Some time ago, Chhattisgarh hit the headlines because of a Maoist attack on state Congress leaders, in which V.C. Shukla and Mahendra Karma died. Since then, the Congress has accused the BJP government of a conspiracy, and some BJP leaders have accused former chief minister Ajit Jogi of being part of a conspiracy himself. Politicizing this tragic episode is not the best way to understand why Chhattisgarh has become a Maoist stronghold.

Christophe Jaffrelot
Jaffrelot’s core research focuses on theories of nationalism and democracy, mobilization of the lower castes and Dalits (ex-untouchables) in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan.
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Today, the state is the worst affected by Maoist-related violence. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, between 2005 and June 2013, 2,055 lives have been lost in this guerilla-like war, including 755 members of the security forces, 662 militants and 638 civilians. That is twice more than in Jharkhand and about four times more than in West Bengal and Orissa.

There is a history behind the entrenchment of the Naxals in Chhattisgarh. It started in the late 1970s, when Maoists from Andhra Pradesh initiated the Go to Villages Campaign, which prepared them to work among the Adivasis, then subjugated by landlords and the state. The latter limited their access to forest products such as tendu leaves, not to mention the violent scorn with which the police treated tribal people. When the Naxalites were repressed by the Andhra government in the 1980s, they used southern Chhattisgarh, and more especially Bastar (roughly equivalent to the region known as Dandakaranya), as a base, because the jungle made them difficult to track down.

This sanctuary gradually turned into a laboratory. Militants from the cities learned the local dialect, sometimes married tribal women and, above all, obtained better wages for Adivasis who gathered tendu leaves and bamboo stalks for paper mills. These successes were made possible by intimidation and an effort to organize the tribal people, which in 1989, culminated in the foundation of the Dandakaranya Adivasi Mazdoor Kisan Sangh. Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian activist who established his ashram in Dantewada (Bastar South), has given valuable testimony to these reasons for the Maoists' popularity.

In the 1990s, the rush for the area's mineral resources began. The region harbors rich deposits of coal, iron ore, manganese, bauxite, quartz, gold, diamonds and uranium. These treasures attracted public and then private investors, once India embarked on the path of economic liberalization that promised to make such riches more accessible. For these resources to be exploitable, especially when it involved opencast mines, tribes were displaced and their land confiscated. Maoists, with support from new partisans recruited among them, reacted to the multiplication of mines and factories by targeted attacks. For instance, the National Mineral Development Corporation iron ore mine in Bacheli has been the object of repeated attacks since 2006, all attempts to block supplies to the Essar steel mill in Andhra. These attacks also enable the Maoists to obtain explosives that they later use to plant landmines along the tracks. To fund their operations, they do not hesitate to extort money from mine or factory owners.

The historical and economic reasons due to which Maoism developed in Chhattisgarh can be traced back to another meta-explanation: the Adivasis represent 32 per cent of the population and they have never been given their due in the region. In spite of their demographic advantage, and in contrast to what happened even in Jharkhand, they could never dislodge upper-caste leaders from dominant positions in the state government. Although trade union leaders like S.G. Niyogi, assassinated in 1991, and the Gondwana Gantantra Party have tried to organize the sons of the soil, they have rallied around mainstream, upper-caste dominated parties, including the BJP, for elections. That was partly because the Sangh Parivar has been able, since the creation of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in 1952, to co-opt—and Sanskritise—some Adivasis, with the support of Rajput ex-rulers such as Dilip Singh Judeo (and his father). Jana Sangh MLAs started to run the show as early as the 1960s, as evident from the career of Baliram Kashyap, an MLA in Bastar district in 1972-92.

Neither the Congress, whose leaders—be they the Shukla brothers or Motilal Vora—were traditionally from the upper castes, nor the BJP, has been interested in promoting the cause of the Adivasis, whose socio-economic conditions kept declining in relative terms. If Chhattisgarh had among the lowest human development indices in 2011, it was largely because of its tribal population. Indeed, 55 per cent of its rural tribal population lived below the poverty line (against 32 per cent of its SC rural population) and the under-five mortality rate among STs was 40 percentage points higher than that among SCs, which was already very high.

Yet, the main reason for the rise of Maoism in Chhattisgarh is probably the form of the state's repression. Ill-equipped and poorly trained in counterinsurgency methods, the state's police force has proven powerless in the face of the Naxal strike forces. The local political elites, be they close to the BJP or the Congress, thus set up a militia in 2005 with support from the state's business community and the Central government itself. This organisation, named the Salwa Judum ("peace hunt" in the language of the Gond tribes), has recruited among the urban youth. It began by emptying entire villages of their inhabitants to prevent them from being used as Naxal bases. In 2007, between 70,000 and 100,000 displaced persons left for Orissa, Jharkhand and Andhra, according to the NGO Campaign for Peace and Justice in Chhattisgarh. It was as if the state had delegated its policing powers to a private army. Indeed, special forces officers were found in its ranks, and a district collector is said to have taken part in its meetings. Petitioned by human rights activists, the Supreme Court ordered the state to take direct action rather than playing with fire by arming some citizens against others. But Salwa Judum has continued to operate illegally, with the blessing of mainstream political parties, in spite of the Supreme Court ruling, which at least managed to free Binayak Sen after years of tragicomedy.

In 2009, P. Chidambaram, as home minister, launched Operation Green Hunt, mobilizing thousands of police and paramilitary forces. In 2010, 20,000 troops were deployed in the Bastar zone alone, an area of about 40,000 square kilometers, combing the place, requisitioning schools. The interrogations they conducted to unmask Maoists have apparently degenerated more than once, resulting in several accusations of torture. Some years ago, Chhattisgarh's created the Counter-Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College and another similar training center, the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School.

Nearly four years after Operation Green Hunt and eight years after the launching of Salwa Judum, in the wake of the deaths of V.C. Shukla and Mahendra Karma, one of the chief architects of Salwa Judum, the Union tribal affairs minister, V. Kishore Chandra Deo, declared that the project had been a "sinful tragedy." Why doesn't he try something else? For instance, moving south Chhattisgarh into the Sixth Schedule in order to give more autonomy to tribal communities. Since the carving out of Chhattisgarh has not resulted in any transfer of power to the state's STs, this is now the only way to empower them.

This article originally appeared in the Indian Express.