Conscience Keeper

Nandini Sundar’s new book is a balanced and incisive narrative of the ground reality in Chhattisgarh

Ghazala Wahab
Nandini Sundar Nandini Sundar concludes her book The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar with a heartbreakingly impossible dream. She writes:

I see the forested hills of Bastar around me, with no sign of a paramilitary camp. The jungle has grown over to cover the scars.

Following a change of government, there was an accord… A new Constitution gave all people the right to decide how they wanted their resources to be used. Eminent domain, under which the government claimed ownership of all land, was banished forever. All the royalties from the existing Bailadilla mines, and the profits from the steel plant in Nagarnar went to an elected council managed, among others, by village elders and former adivasi guerrillas. They used it to level fields, and build ponds, schools, hospitals, etc… The people set up small cottage industries to add value to the minor forest produce they were collecting… they got a fair price for all their labour, and the traders no longer made huge profits by cheating them… No one was landless, no one migrated for labour.

In my narrative, I walk through dense and fragrant forests, and I can hear the koel calling. Schools teach in Gondi, Dhurwa, Hindi and English — with options to learn Spanish, Arabic or Chinese… Once they grow up, some of them, like Hidme and Hadma, Masa and Deve, become novelists, lawyers, politicians and scientists, using their knowledge of the forest to create life-saving drugs… My story dances with abandon to the sound of the Madia dhol under a full moon night, where my friends and I raise a toast of mahua to hope and the future.

The Burning Forest I wonder if Sundar had a lump in her throat when she imagined and wrote this epilogue called ‘A New Compact’. But I certainly had a frisson run down my arms when I read it for the first time. I read it again just to see if I would feel the same tension; and then again. Every time it was the same sensation. It was not the sweetness of the dream which left a dull ache somewhere between my throat and my heart. It was the realisation that even if everything becomes alright, nothing will ever be alright. Prolonged conflicts affect societies like cracks in the glass, leaving them un-mendable, and the saying ‘time heals all wounds’ meaningless.

But this assumes that the government would become less greedy, corporate India less insensitive and Indian economy less dependent on natural resources for development. Sure nothing is impossible, but these conditions reside in the realm of improbable. Hence the aching impossibility of the above vision.

There are a few ways in which this book could have been written. Anger would have been the easiest of them. Yet, Sundar writes with deep empathy and sadness. On most pages it is so palpable that it jumps out and adds to the haplessness one feels while reading the book. For someone who has frequently been reviled as a Maoist sympathiser (in an informal conversation with me in July 2007, director general of police, Chhattisgarh, Vishwaranjan waved off my question when I brought up the report by Independent Citizen’s Initiative on Salwa Judum, of which Sundar was a member, as a report by Maoist sympathisers) hence not worthy of being taken seriously as a voice of reason, in The Burning Forest, Sundar makes her prejudice known right in the beginning. She stands with the nowhere people: the tribal of Chhattisgarh who have been caught in the crossfire between the State-in-a-hurry and the Maoists-in-no-hurry. They are the biggest losers in the government of India’s war against the Maoists.

While Sundar’s non-chronological narrative weaves together all aspects of the conflict from Maoists’ crawl into the Abujmarh to displacement of tribal, emergence of big business houses, human rights activists and media and so on, all of this converge on the primary theme of the book, which is the long battle that Sundar (along with others) has been waging against brutalisation of the civilians by the government through Salwa Judum.

Salwa Judum was created sometimes in 2005 by the collective efforts of both the Congress and the BJP. Basically, it was a group of tribal population which the politicians had successfully mobilised against the Maoists and those it considered close to the rebels. The young boys amongst them were given rudimentary training in weapon handling and made into special police officers.

Arming of civilian population in conflict zones has long been a practice of the government of India. In places like the Northeast and Kashmir, this took form of both the village defence committees and recruitment of local boys as special police officers. Many years ago, during one of my visits to Kashmir, I asked the inspector general of police, Kashmir zone, if it never occurred to the government that it was outsourcing its job to the civilian population by arming them.

The IG’s response was breathtakingly cold. He said, “Before the Nineties, the Hindu population of the Jammu region felt empowered psychologically not only because of their control over the economic activities of the region but also the religious mix of the police and the army. However, in the Nineties, when the militants entered the region and killings started to take place, they felt vulnerable. The idea of the VDCs came from these people as they wanted to balance the power of the militants.” Over the years, this balance of power only deepened the communal rift. But that’s another story.

In Chhattisgarh, the government went where no other state government had gone before. It created its own militant group and let it run amuck. In the bargain if families were divided, villages were ruined and people were brutalised, the government simply shrugged it off as collateral damage in the path of larger good, which is rapid economic development. In the absence of industry, exploitation of natural resources seems to be the most lucrative way of clocking fast-track growth.

Sundar’s book chronicles this saga in meticulous detail. She combines her experience of travels in the state with personal histories of the people she met over the years to weave a tale of destruction beyond imagination. She doesn’t say it, but shows through her narration what price the poor and the powerless pay for the idea of development. She blames the Maoists as much as she indicts the government (both at the state and the Centre) for their collective apathy towards the plight of the people. Actually, apathy is too mild a word. Cruelty fits in better, because nothing else can explain the wilful terror that the government has unleashed on its own people in the last decade and half; which is matched by the Maoists.

Even as early as 2006, stories about the havoc wrought by Salwa Judum had started to spread putting the state government on the defensive. In a note to Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, Chhattisgarh Congress leader Mahendra Karma, to whom the credit of creating Salwa Judum went, wrote: ‘At times, the overzealous Salwa Judum activists act in vengeance against Sangham members… It is quite likely that over-enthusiastic Salwa Judum activists might have burnt some houses of known Sangham members or regular supporters of CPI (Maoist). But then, the CPI (Maoist) cadre also burnt/looted houses of many Salwa Judum activists. Such violent incidents are many more committed by Naxalites than by the Salwa Judum activists.’

The state government also continued to brazenly defend the organisation, even as it insisted that Judum was an independent movement by the people affected by Maoist violence. As Sundar writes of the 2007 public interest litigation case which she, along with others, filed against the state of Chhattisgarh in the Supreme Court:

Both inside and outside the court, the state government insisted (as they still do 10 years later) that the Salwa Judum was not state sponsored, and was a ‘peaceful people’s initiate’ (sic). In the same breath, however, they argued: ‘The State is committed to resolve the problems of Naxalism and any peaceful movement, which resists the violent methods, definitely gets support of States (sic).

On 5 July 2011, the Supreme Court gave its verdict asking the government of Chhattisgarh to disband Salwa Judum. Writes Sundar:

I had to go to the department in the morning because I was in charge of the admissions entrance exam… When I reached (the Supreme Court) Justice Reddy had already started reading the judgement. I was panting for the first few minutes and when he said ‘the horror, the horror,’ wasn’t sure if I was hearing right… I was confused as to what happened after that, but I know the lawyers and I came out and hugged each other. There was a phalanx of cameras, and I said something about how the Constitution had won…

The following week, I and FORCE editor Pravin Sawhney were in Chhattisgarh interviewing the chief minister and DGP Vishwaranjan. In response to our question on Salwa Judum, Raman Singh said, “The Supreme Court has asked us to disarm them and they have been disarmed. We will be filing a review petition and will try and put across our point of view more forcefully… We need to understand that if the SPOs are disarmed, they will be killed by the Maoists… We will work out a mechanism where the SPOs can either be absorbed in the Home Guards or the police… One thing is for sure, we will not abandon them.”

DGP Vishwaranjan said, “As far as I am concerned, the Supreme Court order will not be more than a temporary setback to us. I am using the term temporary setback because SPOs were working as guides for us. They were not only leading our men to the Maoists’ hideout, many of them also recognised the Maoist cadre… they were protecting the camps in which they and other displaced people were living. In fact, nearly 75 per cent of SPOs were involved in camp protection duties.”

There was a reason why they were completely unruffled by the court’s order. Two weeks after FORCE visit, the Raman Singh government passed Chhattisgarh Auxiliary Armed Police Force Ordinance 2011 to accommodate the SPOs. Not only the state government, even the Union government decided to take up the battle for SPOs, after all its model in others states like Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir would be threatened too. Sundar writes:

The Union launched into a full-fledged defence of the right of citizens to bear arms for self-defence — a right they said could not be denied to SPOs. Not surprisingly, this right is never recognised for citizens defending themselves against a predatory state or against police excesses...’ And so the battle continues.

While Sundar’s battle against Salwa Judum is the focal point of the book, she doesn’t lose sight of how the state government has turned Chhattisgarh into a police state in the name of national security. Civil society is vilified, journalists are either bought or threatened, activists are discredited and the poor remain on the periphery of the land that historically belonged to them. In times of hyper-nationalism, The Burning Forest portrays a frightening picture of what eminent domain means. What happens in the forest may not stay there.

Nandini Sundar
Juggernaut, Pg 413, Rs 699


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