When I first visited Bastar in 1990 as a PhD student researching colonialism and resistance, the newspapers occasionally reported 'Naxalite incidents' such as police–guerrilla encounters, along with accounts of murders and human sacrifices. But all these were 'far away', in places like Bijapur or Golapalli or Kistaram at the western and southern extremities of the state. In the Dhurwa belt where I lived, the Maoists were still exotic. There was little in the newspapers then about who the Naxalites were or what villagers thought about them. This kind of reporting that obliterates, even as it names, has remained constant over the decades.
From the bureaucratic redoubts of Delhi and Bhopal (Bastar was still part of undivided Madhya Pradesh), the government ruled over a vast tract in principle if not in practice, replacing the ritualism of the old kingdoms of Bastar and Kanker with an indifferent administration. The main problem I saw was exploitation by immigrant traders, mostly Thakurs from Uttar Pradesh, who ran the trade in minor forest produce and illegal tin mining. Together, the traders and local officials devised ways in which they could profit from government schemes meant for adivasi welfare. But thanks to the parliamentary Communist Party of India (CPI) which had been active in this area for a few years, the days when the forest guard or the patwari (revenue agent) would demand chickens and free labour from the villagers had gone, and land was still mostly in the hands of adivasis. Across the region, children went to village schools, regularly if the teacher came, and irregularly when the teacher absconded; government health services were few and far between, and people's only hope -– both then and now -– was the wadde or local healer. On soundless summer evenings, the wadde's long, low incantations can be heard from afar, rising suddenly to a crescendo and then falling again to an intimate mutter, as he implores the Mata, the Mother Goddess, to spare the patient she has infected.
I was young then, and divided my time between other young people and village elders, learning to speak Dhurwa and discovering the intricacies of village politics. I remember it as a time when I laughed a lot. My days were spent carrying out a household census and collecting genealogies, attending rituals, chatting to women as they husked grain or cracked tamarind pods, and watching the Panka weaver at his loom. Returning home on full moon nights, I would pause by the fields to see how brightly each stalk of grain was lit. Friday, the weekly market day, was like a mini festival when nobody did any work, coming home happy and exhausted after a morning negotiating with traders and meeting friends.
I made occasional trips further afield, for instance to a small village haat at Bade Karkeli near Kutru in Bijapur where we drank landa or rice beer and my friend Kala bought baskets of small dried fish. Near the dilapidated mansion of the former zamindar of Kutru lay the grave of a Parsi shikari, Peston Naoroji Kharas, gored by a wild buffalo in 1948. The Elwin Cooper Company of Nagpur used to organize hunting expeditions in the area. By 1998, the grave was in disrepair and the wild buffalo were no longer so plentiful in the Indrawati National Park. My fi eld notes spoke of barricaded police stations: 'Fortified police camp at Kutru with barbed wire all around. Police shining wary torches at night at all passing vehicles and calling out to find out who is there.'
The war had already begun, though I did not know it. What I remember more vividly is the everyday humiliation and loss, of friends dying suddenly for want of a doctor, the tense silence of village elders before a visiting policeman. It was hard not to feel angered by the casual racism of outsiders: bus conductors kicking elderly adivasi men and shoving women off the seat to make way for some minor official, a constant litany of complaints about how adivasis did nothing but drink and did not want education or modern medicine.
Village disputes involved extremely complicated negotiations, such as one in which the priest made off with an entire pig rather than just the head, which was his customary due.
I recall occasional delirious nights of dancing during fairs and weddings, and tense moments at the cockfights, but voices were rarely raised. Village disputes involved extremely complicated negotiations, such as one in which the priest made off with an entire pig rather than just the head, which was his customary due. But arguments usually ended with the male elders drinking together and laughing.
In 2005, all this suddenly changed for the villagers living in the Maoist strongholds of Dantewada or South Bastar district, when the government began its devastating counter-insurgency operations. My life, which had taken me on to new research interests elsewhere, changed too, as news of violence began to trickle in from Bastar. My first encounters with the Salwa Judum were through human rights investigations or 'fact-findings' in November 2005 (with a PUCL/ All India Fact-finding team, henceforth All India Fact-finding team) and May 2006 (with the Independent Citizens' Initiative, henceforth ICI). After that, over the past decade, I have made repeated visits alone or with different friends. In 2007 three of us from the ICI, Ramachandra Guha, E.A.S. Sarma and I, filed a petition on human rights violations and state-sponsored vigilantism before the Supreme Court. Litigation reduced the licence I had as a sociologist to travel freely and talk to every side. But in the beginning, when I saw what I saw, I could not sleep, and a permanent ache entered my heart.
Excerpted with permission of Juggernaut Books from The Burning Forest: India's War in Bastar by Nandini Sundar. Available in bookstores and on the Juggernaut app.
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