By Vikram Aditya
The evening skies turned crimson as the darkness crept in, the traffic died out and I was surrounded by an eerie stillness. The deafening silence was only punctuated by the croaks of frogs in the stream below the bridge, and the calls of cicadas echoing from the forest. I was on the Sukma-Konta highway, a hotbed of Maoist insurgency in Chhattisgarh’s restive southern Bastar region. I had halted my bike for a while on the road next to a bridge, newly built and sturdy looking, made of reinforced concrete just like the spanking new highway stretching for 80 km between Sukma and Konta. I wondered if the use of cement for the entire highway instead of the more common tar was solely to prevent easy wear and tear, or to additionally make it harder for Maoists to blow it up using explosives. The old highway used to be a single-track tar road that was earlier blown up in several stretches by Maoists, with the rest degenerating due to lack of maintenance. The road condition used to be such that the 80 km from Sukma to Konta could take up to 5 hours.
The Sukma-Konta highway passes along the Sabari River (also known as Kolab), which forms the state border between Chhattisgarh and Odisha. The river also forms the natural boundary between the Northern Eastern Ghats and the Bastar plateau. With the Ghats on one side and the Bastar plateau (which forms part of the Central Indian forest landscape) on the other, the river traverses a very interesting biogeographic transition zone. In better times, it would have been an absolute delight to explore the biodiversity of the river and the forests abutting it. The region is home to several mammal species, as well as some rare reptiles and birds. However, now the entire stretch of the river, starting from its upper reaches in the Eastern Ghats to its merger with the Godavari, and especially the section passing through Bastar, has become an epicenter of conflict, making any movement along the river by outsiders hazardous.
I had gone to Sukma towards the end of last year to attend a peace march organized by a coalition of community groups from across Dandakaranya. The region – whose name is derived from Hindu mythology – is an expanse spanning across parts of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh that is evocative of vast tracts of impenetrable forests largely inhabited by tribal communities. While many of these forests are no longer impenetrable, what makes them seem daunting in popular imagination is that they had become a Maoist stronghold. The Maoists have been engaged in guerrilla warfare against Indian security forces for over three decades now. Although this has happened across Central India, the state of Chhattisgarh has borne the brunt of this warfare, resulting in hundreds of deaths and several thousands of people becoming internally displaced to refugee camps. Overall, the entire region had been taken hostage in the protracted armed conflict. Furthermore, many thousands were forced to flee across the border to the relatively safer state of Andhra Pradesh when violence suddenly escalated in 2004-2005. There are no known figures of the number of people displaced, but estimates put them at around 30,000.
These displaced communities are legally eligible to receive alternative forest land to cultivate under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, as they have been displaced from their original lands. However, they still remain vulnerable to eviction by the Forest Department in Andhra/Telangana as they are labeled as illegal encroachers. The coalition of NGOs and individuals, headed by an organization called the Central Gondwana Network (CGnet), were on a peace march to reach out to various affected villages, Maoists, and security forces to try and forge a dialogue for peace. They were headed from Chintur in Andhra Pradesh, close to the Chhattisgarh border, to Jagdalpur, the headquarters of Bastar district and former capital of the erstwhile princely state of Bastar, passing through Sukma and Konta.
The route from Sukma, about 120 km south of Jagdalpur and the headquarters of the Sukma district, south to the border town of Konta largely passes through beautiful Central Indian forests dominated by Sal, Shorea robusta, now degraded in large parts and devoid of large trees. All along the forested highway one comes across numerous epitaphs to martyrs of security forces and local villagers fallen in armed encounters with the Maoists. One also occasionally encounters small red pillars and banners eulogizing Maoist leaders and cadres killed in such encounters. These memorials are a stark reminder of the heavy price that violence demands from everybody—those actively involved, but also passive bystanders. Equally noticeable are the occasional posters attached to trees and walls put out by the police department urging people to hand over arms. These notices list out the cash rewards paid for different kinds of weapons. Rarely, one also sees lookout notices for senior Maoist commanders and leaders, mentioning their native villages, their rank in the militia, and their identification marks.
Thinking about these grim reminders of the violence ravaging the landscape brought a chill to my mind as I quickly restarted my bike and sped up to reach Konta before nightfall. I became extra cautious whenever I crossed a CRPF camp, of which there were literally dozens between Jagdalpur and Konta. These camps are large and heavily fortified, and are guarded by armed personnel. The surrounding vegetation is cleared and well lit to eliminate all possibilities of hiding. You can see them from more than a kilometer away, being brightly lit by floodlights amidst the darkness of the jungle. The men guarding these camps tend to be extra cautious, especially if any vehicle stops or even slows down in front of the camp. These CRPF camps are often located next to hamlets, or resettlement camps into which villagers were forcibly evicted during the violence following the creation of the Salwa Judum. The Salwa Judum was a quasi-military force created by the Chhattisgarh government in 2005 by arming local villagers with guns, although ironically it meant ‘peace march’ in the locally predominant Gondi language. The CRPF has been engaged in anti-Maoist operations across affected parts of Chhattisgarh since the last two decades.
I crossed the border back into Andhra Pradesh and to my field station in Chinturu around dinnertime. Although the landscape and the tribal communities were absolutely the same on either side of the border, Andhra seemed a different world. Even my field station in Chinturu village, barely 5 km from Konta, exuded a sense of safety that felt like a far cry from the battlegrounds of southern Bastar. I reflected on the sad dilemma that such conflict zones presented researchers, notwithstanding the much larger hazards for local communities and others directly involved. The prospect of working in such places was risky at best, but these areas often contain fascinating and unexplored stories that would be gold to researchers. Stability, safety and security during field work are of course of prime concern for everyone, and although none of these can be guaranteed, we attempt to ensure at least a minimum level of safety, primarily to prevent injury and theft. However, conflict zones present a greatly heightened security risk. And although I was inexorably drawn to the undeniable beauty, and perhaps also the sense of danger and risk that southern Bastar presented, for the moment I was glad to be working in a place free of guns and land mines.
Glimpses from the field
About the Author
Vikram Aditya joined the ATREE PhD programme in 2011. His PhD research examines patterns of landscape change over the past three decades in the Papikonda National Park, in the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh, India, and its effects on mammal diversity and distribution patterns in the region. He has a Masters in Zoology and has previously worked with WWF-India from 2006 to 2010 as a Research Associate, and as a National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee exploring the biodiversity of the Godavari valley in 2010. His work on the Indian pangolin in the northern Eastern Ghats has been supported by a small grant from the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT), India.