Maoist leader Pahad Singh (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)
Last month, senior Maoist leader Pahad Singh, who had the police of three states in hot pursuit, surrendered to the Chhattisgarh Police. Singh speaks to The Indian Express from an undisclosed location about his early life, why he picked the gun, his 18 years in the Maoist movement and how he ended up disillusioned
Tell me about your childhood.
I am from Fafamar village in Rajnandgaon district. I was born in a poor adivasi family and studied till my first year of BSc in a college in Ambagarh Chowki in Rajnandgaon. I couldn’t study more because of poverty… But since I had passed my higher secondary (Class 12), I filled forms for various jobs. I have had a 30 per cent disability in my leg since childhood but I didn’t let that stop me. I applied to the 31st Battalion and the Rajnandgaon Police but didn’t get through. Then applied for a teacher’s job but when my turn came, I had no money to pay the authorities. I then filled a form for shikshakarmi (primary school teachers hired by the panchayat). My name appeared in the disability quota. But politics happened — the list in Churiya block had my name, but they rejected that and when a new list came out, my name wasn’t there. This was in 1987-88.
I then started going to pluck tendu leaves. I am an adivasi and thought I would do something for adivasis… But I used to be disturbed. What is this society, I would think. I used to stand first in school and in my tests, but couldn’t get a job. In 1990-91, when I used to go to the forests to pluck tendu, the Maoists would come and talk about their ideology. At that time, they don’t say you will have to do this, do that (making a pretend gun of his fingers). They hide it at first. They only show you when you get to a higher post.
What do they tell you in the beginning?
That you are from an adivasi background, that an adivasi should fight for his jal, jangal, zameen (water, forest, land)… that the tribal way of life, our culture is different. Why is there so much hunger, so much poverty among the tribals, they would ask. I used to think, baat toh sahi kar rahe hai (they have a point).
Did they talk about your unemployment?
Yes. They would also say that children of the rich study in big schools, but there aren’t any teachers for the poor. I used to think baat toh sahi hai. In my school, sometimes the master (teacher) came, sometimes he didn’t. So what they said seemed right at that time. I thought I should go from village to village and start talking about adivasi asmita (pride). So in 2000, I went… Around 1999, I thought I should work for the society, and I met them. They said since I was an educated youth, I can work for the society. I thought, chalo karenge (let me do it)…
Who was talking to you then?
Devchand alias Chandu. He was the commander of Devri. After I came in contact with him, I would go to the people and talk to them…
Did you know what to say in each village?
Yes, they told me that the first thing you must talk about is adivasi asmita… How Brahmanical culture is being imposed on us, how they are dividing adivasis. What is this caste system and how has it come about… People were so taken in by what I was saying and since they were affected too, they started joining.
When did you get your first weapon?
In 2000. They gave me a small tamancha (a country-made pistol) and I was trained in mobile form (mobile guerrilla tactics). Wherever you go, you practise there. In 6-7 months, they gave me an 8 mm rifle. And because I was a local, they made me a pilot.
I had to walk in front, lead the way — get the cadre from one part of the jungle to the other. In 2003, they took me in the Devri Area Committee.
When was your first encounter? When did you fire your first bullet?
Sometime in 2003-2004, elections were going on. My first bullet, with my 8 mm, killed a policeman… Then in 2006, there was a division plenum and they inducted me into the sub-DVC (sub-divisional committee). In 2006, there was delimitation and I was made Area Committee Secretary of two areas, Tanda and Malajkhand. I stayed there and spread the word.
Malajkhand is not Bastar. In Malajkhand, for instance, there is police, there is the government. So how did you influence villages in these places?
The adivasis have great faith in their own culture. Moolnivasi, Adivasi, Bharatvaasi. This was our slogan — that the people fighting in the Maoist party are adivasis, that adivasis are the true sons of the soil, they are the true Indians. The feelings of the people are intricately linked to their culture, their history. If you tell them about all this, they become happy and start joining.
So in 2006 you got those responsibilities…
Yes. In 2008, there was another plenum in Tipragarh, north Gadchiroli. They took me in the Divisional Committee and gave me charge of Khorchi, Khobrameda and Khurkheda (in Gadchiroli). Then in 2014, there was a Central Committee (CC) meeting with two CC members and one company commander in Musmarka in Abhujhmad. There, there was an argument on some issues.
What were these issues?
They would look at local cadres with suspicion — that they are mixed up with the police. Or if there is an incident, suspect that the (local cadres) would have done it. These allegations were put on me as well. But I said directly that there is nothing like this. I told Milind Teltumbde (Central Committee member), ‘If you think I am a police informer, then… do what you want. But don’t put these allegations.’ The higher (non-adivasi) cadre, the intellectual people who think of themselves as well-read, their behaviour is not good with the local cadre. Chaar manzil mein rahenge, you have to carry water up for them. You have to protect them.
Pahaadi ke upar pathar. Usko hum manzil bolte hai (A big hill with boulders. We call them storeys). To take water that far is not easy. Even then, we do that because within our adivasi samaj, there isn’t that kind of education. We think that because they are saying all this, they must be saying the truth. If you argue with them, they will say, ‘How are you saying this?’ This kind of behaviour with the cadre is not right.
So Milind Teltumbde doesn’t behave well?
I had a problem with him in 2014. Now, he again started looking at things with suspicion. His commanders were checking up on me, looking at why I wasn’t eating. An internal struggle is taking place because of these things… Mukhbir ko shaq se dekhna (The leaders would see me as an informer). Who was I talking to, what was I saying, what was being discussed… This suspicion runs deep in the upper leadership. Just fear. That this person might be an informer. If at some meeting a CC member says a certain person is an informer, who will contradict him?
What was the thought process behind the new MMC zone?
(The fear was) in Dandakaranya, our forces are being surrounded and they might be crushed. So if the cadre (in Dandakaranya) has to be saved, then we should put them in the new zone. And if we expand, then the pressure on Dandakaranya will lessen. Our first task was Amarkantak. We had to work with speed — there was police pressure, cadres were returning home, some were accepting the surrender policy.
So how do you go about entering a new area?
We look for someone in the party who is related to villagers of that area and enter through them. We first only go to see the forests. We talk to the families and tell them, arre, we have to go to this place. They wouldn’t know we are Naxals. So someone will say, ‘Okay, I will take you. They will say there is a shortcut from here.’ But we say we will take the longer route. That way, we get to see a bigger area and can sink our teeth into that new forest. Familiarity grows, and we return. We go the second time or the third time, then we start saying we are coming to protect your adivasi identity, coming to protect your jal-jangal-zameen. We start looking at the problems of the people.
What are some of these problems in the MMC zone?
Displacement for creating wildlife sanctuaries. People are getting pushed away. Within one year, in Kabirdham district, the party created 75 organisations. It takes time to solidify them, but if it does solidify and a militia is created, then it will prove difficult (for the government). Right now, there is no militia; only Kisaan Mazdoor Sangathans of the Maoist party.
What are the other issues?
Locals say people have been coming to survey their land for mining — that’s troubling them. The attack on the adivasi identity is primary. The Baiga adivasi is meant to be the protectee of the President of India (they fall under Primarily Vulnerable Tribal Groups) but have you seen their situation? If the Maoists reach out to them first, they will have the upper hand, but if the government does it, they will push away the Maoists.
When you go to a village first, do you go without weapons?
After the initial stage, we go in the form of a jan sena with weapons, pamphlets and propaganda material.
Don’t people inform the police?
No, because police never go there. They go only when the Maoists reach there and there is hulla (commotion). But by then, the locals are in our hands.
The thing is, they are troubled. Go and see the reality. People are angry.
How successful has the MMC zone been?
After the creation of the MMC zone, a new division, Kabirdham-Balaghat, has been created. There are plans to make one more division. For that, they have asked for 60 fighters from Dandakaranya.
What are the tactical advantages of the MMC zone?
After the MMC zone, we can in the future make a new zone in Amarkantak. Because Amarkantak is 150 km from the MMC zone. That way, we get a big area, and can go forward from there.
Is the Maoist movement getting stronger or weaker?
See, they are not being able to move forward. From a security point of view, they have to protect themselves. Since Manmohan Singh said that the biggest internal security threat is Maoism, they (senior leadership) took this very seriously. They thought anything can happen — that we can be attacked from air or the army could be deployed. All of this can happen in Dandakaranya. The Maoist revolution has become difficult.
Why is that?
Because recruitment is coming down.
So how is recruitment happening for the MMC zone?
From Bastar only. Seventy cadres from Bastar came to MMC. The highest ranking leader was Surender.
So when someone in a village gets recruited, do they know they are part of a Maoist organisation?
They may not know in the early stages. But they will know later. We tell them that if you don’t fight with weapons, you will not get your jal, jangal, zameen. The government is coming with their weapons. The forest officials come and don’t let you live, assault you. They don’t let you graze your cattle, don’t let you get wood from the forests. The people say all of this is correct, and join.
Are there youths who have joined the armed cadre from the areas that form the MMC zone?
That stage hasn’t been reached yet. It will start soon. There is a proposal to recruit 15 people. It is going to happen soon… We tell young men and women that you will have to come to fight in our jan sena, the Peoples Liberation Guerrilla Army. Only then can we be liberated. Adivasis listen and then come. It’s only later that they realise how badly they are treated.
You took 18 years to realise this?
I thought today it will get better, tomorrow it will get better…
They say that general secretary Ganapathy is ill, and that Basavaraj has taken command of the party?
That is true. We get reports of what happens in the CC meetings. This happened in 2015, but they didn’t want it to be exposed. In 2016, the command was handed over to Basavaraj.
Where is Ganapathy now?
Did the senior leadership know that the adivasi cadre was disillusioned?
No. Because there is no local adivasi cadre in the Central Committee. There is a difference between what they say and what they do. The senior leadership is only using the adivasis.
When did you start having doubts about this path you had chosen?
From 2009. But it’s only when I became divisional committee member and began meeting the higher cadre that I started realising. In 2014 too, I thought about it. All these things that I am talking to you about, could I have said it there (with the CC)? If they are talking about adivasi protection, then Maoists are not the saviours of adivasis.
What is the answer then?
They say they want to save Maoist identity. They give slogans, asking adivasis to stand up and fight for their culture and traditions. But if adivasi fighters make up 80 or 90 per cent of the force and they all die, what will happen to their identity? If the adivasi doesn’t remain, there will be no asmita either… Maoists will finish the adivasi. Adivasis are dying in the name of being informers. Adivasis are being pushed into a war with the police while they themselves (the senior leaders) are staying comfortably… There are good rules for adivasis and Dalits. PESA (Panchayats [Extension to Scheduled Areas] Act) has been given for the protection of the Fifth Schedule and Sixth Schedule. Then why don’t you come forward for its protection? Why pick up the gun? If you want to bring Mao’s guerrilla tactics, then don’t talk of adivasi identity.
When you discussed these issues with others, what would they say?
They would say I was right.
Now that you have surrendered, are you afraid?
Why should I have any fear? The party will target (my family). That is why I asked for security in writing when I came (to surrender).
How did you surrender?
I was part of a group of 43 people going to Dandakaranya. When they said you have to go to Dandakaranya, I was worried that the kind of disagreements that happened in 2014 might happen again and I would be mentally harassed. When they told me I have to go, I began thinking, kuch to hai (there is an issue)… They are suspicious of me again.
In the new zone, where is the Maoist hold the strongest?
In Rajnandgaon. But that will shake now. They will ask why Pahad dada went.
Who are the other adivasi leaders who will damage the party if they were to leave, surrender or get arrested?
Hidma. And a commander called Deva. They had blamed Jhiram Ghati (the 2013 Naxal attack in Darbha that wiped out the Congress leadership) on Deva. The CC members looked away and blamed everything on him. He was in Darbha at the time.
What do you want to do in the future?
To finish Maoism, I am prepared to do whatever I can to help. It depends on how the government wants to use me. I am ready to do what they want. I can go in the field too.
with the Express Morning Briefing