Jyoti Punwani–An attack on the idea of India, on democratic values — that’s how the Naxalite attack that killed Congress leaders Mahendra Karma and Nand Kumar Patel has been described by our leaders. For millions of Indians, including this columnist, the idea of India is most definitely not Mahendra Karma. Nor would any democrat link the dead man to any kind of democratic value.
For us in Mumbai, the financial capital of the country, the happenings in remote Bastar are of little interest. Who cares if Adivasis live or die — their lives are so peripheral to us. Our own lives are so tension-filled, it’s difficult to relate to people living in the jungles, aeons away from us in time and distance.
But Mahendra Karma was an Adivasi we could relate to. He was not only totally clued in to our world, he was ahead of it. He knew his homeland could become the resource zone for the country’s biggest industries, and the rewards that would bring him and other landowners like him. He also knew that for the majority of his people, this development would mean nothing but ruin. For him, their role was clear — “Instead of tractors, use the Adivasis for land levelling,’’ he had once said.
Fortunately for them, the majority of Adivasis knew what their fate would be too, once the companies moved in. And they weren’t going to their ruin without a fight. That is why Karma set up his own vigilante force. These too were his own people, only, they were armed and motivated to train their guns on their fellow Adivasis. Anyone who resisted being evicted from their lands, became an enemy, to be forced into submission or eliminated. This was Salwa Judum, the “purification hunt”’. Under this hunt, for the first time, rape by Adivasis made an appearance in Bastar.
Adivasis across India are used to being raped — by outsiders in the coal fields of Dhanbad; by upper caste landlords in Andhra Pradesh; by forest guards in Bastar, and by the police everywhere. Now, under Karma’s strategy, for the first time, Adivasi raped Adivasi. Karma’s initiative was immediately backed by the BJP government of Chhattisgarh, which armed his Adivasi boys, many of them just teenagers, made them ‘Special Police Officers’ (SPOs), and gave them both impunity and incentive to fight the Naxalites who were leading the resistance against Adivasi lands being taken away. Rape was as much part of the fight as was killing, forced eviction, burning of villages and herding of villagers into camps away from their villages.
According to a Planning Commission document, 644 villages were emptied out, and a state government document said 47,238 Adivasis were herded into camps. A limited investigation by the National Human Rights Commission confirmed rape and other crimes committed by the SPOs against unarmed Adivasis.
The logical extension of the “purification hunt’’ was ‘Operation Greenhunt’, launched by the central government in 2009. Now both categories of armed men — the SPOs of the state-backed Salwa Judum, and the CRPF of the Centre — hunted villages looking for Naxalites.
In one such raid, these forces cut off three fingers of a one-year-old Adivasi. Rape, killings, and destruction of houses and foodgrain were, of course, a given. These form the subject matter of police complaints as well as Supreme Court petitions.
Such a man was Mahendra Karma and such was his legacy.
The author is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.