Editors Note: This article is based on the author’s firsthand account and fieldwork in the region.

When Mr Lahre, a Forest Sub Divisional Officer in Kawardha district of Chhattisgarh, was identified for taking a bribe of Rs. 99,000 from 33 Baiga primitive tribals of Bhangitola village in return of promise of land rights under Forest Rights Act, he returned the money and made a public apology. He broadcast his apology through the same medium that identified him – CGNet’s Bultoo Radio. In fifteen years of operation in Chhattisgarh, this network has solved more than 1000 cases. These have covered a variety of issues, including land rights, missing pensions, broken water pumps and electricity substations, and closed schools. The most dramatic success was in a case of quick intervention to prevent a cholera outbreak.

The common thread in all these cases is that they reconnect citizens to the state, in remote forest areas where Maoists have successfully exploited the failure of state institutions. Through the practical use of communications, CGNet has provided a narrative that directly confronts the claims of the Maoists, particularly in the issue of land rights. The most powerful recruiting call for the Maoists is that they alone will secure land for tribal people. CGNet has shown a way of challenging this. If it was scaled up, alongside other confidence-building measures, it could provide a powerful new tool to re-establish order and stability in left wing extremism (LWE) affected regions.

Bultoo Radio

All of these cases were brought to CGNet by individuals, recruited and trained one by one to tell the stories of their communities by phoning a toll-free number, pressing ‘1’, and recording. After the stories are edited into bulletins, they are rebroadcast, and they can be heard by calling the same number and pressing ‘2’. In many places where there is no mobile signal, one person will travel out, record the bulletin, and neighbours hear it through Bluetooth. The word Bluetooth simplified, has led the medium to be popularly called ‘Bultoo Radio.’

The cases are dealt with when other people call concerned officials to alert them to the problem. Its success became clear when officials started to call to say they know there is a such-and-such problem, but “please don’t put it on Bultoo Radio, we are dealing with it.” This shows that the system has been successful to redress grievances, and more enlightened officials recognise the value of an early warning system that can alert them to problems. But what other potential does it have?

Communications – the missing link

Up until now India’s response to the LWE challenge, and in particular the revolutionary threat posed by the CPI (Maoist) party, has understandably been mainly focused on security. This is allied with development initiatives and respect for rights[1]. But this approach ignores the potential of communications. Where mentioned in the Home Ministry’s existing policy, communications are seen in a top-down way, involving ‘Tribal Youth Exchange programmes organised by NYKS, radio jingles, documentaries, pamphlets etc.’

Bultoo Radio is different because it is bottom-up. All of the matters raised come from the people. It provides a 21st-century approach to counterinsurgency – through communications of the people, by the people, for the people – and by connecting marginalised people to the state, it could be the first building block in a new way of changing the dynamics of the Naxalite issue.

How a new communication strategy would work

It is important to stress that a new communication strategy is not a replacement for police action and development work. It would work alongside them. But it would compete directly with Maoists in an area where they are strong – through Gondi language and culture. The Maoists have persuaded forest-dwellers that only they can give them their rights. We need to assure them that is not true, and their rights are already granted to them.

Gondi is the common language of the Maoist movement in Dandakaranya forest, which includes parts of the states of Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. But we as a nation have not invested in the language yet. Although more than 1.2 croreGondtribals live in Central India, there are many variants of the language, and no commonly agreed dictionary. (The handful of existing websites in ‘Gondi’ use one of the dialects that are not universally understood across the region.)

Five years ago CGNet brought together representatives from several Gond sub-tribes, and after many days of deliberations in workshops since then, they have agreed on 3000 words in a new shared Gondi – more than enough for normal communications to take place across scattered groups who could not otherwise communicate to each other. But with scarce resources, it is hard to build on this success.

This language vacuum has left a space filled by Maoists, who communicate locally invariants of Gondi, while the leadership can communicate in Hindi. This is a classic tactic of divide and rule, and it gives the Maoists a clear field to tell forest-dwelling people that they need to fight to continue to live in the forest.

The biggest failure of communications by the state has been to allow the Maoists to have this narrative, and not to counter it by spreading the word on the Forest Rights Act, a far more progressive legislation than in many countries facing a similar issue. The Maoists successfully conceal the right of settlement already granted to forest-dwellers through the FRA.

The priority in putting communications into a counter-LWE strategy is to invest in Gondi language platforms, once a shared language is formalised, and to translate the Forest Rights Act, and scale-up registration procedures to the language, so that forest-dwellers can take the state at its word. This move alone would have a significant effect in showing that India is on the side of its people currently caught in a Maoist net. Alongside it, there needs to be an investment in oral website technology to give access for non-literate people to state services and the outside world not mediated by Maoists, something like a ‘Voicebook’ to go alongside Facebook. The more traditional ‘top-down’ communications techniques have value too and need to be employed more tactfully to advertise the FRA in Gondi to spread awareness.

Next, there needs to be a full survey among Internally Displaced People (IDPs), those displaced to neighbouring states in fighting, particularly at the time of the SalwaJudum in 2005, and quickly processing the applications of those who want to return. CGNet has carried out a partial survey, in which more than half of those displaced would like to remain where they are, in situ, and not return to their ancestral villages. At a meeting on July 2019 of concerned officials bringing together the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs, and invitees from the affected states, it was decided that clauses in the FRA giving in situ rehabilitation, or alternative land away from ancestral land for evicted people, would apply in this case. Section 3 (1)(m) of the FRA provides for recognising the land rights of forest dwellers who were evicted or displaced before they could get land titles under the law.

This process is complicated as it will require agreement both from the state where the people are resettled, as well as the state they left some fifteen years previously. But again, a move in this area would show that the Indian state cares about tribal people in this region as equal citizens under the law, challenging the revolutionary rhetoric of the Maoists.

Beyond these individual rights, there needs to be consideration of providing Habitat Rights for the entire region of Abujmaad, which can be applied since Abujmaadiatribals are a PVTG (Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group). Abujmaad in Narayanpur district of Chhattisgarh is the epicentre of the Maoist movement.

The name Abujmaad is contested: it is an outsider’s name as it means ‘unknown hills.’ This area has never been surveyed, including even in colonial times, as the British defined it as a “No go area” with as little interference as possible.  The Chhattisgarh state government has announced a survey to be able to grant individual and livelihood rights under the FRA, not Habitat Rights. But without better security, this survey is currently stalled. Agreeing that the area would be eligible for Habitat Rights would get round the need for a formal survey, which can be carried out when the granting of such rights were successful, alongside other policies, at detaching the people from the grip of the Maoists.

People’s Voice for Peace

CGNet pursued an initiative to survey IDPs in neighbouring states and is working to secure Habitat Rights for Abujmaad, because these were demands from a series of meetings held since early 2018 in an attempt to listen to authentic voices from the forest. These so-called ‘Bastar Dialogues’ have led to several other actions – some predictable, and some more unexpected. Out of the first meeting came the idea of a ‘Pad Yatra’, a 200km foot march, symbolically along one of the routes the Maoists took when they first decided in 1980 to move into the Dandakaranya forest. The yatra set out on the start of 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

At the end of the march, the tribal leaders requested to meet the Maharani of Bastar, the current queen mother. Former Maharaja Prabir Chandra Bhanjdeo was killed by the state in 1966 when he was fighting for the rights of tribals. The marchers’ main demand was for the release of tribal people caught up in police searches and held in jail who have never been charged with terrorism-related offences. This issue is of particular importance since prisoner releases were promised in 2009 in exchange for an Administrative Officer (IAS) held by the Maoists. Securing these releases would be a significant confidence-building measure.

The second demonstration, a 300 km cycle yatra, from Jagdalpur in Bastar to Raipur included many displaced people and demanded the right of return and rehabilitation for IDPs – again a demand that came from listening to the people in the Bastar Dialogues. Other initiatives requested by the people themselves include working among former Maoist fighters released from jails, to rehabilitate them and to specifically work with the families of Maoists. This is aimed at securing their agreement to request those fighting to lay down their weapons. This has been tried in Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana, but not in Chhattisgarh.

Culture

In the oral culture of the forest, songs and poetry are highly prized and a means of reaching out. The state needs to recognise this in constructing successful counter-LWE policies. As the saying goes – ‘the Devil has all the best tunes’, the Maoists have been very successful at working through songs and story-telling with the tribals. They call thousands of people to large festivals in jungle-clearings – ‘Bhumkals’ – drawing inspiration from the Bhumkal rebellion, an anti-colonial uprising in Bastar in 1910. In the Maoist narrative, modern police actions are repeating the oppressive actions of the British, caricatured in silhouetted puppet shows.

The state needs to find its ways of tapping into such traditional arrangements to break this Bhumkal narrative. More than half of the calls to CGNet’s toll-free number are songs and poems – some traditional, and some more modern. Many of the poems come from one illiterate cow-herder who has a gift for putting his ideas into verse. And to spread the word on Bultoo Radio, a song and dance team goes from village to village with a puppet show. This is just an initial step to revive the former dance-drama form of the Gondtribals called Gondwani which needs further strengthening.

Listening to cultural needs can have its rewards. After the cycle yatra, IDPs present decided that they would apply for land rights under the FRA, but first, they needed to apologise to their village gods, for abandoning and not caring for them, and they sought forgiveness to leave. So they held a Pen Pandum – ‘Festival of the Gods’– beginning with a long session of prayers by five native priests, led by Sher Singh Achala. He invoked the gods of 644 abandoned villages, asking for support for those displaced by conflict, as they look for more settled lives.

After dancing late into the night, the next day the first application forms for new homes were completed by 350 people, before the drumbeat began again, the drums borne by men wearing headdresses with giant horns, and the dancing went on for another night. So this was a cultural event with serious political intent at its heart.

Another scheme which has been trialled in a small way is the mapping of forest areas to mark out sacred sites. If there is to be industrial development and mining in the forest, then awareness of these sacred sites would potentially reduce conflict with tribal people. This would be a way of providing security without needing so many weapons, since people’s needs were respected, and they would not feel a need to take up the gun against industry and mining. Industrial development in these areas is never going to come without a challenge and at some personal cost – but mapping sacred sites would remove one element of potential conflict.

To listen better to tribal needs, one solution might be for the state to invest in tribal traditions to harness their capacity for positive change. This might include the revival of Gotuls – youth clubs in tribal villages which engage in peer-to-peer learning. A central Gotul Institute on the PPP model would also address language, culture and religious issues. This institute could run phone-based grievance redress platforms in Gondi and other local languages, bringing CGNet’sBultoo Radio under its roof. Gotuls should be linked with internet, phone and Bluetooth wherever possible.

Window of opportunity

It is important to realise that there is currently a window of opportunity to take on the Maoists, which may not be open forever. The Maoist movement has reached stagnation. The strategy to use the forests as a ‘rear area’ for the revolution that was planned for cities has been seen to fail since the headquarter was moved into the forest in 2004. The recruitment boom among Adivasis caused by the aggression of the SalwaJudum campaign has ended.

The growing number of genuine surrenders reveal a new mood among Adivasi supporters who make up 99% of the Maoist force but have no representation among the top leaders. All of the 1% non-Adivasi Maoists are leaders in their sixties. The top leaders are even older and more than half of known Central Committee and Politburo members have died, or been killed, arrested or surrendered in the last few decades. There is a sense of urgency to secure progress while there is still some central control, before the movement fractures further into criminal gangs, competing to extract protection money from big businesses.

The Adivasi community function on collective consciousness and decision-making process. That was the reason few joined the Maoists until the 1990s, post which a collective decision from the community gave the go-ahead. There are indications now that the Adivasi collective consciousness is changing its mind and giving a signal that enough is enough. With 2020 marking the anniversary of forty years since the Maoists arrived in Dandakaranya to set up a ‘rear area’, Adivasis are asking if it is time for a change. The challenge is to find a way of that voice transforming a general will to action.

Recommendations

In conclusion, this is a summary of the recommendations that have emerged from the people themselves as a way of bringing a communications element to bear in stabilising Bastar and connecting citizens to the state, to reduce the capacity for Maoists to operate.

  1. Expand Bultoo Radio to each LWE affected block of the country in local dialects
  2. Invest in Gondi platforms and spread the word about the FRA and similar pro Tribal laws like PESA and 5th Schedule
  3. Survey IDPs and apply Section 3(1)(m) of the FRA to allow in situ rehabilitation.
  4. Consider Habitat Rights for Abujhmaad alongside individual and Community rights
  5. Release tribal people held without cause and not expected to face terrorism charges.
  6. Work with released Maoists and the families of Maoist fighters.
  7. Work to build cultural resilience among forest people – break Maoist Bhumkal narrative. Consider setting up cultural ‘Gotul’ institute for Gondi people and develop Gondwani dance drama for performance in tribal villages to also discuss peace.
  8. Consider mapping of important tribal religious sites.

*Shubhranshu Choudhary is a former BBC journalist, and currently runs a citizen journalism project in tribal areas of Central India called CGNet, (commonly known as ‘Bultoo Radio’). He is now promoting conflict resolution in the region.

[1] The strategy is outlined here: https://mha.gov.in/division_of_mha/left-wing-extremism-division

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