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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 9, New Delhi, February 13, 2021

Book Excerpt: The Death Script - Dreams and Delusions in Naxal Country | Ashutosh Bhardwaj

Friday 12 February 2021

by Ashutosh Bhardwaj

THE DEATH SCRIPT:

Dreams and delusions in Naxal country

by Ashutosh Bhardwaj

HarperCollins Publishers India

June 2020 | 280 pages | Rs 599

Available here

EXCERPTS:

Will you become our intellectual?’

I was surprised.

‘Our biggest weakness is precisely this – that we do not have any intellectuals.’

A forest, somewhere along the Jharkhand–Bihar border. 16 April 2013. The Lawalong block of Chatra district. Some twenty-five young men, ranging from sixteen to thirty years of age, were on guard with AK-47 and INSAS rifles. Three of us were sitting amid the columns of trees – I along with Akraman, alias Ravinder Ganju, and Guddu, alias Sagar, whose real name no one was willing to tell me.

A little while ago, these two commanders of the Tritiya Sammelan Prastuti Committee (TSPC) had made their young fighters perform an armed drill for me to establish that they were no less than the Maoists.

Until a few years ago, many of them had been cadres of the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the CPI (Maoist), but they separated from their parent organizations following ideological differences and formed the TSPC. Now they enjoy some power in Chatra and Latehar districts. The police instigate them and help them fight against the Maoists.

There are many splinter outfits of the CPI (Maoist) in Jharkhand that lure uneducated and unemployed youth to guns. They are limited to a primary, sustainable violence – extortion, mostly under the aegis of the police.

Akraman’s gang suddenly shot into the limelight when these boys killed ten Maoists and captured around two dozen others on 28 March in Chatra. No one had ever seen such images of the Maoists – vulnerable, their hands tied. In no state other than Andhra Pradesh had they ever been able to neutralize so many Maoists in one go. Who were they? Where did they find the strength and weapons?

Having described their enmity with the Maoists, Akraman and Guddu suddenly said, ‘Our biggest weakness is that, unlike the Maoists, we don’t have any intellectuals. Will you become our intellectual?’

‘I’m a mere journalist … nothing more.’

‘This is precisely the role of the media and intellectuals. Without your help, the Maoists would not have reached this level,’ they said, their voices brimming with certainty.

They knew that the Maoists were spread across the country, while they were limited to a few districts of Jharkhand. They would vanish in no time if the police stopped nourishing them, and hence they wanted to strengthen themselves. If the residents of the forests lead the battle of a guerrilla movement on the ground, urban educated people create an ideological base for such banned outfits and argue for the inevitability of the battle. The Maoists could not have made such a long journey without this base. The TSPC youth had similar aspirations without being aware that, sitting on the other side of the jungle, their chief thought otherwise.

‘Who is an intellectual? Can’t you intellectuals intervene and bring this to an end?’ It was their chief, Brajesh Ganju. Dark, rugged, with rough, curly hair protruding from under his cap. Exhausted by the guerrilla war spanning over two decades, the man now wanted to spend the rest of his life with his wife and son. ‘We don’t want violence, but if we lay down our arms, the Maoists will kill us. If I have to die, then I’d rather die on the battlefield. I will fight, I’ll also teach my son to fire the rifle,’ he told me haplessly, seeking an urgent intervention to end the battle.

The police also didn’t want them to withdraw at this stage. ‘Don’t lay down arms,’ an officer of the Intelligence Department had sent a message to Brajesh. The Maoists called the TSPC the ‘pet dogs of police’. Sitting deep in the forest, Guddu laughed it away. ‘We also hear that the police are using us. But its opposite can also be true – maybe we are using them. We have just begun our struggle. We don’t want a tussle with the police at this moment.’

Brajesh was in his early twenties when he left the MCC after spending several years with that outfit which was dominant in Jharkhand and Bihar. Many others also left the organization, and when the MCC and the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) and People’s War (PW) merged to form the CPI (Maoist) in 2004, rebels like Brajesh formed the TSPC around 2005.

Though TSPC fighters deny a caste dimension to their fratricidal wars, many of their fighters including Brajesh belong to Scheduled Castes and had revolted against the MCC’s Yadav leaders. The caste system has invaded even the ultra-Left rebels.

***

The Naxal insurgency in Jharkhand is fundamentally different from that in Dandakaranya. The latter has a single outfit, the CPI (Maoist), whereas Jharkhand has many ultra-Left groups that carry a vicious enmity for each other. The police cheerfully watch their battles, hoping that the mighty Maoists will spend themselves in confrontations with the splinter outfits. The Jharkhand administration and citizens make little distinction among the CPI (Maoist) and the other groups. In Jharkhand’s annual reports sent to the Union Home Ministry, outfits like People’s Liberation Front of India – a bunch of goons operational in just a few districts, whose sole business is extortion and related offences – stands at par with the Maoists.

The two prominent guerrilla zones, Dandakaranya and Bihar–Jharkhand, offer crucial signposts to the Maoist movement. The contrast between them counters the popular perception that political instability combined with poverty leads to revolutionary activities. Poverty may cause some violence, but not necessarily lead to revolution.

In 2000, the year the PW leaders formed the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, the states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh were constituted. Many areas of both states were extremely deprived then, and continue to be so. Jharkhand’s polity has been very unstable. Apart from the majority government of 2014, Jharkhand had seen eight chief ministers and three terms of President’s rule in the preceding thirteen years. On the other hand, Chhattisgarh has had strong chief ministers, just three so far, always with a decisive majority in the assembly. Yet, while the guerrillas have diminished in Jharkhand, they continue to retain their territory in Bastar.

‘We began as a class struggle, but it fizzled out. In Bihar and Jharkhand, our movement reflected the anger of the landless against the landlords, not a desire for total revolution. Once they got land, the party could not lead them to the desired goal,’ says Palamu-based Satish Kumar, now a leader with the All Jharkhand Student Union, a political party with a presence in the state assembly. Kumar joined the PW in 1982, was part of the armed struggle for around twenty-five years before he left the Party and contested the 2009 assembly polls on a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) ticket.

Many guerrillas of Jharkhand have joined politics. Among the most prominent is former Palamu MP Kameshwar Baitha who, as a CPI (Maoist) leader, was named in several killings and encounters. He was arrested, but fought and won the 2009 Lok Sabha elections on a JMM ticket while he was in jail. He joined the BJP before the 2014 general elections following the Modi wave, but switched over to the Trinamool Congress when he did not get an election ticket.

The boundary between insurgency and politics is barely distinguishable in Jharkhand. Many relatives of TSPC cadres are in politics. Mamta Devi, the wife of Brajesh’s deputy Kohram, alias Laksham Ganju, has been the chairperson of a Zila Parishad or District Council.

Brajesh’s younger brother Ganesh Ganju, who contested the 2009 assembly elections on a JMM ticket, later joined the BJP, and then won the 2014 elections from Simaria again as a JMM candidate. His voice is tender, and doesn’t betray the fact that his elder brother heads a banned outfit. He is missing his left hand – a bomb exploded in it many years ago. His muscular arm ends abruptly in a mound of flesh. He drives a bike, somehow managing to press the clutch by stretching out his arm. If the motorcycle had gears on the left hand, the way a scooter has, he would have found a way to change gears too. He was often on phone when he was driving me around Lawalong, with the cellphone pressed between his neck and shoulder.

He reminded me of the eponymous character from Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena’s poem ‘Mantu Babu’ whose index finger had been chopped off by the police so that he couldn’t pull the trigger of a revolver. But Mantu Babu only laughed – he could still press it with his middle finger.

***

The highly politicized society of Jharkhand also caused the Maoist movement to fizzle out. While Chhattisgarh has only two major parties, the BJP and the Congress, the tiny state assembly of eighty-one seats in Jharkhand sees contesting claims from at least six major parties and an equal number of minor ones.

The political and administrative vacuum across several thousands of square kilometres in Bastar offered an easy laboratory for the Maoists. In north-west Jharkhand, the government remained absent for years, remote areas had no electricity, but politicians were aplenty. People had an easy window for grievance redressal – a politician next-door who would do anything to retain his voters and would never want them to approach a banned outfit. When social angst finds a vent in the political space and politicians tour their constituencies to secure voters, space for revolution fades away.

This is also true for other zones. After the 2004 MCC–PW merger, Satish Kumar was made a member of the Uttar Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand Special Area Committee of the CPI (Maoist). The Maoists believed that the impoverished area provided perfect conditions for their growth, but it was not to be because of the entrenched polity in the region. ‘There was not much to do there,’ Satish Kumar said.

He was among the select comrades who attended the Ninth Congress of the CPI (Maoist) held in 2007. ‘A fresh call was given to make Jharkhand another rear base. We thought it was possible, but it did not happen, and probably never will,’ he recalled those days. ‘Maoists do not have families in Dandakaranya, certainly no children. In Bihar and Jharkhand, feudalism and family bonds are very strong. There is always a yearning to return.’

The Bihar–Jharkhand comrades tend to follow a distinct pattern. They go underground, then make a return, spend a few years with their family before going back to the guerrilla life. The circle continues, repeated contacts with family push the revolution away until they eventually return home.

Another distinction lies in the leadership. The Andhra Pradesh comrades who led the Party in Dandakaranya had been moulded by student movements. They could easily influence and guide the residents of Bastar. The comrades of Bihar and Jharkhand could hardly match the ideological commitment of the Andhra Pradesh leaders. [1]

Fratricidal battles have also weakened the Maoists in Jharkhand. On 24 June 2012, the CPI (Maoist) issued an appeal to the various banned armed groups in Jharkhand, urging them to stop fighting with each other and join hands against the police. The ceasefire didn’t last even one month, but the appeal by the mighty Maoists hit a delicious irony. They often term these outfits ‘counter-revolutionary’ and ‘reactionary’. They have rarely announced a unilateral ceasefire with the police, but calling these small outfits to the negotiating table confirmed their realization that they were faltering in the state they once wanted to convert into another ‘rear base’, a state they believed had ‘material conditions’ more conducive to the revolution.

Jharkhand could never be another Bastar. With or without the support of the intellectuals.

[The above excerpt is published here with permission of the author]


[1Once the cradle of the rebels, Andhra Pradesh has managed to check the violence but overground support continues. On 24 August 2014, some 100 Telugu writers, journalists and academics gathered at a community centre in Hyderabad to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the CPI (Maoist) and urged the audience to support the violent movement. Among those present was the award-winning poet K. Siva Reddy. The day-long gathering kicked off a series of events in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to mark the anniversary. Outside the hall were sold books on Maoists, glorifying their lives and achievements.

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