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Notes from the Underground

In the forests of Dandakaranya in the border areas of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, Naxalites hold complete sway and the government is nowhere in sight. This is an   exclusive first person account from the guerilla zone.

The first check-post you cross on your way 'underground' is in your head. From the free movement zone of your daily existence you enter an undercover realm of self-restrictive mobility. You transform yourself abruptly from citizen to fugitive.

It involves a conscious metamorphosis of perceptual habits. You stop seeing low-cost motel rooms as oases of rest after weary travel but as sitting duck situations with sealed-off escape routes. You stop seeing room service boys as faceless tray-bearers but potential tip-off artistes.

There is more in the UG (underground) cadre's safety kit. Avoid giveaway behaviour. Never keep the lights on late into the night or hang around all day in the room. Simulate an identity that blends with your immediate social environment. Be around but don't get noticed.

This is your routine when you move in the towns and cities that harbour the underground networks of the Naxalite organisation known as People's War Group (PWG). I knew what to expect and yet I didn't. I knew that walking shoulder-to-shoulder with PWG activists in the streets of Chandrapur would put me squarely within the sights of the Maharashtra police. But I didn't know the pressure of laying oneself on the line like these young men and women. I was in it for the story, they for a dream. At least the best among them were.

It was a curious mix of motives. As a journalist I sought to be empathetic, non-judgemental. As hardcore activists of the most violent Naxalite group operating in the country today, they suspended judgement, corking their cynicism of the built-in class bias of my profession, opening the padlocked gates to their secret world. For the moment we were partners in the protracted cat-and-mouse game being played between the People's War Group and the State.

Three states, really. Police authorities in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have spread a wide dragnet to thwart the PWG effort of hewing a guerilla zone along the deep forest belt spanning the three states. If Dandakaranya, as the Naxalites have christened it, achieves its turbulent birth, it will symbolise a startling new paradox: from the debris of Eastern Europe, flickering communism finds oxygen in the jungles of central India.

But that is still far off. For the present the action is largely restricted to the forest pockets of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, Baster in Madhya Pradesh and Adilabad in Andhra Pradesh. The face-off between the combined forces of state and PWG squads is most tense in Adilabad where central paramilitary units assist the combing operations.

That is my destination. So what was I doing in a dusty town in Maharashtra? Part of my education in PWG procedure. Guerilla logic is to approach a location from an angle of least resistance. Going to Adilabad directly from Hyderabad would mean running an obstacle course under the glare of the security agencies. Chandrapur is an overnight haul by rail from Hyderabad and a tension free two-hour drive from Adilabad.

That is the bare picture. The nitty-gritty is something else. It involves the classical Becketsian agony of waiting for messages that never seem to reach as you sit patiently with bags packed for the next leg of the journey.

Suddenly it is no longer the police that engages your mind. Time is your obsession. You devise strategies to combat it. It took seven days for Godot to arrive. Together, on a fine October morning, we boarded the bus for Adilabad.

Fireflies swarm the solitary teak on the hillcrest illuminating it like a Christmas tree. The grass on which we lie is aflame with them. It is close to midnight. The earth's chill has started to pierce the thin tarpaulin sheets on which the squad slumps after a merciless three-hour nocturnal trek.

The Author (third from right) with squad membersMy shins are raw from crashing into rock fragments littering the route. I am now part of the regimen of one of the several forest dalams (squads) that operate in Adilabad district. My outsider status is of no help. It does not entitle me to special privileges or exempt me from the punishing physical routine. Wrapped in olive green battle fatigues, I am treated as a member of the squad. I must keep pace with it, stand or fall with it.

Travelling with the PWG is a high-risk activity. In the jungles of Adilabad, moving within shouting distance of foot patrols of the Indo-Tibetan Boarder Police, the Central Reserve Police Force and the Andhra Pradesh special police, PWG squads are a bullet away from death.

On this cold October night, the squad lies scattered in a loose circle, the taut formation of the trek easing into relaxed but alert postures on the grass. A distinct group psyche is always at work, a perfect symmetry of thought and motion that gives the squad the autonomy of a living organism.

Lying on my back under the open sky, on a paper-thin mat spread on the shrubby ground, without a clue to my geographical location, I have an acute sense of being in the farthest reaches of the social system. Why would young men and women, as alike as any you would meet in campuses and homes across the country, sever links with society, shun home and family and go into self-exile in the forest, pledging their lives to a gospel of violent reform?

The Naxalite movement in Andhra Pradesh imposes a different perspective on the question. It confronts you with a critique of the social order, gives you a view of the class divisions in society and the phenomenon of exploitation. It leads you to what it perceives to be the nucleus of the problem: the inequitable distribution of land. How land ownership translates first into economic power and then into political leverage. It drives home the fact that it is politically naive to expect the exploiter class to surrender its excess land, that the parliamentary process cannot transform society because it will not thwart its own class logic and that land reforms will remain the great myth of Indian parliamentary politics.

The Naxalites nurse a blueprint of subversion: they have mapped out a guerilla zone, put guns in the hands of the landless, formed armed squads as precursors to the people's phalanx called the Red Army and committed their youthful lives to the cause of armed revolution.

Quixotic as it may seem to the urban temperament, this way of thinking has a groundswell of support in rural Andhra Pradesh. For the lowly villager in Telengana, conditioned to show respect by throwing away his bidi and removing his footwear in the presence of a landlord, the Naxalite squad visiting the village and challenging the hegemony of the landlords instantly acquires the status of saviour.

The young men and women of the squad I am with have been roused by the rhetoric of emancipation and the charisma of the gun. Drawn from rural households, they have suffered or witnessed the  process of impoverishment through its stages: families staggering under debt burdens, dispossessed of their land by loan sharks, shortchanged by traders, starving through seasons of drought. They have watched the invidious nexus between the police, the revenue department and the rich landed class.

These boys and girls have fire in their bellies. They are not weaned on Marxism-Leninism or Mao Zedong thought but on the cold winds of deprivation. Communism for them is a natural affinity.

Here among the rolling hills, the darkness slowly starts to yield. The landscape outlines itself thinly. The stage is set for a surreal drama that will disturb the placid contours of the night. Gradually, the grassy amphitheatre fills with people. They sit in a cluster on the grass. I notice men in  trousers, others clad in the style of Marwari traders. Facing them squats a crowd of restive villagers, the cotton growing peasants of the area. Between the two groups falls the silhouette of the dalam commander,  an AK-47 dangling from his shoulder.

This is the new dispensation at work in the Andhra countryside. The Naxalites have cast themselves in the role of arbiters, resolving disputes between rival interest groups, laying down the ground rules and enforcing their observance, filling in where the government has faltered or failed. Today, representatives of the trader lobby, accustomed to decades of unbridled business manoeuvrability, have lost their traditional leverage. They now answer summons to appear in the forest at midnight and hear the grievances and taunts of tribal farmers.

Today, the Naxalites decide the floor price of cotton and possess the firepower to enforce it. In the hinterland of Adilabad, the government of Andhra Pradesh is nowhere in sight.

The dalam packs up and is on the move again. Motion is its medium. As long as it is on its feet the squad feels secure. Rest can draw rude surprises out of the jungle. In 1987, when the Andhra Pradesh government declared war on the Naxalite movement, police patrols combing the forests of Adilabad swatted PWG squads in their sleep.

PWG forest dalams restructured their routines around that dark phase. First, the informers behind each squad casualty were identified and exterminated. Then, the security system of the squads was beefed up. Today, a CRPF unit straying in the vicinity of a stationary dalam in the Adilabad forests is liable to be blown to bits because the campsite is mined in three directions. Sentries are posted round the clock doing two hourly shifts by day and one-and-a-half hour shifts at night.

Survival is a high-tension preoccupation. Exercise and weapons cleaning sessions are never done en masse but in batches so that the security of the dalam is not compromised. Villagers are kept in the dark about overnight campsites. High-decibel talk while walking in formation through the forest and the use of a flashlight at night are described as "technical mistakes". Night walking is a basic feature of squad movement. A squad covers on an average a distance of 10 km a day, with special expeditions extending to 40 km.

The tribal community in and around the forest is the squad's lifeline. The squad and the tribesmen blend in symbiosis. The villagers feed the squad, and keep it informed of police movements. In turn, the dalam protects the villagers from the excesses of the landlords.

The tribal villages are also the Naxalite movement's Achilles' heel. A ceaseless pursuit of the police is to establish informer networks in the villages, an effort that produced results in the 1987 crackdown. Today, the Naxalites and the tribals share a relationship that is an alloy of trust and latent apprehension. The tribals are torn between the government's development inducements on the one hand and the guardian angel role of the Naxalites on the other. At the moment, the dichotomy appears to be working in favour of the Naxalites.

squad interacting with villagersVisiting tribal villages is the crux of the squad's political activity. The routine is typical: as it approaches a hamlet, the squad parks in the woods at dusk and a two-man advance team heads for the village to check it out. When the dalam makes its entry the villagers are assembled to greet it. After a round of handshakes and clenched fist salutes of "lal salam", the squad members settle down on string cots around a log fire. Over steaming cups of black tea, a dialogue ensues on the burning issues of the day with the dalam commander steering the discussion. Food is served shortly: a simple repast consisting of rice, rotis made of millet and heavily spiced dal. Each household contributes some food on the occasion.

On a leisurely night there is song and dance. Squad members take turns to sing of their fallen comrades. The villagers provide the chorus. Female members of the dalam clap hands with the womenfolk of the village and execute the slow rhythmic movements of the jalka, a traditional tribal dance.

The camaraderie is obvious. This liaison between the tribals and the Naxalites is governed less by the ephemeral exigencies of the present than by the compulsions of history. State authorities have felt its sharp subversive edge repeatedly in the recent past: in the drought raids of 1988 when starving villagers led by PWG activists ransacked the shops of traders and pillaged the grain stocks of landlords in Adilabad. And again, when the Naxalites led the tribals on a land-grab campaign aimed at taking over the excess acres of rich landlords ducking the land ceiling laws. The campaign resulted in the execution of a powerful local politician by a PWG hit team.

The Naxalites' theatre of operations is divided among six PWG dalams variously located at Peepaldhari, Wankhede, Khanapur, Mangi, Sirpur and Chennur areas of Adilabad district. The squads fall into two broad categories based on considerations of terrain: semi-forest and deep forest. Semiforest squads operate along the jungle fringe covering around 80 villages that fall in their beat, visiting on an average two villages a day. Deep forest squads function in the jungle interiors where settlements are further apart.

Eash squad has a strength ranging from 11 to 20 members, with four to five women. Gender distinctions do not appear to interfere with squad work. Men and women share the chores from sentry duty to cooking. Female members are not exempt from the rigours of heaving rifles during weapons exercise sessions. At least one squad operating in the district is led by a woman rated for her combat prowess.

The standard weaponry of a squad comprises single and double barrel 12-bores, SLRs and revolvers. The dalam commander is equipped with an AK-47. The arsenal carried by a squad on the move includes grenade launchers, grenades and landmines.

These boys are clearly well up on guerilla military strategy. But weapons statistics, an obvious fascination with guns and a close reading of Che Guevara do not add up to fighting efficiency. My head buzzes with questions about motivation, commitment and the mental preparedness to die if it comes to the crunch. I am curious about the mindset of the squad members resting under the trees on a breezy afternoon: fresh-faced, in the prime of youth, clinging to a political cause fast going out of fashion in its birthplace.

The romance of the early 70s when the movement mopped up the brightest from the campuses is clearly over. Today, the cadre is drawn mainly from the ranks of the socially abused and the economically backward. The compulsion is sociological rather than ideological. The commonality are taking over from the middleclass intelligentsia.

The forest squads of Adilabad reflect this trend. The bulk of the recruits comprises school dropouts from poor rustic families who joined the party's students movement before being absorbed into the squads. Most of them are children of poor marginal farmers or farmhands employed by rich peasants on meagre wages. For many, joining the Naxalites is a means of upward social mobility.

Take the case of Vilas, 24, the strapping son of a scheduled caste farmhand from Nizamabad district who slaved for his employer for 35 years and currently earns a daily wage of Rs.10. To swell the family kitty, Vilas' four sisters work 12-hour shifts in a bidi factory and earn Rs.10 at the end of the day. Vilas recalls that for most of his childhood his father was away from home, tilling the employer's field by day and sleeping in his courtyard at night because the cows had to be milked early. Vilas remembers the family's two-room, tin-roofed shack on the town's outskirts. He saw how much the landlord earned, how little he paid his father. That is the bottom line. That's why Vilas is with the Naxalites today.

Many student activists are deputed to the forest squads to escape pressure from the police, as in the case of Jayan, 27, of Karimnagar district. He joined the dalams of Adilabad seven years ago when the going got too hot for him at Singareni, the coal belt where his father worked as a miner. Jayan was appalled by the working conditions at the colliery and was in the forefront of the agitations organised by the PWG against the management, until he came to the notice of the police and went underground.

There is an increased influx of recruits from tribal hamlets. Ramji, 23, joined the dalams eight years ago, a long enough period for him to witness the organised revolts staged by the villagers under PWG leadership against forest officials. The era of imposing unofficial levies on the tribals came to an end. The Naxalites had endeared themselves to a generation of tribal youth.

Tribal girls are particularly star-struck by the macho revolutionaries holed up in the hills. When the dalams come round to the villages, the girls go away with them to the hills and end up marrying squad members.

Every recruit, male or female, joins the dalams in the face of stiff parental opposition. Emotional trauma is a permanent undercurrent. The squad members learn to repress memories of home. Their families carry a sense of loss through their lives.

The fresh recruit, once absorbed into squad life, is honed on the revolutionary ethic of martyrdom. It is a subtle but surefire psychological process that transmutes history into myth and mixes myth with political idealism to produce a revolutionary mystique that captures the imagination of the young. The aberrations of society feed the myth and sustain the mystique while the travails of the downtrodden classes flesh out the cause. And the gun speaks the vocabulary of subversion.

Historical events such as the police firing on a tribal rally organised by the PWG at Indravalli in Adilabad district on April 20, 1981, in which 60 tribals were killed, are transformed into legend by the erection of a martyr's column at the site. By pulling down the column the government despoiled the legend; by re-erecting it under public pressure it reinforced the myth. Indravalli is now a part of tribal folklore immortalised in songs and ballads sung by the squads around village bonfires.

The collective mind of the dalam, functioning in the ambience of this mystique, is conditioned by the ethic of self-sacrifice. Communism provides the ideological content to the mystique. To make it operational, social action programmes are drawn up to be executed by the squads which serve variously as a safety release mechanism for the restive cadre, advance the political relevance of the movement and preserve the revolutionary mystique. The actions involve waging struggles on the economic and political fronts and adopting radical means to achieve specific ends: burning tendu leaf godowns to pressure the government to hike the wage for tendu leaf collection, razing arrack depots to enforce prohibition and waylaying buses and trains to press home the demand for a higher floor price for cotton.

Among the audacious actions on the PWG agenda is the land-grab campaign, which threatens the power structure in the rural areas and has sent the landlord lobby knocking on political doors. The highlight of the campaign is the harvesting of crop on land occupied by the Naxalites during the sowing season.

With the Banjaras When the next date for an illegal harvesting spree comes round I opt to accompany a batch of squad members deputed to organise the villagers. I do not, of course, bargain for the physical exertion involved. But the long march has its redeeming side. It is an education in local cultural life and mores. We eat with the Raj Gond, the largest tribal group in the district, share Dussehra festivities with the Lambadas, originally migrants from Maharashtra. We dance the demsa with the local Naik Pode and pat the camels of the Banjaras, nomads from Kutch - diverse ethnic groups cohabiting in the forest belt of Adilabad, forming through their interaction the bedrock of a new tradition.

It is way past midnight when we reach the village of Daba in Ichoda Mandal. An army of villagers, perhaps 300 strong, has assembled under a beaming moon, the sickles in their hands glinting. We walk towards the scene of action: ten acres of ripe corn waiting to be harvested. The villagers invade the field like a cloud of locusts. The operation is swift. In less than ten minutes there is no standing corn left. A red flag is planted in the middle of the field, a telltale forbidding totem. The villagers have no illusions about the quantity of grain they have pirated. They see the action as symbolic, a stone thrown at the window-pane of oppression.

The late afternoon November sun plays among the treetops and frolics on the grassy slopes of the hills. The squad members are perched lazily on rocks; a group of villagers sits cross-legged on the forest floor. I adjust the lens on my camera to record a rare event for outside eyes: a forest wedding. The bride wears olive-green and slings a rifle on her shoulder. The nuptials take very little time: a divisional committee member armed with an AK-47 pronounces the couple man and wife after both read out prepared statements, pledging their married lives to the revolutionary movement and the interests of the squad. The villagers present their signatures on the statements as witnesses to the event. The divisional committee member, in a short speech, dilates on the duties of a married couple in the context of squad life.

Ramji and Lalita have no guarantee that they will remain in the same squad. Like many other couples they may find themselves in separate squads operating in different locations, with the possible death of a partner dogging the marriage. The tacit norm among couples is not to have children because of the practical difficulties of raising them within the squad.

Dancing the demsa That night, as the cold spreads its dragnet over the millet fields, the squad mingles with the tribals locked in the slow movements of the demsa. In the circle of light thrown by the flames of a log fire, the feet go round and round; the village women, bent, tiptoeing in half-steps, drawing arcs in the mud with their graceful feet. Then the men, sleek-bodied, making music with clashing sticks, invoking the gods with vibrant chants of chachoi, chachoi… There is a subtle reversal of roles here. The tribals dictate the rhythm and the squad keeps in tune as the dol, the big ceremonial drum, pounds its haunting beat in the background, abetted by the soulful percussion of the smaller dolki and vette.

For the moment, the dynamics of dance dominate the storm-centre of politics. In the swirls of the demsa, the arcs in the mud carved by delicate feet, the robust chant of chachoi, there is no role for the gun. For the moment, vexed spirits rest in the warmth of the bonfire. As the notes of the dol waft through the turbulent night, anger recedes into the abyss of history.



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