In March, I joined a peace march helmed by a former journalist and activist to pressure the Indian state and the Maoists to sit down for talks.
“This,” Shubhranshu Choudhary said, pointing to a file of men and women marching ahead, “is not a mass movement. This is actually not even a movement yet.”
“But the thing is,” he added, with a hint of urgency, “if we don’t do anything immediately, within the next five years, when most of the aging Maoist leadership dies out and the thousands of armed guerrillas are turned into private militias by individual commanders, this place will turn into Afghanistan. There will be no one left to talk to.”
It was evening on March 13 and we were passing a small town in Chhattisgarh called Antagarh, in Bastar division’s Kanker district. The area, all the way up to Bhanupratappur some 80 km north, is believed to be under the firm control of the Maoists. “Over this region, the Maoists have total control. This is their headquarters. We are going to walk from here to Raipur, the state capital,” said Choudhary, the convenor of the New Peace Process initiative, or NPP, leading the marchers on foot.
NPP has been compiling a register of the people killed in the Indian state’s war against the Maoists in Chhattisgarh, where, according to the home ministry, some 12,000 lives have been lost in the past two decades. The march was an attempt by Chaudhary to build public pressure on both the state and the insurgents to sit down and talk peace. The former journalist, who spent over a decade reporting for the Guardian newspaper and worked as a television and radio producer for BBC’s South Asia bureau, had led two similar initiatives in the past, but this was his longest and most ambitious attempt at building public consensus to bring peace in the region.
When I met up with the marchers at a village called Barchhe, they had been walking for two days already. By the end of it, they would cover 220 km on foot through forests and plains, villages and towns, speaking with local people and staging performances for them, aiming to convince them to build pressure on the Maoists and the state to hold peace talks.
As I walked with them over the next 11 days, I spoke with the marchers (many from Bastar and some who have been driven out of the region by the violence), the local Adivasis, security personnel fighting the insurgency, and a once feared Maoist leader.
This dispatch is an attempt to find answers to the questions raised by Choudhary and his marchers: can there be peace in conflict-torn Bastar? Are the Maoists and the state interested in talking to each other? Can such an idea of peace bring any sense of closure to the families victimised by both sides?
“I have seen what violence does to people. They shot my cousin and my friend in public. They were about to execute me as well, but I fled my home in Narayanpur,” Dhan Singh said, referring to the Maoists. He was a panch, a member of the local panchayat, until around 2015, when Naxals began executing elected local representatives on charges of being police informers.
In a press statement late last year, the Maoists boasted about killing 25 civilians and ordering scores of families whom they accused of working for the police to leave their villages. The estimates vary, but not a year has gone by over the past two decades when the insurgents haven’t executed villagers that they suspected of helping the police, in full public view after “convicting” them in kangaroo courts they call Jan Adaalat, or people’s court. Sometimes the public executions are recorded and the videos circulated to instill fear among local Adivasis.
In the years since Dhan Singh had to abandon his home, the state police and the central paramilitary forces have vastly reduced the dominance of the Maoists in Bastar, confining them to the Bijapur-Sukma border. Given the weakened position of the Maoists, I asked Dhan Singh, why is he campaigning for peace talks instead of a big military push to finish them once and for all?
“More Adivasis will die,” he replied. “The terrain is quite tough. You won’t be able to wipe them off completely. And if a big offensive is launched, they will just run away to another place. But from the blood spilled more of them will arise. Anyway, at this stage, both the police and the Maoists are Adivasis. It does not matter who kills whom. In the end, it will be an Adivasi who dies.”
Chodi Suresh, like Dhan Singh, was also displaced by the conflict. He moved from his home in Dantewada to the forests of what is now Telangana around 2005, at the peak of Salwa Judum’s reign of terror. Salwa Judum was a notoriously violent militia raised by the Indian state to fight the Naxals. It was declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 2011, but not before its gangs had committed massacres, mass rapes, and driven hundreds of thousands of Adivasis from their homes and into internment camps. Chodi would be followed into Telangana’s jungles by many families from his village.
Dhan Singh says he had to flee his home for fear of being killed.
Over the next few days, I came across many people who were forced out of their homes by the violence. People like Bhuvan Lal Bhoyar of Bhanupratappur who now heads an organisation of 250 displaced people. “Mostly it’s people in the villages who are dying in this violence which has been going on for the past forty years,” Bhoyar said, explaining why he was marching for peace. “It should end.”
The days ended with an Adivasi troupe performing for the local people wherever the marchers rested for the night in Mandri style. As the march neared a large village or town, the troupe, which travelled in a bus, would join in, all dressed up and ready to go. The men in the troupe wore black shirts, yellow skirts and feathers on their heads, the women red saris over black blouses. A band of percussionists from the troupe would lead the way, boldly announcing our arrival and lifting up the spirits of the tiring marchers. With each roll of the drums, the swing of the arms and the landing of the feet would synchronise ever more perfectly. Given how the local people lined up on either side of the narrow roads to watch, we must have come across as crazed soldiers of a new cult, preparing to take over their town. Except, our destination was usually the local bus stand or a government school, wherever the performance was scheduled that night. In the meantime, the bus, having dropped off the performers just outside the village, would go around with an announcer promising, over a loudspeaker, that a never-before-seen spectacle awaited the local people at the chosen venue.
The performance, with singing in Gondi, which is widely spoken by Bastar’s Adivasis, usually lasted two hours. One particularly memorable performance was delivered at a school in a village called Keoti.
The centerpiece was a sketch meant to show how the unceasing violence in Bastar threatened the very existence of the region’s Adivasis. Here’s how it went:
A group of women plead with the sarpanch to free their men who have been detained by the police. The sarpanch, trembling at the thought of having to deal with the police, makes it to the local police station, only to be abused and maltreated by the officer there. The officer is angry at the Adivasi men for blowing up a bridge. But the sarpanch reasons that they did so on the order of the Maoists since the price of non-compliance was death. The officer eventually lets the men go on the condition that they never damage public property again. As soon as he returns to the village, the sarpanch is summoned by the Maoists, accused of being a police informer and executed. The women mourn.
A gunfight breaks out between the security forces and the Maoists. Suddenly, Bhuda Deo, a deity worshipped by Adivasis across Central India, appears and reprimands the armed men and women engaged in battle. Their ideologies and uniforms are different, the deity says, but they are all, ultimately, the same people – Adivasis – who are killing each other to extinction. “In a few years, no one will even know that you lived. Your culture, your language, your existence, everything will disappear when the last few of you have finished each other off.”
That evening, the actor playing the abusive policeman was in his element. He let out a stream of Hindi expletives at the sarpanch, although, not being fluent in Hindi, he muddled a lot of them, which ended up being their own parodies. Still, even when speaking in Hindi, the Gondi speaker had a strong sense of rhythm. He couldn’t replicate the abuses of the archetypal mainland policeman, but he got his mannerism alright. The crowd burst into laughter every time he, irritated at not finding a light for his cigarette and being repeatedly disturbed, found a new vulgarism to describe the sarpanch and his family. And so, egged on by the audience, his minor act stretched to well over 10 minutes. By the end of it the audience was gasping for air, including a few local policemen sent to guard the marchers.
On the eighth day of the march, I met an aging policeman who has served in almost all the “sensitive” police stations of south Bastar. He has witnessed, and paid a heavy price for, the rise of Maoists in the region.
“This happened one night in 2002,” the policeman began. “Our police station in Chintalnar suddenly came under attack by the Maoists. Bullets rained down through the night. We put on night vision equipment and saw that the Maoist had pushed women and children to the frontline. We fired in the air to disperse the civilian crowd. Somehow, we were able to fire back and defend ourselves without hurting any civilian. The firing continued till dawn.”
In the morning he received a call from a superior. “A news report about the attack wrongly said I had sustained a bullet injury, my senior said. My wife had seen the news and died of shock.”
He could not leave his post because the Maoists returned to fire at the camp for three nights straight. “What I was going through you may not be able to imagine. Those feelings would be hard to describe in words,” he said. “We would spend the day reinforcing our defences, erecting sandbag walls, repairing fences, stocking ammunition, and at night we would return fire. Till the Maoists retreated to the jungles, I could not abandon my post. So, just like that, I lost my partner of seven years. My children were too young to understand what had happened. I have seen so much over the years. I have lost count of the times I had to pick up lifeless, limbless bodies of my friends and colleagues.”
What did he make of the peace campaign?
“If a way could be found to immediately cease violence, stop the bloodshed, why not? It is not as if appeals haven’t been made to them to drop their arms and come forward for talks. Personally, I don’t have a problem with peace talks. But such talks should be held keeping in mind those who have paid a heavy price in this war. They should find some closure.”
Bhan Saho was tasked with overseeing the daily operations of the march.
In Bhanupratappur, moments after leaders of the peace march had sat down to take stock, the person tasked with overseeing the daily operations, Bhan Saho, or Bhanji as everyone called her, broke down. It was the afternoon of March 16, four days into the march, and she was upset with almost everybody for not listening to her.
“Most of our volunteers sleep until late in the morning,” Bhanji complained. “There is no coordination between our teams. It’s 12 o’clock and because of the delay we have only now started preparing lunch.”
Choudhary stepped in to remind the marchers of their collective responsibility. “There are so many people who don’t want us to succeed. So many interests are involved in keeping the conflict alive. We shouldn’t let them win. So many people are looking up to us,” he said.
He also breathed a sigh of relief. We were no longer in Maoist territory. “Till yesterday we were moving in Maoist-held areas and they could have done anything to us,” Choudhary told the volunteers. “Today on, we will be walking away from them, into urban areas. They abused us, they said so many things, but they did not harm us. We should now walk with more confidence.”
The “abuse” was a statement by the Maoists that had arrived on social media earlier that day. They called Choudhary a capitalist stooge and accused him of working at the government’s behest.
The rebels clarified, however, that they were not against peace talks provided that “a suitable atmosphere was created” by the government by fulfilling three conditions. One, remove the camps set up by the security forces in Maoist territory. Two, lift all sanctions on their party, the Communist Party of India Maoist. Three, release all Maoist political prisoners.
“It’s no doubt a difficult proposition,” Choudhary said, explaining that the conditions are difficult for the government to accept. “But it starts this way. Both sides will be rigid early on. Having fought each other for decades, there is so much investment – financial, emotional, ideological – at stake. Neither side would want to appear soft to its followers.”
If the state shows some imagination, however, he added, a way can be found. “In the press note the Maoists have mentioned a name, Bopanna Markam. They claim the state has repeatedly detained him on false charges. He is one of their top leaders who came to Bastar more than 30 years ago. My reading of their statement is that they have dropped a hint, release Bopanna Markam and he can lead negotiations on our behalf. His release can be a sign to the other side that the state is really interested in talks,” Choudhary said.
But would, say, the Chhattisgarh police who have lost thousands of men and women fighting the Maoists be willing to participate in peace talks?
“This possibility should definitely be tried. We have tried talking to insurgents in Punjab, Nagaland and Mizoram. There is no reason why we shouldn’t give it a shot here,” said the police chief, DM Awasthi. “Every passing day of this endless war, we are losing people. If the Maoists believe in democracy, if they want development, they should come forward for talks. I don’t think this problem can be solved through counterinsurgency operations alone. We should try to find democratic solutions, political solutions.”
It’s not that governments have never sought a dialogue with the Maoists. Many rounds of talks were held, for instance, in Andhra Pradesh in 2004. But little came of such exercises. In fact, the Maoists claim the state has repeatedly backstabbed them by killing their senior leaders in the middle of talks.
Awasthi acknowledged that the talks have failed in the past but he hopes that time may have changed the circumstances for the better. “Yes, the talks failed in Andhra Pradesh but a lot of time has passed since. The people in command then were young. All of them have grown old now and they have no second rung to pass on the mantle to. They should realise that development has come to villages, that people want this war to end,” he said.
On the possible release of Maoist leaders from jail, Awasthi said these were political questions for the elected representatives to answer.
In an to the Print in March, Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Bhagel dropped a hint that the political leadership was not averse to talking to the Maoists. “The state government is not shying away from holding negotiations with the Naxalites,” he claimed, “but the negotiations can only be held within the framework of the constitution of the country and according to our government’s policy.”
In the course of the march, I spoke with a former senior Maoist leader who came to Bastar from Andhra Pradesh in early 1980s and played a role in creating a network of Maoist sympathisers as well as their first army of local Adivasis.
The former rebel leader, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, acknowledged that “the people of Bastar want peace”. “So,” he added, “there could be a possibility of putting our violent struggle on hold for a while. This doesn’t mean that we will accept the fascist Indian state. Our struggle against social injustices such as inequality and identity and for the new democratic revolution will continue. But we could consider doing so through non-violent means as well.”
He, however, doubted that the Indian state would negotiate in good faith. “I don’t think that Indian government wants peace. What happened to the peace talks with Nagas and Mizos and with Kashmiris? Every time the state backstabbed the people they were talking to. They talked with us in Andhra Pradesh only to buy time to try and wipe us out,” he said.
Devansh Mehta dressed up as Mahatma Gandhi.
The same day, Devansh Mehta, a journalist from Mumbai who has been working with Choudhary as the research director of CGnet Swara, an online portal that enables people in the forests of Chhattisgarh to report local news in Gondi by making a phone call, joined the march. He had actually led the march the first two days, wearing a loincloth and carrying a walking stick like Mahatma Gandhi, until his pet dog got lost. He had been on a break since, searching for his dog. Now he was back, without having found it.
Why was he dressed like Gandhi?
“I thought it appropriate since we have modelled our walk on Gandhi ji’s salt satyagraha march,” Mehta replied. “It has been quite tiring to be honest. I started off trying to walk barefoot. But after two days the pain became unbearable and I had put on shoes. I think walking thus far has been a revelation. The walk in itself changes you as a person. It gives you so much time to think and meet people. Gandhi must have preferred it as it’s the most democratic form of transportation, don’t you think?”
Choudhary has christened the walk “Dandi March 2.0”, after Gandhi’s 24-day march in 1930 from his Sabarmati ashram in Gujarat to Dandi to break the British salt law.
The purpose, Mehta said, was to push the state as well as the insurgents to recognise the right of common people to live in peace. To nudge both sides to work with each other in beginning the process of healing and in allowing the families of the victims to move on.
“One of the projects we have been working on is compiling a victims’ register. It is an attempt to create a repository of the stories of violence suffered by the people here. We are putting it all together at newpeaceprocess.org. We have got around 200 stories now. And these are very painful stories. We are hopeful that by getting these stories out to the world we will hopefully be able to bring some positive change to this part of the world,” Mehta added.
They are following the model of peace and reconciliation in Colombia, Mehta continued, “where the insurgents and the government after a protracted battle decided to talk. Like in Colombia, we would like the government to take this up formally so that it acknowledges the pain of victims of both sides and awards them suitable compensation, to let them move on.”
After he rejoined the march, Mehta became a focus of attention. In every town or village we entered, there were people ready to receive him and garland him. He invited devotion in particular of Santosh Ahirwar, a fellow marcher brimming with love for life and music. “Gandhiji, would you like to have tea, water, anything to eat?”, “Gandhiji, are you doing alright?”, “Gandhiji would you please talk on the phone with my family?”
Santosh wasn’t being sarcastic. For him, as for several other marchers and villagers along the way, Devansh Mehta didn’t exist, only Gandhi did. And Santosh was proud to be sharing space with him, to be walking with him. His reverence would turn to rage whenever Santosh felt Mehta was behaving in a manner that did not suit the stature of Gandhi. “Looks like Gandhi ji has gone bonkers,” he remarked once after seeing Mehta smoking a cigarette.
Simply being around Gandhi ji seemed to cheer Santosh no end, and it showed in his music. Almost every night, as the marchers lay down to sleep, he would sit up with his harmonium and sing. Sometimes he would persuade the bus driver, Mahendra, an expert dholak player, to join him. And as Santosh and Mahendra upped the tempo, people would come around and start dancing.
This was a source of anguish for Bhanji, who had to ensure the marchers got enough rest to wake up early the next day. “Just five minutes more,” Santosh would plead and bargain with her. “We are about to pack up.”
After Mehta’s return, Santosh started singing earlier than usual. Often in jungles, towns and villages where there was little to no phone connectivity and where people were spread over vast landscapes, we slept off to his comforting, soothing voice. For the assembly of tired limbs and drowsy heads that would have been hard to spot in the dark nights spent out in the open, his songs were like beacons of humanity.
Santosh Ahirwar gets people dancing.
There are activists and journalists in Bastar who aren’t sold on Choudhary’s peace initiative. Any peace initiative in a conflict zone, they argue, requires years of sustained interaction with the victims of violence to document the crimes against them and to understand the sort of inclusive, peaceful future they would want for themselves. “What he is doing with his peace marches is good for the camera. But this is not how the work of peace and reconciliation is done in societies ravaged by decades of violence,” a social activist contended.
Kamal Shukla, a journalist who has been reporting from Bastar for nearly 32 years, argued that it’s the state which has forced the Adivasis to take up arms. So, any peace process, he said, can work only once the state gives the Adivasis the autonomy that is promised to them under the 5th and 6th schedules of the Indian constitution.
“First of all, it is the state which has, with its industry friendly policies and by forcibly and illegally appropriating their lands and handing them over to private mining companies, forced the people to pick up arms,” he explained. “As I see it, successive governments, by denying constitutional rights to the Adivasis, have created conditions that the Maoists have exploited to their benefit. Any peace talks should start by acknowledging this fundamental problem.”
A village elder I met in Keoti, Naresh Deo Nareti, expressed a similar sentiment, that the local Adivasis felt the government worked for the benefit of mining companies rather than for them.
“All these heavily armed forces here are meant for the security of the mining companies. We know they are not here for us,” he complained. “Thousands of crores worth of mining happens in this region on land snatched away from us. And what have we got in return? After these companies have mined this place hollow, they will just pack up and leave and we will be left with an uninhabitable, toxic desert. How can you have peace talks in such circumstances? How can you have a dialogue with the state when it throws our leaders in prison merely for speaking about our rights?” Nareti wondered.
He was referring to Hidme Markam, 28, an Adivasi rights activist who was thrown in prison on International Women’s Day, March 8, for protesting the death of Pandey Kawasi, 20, a former Naxal, in police custody. Kawasi’s family alleges that she was beaten to death by the police. The police picked up Markam from the protest and claimed that she was a wanted Maoist leader, in spite of the fact that she has been photographed with senior police officers and political leaders over the years.
“When the state brands the people raising their voices for us Maoists and throws them in prison, it’s signalling to us to stay quiet. Peace can’t come through coercion,” Nareti argued.
Choudhary did not deny the mistrust and anger brewing all around him.
“I know what I am trying to do is next to impossible. But I think this is the case everywhere. When you start something like this everyone will say it’s impossible. When you deliver, everyone will say we knew it.”
He acknowledged that many people in Bastar don’t agree with his approach. But, he contends, time is of the essence. “Where Bastar is today, it can go two ways. Either the party gets into a peace deal with the state and becomes part of the parliamentary system, as happened in Nepal. Or, after the current Maoist leadership, slowly dying of old age, is taken over by younger, powerful local commanders, it devolves into a situation like Afghanistan,” he explained. “We may not be the best people. But somebody needs to seize this window opportunity, of roughly five years in which the current leadership will be available and open to talks. When it splinters into factions the bloodshed will happen on a never-before-seen scale.”
In Let’s Call Him Vasu, his book about the time he spent with the Maoists, Choudhary talks with fondness about a boy, more or less his age, whom he met some 30 years ago. He talks about being “woken up to the unmusical bell of Vasu’s rickety, second-hand bicycle. Often, he would read Marx aloud to me while I was still in bed”. He would meet Vasu years later and found he needed a stick to walk. “His face was lined – life had not been kind to him. I saw hardship there, but his bearing was peaceful, as always, in contrast to the AK47 he was carrying.”
I asked Choudhary, who was quite candid about the chances of peace talks actually happening (“next to impossible”), whether he would one day want to meet Vasu away from the conflict, maybe at the dialogue table?
“It will be a dream come true if we can close the loop. It will be like a movie, if it happens, such a closure to our relationship,” he said. “Closure is after all what we are looking to achieve for the people who have seen so much bloodshed. Even if nothing comes out of it, at least we will find peace in the knowledge that we tried to make Bastar a better place.”