The latest episode of Maoist-State conflict leaves a trail of mangled victims in between.

By Shoma Chaudhury

Shoma ChaudhuryDOCTOR-ACTIVIST Binayak Sen, infamously jailed on concocted charges, once described the Maoist-State conflict as two locomotives hurtling towards each other at breakneck speed while well-wishers could only look on helplessly. The horrific massacre of 18 tribals in Bastar last week — some of them mere children — by a joint CRPF and Chhattisgarh Police operation recalls that image in all its urgency.

This is a war doomed in its very conception. It has to be withdrawn. It can never be won. It is inherently designed to lead to an endless series of senseless collisions in which both combatants will always be brutally bruised and leave trails of mangled victims in between. There are many reasons why this is an inevitability: all of them pervade this latest tragic incident.

Three dominant characteristics mark the operational aspect of the war in India’s red corridors: fear, the absence of accurate information, and relentless false propaganda. In fact, the colour palette in which this war is described is itself dangerously misleading: these are not “red corridors”, they are grey zones. Unless you meet armed Maoists in combat fatigues, or know the Politburo ideologue you are looking for, it is impossible to tell between ordinary tribals and Maoists; between willing auxillaries and fearful conscriptions. Between mere circumstantial support and conscious political sympathy. In off-record conversations, several CRPF commanders have told TEHELKA in the past that they go into operations with a clutch in their heart: most often they don’t know who they are fighting or killing. But mines and ambushes are a daily reality for the jawans too, and fear and the heady power of a gun in the hand can put a quick end to ethical niceties: you’d rather kill than be killed. The grey corridors of central and eastern India, therefore, are now trapped in the deadly illogic of conflict. No one believes each others’ truths any more. Everyone would rather talk with their guns.

INEVITABLY, THEN there are several contesting versions about what happened in Sarkeguda village on the night of 28 June. Activists say the tribals had gathered for a presowing prayer ritual and were surrounded by three teams and gunned down in cold blood — either based on wrong information or as part of a premeditated conspiracy to clear the village, which is part of a rich iron-ore zone. They claim no weapons were found and two jawans were injured in the forces’ own crossfire.

The forces, of course, have their own account. At first, they claimed ludicrously that they had killed 18 dreaded Maoists. This was impossible to believe. Common sense would tell you no large-scale Maoist meeting, packed with supposedly dreaded commanders, would be held in a village square rather than in dense forest. As the protests welled, the official story changed. The forces admitted they needed to investigate who they had killed. In an interview to TEHELKA, CRPF DG Vijay Kumar, in fact, makes a refreshingly honest but shocking admission. He says it was impossible for the forces to know who they were firing at that night. Further, he says the entire area is a “very hazy world”, in which it is impossible to identify who is a Naxal and who is not. (Read: Why anti-naxal ops have become a terrifying black hole). According to him, three teams were headed to Silger that night, when one team heard some noise at Sarkeguda. Before they could verify what the gathering was about, they were fired at, so the forces fired back.

Even if one were to believe this, it triggers very hard questions. Both the CRPF and police know the indeterminate nature of such village gatherings. They know villagers are often summoned by Maoists for public hearings: these are orders that cannot be refused. If they didn’t know who they were firing at that night, why did they not retreat rather than shoot to kill at random?

Why is life in Bastar so cheap?

As this magazine goes to press, unverified news is trickling in that 17 villagers have been abducted in Jagargunda as a retaliatory measure by the Maoists. The locomotives are on the move again.

This is not the space to examine the finer strands of whose war is more just. The real origin of this conflict lies in the structural violence of the Indian State that has disinherited the populace of these regions. If it wants its people back, it has to bring the healing development of water, schools, hospitals, roads and rations. Not the fear of guns. Or the threat of different mines.

Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.

(Published on Jul 14 2012)