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In Maoist citadel, green shoots of democracy

It is 10 am in late March, the sun beginning to sear the skin. In a tattered vest, 31-year-old Jageshwar Korram whistles loudly as he washes his clothes at a government handpump. Around him are scattered homes, far apart as they often are in the forests of Bastar, and evidence of calm domesticity. A few metres away from Korram, children titter as they play hide and seek, weaving past a woman who has set off on her Atlas bicycle for the closest bazaar.

Representative photo

Korram is content. But this contentment comes not from development or any real sense of upward mobility — the village of Mohla has 25 tribal and six Other Backward Classes (OBC) families, nearly all of them still living off the subsistence their small land holdings provide for them. In Mohla, calm domesticity is hard earned. Even the luxury of electoral choice, one of the most fundamental tenets of Indian democracy, did not exist 15 years ago.

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Receding Maoists

For close to four decades, Bastar in southern Chhattisgarh has become one of the primary arenas of a deadly battle between government security agencies and the banned Left Wing Extremist (LWE) outfit CPI(Maoists) — once called India’s gravest internal security challenge by then prime minister Manmohan Singh in 2006.

Yet, even as it has grown to be synonymous with violence, the term Bastar is often misleading. Bastar is, at once, a village, a district, and, most importantly, a range that comprises seven different districts spanning 39,117 square kilometres, bigger than several Indian states. For reference, Kerala is 38,863 square kilometres.

These seven districts — Kanker, Kondagaon, Narayanpur, Bastar, Dantewada, Sukma and Bijapur — are all categorised as LWE affected. But over the years, even as violence has continued incessantly, areas under Maoist control have shrunk, now predominantly in the three south Bastar districts of Dantewada, Sukma and Bijapur, or Abujhmaad, 4,000 square kilometres of land yet unmapped by the government, literally translated from Gondi as the “mountains of the unknown”. In some of these, the first three months of the year have seen a climax of sorts, with the state launching a concerted push into once Maoist-dominated areas in the interiors, and the cornered insurgents fighting hard. The human toll tells the story — in three months, 47 Maoists, six security personnel, and 16 civilians have lost their lives in the action.

But Kanker is a different story.

Closest to Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur and only around 140 kilometres away, it is one of the districts from where the violence has gradually dissipated — the result of a combination of creeping markets, road infrastructure, and a paramilitary push.

State government officials say that 70% of Kanker, barring the parts that fall under Abujhmaad, are “Maoist-free”.

“Ten years ago, this whole area (which Mohala falls under) of Pakhanjur, Partapur, Koylibeda and Bande were Maoist strongholds but things have changed because of the opening of camps and roads,” said Lakshman Kewat, station house officer of Pakhanjur police station.

Sunderraj P, inspector general of police, Bastar range, said that even in the last two years, the advance of the security forces continued apace. “We have established critical camps in Bastar, including Chilparas, Pandidobir, Kadmeta and Katgaon in Kanker district. These camps, which are game changers, were established in erstwhile Maoist strongholds, and this was done facing considerable risks, including the threat of IEDs, ambushes and UBGL (under barrel grenade launcher) attacks. The fight against LWE has reached its final and decisive phase,” he said.

For Lalit Kumar Patel, this receding of Maoism reflects Mohla’s lived reality.

“Even 10 years ago, nobody dared enter Mohla. But things are different now,” Patel, a villager, said.

One of those changes is immediate. “We had never thought that there would be enough normalcy that the entire village would get to vote for the Lok Sabha elections.”

Advancing democracy

As his hands beat the dirt out of the clothes under the gentle flow of the hand pump, Korram called out to his four-year-old son, one of the children playing under his watchful eye. There was a time when Korram was young, that he believed neither he nor his children (if he had any) would return to the village.

In 2010, armed Maoists had descended on Mohla, and executed three people on suspicion of being police informers, threatening to kill more. Within days, the village emptied. “We all moved to the small town of Pakhanjur, 20 km away,” Korram said. Even in the years before that, nobody had dared to vote for fear of the Maoists.

But slowly, from their makeshift huts on the outskirts of Pakhanjur, the villagers watched as the situation began to ease. The same year as the Mohla massacre, the first Border Security Force (BSF) camp opened in Partapur, 16 kilometres away. In 2017, another camp was established, less than a kilometre from Mohla. By late 2019, the government had cajoled the villagers to return home. The homes they left behind were mud and thatch, and had not survived the nine-year hiatus. “Every single one of the 30 families had to rebuild. But after the establishment of the camp, the influence of the Maoists has become negligible. The first time we voted was in the assembly elections last year. Now we will vote in the Lok Sabha elections,” said Sumila Komre (41), returning from the forests after collecting mahua.

Much has changed in the five years since the villagers have returned. There is now electricity, and a stable mobile phone network. And among the residents, much like anywhere else, political conversations are about which government will bring the village the most development. “Now, we want the Nal-Jal Yojana and roads inside the village. The path from the main Pakhanjur-Koylibeda road is unpaved and becomes difficult to traverse in the rainy season. Our vote will be for development,” said Manik Ram Komre.

Komre is testament to Mohla’s aspiration, and upward mobility. He is 19 years old and readying for a Bachelor of Commerce degree in the district headquarters at Kanker. “I think (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi is a great leader,” Ram smiled. Standing next to him, under a tamarind tree, Sankai Gawande scoffed dismissively. He shaked his phone violently and said, “What has Modi done for us? All he does is appear on mobile phones and television screens. I have yet to decide who to vote for.” But Gawade knows that even the conversation he is in the middle of, the luxury of choice, is battle earned. “Now at least we can talk about it, and can vote. Fifteen years ago, nobody voted for anyone. Those were difficult days. Now there is no interference and no fear,” he said.

Tribal politics

Experts believe that elections in Bastar have always been a reliable barometer for the strength of the Maoists in the region. Every election is fraught with danger; littered with examples of attacks. In April 2019, on the last day of campaigning, BJP MP Bhima Mandavi was killed after an IED targeted his convoy; four others died with him. But overall, experts say, there is increasing evidence of a reduction in Maoist influence and the spread of election processes.

“Despite the usual call of election boycott by the CPI(Maoist), more and more people, and more and more regions are voting. Some of these, like in 2023, were even in the so-called base areas of the Maoists where their janatana sarkaar operates. All attempts to disrupt elections are being thwarted by the security forces and recently, only stray violence has been reported,” said former special director general of police RK Vij.

Experts also said that over the past six months, the progress made by security forces in developing new camps have aimed a psychological blow at the Maoists.

“For instance, the establishment of a security camp in Puvarti, the native village of Maoist operative Hidma, who has controlled most operations in south Bastar for the past decade, is one such blow. These new camps, including in Kanker district, have certainly restricted the movement of large military formations by the Maoists,” Vij added.

In Kanker, this opening up of new avenues also means navigating methods of political communication not associated with Bastar. The BJP’s Kanker Lok Sabha candidate, former Antagarh MLA Bhojraj Nag, said party workers were now campaigning in several areas they had never set foot in before. “But in sensitive areas, we are dependent on social media platforms and videos because people have access to mobile phones now. There are door to door workers, but in interior places, we try to spread our message through digital technology.” In terms of the immediate electoral politics, Kanker is one of the two Lok Sabha seats in Bastar, and is currently held by the BJP. In 2019, while the BJP won the seat with a narrow 6,914 vote margin, they have moved to mitigate any anti-incumbency by removing sitting Member of Parliament Mohan Mandavi, replacing him with Nag.

Last week, the Congress announced that Viresh Thakur, who contested in 2019, would battle for the seat again.

“Our election campaign is focused on Modi ki guarantee (PM Modi’s promises), and the development schemes launched by our government that are now both at the state and the central level. The programmes have made a huge difference to people’s lives and we are confident we are winning with a huge margin,” Nag said.

Thakur said the Congress has framed their campaign as a fight for the “country’s soul”. “We will contest the elections for the very future of our country and are taking Rahul Gandhi’s guarantees to the people. People have benefitted from the five years that (Congress’s) Bhupesh Baghel was in power and we are confident people will vote for us,” Thakur said.

In last year’s assembly polls, the Congress, under Baghel, lost to the BJP.

The sparring means little to Korram. His vote is in four weeks and he is already planning for the day. As his son squirms in his arms, Korram beams widely.

“We will all reach the polling booth early. Every vote is important. Maybe I will take my son. Someday, he will vote too,” he said. “Who knew this day would be possible.”

This is the first in a series of election reports from the field that look at national and local issues through an electoral lens.

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