Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Gondi and the Naxalites

 There are estimated to be more than 14 million Gondi people in India. They call themselves “Koitur”, or “the ones who come from the green mountains”. “Gond” and “Koitur” or “Koya” are used interchangeably. Their traditional homeland, known as Gondwana, spreads across the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and parts of Maharashtra and Odisha. They refer to themselves by different names, such as Raj-Gonds, Madia-Gonds, Khatola-Gonds and Koyas, depending on where the tribes are located, although these names are, in fact, not strictly state-specific. The Gondi language is said to be derived from the Dravidian language group, a family of some 70 languages spoken mainly in the south of India. However, these people are believed to be genetically Proto-Australoids – related to Australian Aboriginal people. 

The Gondi people follow a pantheistic religion and their supreme deity is Parsapen, the child of supreme beings Salla and Gandra. Gondi legend has it that when Parsapen was born, so were the Gondi people, along with the universe. Each of the 750 Gond clans has its own deities, to whom shrines are built inside homes. In the Gond religion, there is no concept of heaven and hell, but a belief that dying people join their ancestors’ spirits. Outside each village is a sacred ground where memorials to the dead are erected. Offerings of food, maize and grains are made at these memorial sites to appease the spirits of the dead. There are no temples or statues to represent Gods. In their culture, the hill itself is holy ground. 

Medieval texts mention the rise of Gond kingdoms in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and parts of Maharashtra and Odisha. Despite the eventual fall of the Gond kingdoms, many Gondis in the interior region remained free of the influence of new rulers. With time, however, Hinduism and modernism have had a significant influence on their culture and religious practices. Tattoos, however, still form part of the Gondi identity. They are usually done at specific stages of life, such as coming of age, marriage or having a baby, and are believed to keep people safe from evil forces.

The Naxalite-Maoist movement remains a strong force.  The Maoists would stay with people in their villages, where they would discuss issues such as education, healthcare, the price of Tendu leaves (a type of ebony tree), and politics through casual interactions as well as at village meetings. They encouraged people to raise their voices against all kinds of oppression, such as the displacement of tribe members because of mining, the perceived apathy of the government towards water contamination by red oxide from mining, and the leasing of tribal lands and forests to corporations. The cadre members also provided informal education and basic healthcare, which the government was perceived as failing to provide.

The Naxalite-Maoist movement has its roots in Naxalbari in the eastern state of West Bengal. In the mid-1960s, poor peasants and landless farmers in Naxalbari had begun revolting against the rich, exploitative landowners in the region. In more recent years, the movement has found support in the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which was founded in 2004 via the merger of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War (People’s War Group) and the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI).

Although the uprisings at Naxalbari in the 1960s were ultimately put down, the movement spread across several federal states, including Chhattisgarh, as the struggle against what they saw as the government’s “anti-poor” policies – such as allocating mineral-rich areas to corporate organisations for development without consulting the people living in those regions – continued. The Maoists began to spread their ideology in the district of Bastar in Chhattisgarh in 1982. Bastar remained one of the fiercest battlegrounds between the cadres and government forces for many years. According to the home ministry’s annual report for 2018-2019, some 3,749 people have been killed in 10,660 incidents of Maoist violence across 10 Indian states since 2010. Chhattisgarh reported the highest number of casualties, with 1,370 people dead in 3,769 violent incidents.

In 2005, the Chhattisgarh government created the Salwa Judum (Gondi words meaning “Peace March”) by mobilising members of local tribes as fighters against the Maoists. They would vandalise the homes and shops of suspected Maoist supporters, while Maoists would kill those they suspected of being government informers. The Salwa Judum movement drew criticism from human rights observers as people found themselves caught in the crossfire between the two sides.

 In 2008, the Indian Express reported: “Since the launch of Salwa Judum in June 2005, more than 800 people, including some 300 security personnel, have been killed by Naxalites. Special Police Officer (SPO) deaths alone total 98 – one in 2005; 29 in 2006; 66 in 2007; and two, so far, this year. There are 23 Salwa Judum camps in Bijapur and Dantewara [Dantewada] districts of Bastar region where almost 50,000 tribals from over 600 villages have been settled.”

One of the fallouts was the mass displacement of an estimated 50,000 tribe members from Chhattisgarh to neighbouring states. Eventually, the countermovement was disbanded in 2011 on the orders of India’s Supreme Court. 

Disenchanted Naxalite cadres have started to shun violence. Rejoining mainstream society meant surrendering to the police in exchange for not being prosecuted as an “insurgent”. 

Tribal rights activist Soni Sori, 45, is trying to get on with her life as a mother to three children, as well as continue her work as a human rights activist and advocate in Dantewada district, where there is a tense standoff between the Naxalite-Maoist movement and security forces. Her work as an activist involves helping Indigenous people reclaim the land they say has been stolen from them by the authorities, as well as fight for social justice, particularly for women. Women here complain regularly of mistreatment by the police, including wrongful arrest, rape and even shootings, but there are no official figures showing the number of such incidents. Sori says she is often accused by the authorities of having Naxal links but denies being involved with the group. Her interests lie in women’s rights and saving forests and hills – the home of her tribe’s gods – from capitalism and a government which she sees as wanting to exploit the region’s rich mineral resources to support the country’s development. To this end, Sori and her friends organise peace marches and dharnas – peaceful, sit-in protests. They do not engage in violence, she says. Despite this, she has been arrested many times and police officers are stationed outside her house.

Sori says she does not believe in an armed struggle because it is the common woman and man who ends up suffering the most as a result. She says she does not feel “under pressure” to join, but Naxalites have tried to “influence” her by arguing that their struggles and the enemy are the same – the government. She says, the people living in this region do feel conflicted about the troubles between rebels and police forces. While they see the injustice people here suffer because of government policy and actions, they can also be harmed by Naxalites.

Sori has continued to protest peacefully on behalf of the Gond people. She joined hundreds of tribal people, mostly from the Gond tribe, who had gathered at Bailadila in Dantewada district to protest against the granting of a mining lease. The site on which the mining was proposed was on the Nandraj Hill, considered sacred by the Gondi tribe. The Nandraj Hill, on the iron-ore-rich Bailadila range, is dedicated to Pitod Devi, wife of nature god Nandraj. The locals believe the family of Nandraj resides in the hills and protects them from the “furies” of nature. It is disputes like these, say human rights activists, as well as the fact that once an industry is built, the locals do not benefit from it in terms of jobs or other facilities, that have driven many into the arms of the Maoist movement.

Bastar-based human rights lawyer and researcher Bela Bhatia says: “Every illegality that the government allows means that the family and the community of the deceased are going to lean towards the Maoists. There is no third side to this story. Failure on the part of the government to keep its constitutional promises leads the people to join the movement.”

Living in the shadow of rebellion: India’s Gond tribe | Conflict News | Al Jazeera

Further background reading:

The Maoist Insurgency in India (

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