Mahendra Karma and his cynical form of vigilantism8 min read . Updated: 28 May 2013, 12:00 AM IST
For long, Karma often resembled a wolf that preyed on the tribals of southern Chhattisgarh, many from his own tribe
Mahendra Karma is dead. And I am here to write ill of him.
This may be construed as indelicate in the aftermath of the savage Maoist attack on 25 May in southern Chhattisgarh that left him and several others dead—unlike Karma, many innocent of human rights wrongdoing. But it certainly is not an act of hypocrisy. Karma wasn’t exactly a man of probity. For long, the Congress party’s point man in Bastar, sometimes called “Bastar Tiger", Karma often resembled a wolf that preyed on the tribals of southern Chhattisgarh, many of them from his own tribe, with utter disregard for their livelihood and lives. While I abhor violence, including the revenge hit by Maoists that finally claimed Karma at 62, his death should not be used to whitewash his crimes against humanity.
Where Karma, the son of a clan chief, walked, chaos could follow. I am still chilled when I listen to the intercept of a police transmission reportedly between the superintendent of police (SP) of Bijapur in southern Chhattisgarh and his junior colleague planning an operation to deny Maoists support among dirt-poor, neglected locals in that forested, resource-rich region.
The recording, distributed by human rights activists and Maoist sympathizers—not always interchangeable—to several researchers and writers, is from 2005. It was a time when Salwa Judum—which, in the local Gondi dialect, translates as Purification Hunt—an extreme, cynical form of vigilantism led by Karma took wing. He did so in compact with Chhattisgarh state, in a rare case of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Raman Singh and the leader of opposition—Karma, then a Congress member of the legislative assembly—seeing eye to eye. In the mirrored, public-consumption vocabularies of the government and Karma, Salwa Judum emphatically remained a spin—Jan Jagaran: People’s Awakening.
As I wrote in my book Red Sun, this is how people were sometimes awakened:
(SP) All officers and forces should be well distributed. And be on high alert. If any journalists come to report on Naxalis—get them killed. Did you understand?
(Voice): Roger sir...
(SP) ...the Jan Jagaran people are telling villagers very clearly, ‘You come with us... If you do not come (after being told for the) third time, we will burn your village.’
Salwa Judum vigilantes destroyed homes, and stores of grain and any other food they had; killed dozens of men, women and children; maimed and—or—raped several. Children were forced to watch the death and dismemberment of parents. Pregnant women were disembowelled. The death and torture of those suspected of allying with Maoist rebels was instant. This intimidation, blessed by posses of state police and Union government paramilitaries who have their own record of blood, lust and war crimes in the region, at one point herded in excess of 50,000 tribal folk into little more than concentration camps across Dantewada district—since last year further split to create the additional districts of Bijapur and Sukma.
To be fair to Karma, there was a method to his madness. Maoists had begun to infiltrate the Dantewada region as far back as the 1980s—it was then part of the vast Bastar district of the undivided Madhya Pradesh—to establish what would later enlarge into the rebel-influenced Dandakaranya zone. Landlords such as Karma, himself a child of a tribal landed family, increasingly began to see left-wing extremists, then spearheaded by the vanguard of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War, as a threat. The perception was mutual.
For the rebels, Karma and his ilk symbolized the class enemy—worse, a tribal who came from traditionally, socio-politically oppressed stock was the class enemy of fellow tribal folk. For Karma & Co., the stealthily and rapidly infiltrating rebels represented a threat in several ways. For one, at the barrel of the gun they could redistribute land to the landless. For another, they were a direct threat to the local practice of Malik Makbuja, the right of the Adivasi to cut trees on his own land that had been subverted to benefit middlemen and various vested interests.
The MP Protection of Scheduled Tribes (Interest in Trees) Act, 1956-57, was designed to protect the interest of the Adivasis. Trees felled by them on their own land could not be sold to non-tribals and required monitoring by the office of the collector; a complex system deposited sale proceeds into an account. Middlemen often stepped in to facilitate the process, in several cases cheating the locals. Meanwhile, vested interest in the timber business thrived. Even as traders were on the lookout for any land owned by non-tribals, landed tribals such as Karma cut into the action by buying and grabbing land from fellow tribals. The local bureaucracy and the forest department staff played handmaiden to all the deal-making, coercion and removal of timber from prime forest land.
I most recently read about it in a document prepared in the defence of barefoot doctor and human rights activist Binayak Sen, which had a preface by Supreme Court lawyer Nandita Haksar. It cited a Central Bureau of Investigation first information report (FIR) from 1998 that, after taking into account a writ petition filed by two non-governmental organizations and the Lokayukta, held there was prima facie evidence of criminal conspiracy by several government officials and landowners. Among them, Karma. They were, the FIR stated, “party of (sic) criminal conspiracy during 1992-96 to cause wrongful gain to the land owners in the matter of felling trees. It is alleged that the accused public servants bestowed undue favours to the said land owners and others and illegally accorded permission to fell a large number of valuable timber trees on the basis of forged and fabricated documents and in utter disregard" of laws to protect aboriginal rights. As the document on Malik Makbuja noted: “No further action has been taken against Mahendra Karma or any of the other accused".
While that’s another, familiar story of politico-legal winking—Madhya Pradesh at the time was a Congress satrapy—Karma and the Maoists evolved their own grudge match over influence. By late 2004, the merger of the People’s War faction with the Maoist Communist Centre (India) formed the rebel behemoth of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The extreme left-wing grip over Chhattisgarh appeared to be unassailable. Local rebel leaders and cadres, in their ideological enthusiasm and their bid for a power grab, were dictating nearly every aspect of tribal life—deciding when people could go to the market and, in some cases, even marriages.
The heavy-handedness that an ideological drive backed by weapons inevitably brings became an affliction, and resentment against the Maoists began to grow in several areas. Not just against members of the dalam, or armed cadre, but arguably more so against members of the sangham, the rebel militias and the recruitment, information and logistics networks. In a few villages, scuffles broke out between pro- and anti-Maoist groups. In one case in June 2005, Maoists even attacked villagers from nearby areas in Kotrapal who had gathered to decide against cooperating with Maoists. Two villagers died, several were beaten up; some were kidnapped. One major incident lit a reverse spark, as it were.
Karma, never short of bluster or chutzpah, latched on to this with blinding speed, and nurtured it with resentment, rumour and rigour. “Something had to be done," K.R. Pisda, the former collector of Dantewada, told me as he elaborated on this when I interviewed him for Red Sun. “There were rumours that the Naxals were entering villages to loot, beat and kill. Anger began to spread... We established camps and organized food... Then we asked around, checked, and discovered there was no looting or intimidation as rumours had it." In four or five days, people began to return home.
“Then Mahendra Karma arrived there," Pisda told me. “He toured the area, talked to people, held meetings with important people, with elders." Karma held frequent meetings in that area through that July, accompanied by a senior police officer, whipping up anti-Maoist sentiment till poorly attended meetings became mass gatherings. “Then in the middle of all this, we appointed special police officers, created village defence committees," he said. Pisda dead-panned this admission of creating a force, frequently including adolescents, armed and paid a salary—at the time ₹ 1,500 a month—from state funds, which really answered only to leaders such as Karma and several brutal sub-bosses, as they went about their business of being a rogue force. “Naxals started to attack these people—that continues," he said.
Indeed, that continues till today. And so too the Judum, as it came to be known. The rogue force was formally disbanded by the government of Chhattisgarh after a severe censure by the Supreme Court in 2008 when it termed Salwa Judum illegal in its premise of the state arming civilians to kill—other civilians. But the Judum continued in the garb of the Koya commandos. After widespread legal and human rights outrage, the state modified its recruitment laws to take in several Judum cadres. In one form or another, the Judum writ still runs in southern Chhattisgarh.
Karma and his ilk—one that now quite transparently includes aiding corporate interests in the region—gradually distanced themselves from the blood-letting, though the stains never really washed. Talk has it that his influence within the Congress had lessened somewhat, though he was hopeful of a resurgence in a political drive aimed at weakening the hold of the BJP in southern Chhattisgarh—perhaps even claiming the seat in the legislature he lost in 2008.
I had some queries of him. The last time I tried to talk to him during a cocktail reception at the improbably named Babylon hotel in Raipur—a universe away from his village home in Farsapal, a short drive from Dantewada town—he had brushed my questions aside as being redolent of a “Naxali", and soon left in a swish of heavily protected sport utility vehicles. Too bad.
The endgame in the battle against Maoist rebels is still to begin in earnest, but it will likely come sooner than later, precipitated by the 25 May incident. Meanwhile, the competitive hell that they and Karma & Co. created in Chhattisgarh festers. For now, Maoists remain here in force, intermittently fighting security forces. And Karma was hardly the last of his kind.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. He writes a column each Friday in Mint, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business.