Using the rhetoric of polarisation – to create an us and them situation – is an old trick in politics. Sometimes the polarisation feeds on an already existing conflict, which makes the trick work rather more surreptitiously. It may easily escape notice that the conflict is fuelled rather than solved because of the creation of two – and no more than two – possible sides, while the parties who use the polarisation rhetoric gain in power. This appears to be the case with the armed conflict of “the State versus the Maoists (or Naxalites)” in central India.

Two academic contributions which extensively analyse the conflict – The Burning Forest by Nandini Sundar, published in 2016 and Maoist and Other Armed Conflicts by Anuradha Chenoy and Kamal Mitra Chenoy, published in 2010 – cast doubt on the binary. They provide a far more complex picture of the conflict and how it became increasingly violent from the early 2000s onwards. Their work should become much more widely known not only for the sake of civic consciousness but also to increase the chances of a peace process.

The anatomy of conflict

At one level, both books confirm the view of an armed conflict between Maoist rebels, or Naxalites, and the Indian state. The Maoist rebels aim to destroy the State to then establish an alternate form of government, while the State uses its counter-insurgency methods to root out the rebels. Bastar district has become one of the most militarised areas in the country. By far the majority of the victims are civilians, who are “caught between the Maowadi and the Khaowadi”, as Maoist and Other Armed Conflicts puts it.

On another level, both books open up a horrific black box of the mechanics of war and profit-making in a vast stretch of forest where people live in constant fear. The fear, which suffuses daily life, is double-edged for both the Adivasi communities and civil society groups, journalists and academics working in the region: there is the fear of being seen (or labelled) as a Naxal-sympathiser as well as the fear of being suspected of being a non-sympathiser while travelling in the interior regions. Since the early 2000s, fear has become so engrained that it has become the “new normal”.

In The Burning Forest, Sundar recounts in great detail how in 2005 the state government of Chhattisgarh and the central government undertook a planned counter-insurgency operation under the name of Salwa Judum. It entailed setting up an armed vigilante movement against the Naxalites, which drew Adivasis into a war against their own people, assisted by security forces. The government’s reading of a spontaneous uprising of the people against the Naxalites, basically a Peace March, is refuted on the basis of witness accounts and numerous documents, including a retrieved “Work Proposal” for the movement.

In June 2005 in Bijapur, village headmen were asked to join Judum meetings and bring the members of the sanghams, the village committees set up by Maoist cadres. People were threatened and taken to Judum rallies in trucks, in the midst of the sowing season. Those who did not capitulate were hunted down later. Those who did surrender were placed in camps, effectively open-air prisons under control of the Judum.

Between 2005 and 2007, the Judum spread to other areas, looting and burning villages, raping women and killing people arbitrarily. People who survived either fled or were placed in the camps, which divided villages and created suspicion between the two groups. According to reports, people from 644 villages are missing, and many of these people have moved across the border into Telangana. Staying in the forest meant constant fear of new Judum attacks, living in the camp meant alienation from the forest and fear for both the Judum and Maoist cadres as the latter might attack the camps.

Recruiting village youth as Special Police Officers (SPOs) has been an important part of the Salwa Judum operation. Many signed up thinking that it might lead to a regular police job. Instead, SPOs were hired as foot soldiers in a dirty war with no rules. They were incited to kill as many (alleged) Naxalites as they could while living under abject conditions and in constant fear themselves. In this way, what was publicised as a state operation against the Maoists, became a war among fellow adivasis, dehumanised by the security forces.

Breaking the binary

The more distanced analysis of Chenoy and Mitra Chenoy allows for the shedding of light on what they call the political economy of conflict. In the case of Bastar, the Chhattisgarh government makes deals with industry for the extraction of mineral resources, it protects the industry by sending security forces and by channeling funds for development to the area. These funds are going to contractors, Maoist cadres and others, and to employment schemes such as road widening. The population pays taxes to both the State and the Maoists present in their area. Politicians who come to campaign pay the Maoists to get access to their constituencies.

In this way, the conflict takes up resources, but is also fuelled by the profits made by various parties, including industry, contractors, politicians, government, military and rebel cadres. Health and education facilities for the rural population are mostly absent, people are evicted from Special Economic Zones and in several places rural commons give way to private commercial farming. All this as well as the war itself drives the population to abject poverty, deep alienation and a state of constant anxiety of what will happen the next moment.

While the above account of the conflict already breaks down the binary of State versus Maoists, both books also discuss the involvement of civil society actors and the role of the judiciary in the conflict. Chenoy and Mitra Chenoy note a dismal human rights situation for the adivasis, but also journalists, academics and activists who come to the area and face insecurity and injustice. The suspension of human rights (underpinned by special acts, some of which violate the Constitution) effectively draws the whole population into the conflict.

The fact that anyone who raises human rights issues is suspicious in the eyes of the government makes the work of such civil society actors increasingly difficult. The more these actors withdraw from the area, the less able they are to inform outsiders and to play a role in negotiations about peace. The ongoing polarisation is thus pernicious not only because it fuels the conflict, it also undermines civil society, which should instead be allowed to play a role in conflict resolution.

It’s not all homogenous

Sundar adds another level of analysis, arguing that it is not only spokesmen of the State and the Maoists who employ the binary and simplify the conflict. The State and the Maoists suppress dissent within their ranks, the critical and moderating voices which exist everywhere. But the media and parts of the human rights community are to some extent also responsible for providing the general public with a shallow view of what is happening on the ground. The media on its part focuses on violent events, has largely taken an anti-activist stance, and does little to reveal the complexity of the conflict.

The State itself is also not a homogeneous entity, even if the rhetoric of statesmen may suggest otherwise. The judiciary, which acts independently from the government, proves the binary wrong as the Supreme Court has ruled against central and state governments’ operations and interests in a number of cases. At the same time, the level of impunity is high, as Sundar recounts. Two examples serve to briefly illustrate this point. In 2011, the SC prohibited the Salwa Judum and the exploitation of SPOs as soldiers. The central and state governments however nullified the order and the Salwa Judum morphed into successor vigilante movements. Impunity for human rights violations and giving orders to kill indiscriminately is de facto the rule.

The second example concerns the ruling of the Supreme Court against the company Vedanta. In the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha, the Dongria Kondh peoples have been fighting a long battle to keep the Vedanta company from mining for bauxite. The struggle was centred on the decision of the gram sabha, who had rejected Vedanta’s claims for mining on the grounds that it was their sacred hill and important for their spiritual and overall well-being. The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the gram sabha and there was widespread jubilation among all the people and groups working for and among the indigenous peoples across the world. Yet, the Ministry of Home Affairs report of 2017 linked the adivasi group that was at the forefront of the struggle – the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti – to Maoists, and attempted to show it in bad light.

It has been over a decade that the security forces established camps all across Bastar (and neighbouring districts), in many places occupying primary school buildings and supplementing the already existing police stations. Electoral promises of all political parties have stressed that they will wipe Maoism from the state and bring back peace to the region. But nothing seems to have changed: the camps are here to stay, travel across the district remains as difficult, and the issue remains an electoral trump card once again.