Some of the young men and women you see in these pictures may be dead now. Every morning, I go through newspapers, trying to find out whether there has been an encounter in Bastar, or in Malkangiri, or in Gadchiroli. I search for familiar names: Manki, Jharna, Raju, Samayya, Rummy. Their deaths are justified as far as the State is concerned. After all, these are Maoist guerrillas. That they are killers might be true. But that’s not all they are.
For me, they are something more. Samayya, for instance, makes you laugh so much, responding with a “ho, ho” to everything you ask him. Rummy has this boyish smile and she loves to eat her breakfast of puri and aloo sitting alone on a boulder on the banks of an angry river, trying hard to suppress her laughter in front of the camera. Or there’s Manki, who sings Gondi songs of love and longing while applying coconut oil to her hair in front of a palm-sized mirror. There’s the dove-eyed Jharna who folds her sari, used for cultural performances, with so much care you’d think it’s part of her trousseau.
For me, these faces mean a whole night of song and dance in some remote forest clearing. Or the most delicious karela pickle with rice full of stones. And then there is this gun next to them, almost like a limb.
I have been reporting from Maoist-affected areas in India for years now, crossing rivers on tin boats, walking for 10 hours at a stretch through Amazon-like forests, hoping that the chloroquine and sulphadoxine tablets and Odomos mosquito repellent will save me from falciparum malaria. During these trips, I once met a man who told me his son had died the previous week of a disease called bhookh—hunger.
What I witnessed initially left me in a daze for days. I would return home, but the images would stay: of the death and decay I had witnessed in villages such as Pavarvel, Kawdipadar and Bidabaro across the geographic region broadly known as Dandakaranya, comprising parts of Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, Odisha and Jharkhand.
Some of my journalist friends would laugh when I told them I had seen families who get to eat once in two days. I remember one of them telling me something about “inclusive growth” and “trillion-dollar economy”. To be truthful, I don’t understand the jargon. And I really don’t care. I have my own arithmetic, my own formulae, and I know they hold true. They hold true because they are not based on official “facts and figures”. My only truth is the lives of the people I meet: Bajirao Potawe, Vijay Mahato, Jholu Munda—all of them tribals caught in the cycle of war.
Sometimes I stay with the Maoists in their camps. I become a part of their lives, their morning roll-call and their evening tea. When you are new in camp, the guerrillas don’t open up much. But gradually they do, and that is when you get glimpses of their lives, as one sees in these pictures taken in 2010.
For the senior cadre, the uniform may be a part of their politics, but for ordinary guerrillas it means being part of a large group. It gives them a sense of identity, and a purpose in life. And food. And security. These are the things the State has not provided them. And things are unlikely to change anytime soon.
And so the war will go on. And TV anchors and columnists will tell us, almost reprimand us, that the big picture lies elsewhere. As far as I am concerned, I will keep on going to Bastar, keeping in mind these words of journalist Martha Gellhorn: “The big picture always exists, and I seem to have spent my life observing how desperately the big picture affects the little people who did not devise it and have no control over it.”
And I will keep on searching for names in newspapers. Familiar names.
Rahul Pandita is a senior special correspondent with Open magazine. His book Hello, Bastar: The Untold Story of India’s Maoist Movement, will be available in book stores next week.