Rohit Prasad set out to probe how the government and ordinary people in India’s remote areas used IT and communication technology to transform society. But when he saw how the other half lived in abysmal conditions, he realigned his focus. The result? He journeyed through tiny hamlets, bustling village bazaars, sleepy highway towns, and cities bristling with ambition in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand – particularly the former – to weave a gripping story on India’s Maoist heartland.
His sympathies clearly are with the mass of poor and impoverished tribals but he does not find fault only with the State. The tribals are caught between the State and Maoists, he says, often unable to decide whom they must ally with for a better future.
Like all guerrilla forces, the outlawed Communist Party of India-Maoist thrives on a shadowy mix of bluff and genuine strength, giving the combined security forces a tough time despite being heavily outnumbered. And while government officials are actively involved in looting the public exchequer, the Maoists are not above board. Many police officers tell the author of the “extraordinary commitment and sacrifice their enemy is capable of” but quickly add that younger Maoists, weaker ideologically, may be different.
With corporate houses backed by the State desperate to exploit the vast mineral wealth lying buried in the sprawling tribal country now in part held by Maoists, it is a terrifying story. As it is, the tribal world is a cruel world. Fifty per cent of all tribals live in poverty, only 43 per cent have access to safe water and nearly 30 per cent have no access to any healthcare. Among their children, only 42 per cent have ever been immunized. Their traditional forests are under siege, both legally and illegally. Anyone who protests can be dubbed a Maoist and jailed. The author meets one such terrified victim, Arjun, who was freed from prison after seven long years when police could not prove what was anyway a lie: that he was a Maoist.
Extreme State violence (Remember Salwa Judum?) has only pushed more young tribals into Maoist ranks. And in villages claimed by both the security forces and the Maoists, every tribal is a suspect – from both sides. Trials involving tribals drag on and on. Often, prosecution witnesses – including doctors, security personnel – do not show up in courts. The tribals themselves don’t have money to fight their cases. In the process, Chhaattisgarh today has one of the highest percentages of jailed citizens. Lawyers and rights activists who work for the poor are harassed – and accused of having Maoist sympathies. Activists like Soni Sori — now with the AAP – carry on despite the enormous dangers.
Is there a future for India’s Maoist country? Prasad has his fingers crossed. For one, “the systemic causes that enable guerrilla forces to win over the people – the practices adopted in industrialization and forestry, for example — remain unaddressed by the Indian state.” The author insists that there are windows of opportunity for a development path that involves a significantly less traumatic and lower rate of displacement of tribals than is the case now. But will officials go for it? And since Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bastar in May 2015, the situation has only deteriorated. Will the war in Maoist country never end?
By M.R. Narayan Swamy