Crossing the two-kilometer wide River Indravati is an adventure. A boatman slowly rows a handmade two-seat canoe — any loud movements can topple the fragile floating boat.
In the heart of the central Indian forests in the state of Chhattisgarh, Indravati flows with fury.
“The whirlpools in the river are not easily visible all the time,” said the boatman.
This region, called the Bastar region, also holds huge amounts of suppressed discontent, which, like the river, is not easily visible at first glance.
On one side of the Indravati River, the Indian state imposes its rules. The other side is considered to be communist territory.
For three decades, extreme left-wing armed rebels have fought a guerrilla war against the Indian state. The conflict is now contained in a few districts of central India but the members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) believe that the modern Indian democratic institutions have exploited Indigenous people, known as Adivasis, in these districts. The Maoists want a violent overthrow of the Indian state and justice for Adivasi communities. While most Adivasis agree with the Maoists and oppose large scale industrialization, some of them side with the state and corporates.
The tension between these parties has led to serious violence in the area, most of it directly affecting the Adivasi communities.
On Feb. 7, state security forces are said to have crossed the river Indravati and killed 10 unarmed civilians outside the village of Tadiballa in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh. The police later claimed that those killed were Maoists. In Bastar, it is common for the police to target Maoists. But, in many cases the villagers become the targets.
The villagers have a different version of the story. They said the Maoists were conducting a sporting event for four villages — Tadiballa, Uthla, Kolnar, and Palli. About 70 young men and women came to partake in traditional Indian games like Kho Kho and Kabbaddi. Many more were gathered to watch the games.
According to the villagers, dozens of security personnel stormed in and began shooting indiscriminately at the largely teenage crowd. Many eyewitnesses said there were only three Maoists who were organizing the games. Since they could not take on the forces, they fled the scene.
The villagers received the bodies of the dead later that night, wrapped in blue tarpaulin.
“Our sons and daughters were killed. For no fault of theirs. We did not want to sit quiet,” said one villager from Tadiballa.
Subhead: An Uprising
This incident in Tadiballa that morning only managed to alienate the villagers. The Adivasi culture has its traditional rules, governance structures, and hierarchies. For instance, any conflict between two individuals is usually sorted by the village elders in front of the entire village. The Adivasis might not cast a vote in the traditional sense, but village elders decide community matters based on consensus.
Trying to superimpose Western democratic ideas of a state, electoral democracy, the police, and the criminal justice system onto their societies does not bode well. To add, the protracted conflict has made villagers suspicious of the state security forces, who they already see as violent oppressors.
On March 5, around 5,000 forest villagers did what they had never done: They crossed the river and rode tractors and buses to the nearest small town of Bhariramgarh to protest what they claimed was the cold-blooded murder of the fellow-villagers in Tadiballa.
And it worked — the local government authorities were forced to institute an inquiry against the paramilitary personnel who had charged into the forests on Feb. 7.
Subhead: A history of mistreatment
Extrajudicial killings of unarmed villagers have been common in these parts of the world.
On Feb. 4, an unarmed woman was shot at and another injured in Godelguda village in the neighboring Sukma district. Podiyam Sukki and Kalmu Devi were collecting firewood, leaves, and fruits near their village when they saw about half a dozen policemen approach their village. Instinctively, the villagers in this region run away when they spot the police.
“There has been a long tradition of police oppression,” said activist and lawyer Bela Bhatia, who has worked on the issues of state repression for decades.
Award-winning human rights activist from the region, agrees and explained why the relationship between Adivasi people and the police is often fraught with mistrust.
“They only look at the police as oppressive arms of the state, they want to be away from it as much as possible. Such an instinctive reaction comes from false arrests that the police make, years of extrajudicial killings and in the case of women, even sexual assault,” Sori said.
When the police shot at the two women, Podiyam Sukki died and a bullet passed through Kalmu Devi’s thighs. After about a month in the hospital, Devi returned home. Now, she said, she is even more petrified by the police.
“The question is why did the police fire on unarmed women?” Sori asked.
The villagers obviously trust the rebels more than the state forces, Sori said, because they are not violent toward ordinary people — even though Maoists have contributed their share of violence: More than 60 percent of people from Bastar went to polls on April 11. Two days earlier, a BJP legislator was killed by the Maoists, who are fundamentally opposed to elections in the region.
This is not the first-time instances like this have happened. Across the country, many accuse the Indian government and the police of disregarding the rights of Adivasi peoples and systemically discriminating against their communities. Adivasis across India have been displaced from their ancestral lands in the name of environmental conservation — oftentimes with no help with rehabilitation or compensation — with the help of violent police forces who have, by any means necessary, suppressed any protests from Adivasi communities. Adivasi women have been sexually assaulted in police custody and have been put in prison for fighting for the rights of their communities.
The Maoists gained the trust of Adivasis by helping them organize against the Indian government and assisted them in fighting for their right to their land. By default, the Maoists became defenders of Adivasi land.
Subhead: A shared solidarity
According to U.N. figures, an estimated 370-500 million Indigenous people inhabit the world, spread across 90 countries. They live in all geographic regions and represent 5,000 different cultures.
India’s relationship with Adivasis is not unique — one can find similar examples among plenty of modern democracies everywhere. The Europeans arrived in the Americas, dislodging the Native American people, their cultures, economies, and imposing identities on them. Today, there are about 5 million Native American people in the United States; there were an estimated 10,000 million people living in the 15th century. In Australia, decades of mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have come to light — some dating all the way back to the 1930s.
Indigenous people face many other forms of exploitation. Massive industries have been built on the lands of Indigenous peoples, subverting their culture and traditional livelihoods in the process.
The Adivasis in India are no different. And like the Adivasis in India, this fight for ownership continues in Indigenous communities across the world.
And as years tumble on, water in the Indravati is receding, leaving the underlying whirlpools no choice but to either vanish or stand exposed – much like what is happening in the Bastar region.