“The antagonists in the forest are disparate and unequal in almost every way,

Walking with the comrades

Very recently, quietly, unannounced, Arundhati Roy became a rare writer to visit the forbidding and forbidden precincts of Central India's Dandakaranya Forests, home to a melange of tribespeople many of whom have taken up arms to protect their people against state-backed marauders and exploiters. She recorded in considerable detail the first face-to-face journalistic “encounter” with armed guerillas, their families and comrades, for which she combed the forests for weeks at personal risk. The essay was published on Friday in Delhi's Outlook magazine. Here are some highlights from the 20,000 word essay she wrote on the doubts, hopes and struggles of a people who are known to the rest of the world only as dreaded Maoists. The full text of the essay is expected to be available on dawn.com on Sunday.

 

“The antagonists in the forest are disparate and unequal in almost every way. On one side is a massive paramilitary force armed with the money, the firepower, the media, and the hubris of an emerging Superpower. On the other, ordinary villagers armed with traditional weapons, backed by a superbly organised, hugely motivated Maoist guerilla fighting force with an extraordinary and violent history of armed rebellion. The Maoists and the paramilitary are old adversaries and have fought older avatars of each other several times before

Telengana in the '50s, West Bengal, Bihar, Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh in the late '60s and '70s, and then again in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra from the '80s all the way through to the Present...

“It's easier on the liberal conscience to believe that the war in the forests is a war between the Government of India and the Maoists, who call elections a sham, Parliament a pigsty and have openly declared their intention to overthrow the Indian state.

It's convenient to forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that pre-dates Mao by centuries. (That's a truism of course. If they didn't, they wouldn't exist.) The Ho, the Oraon, the Kols, the Santhals, the Mundas and the Gonds have all rebelled several times, against the British, against zamindars and moneylenders. The rebellions were cruelly crushed, many thousands killed, but the people were never conquered...

“...This legacy of rebellion has left behind a furious people who have been deliberately isolated and marginalised by the Indian Government. The Indian Constitution, the moral underpinning of Indian democracy, was adopted by Parliament in 1950. It was a tragic day for tribal people. The Constitution ratified colonial policy and made the State custodian of tribal homelands. Overnight, it turned the entire tribal population into squatters on their own land. It denied them their traditional rights to forest produce, it criminalised a whole way of life. In exchange for the right to vote it snatched away their right to livelihood and dignity...

“...We pass Kanker, famous for its Counter Terrorism & Jungle Warfare Training School run by Brigadier B.K. Ponwar, Rumpelstiltskin of this war, charged with the task of turning corrupt, sloppy policemen (straw) into jungle commandos (gold).

“Fight a guerilla like a guerilla”, the motto of the warfare training school, is painted on the rocks. The men are taught to run, slither, jump on and off air-borne helicopters, ride horses (for some reason), eat snakes and live off the jungle. The Brigadier takes great pride in training street dogs to fight 'terrorists'. Eight hundred policemen graduate from the Warfare Training School every six weeks. Twenty similar schools are being planned all over India. The police force is gradually being turned into an army. (In Kashmir it's the other way around. The army is being turned into a bloated, administrative, police force.) Upside down. Inside out. Either way, the Enemy is the People...

“...In the morning Kamla presents me with a yellow polythene packet with one corner snipped off. Once it used to contain Abis Gold Refined Soya Oil. Now it was my Loo Mug. Nothing's wasted on the Road to the Revolution...

“... (Even now I think of Comrade Kamla all the time, every day. She's 17. She wears a homemade pistol on her hip. And boy, what a smile. But if the police come across her, they will kill her. They might rape her first. No questions will be asked. Because she's an Internal Security Threat.)...

“... In April, the BJP government in Chhattisgarh signed two MOUs to set up integrated steel plants (the terms of which are secret). One for Rs7000 crore with Essar Steel in Bailadila, and the other for Rs10,000 crore with Tata Steel in Lohandiguda. That same month Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made his famous statement about the Maoists being the “Gravest Internal Security Threat” to India. (It was an odd thing to say at the time, because actually the opposite was true. The Congress government in Andhra Pradesh had just out-manoeuvred the Maoists, decimated them. They had lost about 1600 of their cadre and were in complete disarray.) The PM's statement sent the share-value of mining companies soaring. It also sent a signal to the media that the Maoists were fair game for anyone who chose to go after them...

“...It's dark. There's a lot of activity in the camp, but I can't see anything. Just points of light moving around. It's hard to tell whether they are stars or fireflies or Maoists on the move. Little Mangtu appears from nowhere. I found out that he's one of a group of ten kids who are part of the first batch of the Young Communists Mobile School, who are being taught to read and write, and tutored in basic communist principles. (“Indoctrination of young minds!” our corporate media howls. The TV advertisements that brainwash children before they can even think, are not seen as a form of indoctrination.) The young communists are not allowed to carry guns or wear uniforms. But they trail the PLGA squads, with stars in their eyes, like groupies of a rock band...

“...The dancing will go on all night. I walk back to the camp. Maase is there, awake. We chat late into the night. I give her my copy of Neruda's Captain's Verses (I brought it along, just in case). She asks again and again, “What do they think of us outside? What do students say? Tell me about the women's movement, what are the big issues now? She asks about me, my writing. I try and give her an honest account of my chaos. Then she starts to talk about herself, how she joined the Party. She tells me that her partner was killed last May, in a fake encounter. He was arrested in Nashik, and taken to Warangal to be killed. “They must have tortured him badly.” She was on her way to meet him when she heard he had been arrested. She's been in the forest ever since. After a long silence she tells me she was married once before, years ago. “He was killed in an encounter too,” she says, and adds with heart-breaking precision, “but in a real one.”...

“...I lie awake on my jhilli, thinking of Maase's protracted sadness, listening to the drums and the sounds of protracted happiness from the grounds, and thinking about Charu Mazumdar's idea of protracted war, the central precept of the Maoist Party. This is what makes people think the Maoists offer to enter 'peace talks' is a hoax, a ploy to get breathing space to regroup, re-arm themselves and go back to waging protracted war. What is protracted war? Is it a terrible thing in itself, or does it depend on the nature of the war? What if the people here in Dandakaranya had not waged their protracted war for the last thirty years, where would they be now?...

“...Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it as

“Any of the following Acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as such killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (or) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group...

“...Jungle post arrives. Two biscuits for me. A poem and a pressed flower from Comrade Narmada. A lovely letter from Maase. (Who is she? Will I ever know?)

“Comrade Sukhdev asks if he can download the music from my Ipod into his computer. We listen to a recording of Iqbal Bano singing Faiz Ahmed Faiz's 'Hum Dekhenge' (We will Witness the Day) at the famous concert in Lahore at the height of the repression during the Ziaul Haq years. Fifty thousand people in the audience in that Pakistan begin a defiant chant Inqilab Zindabad! Inqilab Zindabad! All these years later, that chant reverberates around this forest. Strange, the alli ances that get made.

“...The Home Minister has been issuing veiled threats to those who 'erroneously offer intellectual and material support to the Maoists'. Does sharing Iqbal Bano qualify?...”