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Guns and gumption, and a cause

The Maoists fear new roads and railway links will lead to their displacement.

india Updated: May 15, 2006 08:07 IST

Gradually, the crowd swells in the clearance amid the Dandakaranya forest. So does the tempo of the political speech that Sonu, an eight-year-old boy, is belting out on Mao Zedong and his ideology of armed revolution. Then comes the song of rebellion: "Gher lobo, gher lobo, Dilli ko gher lobo. Lal jhanda, lal jhanda, Dilli le jabo (Let us surround Delhi. Let us take the red flag to Delhi)." The audience — 600-odd tribal men, women and children — breaks into applause and joins the chorus.

Barely 180 km from Raipur, the state capital, a Maoist cultural and propaganda meet is on. The agenda: overthrow the "state". About 30 Naxal guerrillas, armed with self-loading guns and .303 rifles, are sprinkled in the gathering. They do not join in but keep a close watch on the proceedings. People have come from about 30 villages — many travelling about 10 km — to attend the meeting.

Not all of them are Naxals or members of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). They are the villagers who form the support base of the Naxals in the Dandakaranya forest, spanning Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Maharashtra.

Through songs and plays, they showcase the "evils of mining", planned by the Chhattisgarh government. The fear of displacement is spreading among the tribal population as the state plans large-scale mining of iron, limestone, zinc, mica and diamonds in Dandakaranya.

The Maoists fear new roads and railway links will lead to the displacement of thousands of people and spoil the fragile ecology of the region. "We will oppose it at any cost,'' says Sukhlal Mandvi, a villager.

It is not just fear that seizes the tribals. They are incensed at the Salva Judum movement through which the government is trying to win over sections of the tribal population, wean them off the jungle and bring them near the state highways. The movement, which started in June last year, has led to regular clashes between the Naxals and the Salva Judum cadres. The Maoists say the Salva Judum members are being used to track down the Naxal hideouts in the forest.

The state government says the Salva Judum comprises tribals who are tired of the Naxal way of violence. The Naxals don't buy it. Says Gopannah Markan, a member of the state committee secretariat of the Maoists: "The state claims that the Salva Judum is a spontaneous agitation against us. It's actually a state-sponsored daman abhiyan (repressive movement)."

As the afternoon sun trickles down the forest cover, it is not just the tribals who are united in the dream of a "classless society". In the squads are non-tribals from Chhattisgarh besides Andhraites, Maharashtrians, Tamils, Biharis and Haryanvis. For them revolution is as real as it gets. Umesh, the commander of a squad, says it is sacrilege even to think that the armed revolution is a whiff of fantasy.

Like Umesh and Markan, there are hundreds of cadres who left their homes 15-20 years ago to live, train and fight in the jungle. They ate berries and drank from the stream and in the spare time read and translated Maoist literature. "It's a matter of time but the movement will succeed," says Umesh, clutching his rifle.

"Maybe not in our lifetime but perhaps 10 years after that. The oppressors will be overthrown."

What drove Umesh and the rest to this low-intensity war when they could have spent their lives ploughing rice and cotton fields, growing tendua (betel) trees and raising a family?

For many this came natural as they belonged to families that had been traditionally sympathisers of the Maoist movement. Markan says they had seen or experienced the rich oppressing the poor. They had known corrupt forest guards and contractors exploiting the tribals. And an old ideology of Chairman Mao and guns helped them think of a brave new world. Maybe not in their lives, but they are ready to lay down their lives for that.