Mining and militarism have a deeply intimate history. In 2003, when India liberalised its mining policy, the de facto Maoist control over the region was seen as constituting a major obstacle to rapid industrialisation and land acquisition. Industry associations like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) explicitly supported the government’s offensive against the Maoists and called for the involvement of the private sector in this effort:

The growing Maoist insurgency over large swathes of the mineral- rich countryside could soon hurt some industrial investment plans. Just when India needs to ramp up its industrial machine to lock in growth and when foreign companies are joining the party – Naxalites are clashing with mining and steel companies essential to India’s long-term success.

Human rights activists argue that it is not a coincidence that Salwa Judum began just when the state government had signed a memorandum of understanding for a steel plant with the Tatas in June 2005. Around the same time, Essar was acquiring land for another steel plant in Dhurli and Bhansi villages, and both the Tatas and Essar were given captive iron ore mines on the Bailadilla hills. “Public hearings” were held in Lohandiguda, Dhurli and Bhansi in order to fulfil the official requirement under PESA of eliciting villagers’ “consent”:

The villagers under the leadership of Dantewada Adivasi Mahasabha and Sangharsh Samiti Dhurli, said that on 9th September the police forced them to sign No objection letters. Two constables were posted in each house. No outsider was allowed at the meeting place. People were not allowed to leave their homes or to talk to each other. According to villagers, at 9 am they were forced into vehicles, and taken to the meeting location. Supporters of the opposition leader (Mahendra Karma) also helped the police in this process. The villagers related that they were taken into a room in twos, and pistols were placed at their temples to make them sign where told. They were told to not step out of the village afterwards.

Those villagers who refused to sign were arrested, and Section 144 (prohibitory orders on assembly) was imposed on the area.

In North Bastar, 22 paramilitary camps fortify the prospective Raoghat mines. Villagers near the mine told us that some 10 years ago, when the project was being proposed, the police took away all their bows and arrows, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by wild animals. Since then they have arrested several village leaders protesting against the mines and railway line. Even the prosaic words of the Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment report on the Raoghat mines reveal how incalculable the loss to both people and nature would be if the mines and the railway line linking Dalli Rajhara to Jagdalpur came up. The country would lose:

26 plant species that are included in the red list of rare and endangered species of vascular plants of India; high average growing stock and ultimately, the presence of 22 mammalian species of which 15 are in either Endangered or Vulnerable list of IUCN appendices or WPA schedules; large number of insects including a few rare ones (identification in progress), 28 species of Butterflies and 102 species of bird from 38 families.

The site proposed for the mining waste dumps, the report warned, would destroy the drainage of the entire valley; and indeed the entire culture of the people would likely become extinct.

Important as mining and resource extraction are, they are not the whole story. Land acquisition has been taking place across the country, and while the police often work as corporate agents, firing on villagers protesting against land acquisition, they have not resorted to Salwa Judum–style grouping elsewhere. Instead, what we see is the coming together of several interests – the security establishment in Delhi, local politicians, the police, the mining industry, the Hindu chauvinist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and unemployed youth.

The Indian state may have let its sovereignty slide in the abandoned adivasi homelands of India, untouched for years by basic services like education or health.

Elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, the police coexist with and are often subservient to the armed power of local big men. However, Maoist control over vast areas is untenable for the state. A casual glance at the topography through which the Salwa Judum moved and the burned villages it left in its wake will show that there is no one-to-one correlation between the villages attacked and the mining areas. Instead, major Maoist strongholds were targeted for the first attacks, and others that fell en route were burnt almost randomly.

The RSS has always seen the left as its primary enemy. A report by an RSS think tank talks of the history of conflict between the Maoists and Sangh organisations such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Vidya Bharati and ideologically similar groups like the Gayatri Parivar, and proudly confirms the RSS hand in Salwa Judum:

The participation of Gayatri Parivar, Sangha Parivar and the Divya Seva Sangh [sic] situated in Gumargunda village of Dantewada is incredible...This movement [Salwa Judum] started fifteen years ago through the peaceful People Awakening Programme. The overall objective of the movement is to form a village security committee. This movement stays completely away from any publicity or propaganda. This is their main strength.

For Congress politician Mahendra Karma, the alleged leader of the Judum, the campaign was a chance to make a name and money for himself and his followers. In 2005, several people also told me that Karma got involved in the Judum so as to save himself from CBI prosecution in the malik makbuja scam, in which timber had been illegally felled on a large scale. For at least a century before mining became the main attraction, Bastar’s forest wealth has been a source of huge profit for both the state and private traders.

Before 1947, felling teak or fruit-bearing trees on private land was prohibited except when shade or falling leaves upset standing crops. After Independence, peasants were given the right (malik makbuja) to cut trees on their own land, after taking government permission.

Contractors used this to persuade peasants with little understanding of market prices to sell them teak trees – which cost lakhs – at ridiculously low rates. The contractors also removed timber from government forests, which was then passed off as coming from private lands. Several hundred truckloads of timber were thus taken away. In response, the government enacted the MP Protection of Scheduled Tribes (Interest in Trees) Act, 1956, under which the sale of trees from adivasi lands has to be sanctioned and supervised by the Collector, to ensure the adivasis are not cheated.

However, the administration proved an unreliable protector, colluding with timber merchants to subvert the law.

Agents, usually immigrants, contacted villagers, tempted them to sell trees and offered to pursue the complex paperwork involved in return for a commission. But their profits went beyond any reasonable commission, helped by the widespread illiteracy in the area.

In 1997, while researching the malik makbuja scam, I interviewed a man called Mundru in Kukanar. The agent kept Mundru’s bank passbook and merrily withdrew whatever he wanted from the account. Of the Rs 2,72,000 deposited in his account for sale of trees, Mundru got merely Rs 16,000. Timber merchants bought not just trees but, where they could, the land itself, in order to fell trees. Rich adivasi politicians from both the Congress and BJP, like Mahendra Karma and Rajaram Todem, were legally able to buy land from other adivasis. Again, land records and timber transport permits were fudged with the help of forest and revenue staff, to enable theft from government forests.

Excerpted with permission from The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar, Nandini Sundar, Juggernaut Books.