a trip to southern chhattisgarh

at a village near bhairamgarh, bijapur.
at a village near bhairamgarh, bijapur.

i just got back from a week-long trip to southern chhattisgarh.

if you, dear reader, hail from india then you almost certainly know the context for this trip. late last month, left-wing extremists (naxals, for the rest of this post) ambushed a convoy ferrying leaders of the congress party in chhattisgarh. about 27 people died, among them senior congress leaders in the state — including its state chief, and a leader called mahendra karma, who was the leader of a tribal militia called salwa judum set up with the help of the state to fight the naxals.

it was an unnerving development. for the longest time, tribals have been getting hammered as naxals and security forces fight each other. now, this latest attack appeared to presage an intensification of conflict with inevitably dire consequences for the tribals.

well. the thing is this. i was in chhattisgarh for a week. i filed two stories. the first on the day i reached dantewada which gave a broad overview re: the three likely fallouts of this attack. and the second during the night after reaching jagdalpur. this one went into more detail, speaking about the human costs of this conflict — skewed development, tribals being ground between the naxals and the state forces, and so on.

but those stories are not what this damned post is all about. there are far more insightful stories about southern chhattisgarh than what i have written — links to some of them are appended below. this was my first trip into the (buffer) areas where the state and the naxals are tussling for control — not the areas fully controlled by naxals — and it threw up large questions that I am now struggling with.

for one, it was hard to comprehend just how much violence this part of the country has seen in recent times. take karma’s salwa judum.

in their bid to weed out naxals, its SPOs (the tribal militia) began pointing out villagers with alleged links with naxals to police officials. they began going to villages and telling them to join the judum. anyone who did not join would be regarded as a naxal. next, in a bid to isolate the naxals further, the SPOs began telling villagers to leave their villages for special camps. they told the state government no ration should be given to villages which did not move to the camps. they started killing people they knew were naxal sympathisers. over time, this degenerated further. SPOs began using their guns to settle scores. some of the violence also began to unfold along tribal lines.

soon, conflict broke out between the judum and the naxals. at chingavaram village, naxals blasted a passenger bus carrying some SPOs along with locals. at Errabore, the Judum camp was burnt. about 40 people died. there were sundry executions. villages that wanted to stay unaffiliated found they would be attacked by SPOs if they did not go. but if they did go, they would be regarded as hostile by the naxals. and vulnerable to attack if they returned to their village. this resulted in some villagers leaving chhattisgarh for andhra pradesh where there are now an estimated 218 villages of chhattisgarhi tribals leading a twilight existence hiding from AP forest officials.

the camps had their own problems. at one time, each camp had as many as 20,000-30,000 people. there was little rice, enough for just one meal in a day, the dal had insects in it, there was no work. all people could do was sit around and wait. and the problem with leaving was that either the SPOs or the naxals would kill them.

over the past couple of years, the naxals have relaxed their embargo and told villagers they can return. today, camps like Errabore (which was started in late 2005) are much smaller than before. the only families still staying there are those expelled from the village by the naxals. and those of the SPOs. some villagers have shifted entirely. others, still unsure, go to their villages to work their fields, etc, but come back to the camp to sleep.

that was the old conflict. now, the state is seeing a new form of conflict — between naxals and the armed forces like the CRPF/state police. as between the judum and the naxals, similar battles of retribution between the naxals and crpf’s supporters continue. as for the SPOs, while the judum has been wound up, they are still around — now working as junior constables. commiting some, if not all, of their old excesses but also living in fear that the naxals will bump them off.


the second thing is how unequal the media’s reportage was to all these processes playing out.

reporters wanting to cover the war on green terror or whatever catchphrase they chose to parrot enter a polarised landscape. there are two camps. the hardliners — the government, local middle class, etc — demand instant action. this is a set of people who see the accompanying (tribal) costs of such impudent action as no more than perhaps necessary or inevitable “collateral damage”. who point at lanka’s crackdown on the tamils as an exemplar.

the second set pillory (correctly) the state for its human rights violations but seem to conflate the naxal and tribal questions. while at dantewada, for instance, i caught a part of a debate on TV where naxalism was being depicted by a JNU prof as an outcome of state failure. the state, said the lady, had been so irresponsive to their concerns that the tribals had finally mounted an armed insurrection. this school of thought also says that the tribals are turning maoist in order to protect their traditional way of life from mining companies, etc.

but the tribal story is one of underdevelopment and exploitation. the naxal one is about wanting to overthrow the indian state. i am very puzzled about this. what is the relationship between these two? which came first? the tribal uprising followed by aid and succour and training and whatnot from the naxals? or did the naxals come in first — seeking a new habitat given that andhra was running anti-naxal operations against them — followed by the tribals joining them? or, if you say that the naxals came in to help the tribals, then whose decision was it re: the nature of the counter-response to be mounted? did the tribals decide or did the naxals decide on their behalf?

if it is the naxals who decided, then it is the same old story, isn’t it? just like assorted state departments and do-gooding NGOs, are the naxals too trying to impose their model of development on the tribals? (also, development at the point of a gun?).


even as the two camps put out selective (and self-serving) versions of the truth, politicians and others began leaking conspiracy theories. a senior cong leader was in touch with maoists on the day of the attack; the bjp orchestrated this; no, the congress did; the naxals are on the payroll of the BJP…

in all, things were getting rather confusing. which is roughly when you would expect the media to step in, shine a torch here and there, and conjure up sense out of this stupid storm of suggestions and insinuations.

here is what it did instead.

two days after the attack, one editorial in a local paper said: “the call of the moment is to wage a limited-purpose war on the red terror with a fight-to-finish motive.” i come back to raipur five days later and i see another line in a hindi paper: “a week has gone by and the government and its agencies have done no kaarnama (have taken no action, loosely).” an edit in an english paper said salwa judum should be brought back.*

television took all this to another level. i saw documentaries which tried to sway the audience, not through analysis or reason, but through emotional footage of people weeping at the funerals of the leaders, or by playing sorrowful music to drive up sympathy for one set of victims.

(there is a left-wing equivalent for this. last month, i saw a documentary screened at delhi’s india habitat centre on the myriad struggles against the state. there too, relying on no more than the right background score or the right camera angle, the docu tried to manipulate opinions. in one shot, young maoist fighters are standing with their right arms outstretched, squeezing the index finger in empty air — miming the firing of a pistol. in another shot, training is underway at the kanker camp set up to impart jungle fighting education to the armed forces. here, cadets are running and the official in charge, wearing red jodhpurs, is on a horse. and the way the biases of the film are, and the one way the biases of the IHC audience were, people tittered whenever the army guy barked out his instruction or the cadets slid down ropes yelling — for some godforsaken reason — “COMMANDO!!!” but stayed quiet at the ‘let us all now pretend to fire pistols’ sequence. i do not mean to be facetious. looking at the army of muscular cadets being trained to take on scrawny 20-25 year old tribal kids highlighted the tragedy underway. it was just that the docu was so busy scoring cheap rhetorical shots that a chance to push everyone’s understanding a degree deeper was lost.)

this, as a friend told me, is a complicated part of the country. even if one is well-intentioned, try and file stories super-fast and you will miss vital nuance. what the people in the town of dantewada say will be different from what the tribals say but it might be the same as what people in the judum camps say. also, you cannot take what the villagers tell you as representative of all villagers either. villagers in the buffer zone might feel differently about things from those in the naxal-controlled areas. (i learnt this the hard way. the story published in the physical paper has less nuance than its online version. i reworked it after returning to delhi).

the deeper you go, the bonds between the villagers and the naxals, i am told, do change into something more familial — most families will know someone who is a naxal. even if the naxals came in and began imposing their values and ideas on the tribals, enough time has gone by for the tribals in these villages to start feeling comfortable with at least some of the naxal cadre. not with all cadre, mind you. for there is some violence directed by the naxals against the villagers in their control. one of the links appended below focuses on that.

as it is, the deeper you go, the villagers, unfamiliar with hindi, daunted by the processes playing out around them and unsure whom to trust, get more and more reticent. understanding what they think gets harder and harder. (and that is assuming you can reach them).

like my friend said, this is very complex.

but little of this nuance percolated into the coverage. nor did much get said about the human costs of this battle.

it makes you wonder. what chance does more measured reporting have in this age where rabble-rousing has replaced reportage as the bait for readers and viewers? does it get swamped? is it still possible to contribute to the public discourse? or is there a political economy sort of an engine at work here taking us towards inevitable conclusions and outcomes?

and how will this end? the centre is leaning towards military responses. the naxals are unwilling to talk. if anything, by attacking political leaders, they have paved the way for an intensification of conflict and placed the tribals in harm’s way. and if the crpf is not able to discriminate between the naxals and the tribals, what should one expect? more of this war of attrition with the price being paid by some of the most vulnerable people in this country?


and so it goes. i promised to put up some good articles on the situation in southern chhattisgarh. am appending those links now. this list, i should add, will keep growing as i read more. a wiki of sorts in a blog.

(post attack)

1. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/stoi/special-report/Crossing-the-red-line/articleshow/20389974.cms

2. http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?285796

3. http://www.telegraphindia.com/1130529/jsp/frontpage/story_16948536.jsp (in which the naxals take ownership and explain why.)

4. on the vast gulf of incomprehension between the chhattisgarhi tribals living in the conflict zones and the indian state + indian press + the rest of the country. http://caravanmagazine.in/perspectives/ear-ground


1. http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/nation/citizens-and-soldiers

2. http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/nation/the-outcastes-of-a-liberated-zone (this one tells you about life in naxal controlled villages).

3. http://www.telegraphindia.com/1120312/jsp/nation/story_15239085.jsp (on naxal cash flows from essar)

4. http://www.telegraphindia.com/1130603/jsp/nation/story_16965614.jsp. (on mahendra karma)

5. http://www.india-seminar.com/2010/607/607_dilip_simeon.htm. (an essay in seminar where dileep simeon discusses the link between naxals and tribals. he says: “The Naxalite movement is not a movement of landless peasants and tribals seeking to overthrow state power. It is a project defined as such by those who are neither peasants nor workers nor tribals; but who claim to represent their interests. The right to make this claim was dependent upon what the earliest Naxalites referred to as ‘revolutionary authority’. The mantle of legitimate authority was obtained via certification by the international communist movement, in this case from the Chinese Communist Party led by Chairman Mao.“)

6. http://www.india-seminar.com. check out their march, 2010, issue which is dedicated to “red resurgence”.

7. and then, there are books. on adivasi resistance? in fiction, jangal ke daavedaar, by mahasweta devi. not to mention titu mir, again by her. in non-fic, birsa munda, by ks singh. more recently, a rogue and peasant slave, by shashank kela. there is also protest in democratic india by leslie calman. and contested domains by akhileshwar pathak.  on life in conflict areas? rebels from the mud houses by george kunnath. windows into a rebellion by alpa shah and judith pettigrew. alpa shah’s in the shadows of the state. i have read some of these. the others, along with a bunch of papers on the kindle, are awaiting their turn. too many things to do + time wasting too easily = a rajshekhar who has entirely failed to keep up.

also, here, some photos of mine from this trip.

* a passage in mahasweta devi’s khoimala dewana and the holy banyan tree explains editorials like the one which wanted salwa judum resurrected. she talks about renunciation, detachment and indifference and how the third can emerge from the first two. with distance comes detachment and detachment can all too easily become indifference. once out of the field, concerns about the folks one met there start to recede. put enough distance between us and southern chhattisgarh and even the battles underway there become no more than a game of chess.

2 responses to “a trip to southern chhattisgarh”

  1. Murali Gandluru

    The tribals seem to be mere pawns. It is indeed sad.

  2. […] leader mahendra karma. written the day i reached dantewada, this doesn’t really say too much. the second report, written after travelling to sukma and beyond is a little better. to really understand things, read the other links i have appended […]

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I am an Indian journalist with interests in energy, environment, climate and India’s ongoing slide into right-wing authoritarianism. My book, Despite the State, an examination of pervasive state failure and democratic decay in India, was published by Westland Publications, India, in January 2021. My work has won the Bala Kailasam Memorial Award; the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award; and five Shriram Awards for Excellence in Financial Journalism. Write to me at despitethestate@protonmail.com.


…une plongée dans les failles béantes de la démocratie indienne, un compte rendu implacable du dysfonctionnement des Etats fédérés, minés par la corruption, le clientélisme, le culte de la personnalité des élus et le capitalisme de connivence. (…a dive into the gaping holes in Indian democracy, a relentless account of the dysfunction of the federated states, undermined by corruption, clientelism, the cult of the personality of elected officials and crony capitalism).” Le Monde

…a critical enquiry into why representative government in India is flagging.Biblio

…strives for an understanding of the factors that enable governments and political parties to function in a way that is seemingly hostile to the interests of the very public they have been elected to serve, a gross anomaly in an electoral democracy.” Scroll.in

M. Rajshekhar’s deeply researched book… holds a mirror to Indian democracy, and finds several cracks.The Hindu

…excels at connecting the local to the national.Open

…refreshingly new writing on the play between India’s dysfunctional democracy and its development challenges…Seminar

A patient mapping and thorough analysis of the Indian system’s horrific flaws…” Business Standard (Image here)

33 മാസം, 6 സംസ്ഥാനങ്ങൾ, 120 റിപ്പോർട്ടുകൾ: ജനാധിപത്യം തേടി മഹത്തായ ഇന്ത്യൻ യാത്ര… (33 months, 6 states, 120 reports: Great Indian journey in search of democracy…)” Malayala Manorama

Hindustan ki maujooda siyasi wa maaashi soorat e hal.” QindeelOnline

What emerges is the image of a state that is extractive, dominant, casteist and clientelist.Tribune

…reporting at its best. The picture that emerges is of a democracy that has been hijacked by vested interests, interested only in power and pelf.Moneycontrol.com

Book lists

Ten best non-fiction books of the year“, The Hindu.

Twenty-One Notable Books From 2021“, The Wire.

What has South Asia been reading: 2021 edition“, Himal Southasian


Journalism is a social enterprise…,” Booksfirst.in.

Democratic decay at state level: Journalist M Rajshekhar on book ‘Despite the State’,” The News Minute.

Covid-19 en Inde : “des décès de masse” dont un “État obscurantiste est responsable,” Asialyst.


JP to BJP: The Unanswered Questions“.
Mahtab Alam’s review of “JP to BJP: Bihar After Lalu and Nitish”.

Urban History of Atmospheric Modernity in Colonial India“. Mohammad Sajjad’s review of “Dust and Smoke: Air Pollution and Colonial Urbanism, India, c1860-c1940”.

Westland closure: Titles that are selling fast and a few personal recommendations,” by Chetana Divya Vasudev, Moneycontrol. (Because this happened too. In February, a year after DtS was released, Amazon decided to shutter Westland, which published the book. The announcement saw folks rushing to buy copies of Westland books before stocks run out.)

Time to change tack on counterinsurgency” by TK Arun, The Federal.

All Things Policy: The Challenges of Governing States” by Suman Joshi and Sarthak Pradhan, Takshashila Institute (podcast).

The Future of Entertainment“, Kaveree Bamzai in Open.

On What India’s Watching“, Prathyush Parasuraman on Substack.

The puppeteers around us“, Karthik Venkatesh in Deccan Herald.

Will TN election manifestos continue ‘populist’ welfare schemes?“, Anna Isaac for The News Minute.

Why wages-for-housework won’t help women“, V Geetha in Indian Express.

The poor state of the Indian state“, Arun Maira in The Hindu.

Book discussions

26 December, 2021: Rangashankara, Bangalore, a discussion with Dhanya Rajendran.

16 November: Rachna Books, Gangtok, a discussion with Pema Wangchuk.

29 August: Books In The Time of Chaos, with Ujwal Kumar.

21 May: Hyderabad Lit Fest with Kaveree Bamzai and Aniruddha Bahal.

28 March: Paalam Books, Salem, Tamil Nadu.

19 March: The News Minute, “Citizens, the State, and the idea of India

6 March: Pen@Prithvi, with Suhit Kelkar

20 February: A discussion between scholars Usha Ramanathan, Tridip Suhrud, MS Sriram and me to formally launch Despite the State.

6 February: DogEars Bookshop, Margoa.

5 February: The Polis Project, Dispatches with Suchitra Vijayan.

30 January: Founding Fuel, “Systems Thinking, State Capacity and Grassroots Development“.

25 January: Miranda House Literary Society