In Vidarbha, the district of Maharashtra made famous by scores of farmer suicides, a new story is being scripted. Naxals seem to be mobilising support among the dalits there. And the police are doing all they can to scuttle their efforts.
The CPI-Maoists in Maharashtra are headed by Milind Teltumbde, who is the acting state secretary of the party. Milind, whose brother Anand Teltumbde is married to dalit leader Prakash Ambedkars sister, is quietly working among the dalits of Vidarbha and even of Mumbai.
For instance, last year intelligence agencies were surprised by the large number of Naxalites who participated in the 10th anniversary of the Ramabai colony police firing in northeast Mumbai in which 11 dalits had lost their lives.
Indeed, for the Naxalites in Maharashtra, wooing the dalits — in rural and urban areas — has become a part of their master plan. Not just that. Documents seized by the police recently point to the fact that the Naxals want to infiltrate and sabotage key industries like transport, communications, rail, power, oil, defence production, etc, as well. These documents also suggest that they see the dalits as natural proletariats.
On September 29, 2006, four dalit members of the Bhotmange family in Khairlanji village of Maharashtras Bhandara district were brutally killed by fellow villagers in a case of caste prejudice. After the incident, all the dalit leaders of Maharashtras various splinter groups and factions — Maisaheb Ambedkar, Ramdas Athavale, Prakash Ambedkar, R.S. Gavai, Jogendra Kavade, and others — jostled to tap the dalit anger. At one meeting Jogendra Kavade from Nagpur threatened to form suicide squads like the LTTE. But eventually, none of the leaders agreed to work together from a single platform. Yet there is every indication that the dalits, especially the younger members of the community, are veering towards an ideology that the police believe is close to Maoism.
Says additional director general of police Pankaj Gupta, who heads the anti-Naxal operation in Nagpur, The Naxals feel that the dalits are willing to cross the boundaries of the law and they see militancy in them. In fact, the Naxals are cleverly using front organisations to espouse their cause among the dalits. These organisations actually paint Ambedkar as a revolutionary.
Some 38 non governmental organisations working in Vidarbha have now been banned by the state government as they were found to be front organisations for the Naxals. Over a dozen of these organisations were working among dalit students. They brought out a magazine called College Katta which was used as a propaganda tool to lure youngsters into Naxalism.
But if you ask dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar, who heads the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, about this new sympathy for the Naxals, he is quick to deny it. The police want to brand the dalits as Naxals. This is the agenda of the religious forces, especially the Hindu religious organisations. I dont think the dalits fit with the Maoists because Maoists dont recognise caste. Their fight is over economic disparities whereas dalits are looking for relief from caste atrocities. So the twain dont meet.
But the Maharashtra police are not buying this. They have documents to prove that Naxals have made sufficient inroads among dalit students. To fight the Naxal menace, the police here have adopted a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, they are using state-of-the-art technology to track Naxals; on the other, they are also using initiatives to encourage dalits to ban the Naxals from their villages.
Called Gaonbandi, the scheme came into being in 2003 when the government promised to pay Rs 3 lakh to villages that barred entry to Naxals. Though the scheme has hit the usual bureaucratic roadblock with a poor record of disbursement of funds, the idea of villagers coming together to pass a resolution in writing, to keep the Naxals at bay, has hit off well in Gadchirolli in eastern Maharashtra. As many as 416 villages out of the 1500 settlements in Gadchirolli have adopted the resolution.
In fact, Maharashtra has always had a good record of fighting Naxals. In 1991 when IPS officer Hemant Karkare was posted as the superintendent of police in Chandrapur, he rewrote the rules for tackling Naxals. At the time, some villages in Gadchirolli district were said to be liberated — a term used by Naxals when a village is under their control.
Karkare found that the they had managed to make forays into Gadchirolli by taking up the cause of tribals. The tribals, he realised, respected power, and the Naxals wielded power. Since the Naxals were blowing up roads, he spoke to the village elders and told them that such methods would only impede progress and deny their sick children access to health care. He also recruited several tribal boys in the local police force — boys who could otherwise have been won over by the Naxals.
By 1993 when Karkare left Chandrapur, there were just two dalams (armed Naxal squads) from over a dozen dalams that were operating there earlier.
Today, 15 years on, the Maharashtra police are using similar tactics to win the villagers to their side. Says Pankaj Gupta, We tell the dalits not to forget what Pol Pot did to the Buddhists in Camobodia. We tell them that to convert Cambodia into a farmers country, 1.4 million people were killed.
Says Rajesh Pradhan, superintendent of police, Gadchirolli, Gadchirolli is no longer in their control. But still there is mass mobilisation going on from their side.
Still, in the areas Naxals are in strength they brutally punish any one who dares to go over to the other side. Last year they killed a 21-year-old boy, Bandu Narvate, who came from his village seeking a job with the police. The moment the Naxals got wind of his attempt, they dragged him out of the house and killed him and thrashed his six-month pregnant wife, reveals Pradhan.
Then there was this young couple who had spent a couple of years in a Naxal dalam. They wanted to surrender. But one day before they were to meet us, the boy was brutally hacked to death and they took the girl away, adds Pradhan.
Pradhan says that psychological operations are part of policing in Gadchirolli. We are trying to project the human face of the administration by holding Jan Jagran Melavas where we create public awareness about government schemes. We also hold community marriages. All this is done at least four to five times a month.
But will all these initiatives be enough to fight the Naxal menace? Only time, as they say, will tell.