What's there in a road? Answer is - the blood of our martyrs.
This road (that you see in the image above) is not an ordinary one. Perhaps, this road will become a symbol of development in the remote region of Dandakaranya. Roads, it is said, are the first sign of a civilization. Roads were prominently mentioned in Mahabharat. Emperor Ashoka understood the importance of roads and built an elaborate network of roads under his reign. But, Dandakaranya is a different place - of mythical demons, wild animals and outlaws. So, almost no empire could claim much of this jungle for a large part of India’s history. Even when claimed, this region mostly remained out of reach. So, when a road is built connecting north and south India through Dandakaranya, we know it is history in the making.
To give readers more context, this is a particular stretch of NH-30. Once, this 70-km stretch was the most militarized zone in India. This patch of road runs from Konta, in the south Chhattisgarh bordering Andhra Pradesh, to Sukma, above it. If someone were to travel from Konta to Sukma in 2005, it would have taken seven hours of difficult journey with fear of IEDs going off any minute. More than 50 paramilitary personnel died trying to secure the region to help create this road. Several more paras and police personnel lost their limbs guarding this patch. But, again, this is Dandakaranya.
The history of this road is the history of Dandankaranya post-Independence.
After India became free, the new nation wanted to free itself economically as well. And what better place to start economic freedom than mining. And what better place to explore than Dandakaranya. And then began the process, that would eventually culminate in the worst violence that could easily have escalated into a civil war in the heart of India. It is true that Maoists exploited the innocence of Tribals in the forests but the larger question remains - Why did the Tribals side with Maoists?
Tribals in India are called Adivasi, which literally means ‘Old Residents’, or ‘Original Residents’. Some theories propose that they had migrated to the Indian sub-continent long before the ‘others’ came. Much of the evidence given with regard to the migration of ‘others’ is still controversial and beyond the scope of this article. However, the Indian indigenous Tribals are definitely among the oldest population in India. They virtually hid themselves from civilization by living life in massive dense forests. As much as we look at them as ‘forest dwellers’ with no ‘culture’, they are arguably more civilized than us. For years, the Adivasis have lived in perfect harmony with nature. They have been carbon-neutral much before that term was defined. Today when the world is scrambling to find solutions to climate change, perhaps the Adivasis can teach a lesson or two in climate mitigation and carbon-neutral policies.
The Adivasis built an elaborate culture revolving around mother nature. As a result, popular temples - such as Danteshwari Devi temple in Dantewada - devoted to Mother Goddess can be seen in the region.
These are guardian deities that represent the energy of the nature. Now, this is where things came to a head. Successive democratic governments tried to introduce modern civilization in Dandakaranya by pushing massive infrastructure projects such as mining, steel plants etc. It inevitably meant destroying a part of nature, which is an integral part of the Adivasi culture. Adding to this, the Adivasis rarely benefited from the development work. A major part of this problem was the lack of modern industrial education. Only recently have the governments started a massive push towards education and healthcare. Many Adivasi students have even gone to top colleges like IITs for the first time. However, the distrust is still high. The popular wisdom in police circles in south Bastar goes: “In Andhra Pradesh, the people are with police and Maoists have informers; in Chhattisgarh, it’s the other way around.”
The Andhra Pradesh (and Telangana) part of Dandakaranya is also a painful story. At its peak, it looked as if the Naxalite movement in AP will usurp the democratic government. Adivasis supported the Naxalite movement to protect them from exploitative landlords. But, the AP governments introduced smart measures to curb the Naxalite movement, not to forget, the incisive Greyhound guards, who outwitted Naxalites at their own game. Some of these governments in AP also slyly supported Christian missionaries. Today, there’s a mega project being undertaken by these missionaries to completely alter the demographics of the Andhra population through doles such as free medicine and education. These missionaries consider the indigenous Adivasi culture as ‘uncivilized’ and are on a mission to civilize them. But, they are hugely mistaken. There’s already visible consternation against missionary blitz. People on the ground say that these missionaries operate as mafia. The huge amount of foreign funding they receive is used to ensure a war-like operation to convert people. Today missionaries are more actively working to further their cause in Dandakaranya than government officials. Perhaps, a large section of our liberal commentariat will remain stunningly silent on this brazen destruction of Adivasi culture, exposing their hypocrisy and selective amnesia. This hypocrisy highlights the liberal commentariat’s selective support to the Adivasi cause.
On the Konta-Sukma road the blood of martyrs and that of innocent Adivasis is still unaccounted for. After millennia, Dandakaranya is being opened to ‘development’. The question is, will that development empower the Adivasis and help them make rational choices for their lives? Will it ensure that the Adivasi culture of mutual coexistence with nature is not wiped out? Will it ensure better life for people? A road can lead to a thousand destinations. The traveler has to choose where to stop and when to move. The opening of Konta-Sukma road should not merely be aimed at deeply integrating India; it should also ensure that the Adivasis are empowered, their balance with nature is understood, and their lifestyle is safeguarded.
(Author is an independent political risk analyst and former LAMP fellow)