The Heart of our Darkness: Troubles in the Adivasi Homelands -1 by Mohan Guruswamy

I had written this note in late 2010 for circulation among policy makers and opinion leaders. It was generally applauded and many senior officials responded very positively to it. Yet typically nothing came out of it. The recent ambush of the Congress party leadership at Sukma should open the closed minds at the upper echelons of our government. Otherwise these deaths too would have been in vain. I have broken this up in three parts. The first two are the main paper, while the third part is of the footnotes. ~ Mohan Guruswamy

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Waking up to Naxalism. The killing of 74 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) soldiers on the wee hours of April 6, 2010 at Chintalnar near Dantewara in the Bastar area of Chhattisgarh state seems to have finally woken up the Indian establishment to the fact that while they have been obsessing with economic growth and India’s place in the world, the country’s hinterland is witnessing an awakening of another kind. A raging insurgency, with its epicenter in the Adivasi[1] homelands of central India, is threatening to engulf at least a quarter of India’s 590 districts. It would not be very far off the mark to state that over 200 million people now live in areas where insurgents of some kind or the other are in armed conflict with the Indian State. It’s not by coincidence that in much of this area, there is a sizable tribal population. Much of the insurgency can now be attributed to Naxalism, probably making it the last communist ideology inspired insurgency in the world. But now the geographical scale dwarfs every such conflict the world has known save the Chinese civil war that finally ended with Mao Zedong’s victory. China has moved on a long way since then, and almost certainly China’s present Chairman no longer inspires the Naxalites, as the first Chairman did.[2]

But the Indian Adivasi regions have been troubled much before the advent of Naxalism or Maoism, as some prefer it. The Naxalite leadership, which is mostly non-Adivasi, has however managed to superimpose its ideological orientation on the long prevalent disaffection of the tribal people. While the Maoists have managed to exploit the tribal unrest over their exploitation and the destruction of their traditional homelands, it would be wrong of the Indian State to tar the Adivasi unrest as naxalism.

When the troubles in first erupted in the predominantly tribal village of Naxalbari[3] and began spreading to other areas in West Bengal, a popular slogan then was "China's Chairman is our Chairman". It may not have fired the minds of the rural masses, but it caught on in the university campuses all over the country. Many students of Delhi's elite St.Stephens College even went underground to fight for the revolution.[4] But they soon, like their compatriots from Kolkata’s elite Presidency College, discovered that revolution was not a dinner party[5], or even a seminar.
If the Stephanians soon came back after discovering that they did not have it in them to stay the hard course nor an appetite for spilling blood, others and more often than not far less privileged, showed that they had in them "right stuff" and the reason for taking recourse to armed action and the violent overthrow of the state. The Naxalbari uprising in West Bengal in 1967 inspired several young Communists in the remote hilly and forested district of Srikakulam[6] in Andhra Pradesh (AP), which abuts the equally remote southeastern corner of Orissa, and they gradually turned to the politics of agrarian revolution.
The Srikakulam Communists sent Nagabhushan Patnaik[7] and Chowdhury Tejeswara Rao to Calcutta in October 1968, to hold talks with Charu Mazumdar. On their return, the newly formed Srikakulam district coordination committee convened a secret meeting where it was resolved that an armed struggle should be launched immediately. Guerilla squads were formed in the plains as well as in the hills of Srikakulam, with the objective of overthrowing the government and establishing a 'people's democratic dictatorship led by the proletariat."
The guerilla movement took off with the forcible harvesting of crops from the land of a rich landlord. On November 25, 1968 something more significant happened in the hill tracts of Parvatipuram. Around 250 tribal people armed with bows and arrows and spears, and led by the legendary peasant organizer, Vempatapu Sathyanarayana[8] and Nagabhushan Patnaik, raided the house of a landlord and took possession of rice and other foodgrains that he had hoarded. They also seized documents, promissory notes and other records that had bound the tribal peasants to the landlord, who was also a moneylender. Several such actions followed in Srikakulam.[9] However, by the mid 1970’s the Srikakulam movement was completely crushed. More than 300 of its activists were killed in “encounters”. But the fires of revolution were not to be easily doused down.
The CPI (ML) only regrouped and spread to other parts of Andhra Pradesh where we have seen periodic recrudescence. The Naxalites made several dramatic strikes in the thickly forested districts of Telangana such as Adilabad, Karimnagar and Warangal during the Emergency. In September 1976 a group of Naxalites attacked the house of a powerful landlord and Congress leader, GV Pitamber Rao, in Tappalpur village in Adilabad district. Pitamber Rao escaped but the shock of the audacious attack is said to have caused a heart attack and he died a few days later. Less than two months later on November 7, a Naxalite squad led by Kondapalli Sitaramiah, later the founder of the Peoples War Group and Muppalla Laxman Rao, presently General Secretary of the CPI (ML) once again attacked the Pitamber Rao house and killed his sons, GV Subhash and Dr. Sampat Rao. The eldest brother, Sreenivas Rao, who looked after the family’s lands and businesses, and who the attackers intended victim, was fortuitously away at the family owned cinema theatre.  Subhash was my classmate at Nizam College in Hyderabad and captained the cricket, basketball and hockey teams. He had little to do with the family estate in the village. The few visits were in the company of his friends like the cricketer Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi when they went out poaching on jeeps with spotlights and high-powered rifles.[10]  On that fateful day, Subhash expressly went to the village to take part in the obsequies of a close relative. His pregnant wife, Vani, was also with him. The Naxalites came looking for his brother Srinivasa Rao, who used to assist the father in the village. Fortuitously for him, Srinivasa Rao was at the family owned cinema theatre when the Naxalites attacked the house. The September attack apparently did make the family more circumspect. Their connections and influence probably lulled them and did not keep them from going to the village. Besides a Velama[11] kinsman, Jalagam Vengala Rao was the Chief Minister and the state government had even posted a police picket in the village to provide the Pitamber Rao household with protection. Another Velama kinsman, the state's powerful DIG of Intelligence, K Vijayarama Rao, later Director of the CBI and minister in the Chandrababu Naidu cabinet, belonged to the neighboring district of Karimnagar. Despite this the Naxalite squad attacked the house and hacked down all the male members present with knives and axes. They took away the weapons in the house and disappeared into the forests. The Tappalpur raids sent a shock wave throughout the state and were seen as a turning point for the movement in Andhra Pradesh.[12]
The Tappalpur raids captured the imagination of educated youth and communist cadres all over the state. Soon after the Naxalite leaders involved in the "Tappalpur raids" were able to form the "Coordination Committee" which was later rechristened as Peoples War Group. The PWG merged with Bihar's Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) to become CPI (Maoists) in October 2004. In 1978 the newly formed Congress (I) swept the elections to the state assembly defeating the Janata Party led in the state by S. Jaipal Reddy and the ruling Congress faction led by the incumbent Chief Minister, J Vengala Rao.
The Indira wave saw the induction of Dr. M Channa Reddy as Chief Minister. The new Chief Minister held out an olive branch to the Naxalites, and initiated talks, but soon it was clear that the only intention of the Naxalites was to use the cease-fire period to regroup and reorganize. The AP Home Minister, MM Hashim, began a Track II dialogue with Naxal representatives and I took part in some of the meetings. The dialogue collapsed when the underground’s representatives began to threaten the interlocutors to ensure that the cessation of operations was extended. The lull of the cease-fire allowed them to expand their cells in the Osmania and Andhra Universities. Many idealistic youth joined the movement, and unlike the upper class lads from St.Stephens and Presidency, these young people stayed the course and many even lost their lives. The intelligence wing of the AP Police was also reporting the setting up of bases in towns like Davangere in Karnataka and Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu.
The Tappalpur raids had sent a wave of fear among the PWD, forest and excise contractors, many of them Congress (I) leaders, and Naxal coffers began to swell. Money, they say, is the mother's milk of politics, revolutionary or otherwise. The PWG also began a campaign to annihilate other Naxalite factions.[13] During this period the PWG also began extending its organization into the tribal areas of the neighboring states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. Kondapalli Sitaramiah emerged as the charismatic leader and ideologue of the CPI (ML). But like Robespierre, Sitaramiah too was consumed by the revolution and the party that he built later expelled him.[14]
The Naxalites had greater success in the tribal areas of the neighboring states, where the depredations of outsiders, whether forest and excise contractors or government officials, had resulted in widespread discontent among the tribal people. The support base of the PWG swelled. Medical students from the Andhra Medical College, Guntur, and engineering students from the Regional Engineering College at Warangal now joined the Osmania University recruits. Like all such revolutionary movements, the cachet that went with being a revolutionary began to also attract lumpen elements, the type that would have otherwise joined the Youth Congress or the youth wings of the other major parties. Since then the Naxalites have gone from strength to strength. The Hindustan Times of 3 January 2007 has done an excellent job of chronologically summarizing the various phases of the many Communist insurrections since 1948.[15]
Even mainstream political parties have found it expedient to seek Naxalite support from time to time for narrow political advantage, by pandering to them and offering them concessions on coming to power. It is also believed that often support was purchased with cash. Several companies with large investments in forest-based industries also began to pay for protection. Companies often do this and we have evidence of how even India’s largest business house, the Tata’s, were paying off ULFA terrorists in Assam.[16]  Extortion is commonplace now in Naxal areas.[17]  In the run up to the 1983 elections to the Andhra Pradesh state assembly, the film actor NT Rama who was leading his recently formed Telugu Desam Party, dramatically declared himself an ally of the Naxalites. He even campaigned using the theme that they were “true patriots, who have been misunderstood by the ruling classes.”[18] Almost a decade later during his second innings as Chief Minister he lifted the ban on left-wing extremism in the hope of once again associating himself with the movement’s political popularity. This worked out quite well for his party due to the pockets of influence the Naxalites had in several in many districts
Pandering often is a matter of minimizing the government’s response to insurgent threats, either to acquire time for political enhancements or to reduce threats to officials’ personal security. Prior to 2004, the Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh pledged to hold discussions with rebels if its candidates were elected. The party’s pledge was a tacit agreement that while talks or negotiations were ongoing, the officials would halt counter-insurgency operations, thereby providing a recovery period for the insurgents. The Naxalites also announced their ceasefire and permitted officials to campaign in the insurgent-held areas. The rebels effectively used the suspension of counter-insurgency operations and the resulting ceasefire to recruit and consolidate their position by moving openly among the population. The Congress Party did not actively support the Maoist insurgents’ ideals, but did indicate it would minimize any counter-insurgency operations in return for electoral support.[19] This it did. Soon after assumption of office in 2004, the Rajasekhara Reddy government began talks with the Naxalite leadership. A tacit ceasefire was put in place. This period lasted for exactly six months till December 16 that year. The Naxalites, as in the past, used this interregnum to attempt expansion into newer areas and the police used it to gather information and reorganize their forces to effectively tackle the extremists. Suddenly Rajasekhara Reddy, who during his long campaign for political power promised to talk to the Naxalites about the “people’s problems”, shifted tack and began saying: “where is the need to talk to the Naxalites about peoples problems?” He made it clear that he was only willing to talk to them about surrender.[20] Soon after the AP Police resumed operations against them and many of the prominent Naxalite leaders were killed in “encounters” – some real and some staged. The renewed and relentless pressure forced most of the Andhra naxal cadres to migrate to Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Orissa. Many others surrendered and soon found that the vocational skills acquired in the underground had plenty of takers in India’s fast globalizing market economy. Many former Naxalites are now collection agents for private agencies employed by banks like ICICI and HDFC, who lent huge sums as vehicle loans. In recent days cell phone companies have also taken recourse to collection agents. Debt collection now is an organized business and several sons of senior police officers now own successful companies and offer gainful employment to former Naxalites.[21] While the Naxal movement derived its name from a little West Bengal village, its Andhra Pradesh that is its real home now, and which provides it with leadership and ideological sustenance.

On December 20, 2007 India’s Prime Minister formally declared war on the Naxalite insurgency when he addressed a high level conference on internal security consisting Chief Ministers, Police and Intelligence chiefs, top civil servants and representatives of most political parties. Since then the Prime Minister has been using every available platform to call for the "crushing" of the Naxalites. [22]

Clearly while India was opening up its economy and entering a faster growth trajectory and while India was even shining, the Naxalites have gathered more momentum. They are now emboldened to frontally take on the Indian state. While they still hold full sway over relatively small areas, they have made an impact in a very large area.  They have made the hitherto unconcerned Indian elite, sit up and take notice. The General Secretary of the CPI (Maoist) is no longer coy about boasting about this.[23]

The Enfeebled State. This call to crush Naxalism brings to mind a line from Zafar Gorakhpuri’s popular qawwali in the form of a competitive duet between Yusuf Azad and Rashida Khatun featured in the 1972 movie Putli Bai. It runs: “Inke kalai dekho tho chudiyan uthane ke kabhil nahi, phir bhi talwar uthane ki dhamki…”(a look at her wrist tells you that it is not even capable of sustaining the weight of bangles, yet she threatens to lift a sword to strike me down).  I am not alluding to the weight of the PM’s kada[24] but to the worn out sinews of the State that are now hardly capable of quelling any armed assault upon it, let alone assuaging the causes that force normally compliant people to resort to violence. Having traveled several times through the “Red Corridor” areas in AP, Chhattisgarh, MP and Maharashtra I have little hesitation in testifying that the insurgency has considerable popular support, particularly among the dalits and adivasis for whom trickle down has meant a little more of little less. In the forested areas of central India, the khaki wearing police, forest and excise departments are truly hated, and this is just about all the government the common people encounter. This is not a mere law and order problem, but a consequence of a failed state, which could do little to uplift the lives of the tens of millions who inhabit this region. If the state us serious about rolling back the tide of Naxalism, it needs to undertake nothing less than a total revamp of the system of public administration and adopt new paradigms of equity and justice.

The Government of India has a typically bureaucratic response to this major crisis now gripping the Adivasi homelands in six states[25]. The government has already ordered the raising of twenty-five more battalions of armed police, mostly for the CRPF and India Reserve. The Home Minister, P Chidambaram, has launched a somewhat inappropriately named offensive “Operation Greenhunt”[26] to beat down the insurgency. It is indeed unfortunate that the government and the establishment are seeing this as a law and order problem because more coercion by the state will only beget more against it by the aggrieved people.

In his closing remarks in The December 20, 2007 conference, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said conferences of this nature send a strong message that the “political leadership of the country can rise above our political and party affiliations when it comes to facing national challenges, particularly those concerning internal security.” The conference was attended by the full spectrum of national leadership including the BJP and CPM and they all expressed full support for the Prime Minister's rather rare display of determination. It was clear that the entire national leadership was not just speaking but also thinking as one, as if seized by groupthink.
It was the social psychologist Irving Janis[27] who coined the term groupthink to denote faulty decisions a group makes when group pressures and dynamics lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment.” In his seminal book Victims of Groupthink[28] published in 1972, Janis analyzed the failures in decision-making that lead to failed outcomes in Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War. Janis defined “groupthink” as the tendency of some groups to try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without sufficiently testing, analyzing, and evaluating their ideas. His work showed how pressures for conformity restrict the thinking of the group; bias its analysis, promotes simplistic and stereotyped thinking, and stifles individual creative and independent thought. The Nobel Prize winning scientist Dr. Richard Feynman in his appendix to the Rogers Commission Report of the space shuttle Challenger accident alluded to groupthink prevalent in the higher echelons of NASA, which directly contributed to the disaster. Psychologists now recognize groupthink as a serious disorder and it very simply means that when all are thinking alike nobody is probably really thinking. Signs of it among the nation’s top leaders are an ominous portent of things to come.
The Exploitation of the AdivasisThe spread of Naxalism is an indication of the sense of desperation and alienation that is sweeping over of large sections of our nation who have been not only systematically marginalized but also cruelly exploited and dispossessed in their last homelands. The late Professor Nihar Ranjan Ray[29], one of our most distinguished historians, described the central Indian adivasis as “the original autochthonous people of India” meaning that their presence in India pre-dated by far the Dravidians, the Aryans and whoever else settled in this country. The anthropologist Dr. Verrier Elwin[30] states this more emphatically when he wrote: “These are the real swadeshi products of India, in whose presence all others are foreign. These are ancient people with moral rights and claims thousands of years old. They were here first and should come first in our regard.” Unfortunately like indigenous people all over the world, the India’s Adivasis too have been savaged and ravaged by later people claiming to be more “civilized”. They still account for almost 8% of India’s population and are easily it’s most deprived and oppressed section.[31] There are some 573 communities recognized by the government as Scheduled Tribes and therefore eligible to receive special benefits and to compete for reserved seats in legislatures and schools. The biggest tribal group, the Gonds, number about 7.4 million; followed by the Santhals with about 4.2 million. The smallest tribal community is the Chaimal’s in the Andaman Islands who number just eighteen. Central India is home to the country's largest tribes, and, taken as a whole, roughly 75 percent of the total tribal population live there.[32]

Tribal people account for 8.2% of India’s population. They are spread over all of India’s States and Union territories. Even so they can be broadly classified into three groupings. The first grouping consists of populations who predate the Indo-Aryan migrations. These are termed by many anthropologists as the Austro-Asiatic-speaking Australoid people.[33] The Central Indian adivasi’s belong to this grouping. The other two major groupings are the Caucasoid and Sino-Tibetan or Mongoloid tribal people of the Himalayan and Northeastern regions who migrated at later periods. If we accept this, then the only people who conform to Nihar Ranjan Ray’s decription of the “original autochthonous people of India” are the Central Indian tribes. The other two broad tribal groupings have fared better in the post-independence dispensation. Within them some, such as the Meena’s and Gujjar’s of Rajasthan, have done exceptionally well, which should make us wonder if they should be eligible to claim benefits as Scheduled Tribes any more? Clearly all Scheduled Tribes are not adivasis.

In the decades after independence the exploitation has only become more rampant. The adivasi homelands are rich in natural resources and the new modernizing and industrializing India needs these resources. Today all the mineral resources except oil that India boasts off are to be found only in these areas and the state has not been lax in exploiting them. The only problem is that the people whose homelands were ravaged to extract nature’s bounty got little or nothing of it. Even the meager royalties the states receive are mostly expended by the bureaucracy on themselves, as salaries have now become the biggest single expenditure of the Indian states. Sometimes they even exceed all revenues. At last count, before the Sixth Pay Commission's recommendations were implemented, the total wage bill of India’s multi-tiered government is a monstrous Rs.193, 000 crores or about 5.6% of the GNP.[34] That the capital expenditure of the central and state governments has come down to about 10% of the annual budgets does not seem to worry the eminent economist who presides over the Planning Commission.

We all now know very well that big government in the absence of a responsive nervous system actually means little government, and whatever little interaction the people at the bottom have with the state is usually a none too happy one. In the vast Central Indian highlands the occasional visit of an official invariably means extraction by coercion of what little the poor people have. It doesn’t just end with a chicken or a goat or a bottle of mahua[35], it often includes all these and the modesties of the womenfolk. Most tribal villages and settlements have no access to schools and medical care. Very few are connected with all weather roads. Perish the thought of electricity though all the coal and most of the hydel projects to generate electricity are in the tribal regions. The forests have been pillaged and the virgin forests thick with giant teak and sal trees are things of the past.

In Orissa over 72% of all adivasis live well below the poverty line.[36] At the national level 45.86% of all adivasis live below the poverty line. Incidentally the official Indian poverty line is a nothing more than a starvation line,[37] which means that almost half of India’s original inhabitants go to bed every night starving. Several anthropometric studies have revealed that successive generations of adivasis are actually becoming smaller unlike all other people in India who benefit from better and increasingly nutritious diets. What little the Indian state apportions to the welfare and development of indigenous people gets absorbed in the porous layers of our government. The late Rajiv Gandhi once famously said that less than 15% of the money allocated to rural areas actually percolated down.[38]

A typical instance of this is in the eight tribal majority KBK (Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput)[39] districts of Orissa where over Rs.2000 crores cumulatively spent ostensibly on social welfare and rural development schemes during the past three years has just vanished leaving little or no evidence of done any of the intended recipients any good. The people are not having any more of it and have taken to coercing the state, dishing out to it what its minions have been doing for ages.

The migration of non-tribals is a long story. Way back in 1945 the Revenue Department of the Nizam’s Government in Hyderabad commissioned the Austrian anthropologist, Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf,[40] to study the condition of tribals in the state and make appropriate policy recommendations.[41] The four studies of the tribal groups in the northern areas of Hyderabad narrate how in the settled villages of the tribal areas outsiders owned most of the land under cultivation. A typical instance is the Koya (Gond) village of Ragleyanguda in Yellandu taluq. The total area under cultivation here was 1616 acres. Of a Koya population of 254 there were only five Koya pattadars who together owned 24 acres in all. It is the same story today and the Adivasi has been pushed further into the remaining jungle or into menial existence while the land has been appropriated by Hindu and Muslim settlers. They are now the majority in only a fraction of their original homelands.

The Land of the Koitur. There is a vast and mostly forested region spanning almost the entire midriff of India from Orissa to Gujarat, lying between the westbound Narmada and eastbound Godavari, bounded by many mountain ranges like the Vindhya, Satpura, Mahadeo, Meykul, and Abujhmar, that was once the main home of the original autochthonous Indian, the Adivasi. Though this is the home of many tribal groups, the largest tribal group, the Gonds, dominated the region. The earliest Gond kingdom appears to date from the 10th century and the Gond Rajas were able to maintain a relatively independent existence until the 18th century, although they were compelled to offer nominal allegiance to the Mughal Empire. The great historian Jadunath Sarkar records: “In the sixteenth and seventeenth century much of the modern Central Provinces (today’s MP) were under the sway of aboriginal Gond chiefs and was known under the name of Gondwana. A Mughal invasion and the sack of the capital had crippled the great Gond kingdom of Garh-Mandla in Akbar’s reign and later by Bundela encroachments from the north. But in the middle of the seventeenth century another Gond kingdom with its capital at Deogarh, rose to greatness, and extended its sway over the districts of Betul, Chindwara, and Nagpur, and portions of Seoni, Bhandara and Balaghat. In the southern part of Gondwana stood the town of Chanda, the seat of the third Gond dynasty and hereditary foe and rival of the Raja of Deogarh.” But the glory of Deogarh departed when the Maratha ruler of Nagpur annexed Deogarh after the death of Chand Sultan.[42]  Incidentally the Gond ruler of Deogarh, Bakht Buland, founded the city of Nagpur. Jadunath Sarkar writes about him thus: “He lived to extend the area, power and prosperity of his kingdom very largely and to give the greatest trouble to Aurangzeb in the last years of his reign.” In fact the one big reason Aurangzeb could not deploy all his power against Shivaji was because the Gond kings were constantly at war with the Mughals and kept interdicting the lines from the Deccan to Agra. But of course the history of modern India is not generous to them.

Jabalpur was another one of the major centers of the Garh-Mandla kingdom and like other major dynastic capitals had a large fort and palace. Temples and palaces with extremely fine carvings and erotic sculptures came up throughout the Gond kingdoms. The temple of Bhoramdeo at Kawardha[43] in Chhattisgarh still stands as a testimony to levels of culture and craft attained during the heydays of the Gonds.
During the British days this region constituted much of the Central Provinces of India later to become Madhya Pradesh. This is the main home of about seven million Gond people who are India’s largest single tribal grouping.[44] The Gonds are now a culturally and linguistically heterogeneous people having attained much cultural uniformity with the dominant linguistic influences of their region. Thus, the Gonds of the eastern and northwestern Madhya Pradesh region that now includes the new state of Chhattisgarh speak Chattisgarhi and western Hindi. But the Gonds of Bastar, which is at the southeastern end of this vast region and a part of Chhattisgarh, are different in this respect. Though there are many tribal groups like the Halbas, Bhatras, Parjas and Dorlas, the Maria and Bison Horned Gonds are the most numerous. The language spoken by them, like that of the Koyas of AP is an intermediate Dravidian language closer to Telugu and Kanarese. There is a history to this.

According to Sir WV Grigson, ICS. who in 1938 wrote the still widely referred to “The Maria Gonds of Bastar”[45], the Bastar princely family was descended from the Kakatiya kings who reigned at Warangal from AD 1150 to 1425. According to Bastar tradition and folk songs after Pratap Rudra Raya, the greatest of the Kakatiya kings was killed in battle with the invading forces of Ahmad Shah Bahmani, his brother Annam Deo fled across the Godavari into Bastar. Bastar was then constituted of a group of loosely held feudal dependencies of Warangal. 

Annam Deo then founded a line that continued till 1966 when the last ruler, the much revered Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo was killed at the instance of the MP government of Dwarka Prasad Mishra for having resisted the Congress party’s attempts to extend its influence into the region and for championing the rights of the tribal people. When Pravir Chandra ascended the gadi in 1936 he was the twentieth in his line to reign in Bastar. Such is the reverence for Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo among the tribal's that even today his pictures are sold in the shops at the entrance of the great Danteshwari temple at Dantewara.[46]

Telugu inscriptions at the temple town of Barsur and Kuruspal on the Indrawati River tell of a line of Telugu kings, the Nagavansi that ruled Bastar even as early as the eleventh century. But this is not important anymore. What is relevant is that the Gonds of Bastar are now considered by anthropologists to be a distinct group and are referred to as the “Koitur”. Grigson even writes that the Maria and Bison Horned Gonds of Bastar resent being called Gonds.  

Wherever the Gonds still speak their own language they refer to themselves as Koi or Koitur. It is only in the Telugu regions that a name close to what they call themselves, Koya, is used for them. Anthropologists generally refer to only these “Teluguized” Gonds as Koitur and even though there are large groups of Koitur living in AP and Maharashtra, Bastar is truly the land of the Koitur. The old Bastar state when it was incorporated into independent India as a district of the former Central Provinces was an area as large as the state of Kerala.[47] This district has been made into two with a second district Dantewara carved out of it, and with the old Antagarh tehsil now becoming a part of Kanker district.

I have been visiting Bastar since I was a teenager in the mid 1960’s when I crossed the Godavari with my father in pursuit of a man-eating leopard near the village of Pujari Kanker nestled in the Abalaka range. Since then a great many changes have come about, as they have elsewhere, and have mostly been to the disadvantage of the Adivasi. The process of Hinduization combined with Hindi culture has reduced the egalitarian Koitur to the bottom of the social strata. Dr. Kalyan Kumar Chakravarthy, Director of the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal has written eloquently and cogently on this in his concluding chapter “Extinction or Adaptation of the Gonds” in the book “Tribal Identity in India” also edited by him.[48] The Sangrahalaya established for the exclusive study, research and preservation for posterity the unique aspects of India’s tribal societies and their culture, has most beautifully and imaginatively recreated these on the Shamla Hills overlooking Bhopal’s magnificent lake. Public attitudes in metropolitan India however seem to have been conditioned by the works of artists like JP Singhal[49] who has through his popular calendar art of bare breasted tribal women titillated millions and served to establish the generally prevalent view of these people. Popular Indian cinema has consistently depicted tribals in a lurid and garish manner. It is common to have them painted black and dancing in grass skirts in a new musical genre called the Bollywood Tribal Fusion.[50] Even the Ramayana cannot be deemed exempt of having nurtured certain attitudes about Adivasis. What was the monkey army about? If we have to give it the status of a historical narrative then are we to believe that talking monkeys existed? Or possibly a now extinct race of androids? Or was it poetic license that the writers took to describe indigenous people in the manner they were thought of? More likely is that it reflected prevalent racial attitudes at the time of writing that persist because of the sanctified status of the mythology.[51] Several scholars have indeed written about this, but the need to be politically correct is overridden by popular belief and sentiment.

Much of the dense forests of Bastar have since been chopped down and the animals hunted to near extinction. Once great herds of wild buffalo have been reduced to a mere handful precariously surviving near Kutru. There are only a few tigers left in the beautiful Kanger Valley Reserve.[52] The traditional existence of the Koitur is as much threatened. Migrants from other parts, now increasingly from the Hindi speaking areas of old Madhya Pradesh have settled in large numbers and have reduced the indigenous population to a minority in many areas particularly in and around Jagdalpur and Kondagaon.

The National Mineral Development Corporation, a PSU, operates India’s largest iron ore mine in Bailadilla in Dantewara district.[53] Instead of bringing prosperity to the local people it has done irrevocable harm. Few benefits of this economic exploitation have trickled down to them while the ecological degradation of the area is devastating. Even worse has been the social degradation that has visited the Koitur Gonds in general and the sexual exploitation of their women in particular by people from the so-called civilized sections and regions of India.[54]

Enter the Telugu Speakers. The migration of Telugu speaking people in the areas near the Godavari has also continued unabated and they have done in southern Bastar what they have done in Adilabad, Warangal, Khammam and East Godavari. They have swamped the tribal population, exploited them mercilessly and have reduced them to penury and second class citizenship in their ancient lands. And quite ironically it is from these that the nucleus of the Naxalite leadership has emerged. Though the Naxal movement is now almost entirely centered in the Adivasi homelands one cannot but notice a disconnect between what the tribals seek and what the Naxalites provide. Few adivasis have heard of Mao Zedong or care for what he stood and did. The Naxalites on the other hand deify him. To them that China’s Chairman is still the Chairman! They are steeped in the dialectics and folklore of that phase of China. Few of them have studied Mao or have even read about him. One even doubts if any of the St. Stephens or Presidency College students who so romanticized Mao would have known much about him.[55]

I recall a rather surreal conversation I had with a group of Andhra University students who had taken to the hills with the PWG. In late 1983 I was on my way to Chintur in East Godavari district and was driving down from Bhadrachallam skirting the Bastar border. At the village of Edugurallapalle (literally means seven horse village possibly because it was an official horse station with provision to stable seven horses in the old Asaf Jahi days?), my companion and I ran into some Naxal’s. Like college educated young people they were quite eager to get into a discussion and soon the discussion veered around to the internecine battle between the various groups. My new friends described one of the other major factions as Lin Piaoist[56] and considered them the main enemy of their faction.[57] Like amoeba the CPI (ML) founded by Charu Mazumdar has undergone frequent meiosis and mitosis, splitting and uniting all the time. If it didn’t have so many bloody consequences it might even be quite funny. At last count there are no less than fifteen Naxalite parties. The sheer absurdity of sitting in the jungles of Dandakaranya and debating the merits or otherwise of the departed Lin Biao did not seem to strike them at all. What had all this got to do with the immediate problems of the adivasi people?

Yet today the entire greater homeland of the Koitur Gonds in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh is under the thrall of the Telugu speaking Naxalite leadership, which now has an increasingly symbiotic relationship with rapacious forest and PWD contractors, and corrupt officialdom. Some may argue that this relationship is inevitable since any revolutionary movement needs to sustain itself. There is good precedence for this. Josef Stalin regularly extorted money from the oil barons and  moneyed interests in Baku, apart from kidnapping and robbing banks to finance Lenin in his distant exile which kept him in places like London, Vienna and Geneva.[58] Whatever be the means of financing, it is in remote and isolated Bastar that the insurgency has found a true home and has had its greatest impact. Yet this is not an isolated insurgency as the Telangana insurgency of the late 1940’s was.[59]  The forest tracts of the central Indian highlands are almost contiguous and link up with the forests of Chota Nagpur in Jharkhand and are easily linked with the Nepali Terai where a fraternal party is now a major player in working out new constitutional arrangements. Its thirty thousand combatants sit in UN maintained camps as the political process goes on.

“Enemies of the Brahmin Samaj"! During my last visit to Bastar a few years ago, I encountered well-armed insurgent groups in two different places. On my way from Narainpur to Barsur on the forest road along the base of the Abujhumar Mountains, we ran into a roadblock laid by visibly armed men just a few kilometers out of Chota Dongar. Providentially it was on a straight and I was able to stop my vehicle at some distance and reverse my direction of travel. Back at Chota Dongar where a large weekly market was underway as we stopped to catch our breath and also to witness the cockfights, we ran into a bunch of very scared, very drunk, and very armed policemen who insisted we see photographs of what a Naxalite squad had done to a colleague the week before on the same road. His head was smashed with boulders. When we told them of our encounter with the other side just a short distance down the road, they showed absolutely no interest in engaging them and strongly urged us to return to Narainpur, which we promptly did.

The forest bungalow at Narainpur is right opposite the main bus stand and when we went out that evening to make calls to our homes, the phone booth owner told us about what happened just a short while earlier. It seems that a group of armed policemen had boarded a bus bound from Chota Dongar for Narainpur. Midway, near Mahimagawadi, the bus was stopped and a group of armed Naxalites boarded it. The policemen were at the rear of the bus and the Naxalites sat in the front. In between sat many terrified passengers. The bus made its way to its destination and all aboard, the enemies of the state, the agents of the inimical state and innocent villagers alike disembarked and dispersed into the night. Quite clearly there is a balance of terror now in Bastar that forces co-existence. The gun ruled and the state has almost entirely withered away.

After the formation of Chattisgarh political power, instead of reflecting the tribal density and aspirations, generally passed into the hands of the Hindu elite.  For a short period the new state had in Ajit Jogi, a former IAS officer and professedly a tribal belonging to the Marwahi tribe, as its first Chief Minister. Jogi was controversial from the very beginning. His tribal status was challenged in the courts. He was also a Christian. He faced many corruption charges, but this degree of corruption is just par for the course for an Indian politician. Nevertheless the ire of the Hindu upper castes are reserved for the dalits and adivasis who grab office from the traditional groups who provide the leadership to all of India’s major political parties. Perhaps the biggest recommendation for him came from a Sub-inspector of Police in Narayanpur who fired a flaming glob of spittle reddened by paan at an invisible Ajit Jogi and described him as an enemy of the Brahmin Samaj. To be that in Bastar, where the real enemy is the creeping Hinduization with all its attendant values and exclusionary practices, seems to me a good start to the process of saving its tribal society from extinction. All over the rest of India’s central highlands our policies by forcing the Adivasis to merge their identities with that of the encroaching culture have crushed them into a becoming a feeble and self-pitying underclass. 

The armed police first went into Bastar, now in Chhattisgarh in 1966. The Gond people in Bastar revolted against the corrupt and exploitative ways of the Madhya Pradesh Congress government of DP Mishra. Pandit DP Mishra, a Sanskrit scholar of some repute, was very closely identified with the powerful bidi and tendu leaf interests in Madhya Pradesh. He was also a Hindu traditionalist with all the social habits and prejudices of the Brahmin orthodoxy. His interest in Bastar was mainly for its abundance of tendu leaves and teak in its rich forests. In those days the Bastar forest began at Keskal and went down all the way to the Godavari in the south, and the Sabari in the east. Even today you can see remnants of the virgin teak forests in Abujhumar that will give you an idea of what this forest was like. All that has now long vanished. The forests have receded south of Jagdalpur and even around Dantewara, what you see are leftovers of that great forest.

DP Mishra’s government began the vandalization of Bastar that continues even today. When the adivasis began to protest against this assault on their habitat and began rallying around the traditional ruler, Mishra unleashed the police. Matters came to a head on 25 March 1966 when the police fired on the adivasi's who congregated in Jagdalpur to pay the customary Dussera homage to their Raja, Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo. Not only did the MP police kill scores of adivasis, but they also gunned down the Raja in his home in cold blood. Soon after this incident central forces were deployed in Bastar and one got a first hand look at the havoc they wrought.  The armed forces only repeated what they had done in the Naga Hills. In those days the armed forces used Lee Enfield .303 rifles and the adivasis used bows and arrows and the occasional muzzle-loading gun. With the advent of the AK-47 capable of delivering over 650 rounds per minute combined with an intimate knowledge of the terrain, the Naxalites, now mostly adivasi volunteers are not as disadvantaged as before. In the recent months the police have been at the receiving end and the Prime Minister is a worried man.

The only sign of the state here were the pockmarked buildings that once housed government schools and primary health centers (PHC’s). At the village haat near Dantewara, as we stood watching cockfights a naxal patrol quietly came along and took talashi of our vehicle. They had a few good laughs over the cartons of mineral water we were carrying but refused to pose for pictures. Two days prior to this the vehicle was stopped and searched in AP’s Warangal district by an armed police patrol. The Sub-inspector leading the team was drunk, as were most of his men. The first question was whether we were carrying firearms? Then they wanted to know how much cash we were carrying? Then things got a bit hairy. They wanted to know as to how we had entered the forest area without “permission”. One got the distinct feeling that only our facility with English and the Delhi license plates prevented an encounter. And now Dr. Manmohan Singh's only serious proposal is to raise twenty-five more battalions of such fine fighting men to defend our democratic way of life and to uphold the Constitution?

Clearly there are two distinct reasons for the present unrest in the Adivasi homelands of India. The first and probably the more important one is the struggle for identity against the creeping Hinduization or de-culturisation of Adivasi society. Adivasi society was built on a foundation of equality. People were given respect and status according to their contribution to social needs but only while they were performing that particular function. Such a value-system was sustainable as long as the Adivasi community was non-acquisitive and all the products of society were shared. Adivasi society has been under constant pressure as the money economy grew and made traditional forms of barter less difficult to sustain.[60]
In his well-regarded ethnographic monograph “The Reddi’s of Bison Hills”, the anthropologist Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf[61] recounts an incident he was witness to while studying this small tribal community near Parantapalli in the Paloncha Samasthan of the erstwhile Hyderabad State. It seems that a sambhar hind wounded by pursuing hunters living on the opposite bank of the Godavari crossed over to the shallow waters on the southern bank. The tribals here, who are still considered to be among the most backward and who at best of times went mostly hungry, instead of seizing the sambhar drove it back to the other side as by custom the prize belonged to the first group. This quality of altruism will seldom be seen in any of our Hindu villages, where exploitation and forcible expropriation of property is a common fact of life.
The cleanliness of Adivasi villages and homes is a treat to ones eyes. The houses are colorfully painted and decorated, neat and clean. The surroundings are also kept clean. Even a Konda Reddi home, constructed on a raised earthen platform and made of bamboo and palm thatch is airy, neat and kept exceptionally clean. The Santhals, who make very picturesque houses, have an exceptional eye for beauty and aesthetics. They are also deeply concerned with personal hygiene and the cleanliness of their surroundings. A Santhal folk tale says "God placed rice inside a husk so it would remain clean". This is in stark contrast to homes in Hindu and Muslim dominated villages, which even in the wealthier areas of India are appallingly dirty and downright filthy. It is therefore, quite ironical, to see proposal after proposal from NGO’s and other institutions seeking funding for community work in tribal areas citing the inculcation of cleanliness as among their main goals.
Tribal societies came under stress due to several other factors. Over the centuries the extension of commerce, military incursions on tribal land, and the resettling of Brahmins amidst tribal populations had an impact, as did ideological coercion or persuasion to attract key members of the tribe into "mainstream" Hindu society. This only led to many tribal communities becoming integrated into Hindu society as lower jatis (or castes). Quite clearly Hindu ways with their emphasis on stratification did not and still do not provide for any improvement in the status of the Adivasis.  This and the failure of the government to provide even a modicum of development and improvement on the physical quality of life has left in its wake room for newer kinds of proselytism’s. Marxism-Leninism/Maoism is one of them.  The other creeping encroachment is that of the Christian missionaries who with their deep pockets and pocketbook conversions promise an exit from the material drudgery of life. Many Adivasis have found a good via media. Christian missionary provided education and healthcare in return for a supposed adherence to the Christian faith. Since the demand by Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998 for a debate on conversion, the RSS and its front organizations have stepped up attacks on Christian missionaries and tried to drive them away from. The gruesome killing of the Australian missionary, the Dr. Graham Staines and his two children, which followed soon after captured our headlines for a brief period.[62]
The failure of Government in the tribal homelands is well documented. Even the Prime Minister was forced to admit it. In the same meeting of November 27, 2009 Dr. Manmohan Singh conceded that the Indian state and establishment have abused and exploited the country’s more than 80 million tribal people. “There has been a systemic failure in giving the tribal’s a stake in the modern economic processes that inexorably intrude into their living spaces. The alienation built over decades is now taking a dangerous turn in some parts of our country. The systematic exploitation and social and economic abuse of our tribal communities can no longer be tolerated.” The Prime Minister also said the country’s authorities “must change our ways of dealing with tribal’s” and give them a “healing touch.” It is “highly important,” declared Singh, to integrate the tribal peoples “into the development processes… But this should not become a means of exploitation or be at the cost of their unique identity and their culture. This is the space the Naxalites are now exploiting,

A Tradition of Revolt and Resistance. The Adivasi revolts predate the advent of the Naxalites by more than a couple of centuries. Displaced from their homes, alienated from their lands and deprived of their resources, the tribal people have often taken to armed revolt in the past. In the Rampa region of East Godavari district more than a dozen tribal revolts occurred between 1770 and 1924. The main causes of these were the general discontent with the local administration and jagirdars, and traders and exploitation by outsiders. One revolt, between 1879 and 1916, was against the creation of forest reserves and restrictions on tribal people's access to the jungles.[63]
Alluri Sitaramaraju who became a local legend led the 1922-24 rebellion, against the restrictions on shifting cultivation, and access to forests and the tyranny of petty local officials. In Adilabad district, which has a predominant Gond population, the Bebijhari uprising in 1940 was against exploitation by non-tribal people and land alienation, and restrictions on shifting cultivation and access to forests.[64]
Elsewhere in India too the Adivasi ferment predates even the freedom movement. As soon as the British took over Eastern India tribal revolts broke out to challenge alien rule. In the early years of colonization, no other community in India offered such heroic resistance to British rule or faced such tragic consequences, as did the numerous Adivasi communities of now Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Bengal. In 1772, the Paharia revolt broke out which was followed by a five-year uprising led by Tilka Manjhi who was hanged in Bhagalpur in 1785. The Tamar and Munda revolts followed. In the next two decades, revolts took place in Singhbhum, Gumla, Birbhum, Bankura, Manbhoom and Palamau, followed by the great Kol Risings of 1832 and the Khewar and Bhumij revolts (1832-34). In 1855, the Santhals waged war against the permanent settlement of Lord Cornwallis, and a year later, numerous Adivasi leaders played key roles in the 1857 war of independence.
The British through massive deployment of troops quelled Adivasi uprisings in the Jharkhand belt across the region. The Kherwar uprising and the Birsa Munda movement were the most important of the late-18th century struggles against British rule and their local agents. The long struggle led by Birsa Munda was directed at British policies that allowed the zamindars and moneylenders to harshly exploit the Adivasis. In 1914 Jatra Oraon started what is called the Tana Movement (which drew the participation of over 25,500 Adivasis). The Tana movement joined the nation-wide Satyagraha Movement in 1920 and stopped the payment of land-taxes to the colonial Government.
During British rule, several revolts also took place in Orissa that naturally drew participation from the Adivasis. The significant ones included the Paik Rebellion of 1817, the Ghumsar uprisings of 1836-1856, and the Sambhalpur revolt of 1857-1864.[65]
Clearly the Government needs to think its way through this more carefully and with far greater intelligence than it has shown itself capable of so far. It must be able to distinguish Adivasi aspirations from Maoist intentions. The former needs to be nurtured while the later needs to be defeated. But the problem is that this is beyond the capability of the public administration apparatus we have in place now.