hideously odd addition. Apart from an old man and two kids sleeping on the floor, a young man was having brunch watching TV. Travelling in a remote village in the Kalimella block of Malkangiri district in Odisha, I was meeting someone who could speak Hindi. “Chhattisgarh se hai…” he said responding to my surprised look. I had by then visited enough Adivasi villages in the block to believe that Hindi was non-existent here. As it turned out, 25-year-old Ranga, an adivasi teacher from a village in Dornapal, Chhattisgarh was in Kalimella, visiting his wife and kid as the summer vacation allowed him to.

Our conversation was supposed to be about mundane subjects related to village development. What do you do about circumstances though?

Even as we were talking about development in the village, Ranga got a call from his cousin in Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh giving him every detail of the Maoist attack that had taken place the previous evening. Mahindra Karma had been killed. So were Nand Kumar Patel and 28 others. Once the conversation was over, Ranga came back inside to fill me with details. This 25-year-old teacher (who teaches class four students) evidently had enough exposure to the media to know what interests journalists. He began with all the details of the incident as was told to him. I listened with equal interest. He ended it with, “Karma ji nahi rahe. Diggaj neta the.” Ranga was an admirer of Mahendra Karma, the founder of Salwa Judum.

The conversation that followed, has kept me thinking till now.

Me: Karma ji diggaj neta the? (Was Karma a tall leader?)

Ranga: Haan. Judum ke chalte bohut accha kaam kiya unhone. Judum ne shanti laaya… (Yes. He did a lot of good work by creating Salwa Judum. Judum brought a lot of peace in our area)

Me: Accha? Toh aap Judum ke samarthak hai? (So, are you a supporter of Judam?)

Ranga: Naxali bohut tang karte the gaon walon ko. Zameen cheen ke baant dete the… Agar mera chota sa zameen hai toh aap usse kaise cheen sakte ho? Dhaan bhi le jaate the aur baant dete the… (The naxals used to trouble villagers. They would snatch our land and redistribute it. How can you snatch the small plot of my land? They would also take away the grains and redistribute it…)

Me: Lekhin Judum ne toh bohut saare gaon jalaye… Balatkaar kiya mahilaon par… (But Judum also burnt a lot of villages… They also raped a lot of women)

Ranga: Tension mein har koi hinsa karta hai… Aap aise socho. Agar mere friend ko kal koi marega, toh main kisko support karoonga? (Everyone indulges in violence when they’re in “tension”. Think of it like this, if my friend is going to be killed by someone, who will I support?)

I smiled and chose not to probe him further. He too smiled. No, he did not bear a look of satisfaction of having won an argument. His tone too did not have an assertiveness that you would find in people who really want to prove something to you. Here was someone’s lived reality that needed no assertion or crafty presentation. Mere narration carries through the message.

This conversation had begun to bother me, doubting my ability to understand and place politics in historically identified categories. A friend came very close to the answer. “It is the Brechtian choice. This one has made the choice. Survival comes first. Everything else comes later,” said the friend.

‘The Brechtian choice’, well, is something like this. As Eric Bentley observed in his review of Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht: “What is the philosophy of this philosopher? Reduced to a single proposition, it is that if you concede defeat on the larger issue, you can achieve some nice victories in smaller ways. The larger issue is whether the world can be changed. It can’t. But brandy is still drunk, and can be sold. One can survive, and one can help one’s children to survive by teaching each to make appropriate use of the qualities God gave him.”

But then, in Malkangiri district itself, for every Ranga, I could find ten young men who would support the Naxals. In Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, I could easily find a hundred. They have made their choices too. Their friends had been /are being/will be killed by SPOs, policemen and the security forces. These would often be extra-judicial murders. The police torture them. The courts speak a language there is absolutely no way they can understand. Hell, I have been to villages where young men and women do not know when Independence Day is, who the Prime Minister is or for that matter, what their country is. But these were young men/women who support the anna log (naxals, as referred to in Odisha) because the Forest Department and police are bad news.

* * * *

From far away, I think it’s too bad Brecht never wrote ‘An instruction for the illegal adivasi’.

Here’s Brecht’s An instruction for the illegal agent

Part from your comrades at the station
Enter the city in the morning with your jacket buttoned up
Look for a room, and when your comrade knocks:
Do not, o do not open the door
Cover your tracks!

If you meet your parents in Hamburg or elsewhere
Pass them like strangers, turn the corner, don’t recognize them
Pull the hat they gave you over your face, and
Do not, o do not show your face
Cover your tracks!

Eat the meat that’s there. Don’t stint yourself.
Go into any house when it rains and sit on any chair that is in it
But don’t sit long. And don’t forget your hat.
I tell you:
Cover your tracks!

Whatever you say, don’t say it twice
If you find your ideas in anyone else, disown them.
The man who hasn’t signed anything, who has left no picture
Who was not there, who said nothing:
How can they catch him?
Cover your tracks!

See when you come to think of dying
That no gravestone stands and betrays where you lie
With a clear inscription to denounce you
And the year of your death to give you away.
Once again:
Cover your tracks!
(That is what they taught me.)

 Author- G Vishnu has worked as a cameraman and assistant script-writer on two documentary films on tribal issues with Shri Prakash, a prominent film-maker in Jharkhand. He has reported on matters like Naxal-State conflict and politics as is seen in New Delhi. He has been a part of TEHELKA’s investigations team since August 2011. He finished his post-graduation in Communication from Manipal University in 2009.


Chhattisgarh- Mahendra Karma and his cynical form of vigilantism #Maoists

For long, Karma often resembled a wolf that preyed on the tribals of southern Chhattisgarh, many from his own tribe
Sudeep Chakravarti , The Mint
First Published: Tue, May 28 2013. 12 00 AM IST
Karma and his ilk gradually distanced themselves from the blood-letting, though the stains never really washed. Photo: Manpreet Romana/AFP
Karma and his ilk gradually distanced themselves from the blood-letting, though the stains never really washed. Photo: Manpreet Romana/AFP
Mahendra Karma is dead. And I am here to write ill of him.
This may be construed as indelicate in the aftermath of the savage Maoist attack on 25 May in southern Chhattisgarh that left him and several others dead—unlike Karma, many innocent of human rights wrongdoing. But it certainly is not an act of hypocrisy. Karma wasn’t exactly a man of probity. For long, the Congress party’s point man in Bastar, sometimes called “Bastar Tiger”, Karma often resembled a wolf that preyed on the tribals of southern Chhattisgarh, many of them from his own tribe, with utter disregard for their livelihood and lives. While I abhor violence, including the revenge hit by Maoists that finally claimed Karma at 62, his death should not be used to whitewash his crimes against humanity.
Where Karma, the son of a clan chief, walked, chaos could follow. I am still chilled when I listen to the intercept of a police transmission reportedly between the superintendent of police (SP) of Bijapur in southern Chhattisgarh and his junior colleague planning an operation to deny Maoists support among dirt-poor, neglected locals in that forested, resource-rich region.
The recording, distributed by human rights activists and Maoist sympathizers—not always interchangeable—to several researchers and writers, is from 2005. It was a time when Salwa Judum—which, in the local Gondi dialect, translates as Purification Hunt—an extreme, cynical form of vigilantism led by Karma took wing. He did so in compact with Chhattisgarh state, in a rare case of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Raman Singh and the leader of opposition—Karma, then a Congress member of the legislative assembly—seeing eye to eye. In the mirrored, public-consumption vocabularies of the government and Karma, Salwa Judum emphatically remained a spin—Jan Jagaran: People’s Awakening.
As I wrote in my book Red Sun, this is how people were sometimes awakened:
(SP) All officers and forces should be well distributed. And be on high alert. If any journalists come to report on Naxalis—get them killed. Did you understand?
(Voice): Roger sir…
(SP) …the Jan Jagaran people are telling villagers very clearly, ‘You come with us… If you do not come (after being told for the) third time, we will burn your village.’
Salwa Judum vigilantes destroyed homes, and stores of grain and any other food they had; killed dozens of men, women and children; maimed and—or—raped several. Children were forced to watch the death and dismemberment of parents. Pregnant women were disembowelled. The death and torture of those suspected of allying with Maoist rebels was instant. This intimidation, blessed by posses of state police and Union government paramilitaries who have their own record of blood, lust and war crimes in the region, at one point herded in excess of 50,000 tribal folk into little more than concentration camps across Dantewada district—since last year further split to create the additional districts of Bijapur and Sukma.
To be fair to Karma, there was a method to his madness. Maoists had begun to infiltrate the Dantewada region as far back as the 1980s—it was then part of the vast Bastar district of the undivided Madhya Pradesh—to establish what would later enlarge into the rebel-influenced Dandakaranya zone. Landlords such as Karma, himself a child of a tribal landed family, increasingly began to see left-wing extremists, then spearheaded by the vanguard of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War, as a threat. The perception was mutual.
For the rebels, Karma and his ilk symbolized the class enemy—worse, a tribal who came from traditionally, socio-politically oppressed stock was the class enemy of fellow tribal folk. For Karma & Co., the stealthily and rapidly infiltrating rebels represented a threat in several ways. For one, at the barrel of the gun they could redistribute land to the landless. For another, they were a direct threat to the local practice of Malik Makbuja, the right of the Adivasi to cut trees on his own land that had been subverted to benefit middlemen and various vested interests.
The MP Protection of Scheduled Tribes (Interest in Trees) Act, 1956-57, was designed to protect the interest of the Adivasis. Trees felled by them on their own land could not be sold to non-tribals and required monitoring by the office of the collector; a complex system deposited sale proceeds into an account. Middlemen often stepped in to facilitate the process, in several cases cheating the locals. Meanwhile, vested interest in the timber business thrived. Even as traders were on the lookout for any land owned by non-tribals, landed tribals such as Karma cut into the action by buying and grabbing land from fellow tribals. The local bureaucracy and the forest department staff played handmaiden to all the deal-making, coercion and removal of timber from prime forest land.
I most recently read about it in a document prepared in the defence of barefoot doctor and human rights activist Binayak Sen, which had a preface by Supreme Court lawyer Nandita Haksar. It cited a Central Bureau of Investigation first information report (FIR) from 1998 that, after taking into account a writ petition filed by two non-governmental organizations and the Lokayukta, held there was prima facie evidence of criminal conspiracy by several government officials and landowners. Among them, Karma. They were, the FIR stated, “party of (sic) criminal conspiracy during 1992-96 to cause wrongful gain to the land owners in the matter of felling trees. It is alleged that the accused public servants bestowed undue favours to the said land owners and others and illegally accorded permission to fell a large number of valuable timber trees on the basis of forged and fabricated documents and in utter disregard” of laws to protect aboriginal rights. As the document on Malik Makbuja noted: “No further action has been taken against Mahendra Karma or any of the other accused”.
While that’s another, familiar story of politico-legal winking—Madhya Pradesh at the time was a Congress satrapy—Karma and the Maoists evolved their own grudge match over influence. By late 2004, the merger of the People’s War faction with the Maoist Communist Centre (India) formed the rebel behemoth of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The extreme left-wing grip over Chhattisgarh appeared to be unassailable. Local rebel leaders and cadres, in their ideological enthusiasm and their bid for a power grab, were dictating nearly every aspect of tribal life—deciding when people could go to the market and, in some cases, even marriages.
The heavy-handedness that an ideological drive backed by weapons inevitably brings became an affliction, and resentment against the Maoists began to grow in several areas. Not just against members of the dalam, or armed cadre, but arguably more so against members of the sangham, the rebel militias and the recruitment, information and logistics networks. In a few villages, scuffles broke out between pro- and anti-Maoist groups. In one case in June 2005, Maoists even attacked villagers from nearby areas in Kotrapal who had gathered to decide against cooperating with Maoists. Two villagers died, several were beaten up; some were kidnapped. One major incident lit a reverse spark, as it were.
Karma, never short of bluster or chutzpah, latched on to this with blinding speed, and nurtured it with resentment, rumour and rigour. “Something had to be done,” K.R. Pisda, the former collector of Dantewada, told me as he elaborated on this when I interviewed him for Red Sun. “There were rumours that the Naxals were entering villages to loot, beat and kill. Anger began to spread… We established camps and organized food… Then we asked around, checked, and discovered there was no looting or intimidation as rumours had it.” In four or five days, people began to return home.
“Then Mahendra Karma arrived there,” Pisda told me. “He toured the area, talked to people, held meetings with important people, with elders.” Karma held frequent meetings in that area through that July, accompanied by a senior police officer, whipping up anti-Maoist sentiment till poorly attended meetings became mass gatherings. “Then in the middle of all this, we appointed special police officers, created village defence committees,” he said. Pisda dead-panned this admission of creating a force, frequently including adolescents, armed and paid a salary—at the time Rs.1,500 a month—from state funds, which really answered only to leaders such as Karma and several brutal sub-bosses, as they went about their business of being a rogue force. “Naxals started to attack these people—that continues,” he said.
Indeed, that continues till today. And so too the Judum, as it came to be known. The rogue force was formally disbanded by the government of Chhattisgarh after a severe censure by the Supreme Court in 2008 when it termed Salwa Judum illegal in its premise of the state arming civilians to kill—other civilians. But the Judum continued in the garb of the Koya commandos. After widespread legal and human rights outrage, the state modified its recruitment laws to take in several Judum cadres. In one form or another, the Judum writ still runs in southern Chhattisgarh.
Karma and his ilk—one that now quite transparently includes aiding corporate interests in the region—gradually distanced themselves from the blood-letting, though the stains never really washed. Talk has it that his influence within the Congress had lessened somewhat, though he was hopeful of a resurgence in a political drive aimed at weakening the hold of the BJP in southern Chhattisgarh—perhaps even claiming the seat in the legislature he lost in 2008.
I had some queries of him. The last time I tried to talk to him during a cocktail reception at the improbably named Babylon hotel in Raipur—a universe away from his village home in Farsapal, a short drive from Dantewada town—he had brushed my questions aside as being redolent of a “Naxali”, and soon left in a swish of heavily protected sport utility vehicles. Too bad.
The endgame in the battle against Maoist rebels is still to begin in earnest, but it will likely come sooner than later, precipitated by the 25 May incident. Meanwhile, the competitive hell that they and Karma & Co. created in Chhattisgarh festers. For now, Maoists remain here in force, intermittently fighting security forces. And Karma was hardly the last of his kind.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. He writes a column each Friday in Mint, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business.



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