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Right-Wing Ascendancy

A Democracy at War with Itself

Salwa Judum – government-sponsored vigilantes. By unknown local photographer.

August 06, 2016

Nandini Sundar is a well-known sociologist of political violence. She has spent more than 25 years studying Bastar, an intense zone of conflict within the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. She first lived there while doing research for her PhD dissertation, published as Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar 1854-1996 (Oxford University Press, 1997). Her new and long-awaited book, The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar (Juggernaut Press, 2016), describes what has become of this war zone and how it has been shaped by outside political forces, but it is also an account of her experience litigating in the Supreme Court, and the different phases of the almost decade-long and still continuing legal process seeking a constitutional injunction against vigilantism and redress for victims of human rights violations. Although she and her colleagues got a spectacular judgment in 2011, the state has simply ignored the Court’s directions, and continued with its counterinsurgency campaign. The Burning Forest seeks to capture the mixture of institutional failure, state impunity and public resilience that go into the making of Indian democracy.  


India’s democracy attracts strong opinions. The dominant position, voiced by Indian politicians, the mainstream media and the country’s elite, is celebratory, arguing that among postcolonial societies, India can be proud of its universal suffrage, federalism, subordination of the army to civilian rule, and independent judiciary. Activists, on the other hand, tend to be more dismissive, arguing that India’s democracy is a “sham” – pointing to colonial continuities in “emergency” laws like the Northeast’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which empowers the army to shoot to kill on mere suspicion; frequent extra-judicial killings, custodial deaths, torture, rape and disappearances; and organized massacres linked to the ruling party, targeting minorities like Sikhs (Delhi, 1984) and Muslims (Gujarat, 2002).

Academic work on Indian democracy, concentrated in political science and dealing largely with political parties, elections, institutional frameworks, and developmental regimes, tends to take a centrist approach. In The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar, by contrast, I undertake a sociological examination of an ongoing counterinsurgency campaign against what the government calls “left-wing extremism” and explore what this reveals about Indian democracy.

India’s current offensive against Maoist guerrillas affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Maoist) – “Naxalites”, as they are popularly called – is now a decade old. But whereas the first phase of the Naxalite movement which began in the late 1960s and was brutally crushed in the 1970s, attracted scholarly attention, there are as yet few detailed books on the contemporary phase. This is because it can be difficult to do research on such a contested and securitized field, but also because the movement is now concentrated among indigenous people or scheduled tribes and scheduled castes in rural and forested areas, in contrast to the Naxalite movement’s earlier phase, which also had middle class, urban, and student supporters. Today, most descriptions of the conflict come from journalists who have traveled with the Maoists, on the one hand, and reports from security think tanks, on the other.

Although the Maoist movement is spread across several states, the war’s epicenter is a densely-forested, mineral-rich area known as Bastar, inhabited largely by adivasis or indigenous people – a region of about 39,114 square kilometers in the Central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. The Maoists first came to this area from the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh intending to set up a retreat from repression, but the local people began to make their own demands. Starting from the 1980s, the Maoists established what is almost a parallel state – distributing land, setting up collective work groups, settling disputes, taxing contractors, and entering into the minutiae of intimate relations. As villagers participated in the making of the Maoist state, they inflected it with their own cultural traditions.

In June 2005, India’s national and state governments launched an amorphous vigilante organization called Salwa Judum (literally, “purification hunt”) in South and West Bastar, calling it a spontaneous “people’s movement” against Naxalite violence. This campaign was helped by the region’s underlying class configuration: settler racism towards indigenous people compounds and supports the state’s modernizing drive, which is based on displacing indigenous people for mining and industry. Salwa Judum leaders were mostly non-indigenous immigrants or clients of powerful politicians from either the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the Congress Party who felt threatened by the Maoists – who are considered the major obstacle to mining and investment plans in the region.

Between 2005 and 2007, Salwa Judum fighters, accompanied by security forces, burnt houses, looted grain, livestock and money, and raped and killed villagers. The Maoists retaliated with attacks on security forces. About 50,000 villagers were forcibly moved into “relief camps,” while equal numbers fled into forests or neighboring states. For the villagers who were displaced and divided, this was the most traumatic event of their lives, and although people gradually began returning home after 2007, conditions remain unsettled.

Officially, 2,468 people – civilians, security forces and Maoist cadres – were killed in Chhattisgarh between 2005 and 2016. The actual number is almost certainly higher, with most deaths in 2005-7, or 2009-11, during Operation Green Hunt, when the government sent in the “Central Armed Police Forces” (CAPF), one stage lower than the army, along with unmanned drones, helicopters, and anti-mine tanks.

Following standard counterinsurgency practice, the government recruited surrendered Maoists to identify their former comrades, as well as local youth who thought they were merely signing up for police jobs. Unable to return to their villages, these Special Police Officers (SPOs) now live in police camps, though they are looked down upon by the regular police forces. While some of the security personnel are trigger-happy, enjoying killing for its own sake as well as for the medals and money they receive, others feel helplessly enmeshed in this conflict. Politicians and senior security officials seem largely indifferent to the human tragedy on all sides.

Today, Bastar is the most militarized zone in the country, with security camps ringed by barbed wire every five to ten kilometers. Even though it is widely recognized that the lack of basic health, education and exploitation are the primary causes of popular support for the Maoists, government expenditure on security measures outstrips spending on welfare by a large margin.

Given the similarities to other counterinsurgency campaigns, it is worth asking whether it makes any difference if a counterinsurgency campaign is conducted in a democracy, rather than a military regime or colonial government. How have different institutions and actors – from political parties and human rights organizations to the media and judiciary – reacted?

Parliamentary politics have been irrelevant to the war, since both India’s mainstream parties, the Congress and the BJP, collaborated in promoting it. While the local parliamentary Communist Party of India has played a sterling role, despite severe repression in the process, it does not have much national clout. Statutory institutions like the National Human Rights Commission have been not just disinterested, but actively compromised, while regularly-held elections and the presence of institutions of redress are seen as legitimizing the state, regardless of whether they are effective or democratic.

While the Indian media is both free and energetic, the business interests of media houses and the fact that they do not wish to upset the government beyond a certain point; the fact that regions where counterinsurgency takes place are usually “remote” from urban centers; the fact that there are almost no indigenous or low-caste reporters – all these have meant that massive human rights violations in counterinsurgency are simply not major national concerns. Cycles of reporting in Bastar have ranged from complete neglect to relatively plentiful coverage. But even this has not led to accountability by the government. Structural differences between the English and Hindi media, with the latter operating under more severe economic and political constraints, have also affected coverage.

Villagers walking long distances in protest against Salwa Judum. By unknown local photographer.

Human rights organizations have played a central part in uncovering abuses, negotiating with the Maoists for hostages, and framing the debate around state and guerrilla violence. At the same time, a growing reliance on Internet networks by urban human rights activists often obscures critical issues on the ground. In Chhattisgarh, state support for vigilantism was accompanied by the enactment of an open-ended anti-terror law. The arrest of a well-known doctor and civil liberties activist under this law provoked concern among middle-class networks, though the campaign for his release was almost irrelevant for the indigenous citizens who remained targets of direct counterinsurgency violence without any hope of due process.

While local courts have failed systemically, leading to high incarceration rates for ordinary villagers as well as overcrowding in Chhattisgarh’s jails, the Indian Supreme Court has played an important role in recognizing mass violations in Bastar. However, endless delays and adjournments, and the state’s capacity to simply ignore the Court’s orders, have meant that the Court’s message has not translated into justice on the ground. Despite a clear injunction to the Chhattisgarh state in 2011 to shut down vigilante organizations like the Salwa Judum, to stop recruiting locals into counterinsurgency operations, to compensate victims of the conflict and to punish those guilty of violations, the state has simply persisted in its violations, as if the Court had never spoken.

Since the Modi regime came to power in 2014, several elements of the Salwa Judum have been revived; for the BJP, state-sponsored vigilantism is the normal mode of politics across the country. However, citizens continue to believe in and fight for the democratic project, even if actually-existing democracy leaves much to be desired.

Nandini Sundar, Delhi School of Economics, India <nandinisundar@yahoo.com>

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