For years,Devati Karma led the life of an ordinary tribal woman,taking care of her home while her politician husband and sons moved through southern Bastars forests leading a ragtag army against Maoists. She knew little about politics or the details of her husbands rivalry with the Maoists.
Maoists killed her husband,Salwa Judum spearhead Mahendra Karma,in Chhattisgarhs Darbha in May. Devati,51,and her four sons have since received Z-plus security,probably the only family in the country to have the topmost protection for as many as five members. Today,Devati is the Congress candidate from Dantewada and the entire family is next on the Maoist hit-list.
After the Darbha attack,the government swiftly stationed a company each of Chhattisgarh Armed Force and CRPF at their home in Faraspal village. Faraspal is just 14 km from the district headquarters,and lies not in any interior forest but on a good motorable road. Yet the family left it under a threat perception and came to live in their house in Dantewada.
Some compare Devati with Rabri Devi,and some,pointing at her sons reputation for wielding muscle power,say if she wins there will be five MLAs from Dantewada.
She is an ordinary tribal woman,who cared only about her husband,children and farming, says Chhavindra Karma,one of the sons. Once I joked that when Papa moves to central politics,she should contest his seat,and she ran after me to beat me up.
The family is now seeking votes in the name of the man who had defined much of the politics of Dantewada and,to an extent,that of the entire Bastar region in the last three decades.
For a man who would become the bête noire of Maoists,the political career began as a CPI MLA from Dantewada in the early 1980s. Karma was a staunch communist and the next election he fought,and lost,was against his elder brother and Congressman Laxman Karma.
Some say the reason he spearheaded Salwa Judum in 2005 was to clear the Bastar forests and hand over rich iron ores to industrialists. His rivalry with Maoists,however,goes back to the 1980s when they entered Bastar. A powerful tribal chieftain,he resisted the Maoists efforts to wrest control of his territory and launched Jan Jagran Abhiyan,a Salwa Judum-like initiative,against them in the early 1990s.
Later,he joined the Congress but left in protest when the Digvijaya Singh government of undivided MP promised to bring Bastar under the Sixth Schedule,involving greater devolution of power and autonomous tribal councils as in parts of the Northeast. Karma felt the move would benefit Maoists. He won a Lok Sabha poll from Bastar as an independent,purely on an anti-Sixth Schedule agenda,before he returned to the Congress and became jail minister in Digvijayas cabinet.
His fall after Salwa Judum coincided with and helped the emergence of the BJP in the region. The party has never won the Konta seat,part of Dantewada district until Sukma was carved out last year,and could win Dantewada only in 2008 when Karma stood third behind the BJPs Bhima Mandavi and his former protégé,the CPIs Manish Kunjam. The loss severely dented his prestige. Some say the defeat was foretold after Salwa Judum; others add he was also ditched by the BJP,for which he had staked his career. Despite being the Congresss leader of the opposition,he had sided with the BJP government during Salwa Judum,earning the infamous tag of Raman Singhs 13th minister. Raman Singh later distanced himself from Salwa Judum,and even denied its existence after Sukma collector Alex Paul Menons abduction.
The crisscrossing lines of politics and insurgency often get entangled in Dantewada.
For years,Karma and his supporters alleged that the BJP had sided with Maoists at the last moment in 2008 to hand him defeat. Last month,Pudiyam Linga,a Maoist arrested for the murder of prominent BJP leader Shiv Dayal Singh Tomar,told the media in front of the Dantewada police superintendent and CRPF officers that he had campaigned for Mandavi in the 2008 polls. Speaking to The Indian Express,Mandavi denies the charges but concedes that Linga did work for the BJP during a 2011 Lok Sabha bypoll,which the partys Dinesh Kashyap eventually won. Intelligence reports also point at some ground-level understanding between BJP workers and lower-ranked Maoists.
Dantewada is one constituency where Maoists do form part of the political agenda of the Congress,if not of the BJP. Karmas family insists that a government that cannot ensure security and lets an attack like Darbha happen has no right to govern. Mandavi,on the other hand,believes people have forgotten the incident. He acknowledges Karmas stature but denies there is any sympathy wave,noting that Karmas legacy has left no one with any sympathy for him. It will be very unfortunate if Devati Karma loses this election, a BJP leader says.
Mandavi says people will vote only for Raman Singhs populist schemes such as subsidised ration. Free chawal ki yojna garibon ko chhu gayi hai. The BJP had won the 2008 polls on subsidised rice. Whether that can be a game-changer again is,however,still uncertain.
What is certain is that both parties have admitted their inability to reach over half their constituencys area,and the personal campaign of the candidates will be limited to an even smaller area. Dantewada has 266 polling stations and both Mandavi and Devati Karma say they cannot send even their booth agents to more than 150 for fear of Maoists. Normally in constituencies,agents of parties are posted at every booth to prevent rigging. Not here. Of the 266 booths,only 26 are in the normal zone.
Their geographical presence and campaigning,leaders admit,have decreased in the last two elections. The Karma family,even to reach its village,requires a road opening party,and is advised not to move without protection.
How does it feel to be constantly surrounded by so many AK-47- wielding cops? Its a jail,an open jail, Karmas daughter Sulochna says. We move around only within the defined limits.
1.72 lakh voters
(83,000 men,89,000 women)
Key feature: Maoist hotbed
2013: Devati Karma (Congress) vs Bhima Mandavi (BJP)
2008: Mandavi won; Devatis husband,Salwa Judum architect Mahendra Karma (since killed),came third. Karma had BJP support for Salwa Judum,but BJP allegedly took Maoist support to defeat him
Earlier: Seat alternated between CPI and Congress for decades
146 of 266 booths sensitive
98 hypersensitive only 22 normal