Unfelled: A Naxal Encounter

On a mountain road deep in the Indian jungle, a pair of tree trunks blocks the passage of a jeep. Inside, a wary driver and a terrified cameraman, both town dwellers hired by a local non-governmental organization to ferry us into the district of Kandhamal—the Kashmir of southern India, for its verdant highlands swathed in misty luminance—and shoot footage of a development project.

Behind them sits Sudhir, whose restless eyes appraise the scene, darting into the thick forest all around us, then back to the roadblock. In each man’s mind a common fear unfolds: at any moment cadres of armed Maoist rebels—Naxals—will emerge to rob them or worse, alleging them to be spies or profiteers or corrupt bureaucrats, kidnap or even kill them.

The Kandhamal forests—lush with teak, cashew, mango, bamboo, neem, jackfruit and the wizened banyan—emit a foreboding coolness, shrouding sunlight and vision. They hide well those who would gladly withdraw from the world.

We’ve spent a long day visiting experimental preschools in remote Adivasi (aboriginal) villages in this southern part of the Indian state of Odisha. The rapidly approaching jungle dusk reminds Sudhir that this is no time to be indecisive. Yet the roadblock, a telltale sign of impending Naxal ambush, ultimately causes Sudhir no great distress. The Maoists are known to fire upon vehicles fleeing their checkpoints, yet flee our vehicle did, once Sudhir so commanded the driver.

The fear I’d instinctively drawn from the pale faces of the driver and cameraman made me inquisitive. What did Sudhir see? What does he know about Naxals, besides the fact that he’s devoted his life’s work to eliminating them? Much of the evening passed in silence before I asked him.

Sudhir is a Kond—a Kandhamal tribal, a speaker of Kui—from a village three kilometres from our roadblock, as the birds fly. These forests sustained his childhood; he knows them better than the road, which is not two decades old. The forests remind him of many things, like turmeric, which grows wild for gathering by Kond children, or is cultivated and sold in village cooperatives, and which these days Sudhir buys in large plastic bags every time, like this time, he returns to Kandhamal.

As a boy, when his parents arranged for him to attend an English-medium school in town, Sudhir developed a hunger he’s never fully satisfied. Today he leads a small team of social workers on a six-year project, backed by a Dutch foundation, to develop trilingual—English, Odia, Kui—preschool curricula and train local teachers for new village schools. Even when the government builds schools close to their villages, Kond children rarely attend. Teachers bus in from towns, or bribe a supervisor to skip the journey. Absenteeism abounds. Regardless, the teachers speak only Odia, the state language. Tribal younglings speak nothing but Kui.

There is an urge inside all of us to make right what is wrong. There is also the willingness to define what is wrong in our own terms. For Sudhir, it is not poverty that has broken his society but rather the absence of its expression.

Two years before the roadblock, on August 23, 2008, during the Hindu festival of Janmashtami, thirty men armed with AK-47s broke into the ashram of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati and massacred him and four followers. The Swami was a controversial figure in Kandhamal, preaching a gospel to convert (or reconvert) tribals from Christianity to Hinduism. Between these communities, tensions roiled.

Local police and state security officials quickly blamed the attack on Naxals, recently entrenched in the area and the only group likely to be so well armed. But some Hindu nationalist politicians in Odisha moved swiftly to place the blame on Christian Konds, and soon there erupted a four-day conflagration of communalistic violence across more than three hundred jungle villages. Dozens died. Twelve thousand were displaced. A nun was raped.

The Naxal leadership issued a release taking credit for the assassination of Swami Lakshmanananda, claiming his ministry persecuted Adivasis. No one was listening. And in an area about the size of Prince Edward Island, where more than ninety percent of the 650,000 people live in one of 2500 forest villages, Kandhamal became a locus of fear, distrust and misinformation. Among Konds, sympathy for Naxals grew.

The road to Kandhamal leads northwest out of the town of Berhampur, encountering rain-swelled paddies almost as soon as the last tea stalls and mobile-phone shacks are behind us. The first villages we approach rise over the road in clouds of dust from the morning motorbike and bullock-cart traffic. A small green sign announces each hamlet in Odia and English.

My companions recite the latest gossip associated with each place we pass: here is the birth village of our Chief Minister, see how nicely paved the roads are here; there is the hometown of a legislator currently in jail for murdering, allegedly, a member of the mafia.

Further along we pass the massive Bhanjanagar Dam, an artificial reservoir in the Rushikulya River that regulates the flow of water downstream to the towns and heavy industries of Odisha’s coastal belt. Here in this bucolic dominion peasants and paddies cut a slight pose against the machinery of industry. Timelessness is a vulgar word in Odisha.

The rural road begins to rise; we are gaining elevation onto the foothills of Kandhamal. Where earlier we had followed a purposefully paved route with a dotted white line dividing its two lanes, we now follow a single, cracked, unmarked lane through unsigned villages. Soon even the hamlets fade into the forest. Then, our frail road climbs almost fifteen hundred feet in less than three kilometres of switchbacks. The forest is dense. Nothing stirs. Even the imagination has gone still.

To the Government of India, Naxals prey upon the wretched like a parasite. The powers in Delhi developed Operation Green Hunt to fight them with a combination of army, police and local militias force-raised from among both tribal and non-tribal communities. They patrolled towns and roads, established crude bases at the edges of the forests, and waited for ambush.

That summer in southwestern Odisha, Naxal platoons blew up a school that was employed as police barracks, torched buildings in villages under government control, assassinated several suspected police informers, kidnapped construction workers, looted an armored bank truck, infiltrated a tiger sanctuary, felled cellular towers and other communications infrastructure, staged a three-day siege of a police station, and set up people’s courts to humiliate alleged conspirators against Naxalism. Across the state line, they ambushed a police bus, killing seventy-six Green Hunters.

The government deployed various surrender policies and amnesty initiatives while arraying troops in targeted sweeps of easily accessible jungle coordinates. They snatched suspected Naxals at roving checkpoints. They allegedly faked encounters: extra-judicially killing Naxal leaders in custody and then staging a firefight. Once they ambushed seventeen Konds at a committee meeting and flew them by helicopter to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh for interrogation. In Andhra they’ve been fighting Naxals for forty years.

I had only recently recovered from amoebic dysentery, which from a serving of a contaminated water-rich vegetable, perhaps cucumber, bore into the liquid reserves of my body and nearly drained me in a matter of days. An intrepid protozoon, probably E. histolytica, rendered me fetal, and for nearly a week I got no further than the bathroom, except to keep my appointment with the Police Inspector in Odisha’s capital city, Bhubaneswar, to apply for a visa extension. This proved in excess both futile and medically ill advised.

A sufferer of dysentery is generally disinclined to eat, while at the same time characteristically prone to a regular evacuation of precious fluids and energy stores. Every half hour I visited the toilet to discharge a volley of my insides, while microscopic trophozoites—active ingredients, spawn of the ameboid—clung tenaciously to my intestinal tissue. I replenished with bottled water and, when I could, salted crackers. On the fourth day after becoming symptomatic, I tried to eat rice. On the fifth day, Sudhir rode up on his motorbike with a bag of apples and bananas.

Then suddenly, in one final—and, I feel compelled to admit in this context, supremely satisfying—movement of my bowels, E. histolyca was expelled from my digestive tract in an alien pod of mucus. The trophozoites gradually died off from the medication. On the sixth day I was back at work, slimmer than I’d been in years. A decidedly unbecoming shape, according to Sudhir.

The work that Sudhir and his team do in the forested villages of Kandhamal falls under the general rubric of development, which might be distilled into an axiom like “Building the capacity of the poor to rise up out of poverty.” It follows from primeval societal notions that villagers can’t build a school until they first come to a collective understanding of the purpose of education; that you can’t plant a tree without comprehending how you may be exploited for your fruit.

Development also exists on a higher plane. It is the process, Sudhir and his colleagues show me, of empowering people to express what they already feel. The Adivasis have no use for what is under the earth, the minerals that outsiders greedily crave. They feel a unity with their nature that is based on mutual respect and love, which is not the same thing as ownership and control. How can they express this to the person who would exploit the same land in the name of profit, of development of a different kind? The role of development is to make this expression communicable; to give agency, rather than enduring submissiveness, to poverty.

That is also, basically, the role of Naxalism.

Several months after the roadblock in the forest, a band of Naxals kidnapped a Block Development Officer in Malkangiri, a district to the west. They plucked him, his assistant, his driver and another man from a jeep in the forest near a tribal village. It was a brash show of strength: Naxals control eighty per cent of Malkangiri; all but the few towns along the main roads.

But the Naxals botched the PR part of the operation. The snatched bureaucrat—a Mr. Vineel Krishna—was immensely popular among Adivasis in Odisha. Civil servants of his rank have a foul reputation in rural India for running their own kleptocracies, but Mr. Krishna had been using his seat to help Adivasis form local committees to receive government entitlements—clinics, poverty cards, public-works programs, preschools—and understand their rights against the encroachment of mining companies.

The Naxals made demands: the release of seven hundred of their jailed comrades, including several top leaders; the cessation of the Polavaram Dam project, which will flood a valley along the Andhra Pradesh border and displace thousands of Adivasis; the cancellation of the destructive Deomali bauxite mine; and the retirement of Operation Green Hunt.

In the end, some of the jailed were freed to return to the forests, and the cadres deposited Krishna and his colleagues in town. Sudhir says the Naxals have been dented by the ordeal: slashing and burning, they failed to distinguish between good crops and weeds.

Sudhir and I share a tendency, conversationally, for boyish banalities, which Sudhir undertakes bilingually for the benefit of our Odia-speaking driver and cameraman. It melts away time in the intense humidity of the jungle road trip. Once we carved several hours from the monotony of the pre-monsoon swelter on the topic of animals, which ones we’d eaten, and how they tasted.

I grew up in Texas, and my family is Newfoundlander. Thus I enjoyed a comparably adventurous childhood, gustatorily speaking. Most of my trump cards—seal, moose, peccary—required prolonged narrative contexts in order to equip Sudhir with the vocabulary for translation. His winning hand—peacock, elephant, water buffalo—was capped with an ace of spades: the Bengal tiger.

Konds do not hunt tiger, except when the tiger has invaded the village. They accept the certainty that by their lives they risk transgressing the tiger’s frontier, just as tigers accept the innate risk of being hunted for encroaching upon Konds.

Once, when Sudhir was about five years old, a tiger killed several goats in the village one spring, and his grandfather and father led the hunt to destroy it. They succeeded in killing the tiger, after which according to custom the animal should be eaten by every family in the village, so that the tiger’s spirit will live in each house and future tigers will stay away. He pressed me to understand this story as an emblem of tribal folklore. As if all of us aren’t the heirs of myth. Still, he ate the tiger.

Naxalism refuses to enjoin systems of oppression and poverty that can’t be reformed from within. The premise of development is the correlative idea that progress is a form of defiance. Naxals, Sudhir believes, offer an alternative from oppression in the form of withdrawal and self-governance. They are guerrillas, sure. There are also Naxal teachers, poets, logistical supporters, propagandists and social workers.

If someone were to peer into his life from high above and conclude, easily enough, that it is revolution Sudhir is fomenting with his development, what would be the error in labeling him a Naxal?

A few minutes after we sped away from the roadblock, Sudhir instructed the driver to pull over next to a goatherd, with whom he conversed in Odia. Then we continued our way home to Berhampur.

That was not a Naxal roadblock, Sudhir told me later. Instead, the cunning of bandits had arrested our exit from Kandhamal: copycats had dragged fallen logs across the road to mimic the cadres and freeze their victims in fear. The goatherd—newsman of the forest—confirmed that no Naxals had been reported in the area that day.

It was the trees in the road: they were already dead. Naxals cut down living trees, if for no other reason than because they can. Once, when Sudhir was visiting his preschools, he came to a roadblock of felled trees. As soon as the driver killed the engine, a squad of armed Naxals (including two with axes) emerged from the woods to interrogate him. After some discussion of the work he was doing and where he was from, Sudhir and his driver were freed to pass.

There is no confusion out here. Naxals have simplified things: you are friend or enemy. Being that certain about the world allows the Naxals to slip in and out of the shadows quickly, and has kept their movement alive in India for over four decades. Sudhir angers at news of Naxal violence, and so his calmness in these encounters demonstrates his mastery of their ways. Yet they both share a certain understanding of development, and of the forest.

The Naxals cut down a tree because they can, because it proves their will; cutting down a tree to block a path is an act of defiance, whereas moving a dead tree onto a road is a cry of hopelessness.

Unfelled: A Naxal Encounter” by Richard A. Johnson was the second prize winner in the 2012 Great Canadian Literary Hunt, sponsored by and originally published in This Magazine, November/December, 2012.

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