What ex-Maoists guerrillas taught me one recent afternoon.
The first thing that struck me about the ex-Maoists was how ordinary they looked. What was I expecting? Pirates, probably. Or somebody grizzled and battle-hardened. The Indian Clint Eastwood. But these five guys looked a lot like the small-framed men you see in every Indian town, who smoke beedis by newsstands and possibly drive autorickshaws for a living. Then again, I guess, this is the whole point of a People’s War.
Of course their actual lives were anything but ordinary, even by India’s impossible standards. Not long ago, before officially surrendering to the Indian government, these men were guerrilla warriors for the world’s longest-running revolution. They hid in the forests and had actually killed other (sometimes unarmed) human beings, and now they politely formed a semi-circle around me with their broken bodies.
They met me in the two-room office of a separatist newspaper in a dusty little town a few hours away from Hyderabad. Out of the five men, Sambasha Panjagutta1 was the biggest in size, held the highest rebel rank, had the largest reward on his head,2 and did most of the talking. When he surrendered in 2004, he had been a Maoist3 for 14 years and rose to the rank of District Committee Member, which I think is the guerrilla equivalent to a Major in the U.S. Army.
—But then I developed ulcers in my mouth, he said. We couldn’t get good food anymore. And there was my family, too. The cops terrorized my family, and they ransacked my family home.4
This was more or less the case with the other guys as well, they said.
Panjagutta and the rest may have abandoned their guns and their party memberships, but they held on to the same worldview that first inspired them to join the revolution. We spent hours discussing the perpetual exploitation of India’s poor, how yesterday’s landlords were today’s politicians and business leaders, the impossibility of God and the revolutionary history of India. This last part was a rambling, fascinating diatribe by Kotipalle Bolarum, a lean, high-talking and affectionately friendly guy who said he surrendered in 2004, after the cops jailed his brother and father for six months and he developed “bone issues.”
—They say in the old days, the devathas [gods] were good and the rakshashas [demons] were evil, but who were those rakshashas who were always downtrodden? asked Bolarum. Were they really evil, or were they just the losers? They call us revolutionaries rakshashastoo, but we’re the ones who fight for the oppressed. Think about Spartacus. Think about Jhansi Lakshmi, who as a woman single-handedly made the British shake with fear. Think about Shivaji’s fight against the Mughals. We are carrying on that guerrilla tradition.
Yes, he was speaking in the present tense.
Then I asked, in the most awkward way possible, if they ever killed another person:
—Were you ever involved in incidents that led to somebody’s death?
They had. I was so mesmerized by Panjagutta’s response that I barely took any notes. He is intelligent and articulate, and it isn’t hard to imagine how he could command a force of several hundred rebel fighters. I don’t have the actual interview anymore because I lost my voice recorder, which is a shame because the way he spoke was so memorable. I clearly remember the ambling, casual way he eased into his admission: making careful use of the conditional, not once saying “I” and rationalizing every act, eventually describing how his troops killed not just ‘class enemies’ like the landlords, but also Adivasis – the very oppressed tribal people that Maoists claim to be fighting for.
—We would enter a village and demand the landlord leave with his family, and give his land to the people under his oppression. If he didn’t listen, we would threaten his family. If he still didn’t listen, then he had enough chances. We would wake him up in the middle of the night and kill him. If his family was still around, we’d kill them too. Usually a few security guards would be killed too, and we would bad because they were one of the people, but they had to die.
—I never understood why some of the common people were such stooges of the landlord and his money. These were usually the ones that worked for him, his clerks and his goons. We would sit them down and say, ‘Look brother, it’s time for the revolution so join us.’ But they wouldn’t listen. So we killed them, too.
—How did you kill them?
—It varied. Sometimes we hanged them, other times we would behead them.
We were all quiet for a bit, and Panjagutta looked down at his feet and sort of smiled. Then he said something like:
—We hated killing the adivasis (tribals), but sometimes we had to do it. Most adivasis support us, but some of them were anti-social and would report our movements to the police. When we heard that someone was a police informant, we would first warn them never to do it again. Everybody can make mistakes, we understand that, and we are ready to forgive anybody once. But sometimes these brothers lack common sense; they don’t understand that we are fighting for their sake. So we had to kill them. But we would only do it in front of a people’s court, so the village itself chooses justice.
—But how did you know for sure they were voluntarily giving the police information?
—No, we always knew, said a new voice from the back. It was the first time Sitaram Manikonda, an older man who actually did drive an autorickshaw for a living, said anything besides his name.
Maoist strongholds all over the country are notorious for vague, “people’s court” executions of suspected police informants. Usually, the ‘warnings’ involve the removal of a few limbs. Most villagers, moreover, are powerless to deny the police’s demands for information; even I could walk into a village and find out who’s been around, if I was persistent enough. As I listened, I had to struggle to keep my face from betraying any emotion. I kept clearing my throat so that my voice wouldn’t sound so shaky. I tried to smile – I smile easily – but I couldn’t. Panjagutta obviously noticed, because he laid his huge hand on his chest and said:
—We always feel bad for the killing. The ache of taking away a human life will always be there. But sometimes the people’s war demands painful sacrifices to end the greater violence of oppression. Make sure you write that down.
Throughout this discussion, Bolarum, the most amiable one of the bunch, held his head in his hands and said nothing. I imagine the things he did for the revolution must haunt him – and everybody else, but especially affectionate Bolarum – in his uncomely life as an ostracized ex-guerrilla. I wondered if everything these men had said about the righteousness of the Maoist cause was directed, at least in part, towards the speakers themselves, who can at least find solace in the conviction that, if they have lost everything in life, then it was lost for justice.
These five men, and many more like them, had sacrificed everything for the sake of the people, they repeatedly told me, and now were treated like street dogs. Employers won’t hire them, and the police routinely brutalize them for information whenever Maoists strike in the area. They described how, for a long time after they surrendered, the police tortured them for information: beatings, electric shocks, beatings, shackling arms and legs to a well followed by more beatings. They get medals for that work, someone bitterly said. Suddenly they didn’t seem so much like violent revolutionaries anymore; they seemed more like old, weary souls who only crave the respect of the community to which they devoted a lifetime.
—Who’s greater, us or the police? Who gives up their family life for the people’s sake?
—Only as Maoists will brothers and sisters so willingly spend years apart, because only Maoists have given their lives to as pure a cause as the common man’s struggle.
—We left our homes, our families, our every comfort to go live in the jungle, fighting for what the government should have provided all along. We fight for justice for the people and freedom from oppression, we see our friends die and our families suffer, we go hungry, and we don’t even get our five acres!
—But we get beaten by the police for free.
As everyone unloaded their grievances, with genuine frustration, Bolarum said something strikingly revealing about the psychology of the young, poor Indian who signs up as a guerrilla for the people’s revolution:
—Do you think I ever wanted to pick up a gun? We just want the government to work for the sake of people, but how else can we remind it that we exist?
I had been skeptical about the motives of people who joined the Maoist cadres, but found it hard to stay that way, for these guys at least. Say what you will about the misguided Communist revolutionary in the age of globalization – maybe these guys also thought things wouldn’t end this way – but these ones were honest about why they fought. From where I was sitting, Maoism – India’s single gravest threat, according to the Prime Minister – didn’t seem so grave anymore.
Our discussion was over, but I let the men ask me anything (which is probably strictly discouraged by every journalism textbook ever). By now the cleft in the security with which we regarded our respective lives became abundantly transparent, but as long as we were in the same room, I figured it would be interesting to hear what questions Panjagutta, Bolarum and the rest had about me.
It shouldn’t have surprised me when Panjagutta immediately flashed a menacing smile, leaned forward and started to aggressively interrogate me about my own family, our estates, and the reason I came here. His questions were rapid and direct, delivered with thug-like intonation. I was suddenly, awkwardly aware of how vulnerable I was in that shack of a newspaper office, surrounded by ex-…well, you could call them ex-murderers and criminals. My family is Brahmin and I’m American, which sort of makes me like an Indian version of the white, land-owning male of the 1800s American South who also ran the slave trade and cheated Native Americans out of their land and ran a baby bear fighting ring for good measure. (I mean, this is how I imagine a Maoist would perceive me.) But I didn’t tell them that. I said we don’t really have much land, and most of our folks were teachers anyways, which isn’t untrue. I said that I didn’t care about money or a fancy job in New York, but I did need to hear the stories of the land I came from.
—Plus I love this country, I added for good measure.
All of this was true, but you have to understand that I was not only nervous but also nervous that my nervousness would make it seem like I was lying. But Panjagutta seemed pleased, because his expression relaxed, and he sat back, looked at me and grinned. I felt the other guys in the room relax, too.
—I can tell you’re not somebody who gives into money or fear. I like that, mitra.
‘Mitra’ is a Hindi word that I think can either mean ‘friend’ or ‘comrade.’ The former, fearsome guerrilla commander was testing me, and I’ll never forget what he said. There’s a twisted satisfaction in winning the approval of someone who lived life in the extremes – Maoist, revolutionary, or otherwise.
1. I changed all the names in this post because…just in case.
2. There’s a reward for every guerrilla, obtainable either by turning another rebel fighter in or, if you’re one too, by turning in yourself.
3. a.k.a. Naxalite, a.k.a. People’s War member, depending on what year you’re talking about.
4. Maoists cadres often stop for food in the villages in their area of control. This statement probably implies a decline in popular support among these villages for the revolution/Maoists.