In Maoist hub, Karma’s son hard-sells a Gandhian model
The war journalist Martha Gellhorn once wrote: “The big picture always exists, and I seem to have spent my life observing how desperately the big picture affects the little people who did not devise it and have no control over it.”
Elections in India are a big story. The sheer number of voters, the personalities of star candidates, their fight for ascendancy, their pitfalls, the money, the colour — all of this make for the big picture.
But it is also important to tell the story of people affected by this big picture. The Hindu has travelled through areas affected by Maoist insurgency, bringing to you stories of people trying to come to terms with democratic politics, or lack of it. The first dispatch from the “Red Corridor” series.
Deepak Karma is in his bulletproof car. He is talking about what he would like to do for Bastar. But he loses the thread of the conversation. His eyes are on the road and he is constantly instructing his driver, Kumar. “Less brake control, more gear control,” he tells Kumar who is wiping off sweat from his brow.
Mr. Karma is on his way to Narayanpur in Chhattisgarh that is a Maoist stronghold — “super sensitive”, as a police officer guarding Mr. Karma says. Though the route has been sanitised by security forces, the threat of a Maoist ambush looms large. Mr. Karma’s family has been on the hit list for years since his father and Congress leader Mahendra Karma turned against the Maoists, creating a civil militia against them — which in its last avatar came to be known as Salwa Judum.
“I am not scared,” Mr. Karma says. But his eyes remain on the road. “Maintain distance from the other car,” he mutters.
At a public meeting in the neighbouring Kondagaon earlier, Mr. Karma tells people he is there to make a difference. He speaks of Rahul Gandhi and his “commitment to eliminate poverty.” He promises them better education and health facilities.
After the meeting, Mr. Karma walks towards the women in the back. He sits on the floor, on the tarpaulin sheet. “I am here to listen to your problems. You are the ones running the house. Tell me what you want,” he says. The women laugh shyly. They don’t say anything.
There is a lunch break. Mr. Karma sits with some of his aides, inside a small room that is a grinding mill. Rice and lentil are served. “Lack of development creates terrorism,” Mr. Karma says as he dips his fingers in the plate. “The Salwa Judum phase is over and now I am here to follow the Gandhivaadi model.”
En route to Narayanpur, Mr. Karma recalls the day his father was killed along with other senior Congress leaders by the Maoists in May last year. “The previous night we had dinner with the Patels (State Congress president Nand Kumar Patel and his son Dinesh). And I told Dinesh to be careful,” says Mr. Karma. The next day his father had worn a new kurta-pajama. When the news of the attack came, Mr. Karma says he was only 20 km away from the spot. “I tried to rush there, but the security forces held me back,” he says.
It was only much later in the night that he could go there. The senior Karma had been stabbed 78 times and his head smashed with a rock. “I saw Dinesh’s body, too. The Maoists had put cigarette stubs and gutka pouches inside his skull,” he says.
In the Narayanpur market, a small group of supporters awaits Mr. Karma. He gets down, guarded by policemen, and young men, formerly with Salwa Judum. Inside a makeshift office, he lights up incense in front of Mahatma Gandhi’s portrait and then puts a flower each in front of the portraits of Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. There is a picture of his father as well. He stops there for an extra moment and offers two flowers.
Nowhere in his speeches does Mr. Karma mention Maoists. A Congress worker accompanying him says the party leadership has asked him to refrain from doing so. “It will unnecessarily irk them more,” he says.
It begins to get dark. The policemen guarding Mr. Karma are getting jittery. He begins door-to-door campaigning in the market that lasts for about 30 minutes. Then, after a quick visit to victims of Maoist violence, it is time to head back to the relative safety of Kondagaon.
Once they are out, everyone relaxes. The guns are lowered. Tea is ordered. Everyone becomes chatty.
Tomorrow is another day.