In late September, Sonaku Ram Kashyap, 16, and Bijlu Kashyap, 13, were shot dead by security forces during a late-night, anti-Maoist operation at their aunt’s village in Bastar. The village protested the executions, pointing out that the two Adivasi boys were school students. Sonaku and Bijlu are among the latest fatalities in a State-Maoist conflict which has been under way since 2005 in some of India’s most marginalized villages and has reportedly claimed more than 7,000 lives so far.
In her new book, The Burning Forest: India’s War In Bastar, anthropologist Nandini Sundar provides a harrowing narrative of the toll this decade-long conflict has taken on the lives of Bastar’s Adivasi citizens. Drawing on her experience of moving the Supreme Court in 2007 over the violence, Sundar also demonstrates how the Constitution and institutions of democracy have failed to address the human tragedy that has unfolded, in what has become one of India’s most militarized regions. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Much of your prior writing on Bastar has been for academic presses. What made you write a book for a wider audience? You mention how the paramilitary and police, as well as Maoist rebels, have impaired access and information in Bastar. How did this impact your book?
There have been journalistic books on the Maoists and quite a bit of reportage on the human rights violations in Chhattisgarh. But I felt that there was nothing which drew them together against the wider canvas of Indian politics. What I wanted to do was to make people, for whom Indian democracy and institutions mean something, think about the places where it fails so utterly and completely, and how their own lives are connected to these other citizens. Had I done this book purely as a researcher, perhaps I might have got other kinds of material, especially on how the Maoists operate, but not the kind of first-hand experience I got, of how democratic institutions work or don’t work.
Can you recall what you saw in Bastar in 2005-06 as the conflict began? When you met people in government to draw their attention to the mass violence, why was there such apathy, from the prime minister down?
It was as if the police found the most abusive wife-beater they could and told him he had full licence to do whatever he wanted, because women were getting too uppity as a class. The people most responsible for Adivasi exploitation were given protection to exploit, by a State constitutionally mandated to protect Adivasis. Initially perhaps, one could have argued that the apathy in Delhi was because Adivasi lives don’t matter, and suppressing Maoists was left to the police or security establishment who convinced everyone they had a plan. But now it feeds into a nationwide deliberate strategy to cow down every kind of opposition.
In your book, special police officers (Adivasi men, even boys, illegally armed by the State) emerge as troubling, yet tragic figures. You write of how they have burned and killed with the State’s tacit approval, and attacked “outsiders”, from activists to CBI investigators. In private conversations with you, some complained about how the State treats them and sought efforts to bring about peace. Have they become a law unto themselves, or are they played by powerful interests who remain unaccountable?
It’s important to remember that SPOs, even if they are low down in the pecking order, are responsible for their actions. For the local people, it is they who are betraying relationships. At the same time, one needs to remember that they are not acting alone—their abuses are possible only because they are encouraged and condoned by higher-ups. And we have to bring in the concept of command responsibility, where those who design and oversee civil wars like this in the name of counter-insurgency are also held responsible, even if they don’t actually kill anyone themselves.
In Bastar, sexual violence has been deployed as a weapon of war. But it has received scant attention in reportage, policy and commentary, so much so that authorities deny it exists. I recall a police officer in Bastar dismissing specific accounts by women of being raped and molested by paramilitary and policemen, telling me, “My boys might beat (women villagers), they don’t rape.” Though India is witnessing a renewed discourse against sexual violence since 2012, it remains impossible for women in Bastar who undergo such violence to be seen as what your book calls “worthy victims” who deserve justice. Can this change?
Sexual violence, unlike encounters, can never be justified as “collateral damage” or passed off as done in the line of duty. This is why the police or security forces will never admit to any kind of sexual violence, even if it is widely reported. The problem today is not that rapes in Bastar or elsewhere are not being reported, it is that nobody cares. There is a coarsening of the public imagination, and a loss of the capacity for empathy and outrage.
Your book demonstrates how the very institutions that are held up as making India a democracy—political parties, the electoral system, courts, statutory bodies, even the news media and civil society—have reinforced “the abyss of impunity”, and the incredible violence Bastar’s Adivasis find themselves living through. It would seem, to Indian democracy, Adivasi lives don’t matter?
No, they never have.
In 2007, E.A.S. Sarma, Ramachandra Guha and you moved the Supreme Court over the mass violence unfolding in Bastar. The case is still under way. In a self-ironic account of this experience, you cite the mathematician and activist K. Balagopal, who wrote “desperation can be the only reason” behind the illusion of citizens that courts can right wrongs.
The Supreme Court has been very important in upholding principles, and the (B. Sudershan) Reddy-(S.S.) Nijjar judgement of 2011 banning Salwa Judum and State support to vigilantism was truly remarkable. With the passage of time, their arguments seem even more prescient. The problem is not with the court, at least in this case, but with the government’s willingness to follow court orders when it doesn’t suit them.
What has a decade of military conflict meant for the government itself, and for overground movements in Bastar around rights, resources and justice? How has the war affected the Maoists, and relations between the movement and its claimed constituents?
We see a great militarization of the imagination across the country—whether it is in the belief that a war with Pakistan will solve terror attacks, or the belief that political disputes like Kashmir or the Maoist conflict can be settled by arms. As for non-violent movements, it is not as if the government would have listened to them even otherwise. But now it finds it even easier to dismiss or repress such movements on the ground that they are propped up by the Maoists. The Maoists, on their part, seem to be imploding—not so much because of the State’s direct attacks, but because of the uncertainty and suspicion the government has managed to create, where everyone is potentially an informer. The space for open political dialogue has really shrunk—take, for example, the attack on the Communist Party of India and its (Bastar-based) leader Manish Kunjam, who have been fighting for Adivasi control over resources for decades. They are under threat from the police, from right-wing forces and even from the Maoists, who want to take over their cadre completely.
The past year has seen renewed attacks on villages, sexual assaults, “encounter” killings, deaths of security forces, fresh bouts of vigilantism, and the intimidation and jailing of Bastar-based journalists. This July, the government said it would form the Bastariya Battalion, a paramilitary unit of local Adivasis. Are we seeing a new phase of conflict?
Yes and no. The State’s activities have certainly intensified compared to 2012-14, but as I show, many of the processes that we see today—vigilantism, encounters on an almost daily basis, propaganda, attacks on journalists—have been going on since 2005. The big difference between now and the early period of the Judum is that people are not being displaced from their villages on a large scale, and that people are more conscious and willing to testify.
In your book, a paramilitary man says this will be an endless war since lives of footsoldiers like him are cheap, reflecting sadly, “If we die, more will come, then more.” You also narrate how there is little pressure on governments to address the grievances of Bastar’s Adivasis, or for the government and Maoists to negotiate. How might the armed conflict, and the casting of Adivasis as “collateral damage”, end?
There has to be a concerted demand for peace talks from civil society and political parties. That’s the only way.
Chitrangada Choudhury is an independent journalist whose reportage on the conflict in Bastar was named for the Lorenzo Natali journalism prize.