As a cub reporter in the 1980s, I woke up to the uplifting sounds of temple bells somewhere in the jungles of Adilabad one morning. I was on an assignment to cover the mandal (equivalent of panchayat) elections in Andhra Pradesh and, as usual, the Naxalites were opposing the democratic process. A section of the People’s War Group had invited us to spend some time with their leaders and they had put us up in the homes of some villagers in the forests.
I followed the sounds of those bells to come upon a charming little ancient temple with a deep sanctum sanctorum. But the priest at the doors would just not let me in since my parents had brought me up without any overt caste feelings and I had no idea what my gotra might be. My parents were not believers in rituals and the occasion had never arisen for me to learn about my antecedents. “What’s your father’s name?” the priest then asked. But that told him nothing either.
“Which state do you belong to?” was his next query. I said I did not know because my parents hailed from two different states and I had been brought up in a third. Now he was left with no choice but to ask me what he really wanted to know in as many words. I refused to answer giving him a homily instead on all human beings being equal. And that’s when he cottoned on to where I might have come from. He quickly changed his mind about stopping me from entering the temple and gave up the fight. He sprinkled some water on me, gave me a gotra and allowed me to go in. When I emerged after the aarti, he said very resentfully, “Next time you come here, better ask your parents about your gotra or you may not be able to enter.”
Not yet a hardened journalist, I crowed about how just the mere presence of Naxals in the vicinity had frightened a discriminating Brahmin into equality. I was glad for the presence of Naxals as social equalisers in the country but I changed my mind a few years later when I encountered another set of Naxals in the forests of Allapally in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. Some of them had kidnapped the local sarpanch one night. When his wife opened the front door the next morning, she found her husband’s head sitting on their verandah. Another group had tied one ‘enemy of the people’ to a tree near an anthill and poured honey all over him. It would not have been an easy death for the man who was nothing more than a rich though exploitative landlord.
Sharad Pawar was the chief minister then and he swung into action. Apart from making Gadchiroli a ‘double promotion’ posting for both policemen and administrative officers, he set up a special commission for adivasis to oversee infrastructure development, including roads, schools, hospitals, other utilities and made sure poor villagers did not continue to be lured by Naxals any longer. Soon policemen in Maharashtra were boasting that if a Naxalite were to even sneeze in Gadchiroli they “would hear it loud and clear at Crawford Market” — the police headquarters in Bombay.
That, sadly, is no longer true — Naxals in Maharashtra have grown in strength, forcing election boycotts, targeting both politicians and officers who thus never tour the district. They spill over from neighbouring Chhattisgarh, which tackles the issue either very badly or not at all. The most audacious and brutal Naxalite attacks, like the one on Congress leaders last week, happen often in Chhattisgarh these days and I believe some lessons must be learnt from the Maharashtra development and Andhra Greyhound experience when successive governments had almost licked the Naxalites clean. But with the territory of the Naxalite-infested states running contiguous, this cannot just be a state issue or tackled by one political party alone. Naxalites are the Taliban of India and even more ruthless. I no longer harbour romantic notions about that!