If home minister P Chidambaram’s recent letter to West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is any indication, it has taken the Union home ministry seven years to realise that arming civilians to fight Naxalites is a bad idea. How much longer will it take for them to realise that the current paramilitary-based approach in Chhattisgarh is similarly bound to fail?
From 2003 onwards, the home ministry has followed a policy of financially and logistically supporting ‘local resistance groups’ against the Naxalites. Salwa Judum was a classic case, a ‘Gandhian movement’ in the words of the Chhattisgarh CM, which, however, went around burning, raping and killing villagers. If the home minister is serious about doing away with non-State vigilantes, he must not only condemn the ‘Harmad Bahini’ in Bengal but also apologise for supporting the Salwa Judum. If Bengal has armed CPI(M) cadre, Chhattisgarh has gone a step further and regularised many Salwa Judum activists as special police officers. They now have official pay. And a licence to kill.
The home minister has frequent meetings with police chiefs and security experts, while the government as a whole has a cozy relationship with industrialists, as the Niira Radia tapes reveal. But I cannot think of even one instance where the prime minister or any senior minister has talked to victims of security forces or vigilante violence, or just ordinary villagers affected by the paramilitary occupation of their schools and their lands. Poll after poll shows how out of touch the government is on this issue. In August 2010, a survey by an academic agency and two media houses across the ‘red belt’ showed a strong preference for developmental solutions over military ones, for unconditional dialogue, and for reform of the existing political process. A newspaper poll a month later in Telangana showed that 58% credited the Maoists with forcing development on the agenda. On a visit to Dantewada in October 2010, virtually under police custody to ensure I could not visit any villages, I was stopped at all the Salwa Judum camps by groups of people, desperate for peace talks.
If the military prong of the government’s strategy is unfeasible, what are the prospects for its ‘development’ prong? The Planning Commission’s Integrated Action Plan, designed for Naxal-hit districts, is almost custom-made to flop.
A committee headed by the district collector and consisting of the superintendent of police of the district and the district forest officer will disburse R55 crore over the next two years. This means rewarding people like a certain collector of Dantewada whose ‘work proposal for the jan jagaran abhiyan’ provided a blueprint for the Salwa Judum and stated, inter alia, that “if excesses happen, higher ups must keep silent”; a police officer who instructed his juniors “if any journalist comes this side, kill him”, or another who uses vigilante fronts to issue death threats to local journalists who have exposed fake encounters. Independent-minded administrators like Gadchhiroli deputy collector Rajendra Kanphade, who reportedly criticised Chidambaram’s approach are vulnerable to the wrath of superiors.
In Dantewada, expenditure on drinking water is 0.81% of funds available, while expenditure under the National Rural Health Mission for Bijapur and Dantewada is 1.18 and 6.03% respectively. District administrations often claim that it is the Maoists who are preventing them from bringing services to the people. One has only to read the remarkable news service, CGnet’s ‘Swara’ — where rural reporters phone in their news — to realise how self-serving this argument is. Stories abound of corrupt officials taking bribes from schoolgirls to set up bank accounts or liquor shops set up in front of schools with administrative connivance in areas under government control. In any case, if not being able to reach Maoist-controlled areas is the problem, how will pumping in more money under the control of the same people who are not spending it in the first place help?
Where is the mention of supervision by the panchayati raj institutions or of other systems of accountability? The passage of the Forest Rights Act was, at least in part, a vote of no-confidence against the forest bureaucracy in recognising people’s rights. How likely is it, then, that divisional forest officers will use their money to ensure its implementation?
At the district level, people don’t need the Radia tapes to tell them how close the relationship between the administration and industry is. Ask the villagers of Lohandiguda in Bastar, whose lands are being taken over by Tata Steel. The Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act states that when land is to be acquired in a scheduled area, consent must be taken from the gram sabhas which will be displaced. As in many such cases of forcible acquisition, ‘consent’ is duly obtained by the local government. Affidavits on record in the Chhattisgarh high court, however, show that villagers were arrested before the gram sabha meetings could be held and released much later. One person who is recorded as having presided over a meeting said he hadn’t even been there; another complained that the administration had forged his signature. When the adivasis of Lohandiguda tried to meet the Chhattisgarh governor, they were arrested en route. How surprising that it takes a telephone leak for Ratan
Tata to realise that this country is in danger of becoming a banana republic.
When will this government realise that what the people of this country want is not just an economic ‘package’ but the right to be recognised as citizens. The all-party visit to Kashmir — a political initiative — did more for mainland-Kashmir relations than anything before or since. Why can’t something similar be planned for central India? If only politicians would stop speaking to public relations companies and talk to ordinary people, they might perhaps come up with more imaginative plans.
Nandini Sundar is a professor of sociology at Delhi University. She is the winner of the 2010 Infosys Science Foundation Award in social anthropology The views expressed by the author are personal