In the best of times Chhattisgarh could have been an adventurer’s paradise: Untamed dense forests, rain-kissed lush vegetation, challenging terrain, gushing waterfalls and the promise of wildlife. The tourist reception centre at Raipur airport’s arrival terminal bravely tries to sell these to the trickle of visitors (mainly business and bureaucratic), who seem to have their eyes fixed on the departure terminal. “It would be very nice if you could also highlight the tourism potential of the state in your magazine,” says the tourist officer, a tad plaintively. “We have problems, but we have a lot of potential for tourism.”
Sadly, these are not the best of times for Chhattisgarh; and problems far outweigh the potential. Home to most of the Dandakaranya forest, Chhattisgarh has become the centre of gravity for the worst of Maoist’s violence. Since the resurrection of the Maoist movement in the early Eighties in the form of People’s War Group (PWG) in Andhra Pradesh and Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) in Bihar, Dandakaranya forest has been the nucleus that sustains the movement in other parts of India. Intensely dense with heavy undergrowth, comprising hills as well as plains, the forest has been the abode of the most backward and impoverished tribes of India, who are now the feeders for the movement.
Considering that its remoteness ensured that the organs of the government machinery remained at the periphery, the forest has been a haven for Maoists/Naxals to flourish and expand their area of operations uninterrupted. For nearly two decades, when the governments both at the Centre and the state (then Madhya Pradesh) were busy doing other things, Maoists went from strength to strength in the Bastar region of what is now Chhattisgarh, till such time when they could declare a portion, Abujmarh, a liberated zone. On a policeman’s map of Bastar, Abujmarh (in southeast Bastar bordering Maharashtra) stands out as a black mark with hardly any police stations in the entire area.
As one drives through the forest of Bastar, from Kanker to Jagdalpur, abject poverty pockmarks the beauty of the landscape. Through the entire stretch of nearly 170km, there are hardly any roadside eating places. On national highways, roadsides eateries or ‘dhabas’ are not only reflective of the prosperity of the areas that the road connects but also of the number and profile of the people who take those roads. What one does comes across are stray posters put up by the Maoists urging the people to observe the first week of August as Martyrs’ Week, in honour of their fallen comrades. According to the posters, Maoists will take out rallies and pay tributes to their martyrs by visiting their memorials. They will also desist from violence during this week. The fact that such posters have been put up implies that Maoists believe that they would be able to mobilise people to observe the Martyrs’ Week without the fear of the police or the Para-military. And obviously, these activities will have to take place within their liberated zone inside Abujmarh where the security forces do not tread.