“Bastar tey aayta hinda tun bahun roki kenud aani Bastar tey jo hinsa taakta ad jhagda al aay sake mayo. Aden makun rante paksh nal maandi kiya wayal aske Bastar tey shaanti wayal,” Motiram Poyam of village Mutenpal in Bastanar block of Bastar district in Chhattisgarh says with conviction, in native Gondi language, over the mobile phone.
Translated in simple English, this would mean, “the violence in Bastar cannot be resolved by conflict. Both the sides will have to talk for peace to reign in Bastar.”
“Munneta 40 warsa nal aayta hinsaa jhagda tun amot roki kiyana chahe. Maytodom amot baatle jhagda al chahe mayom [(We) want an end to the violence that is happening since the last 40 years. (We) don’t need any kind of violence in Bastar],” Monu Ram Sodhi of Jango Para settlement in village Jamgaon, also of Bastar, says in Gondi.
Messages after messages in Gondi, Halbi and Hindi – overwhelmingly in favour of resolution of Maoist problem through dialogue – poured out during a unique mobile-phone based opinion poll conducted in left wing extremism (LWE) hit areas of Chhattisgarh recently.
The uniqueness of the poll, organised under ‘New Peace Process’, an initiative of a conglomerate of tribal and non-government support groups and individuals, was that for the first time, the respondents could choose to interact/respond in native Gondi and Halbi languages, apart from Hindi.
The question was simple: whether the Maoist problem in central India was a political issue to be resolved through dialogue or a law and order issue to be resolved with military force.
All the 676 Gond tribal people—18 per cent of the total 3,760 respondents— participating in the poll, were unanimously in favour of dialogue based resolution to the Maoist problem. Overall, 91.88 per cent of all respondents were in favour of dialogue based resolution, while only 8.12 per cent felt that the issue was a law and order problem and should be solved with the use of military force.
About 76 per cent of the respondents chose to respond in Hindi while six per cent responded in Halbi.
Kamlesh Kashyap from Tokupal block (Bastar) recorded a message in Halbi saying, “Educated and aware people will have to come forward with the intention of restoring peace.”
Gangaram Barse spoke in Gondi from Kakalgur, Darbha (Bastar) and said “both sides have to overcome differences and talk about how to bring peace in Bastar.”
Masuram Poyam from Badekilepal village in Bastanar (Bastar) said police alone cannot solve the problem. Both Maoists and villagers will have to sit together and try to resolve the issue, Poyam said in Hindi.
The organisers of the poll are buoyed by the results of the survey that was conducted between Independence Day (August 15) and Gandhi Jayanti (October 2).
“People from the affected areas have made their opinion fairly clear and we are hopeful that both Maoists and the government will listen,” convener of the New Peace Process, Shubhranshu Choudhary said.
Speaking to THE WEEK, Choudhary, peace activist and founder of CGNet Swara , a voice portal that allows people from remote areas in central India to share their stories and issues, said the opinion poll is significant as it revealed that 100 per cent of the Gondi speaking people (Gond tribals) chose the peaceful option of dialogue to resolve the problem.
“Leave aside a few outsider non-tribal leaders, most of the current Maoist leaders are Gond tribals who speak Gondi. The Maoists also get their majority cadre from among the Gond tribals, many of whom are conversant only with Gondi and know no other languages. In such a situation, getting 100 per cent support for the peaceful option from among Gondi speakers is a very crucial indicator,” Choudhary pointed out.
However, both the Chhattisgarh government and Maoist leadership have reacted to the peace process as well the latest opinion poll.
The Maoists seem to have attempted to dismiss the opinion poll as an initiative happening only in the non-Maoists areas.
“I received a visitor (messenger of Maoists) who told me that people from the Maoist-controlled areas cannot vote in the opinion poll, which was underway then, as they do not have mobile phone signals. So, the opinion poll would be basically from non-Maoists areas,” Choudhary said.
He said this message of the Maoists has been taken as a valid criticism. “This time we got the opinion mainly from the state-controlled affected areas and the areas where state forces and Maoists both move around. Even in these areas, there were sections of people who had no mobile phones, and we made technical arrangements that made it possible for several persons to vote from a single device that was made available to them,” Choudhary said.
“But now, we are trying other options like training someone or sending someone trained to the areas without mobile phone signals and get people to vote on a mobile phone carried by this person. This mobile phone will transmit the entire data once it is brought back in the mobile signal area. We are already in discussions for this and are hoping to use it for a survey of internally displaced people in the region, to be conducted soon,” Choudhary said.
Apart from this intervention in the opinion poll process, the Maoists have also repeatedly sent out warning letters against the other initiatives of ‘New Peace Process’ since it started in June 2018.
There were death threats and boycott calls to the peace rally and cycle rally held in October 2018 and February 2019 respectively. They also issued a death threat to the head of Abhujmadia Adiwasi Samaj after an initiative to seek habitat rights for the members of the particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) Abhujmadia was taken in June 2019 as part of the peace process.
Even as the opinion poll was underway, on September 10, 2020, the secretary of Darbha divisional committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), Sainath, issued another warning statement. The statement called upon the ‘pro-democracy, pro-people intellectuals’ to support the ‘legal struggle of the people to save their livelihood, faith, existence and honour’.
The statement targeted Shubhranshu Choudhary directly, calling him an ‘undercover agent in the garb of an intellectual’ who was opposing Maoists by the way of peace rallies. THE WEEK could not directly contact any of the Maoist leaders for reaction.
Meanwhile, the Chhattisgarh government has chosen to respond in a measured way to the opinion poll result. Forest minister and government spokesperson Mohammad Akbar, while speaking to THE WEEK, said the focus of the state government was to augment livelihood and employment opportunities for the tribal people in affected areas.
“Even in COVID-19 pandemic times, we have taken a lot of initiatives in the form of collection and value addition to as many as 31 minor forest produce and giving back the profit after sale of value added products to the collectors themselves through women self help groups. As much 74 per cent of all minor forest produce collected in the entire country was in Chhattisgarh alone. We have hiked rates for tendu leaves, gave back dividends of profits to these collectors too and have taken up large scale tree plantation projects in the affected areas so that people could have sustained livelihood options. If they have such options, their mind will not stray the other way,” the minister said.
He added that the required measures for resolving the (Maoist) problem, including the possibility of dialogue, were constantly taken up by the state government and that will continue.
The New Peace Process
The process was initiated by 24 tribal and supporting groups who were of the view that peaceful resolution of the problem should be given a chance during the next few years. After that, the groups felt, the issue might turn into that of a violent inter-group rivalry among the tribal Maoist commanders that might see the local tribal people suffer far more, including loss of lives and damage to property.
Choudhary pointed out that the original core Maoist leadership mainly comprised non-tribal leaders from Andhra Pradesh. They made a lot of commanders from among the local Chhattisgarhi tribals in the last four decades, but the core 40-member central committee and politburo does not have a single Chhattisgarh local.
In the next few years, the original leadership, which has already become quite old, will age further and phase out, leading to the possibility of local Chhattisgarhi commanders getting engaged in internal rivalry.
The declining influence of the Maoist leadership in their party and rise in internal violence is evident by the fact that during past few months, by their own admission (in a statement released on October 7), they have killed at least 25 persons, including half a dozen of their own, in ‘jan adalats’ on the suspicion of being police informers and letting out secrets of Maoist movements.
Choudhary said there is a time window of about five years in Chhattisgarh before things start going the Jharkhand way of internal rivalry related violence, harming the local tribals much more. “So, there needs to be a strong people’s movement demanding that both sides come forward for dialogue and peaceful resolution as no one is supporting violence anymore. The peace process and particularly the opinion poll results are very important in this context,” he said.
Under the New Peace Process, apart from the peace rally and cycle rally for awareness on peace initiatives among people, steps have also been taken to ensure habitat rights (under Forest Rights Act, 2006) for the PVTG Abujhmadia and at least four meetings with participation of district administration (of Narayanpur district) was held till September 2019 in this direction. However, later the Maoists issued a death threat to the Abhujmadia Samaj chief Ramji Dhruv and he resigned from his post. Nonetheless, people of the community are still in favour of habitat rights and have opposed attempts of the government to give individual rights instead.
Another initiative is related to secure alternative land under the Forest Rights Act for roughly 50,000 people from Bastar who were forced to leave their villages and escape to neighbouring states after the Salwa Judum movement was initiated in 2004. About 500 such displaced people have already applied for alternative land in peaceful areas of Chhattisgarh so that they can come back to settle in the state. “The process is still hanging fire because the union ministry is yet to finalise guidelines for the Section (3.1.m) of the Forest Rights Act that speaks of this alternative land provision,” Choudhary said.
This time, along with the opinion poll, a selfie contest was also organised where people were to send in their photographs carrying slogans on the theme ‘Bastar maange hinsa se aazadi’ (Bastar seeks freedom from violence). Hundreds of selfies also poured in for this contest and winners were given prizes during an event on October 2, where the opinion poll results were announced too.
A series of meetings – called Chaikle Maandi (meetings for peace and happiness) – have also been started where prominent individuals and groups would interact among themselves and with violence-hit families from the region. The first of such meetings was held on October 2 too.