| Folk singer and poet Gadar, the public voice of the People’s War, at a function
Phoolan Devi was perhaps the most famous of the modern Indian rebels who eventually turned to orthodox politics. No less remarkable is Anusuya, the Telugu Desam candidate for the northern Mulug seat in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly election. Known commonly as Seetaka, the name given to her when she joined the Naxalite Jana Shakti group, she now sports the scarves of two political parties, the TDP and its partner in this election, the BJP, when she campaigns.
She went underground at the age of 17 and her attractive round face is still unlined, no crow’s feet surround her dark lively eyes. Seetaka only passed her 10th standard exams at school, but she is now a qualified lawyer, commanding considerable influence among her own Koya tribe which is why Chandrababu Naidu selected Seetaka for this tribal seat. Her opponent, Veeriah, the sitting Congress MLA, is a Koya too.
Oppressive landlords, rapacious forest officers and crooked moneylenders in her own village first made Seetaka question Indian democracy. Then she rebelled against the warden of her school hostel who was stealing the money intended for students’ food, and ran away to the forest to join the Jana Shakti. She never spent more than one night in the same village, and had such a sophisticated intelligence system that she knew of police movements 50 km away. Seetaka was fired on three or four times during her eight years underground, but escaped unhurt.
“We evaded the police mainly because of help from the people,” she said.
So why did she leave the Naxalites'
“Because of the differences between the different Naxalite groups. I tried to unite them but couldn’t,” Seetaka told me.
She also found that the oppressive landlords had disappeared and the government was more responsive to the needs of the people. Fortunately, she surrendered to a magistrate who saved her from police interrogation. The press has been reporting that the Naxalite People’s War Group has called for a boycott of the polls.
Seetaka said: “There has not been an official call but sometimes when they go to the village they say ‘boycott’ and sometimes ‘don’t vote for the Telugu Desam’.”
So was she worried'
“No,” she replied. “You can see I am campaigning quite openly.”
But back in Hyderabad, the public voice of the People’s War, the renowned folk singer and poet Gadar, had insisted there was a boycott.
“We are strong in 10 to 12 districts, how can anyone vote there'” Gadar asked. “We are Marxists,” he went on, “we believe in starting with land to the tiller,” then he broke into song drumming with his hands on the table:
Awake, awake, awake,
Workers of the world be one,
The world’s enemies are America and Japan,
Their agents are Birla, Ambani and Tata,
The netas are their sycophants.
The villagers are their slaves.
Awake, awake, and fight them.
So when I reached Warangal, the headquarters of one of the “Naxalite-affected districts”, and drove through the impressive arch with a clock in its centre that still separates the collector in colonial splendour from the people he is meant to serve, I expected to meet a very worried man. But K. Siva Sankar, IAS, could not have been more relaxed.
“There is no open call for a boycott, as of now,” he claimed. “The Naxalites have moved to other areas because of pressure from the police.”
Nevertheless, the election commissioner has sent special observers to see if candidates can campaign. Driving more than 100 km north towards the Chhattisgarh border it was clear to me that candidates could campaign. The only laws being flouted were the election commissioner’s. In every town and village I passed through there were flags, posters and banners. Small party offices were open and total loudspeaker silence was not being observed.
We drove off the road down a track to the village of Kondaparthi set in the middle of the forest. The first thing I saw was a Congress poster portraying all the Gandhis from Indira down to Rahul. One of the men the sarpanch called to meet us was wearing an identification card from an obscure Marxist group he insisted was not Naxalite.
As we sat in the porch of a small house, built of wood and mud, the air thick with the scent of drying mahua flowers, I was told the village had no fear of voting. “Of course, we are going to vote,” the sarpanch said, “otherwise how will we get anything from the government”.
But the government is taking no chances. On my way back I was stopped and searched by some ferocious armed police who were not entertained by Gadar’s cassettes they found in my bag. Fortunately, I was by then travelling with one of Seetaka’s workers who had an even more colourful background. He had worked as a junior police officer for several years until his role as an informer for the Naxalites was blown. He fled underground but had now emerged again. It was not surprising that he knew how to deal with the police.
With poachers like him and Seetaka now turned gamekeepers, the prospects for peaceful polling, in Warangal district at least, must be brighter than the press and Gadar had led me to believe.