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Crushed in the middle

Brutal force against Naxals is not enough. A genuine effort must be made to address the gross neglect of the adivasis, writes Ramachandra Guha.

india Updated: Oct 24, 2009 20:53 IST

As the Union government prepares to launch an offensive on Maoist revolutionaries, I am reminded of three conversations that I heard or had in Chhattisgarh in the summer of 2006. The first took place in the state capital, Raipur, at the home of the leading Congress politician, Mahendra Karma. Karma was the begetter of the Salwa Judum, a vigilante army that has been responsible for a wave of killings, rapes and lootings that has forced thousands of tribals into refugee camps.

In an interview with a citizens’ group, Karma suggested that all means were fair in fighting an enemy as determined as the Naxalites. My colleague, E.A.S. Sarma, a retired civil servant legendary for his intelligence as well as his integrity, suggested that a wiser strategy would be to make adivasis partners in the development process. The state government had just sanctioned a slew of mining projects; why not allocate a substantial stake to the adivasis, as was permitted by Schedule V of the Constitution of India? Then the adivasis would place more faith in the government’s good intentions, and turn their back on the Maoists. Karma dismissed this as the utopian talk of ‘you intellectuals and human rights wallahs’.

The second conversation took place in a refugee camp on the banks of the Indravati river. Here, a Muria school-teacher told me, in Hindi, ‘Naxaliyon ko himmat nahin hai ki wo hathiyaron ko gaon ke bahar chhod kar hamare beech mein behes karen’ (the Naxalites do not have the guts to leave their arms outside the village and have a reasoned discussion with us).

The conversation with Karma underscored the failures of the Indian State. As numerous studies have shown, the adivasis have gained least and lost most from six decades of political democracy and economic development. In terms of access to decent healthcare and education, they are worse off than Dalits. In terms of representation at the high levels of the state, they are worse off than both Dalits and Muslims. They have not merely been neglected, but more actively dispossessed. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the tribals lost their homes and lands to large dams and commercial forestry schemes. Now, under the guise of globalisation, they lose them to mining projects.

Their exploitation at the hands of the politician-contractor-industrialist nexus forced many adivasis into the waiting arms of the Maoists. Thus, while there was scarcely a Naxalite in Orissa a decade ago, the handing over of large tracts of tribal land to mining companies has provoked sharp conflict and an escalation of extremist activity in the state.

The remarks of the Muria teacher, meanwhile, underscored the authoritarian methods of the Maoists. They come into a village, call a meeting, stand with rifles at the ready and ask the tribals: ‘Now tell us whether you’re with us’. The support they receive is not always through a process of consultation — rather, it’s often compelled through fear. The Maoists also fetishise violence, killing petty government officials who can scarcely be termed ‘class enemies’, while subjecting so-called informers to kangaroo courts that order their limbs be amputated.

The third conversation was with an unlettered adivasi deep in the forests of Dantewada, who summarised the conflict between the State and Naxalites in these chillingly unforgettable terms: — ‘Hamein dono taraf se dabav hain, aur hum beech me pis gaye hain’. An altogether more prosaic rendition in English might be—‘Pressed and pierced from both sides, here we are, crushed in the middle’.

Viewed historically, a triple tragedy has been unfolding in central India, the unvarying feature of which is that it is always the adivasis who are the victims. The first tragedy began with the takeover of their forests by the British, and has continued since Independence with their further dispossession at the hands of both State and market. The second tragedy commenced with the onset of electoral democracy in India, where, as a powerless minority, the tribals have failed to activate the provisions of the Constitution designed to protect their rights and interests. The third tragedy commenced with the advent of the Maoists, whose path of armed struggle, while intensifying violence in the short-term, offers no hope of a long-term solution either.

With the refusal of the Maoists to lay down arms, and the Home Ministry’s decision to send in massive forces to quell them, there may yet be a fourth tragedy in the making. The obligation to prevent this lies with both the Maoists and the government. I have no way of reaching the former, but can, as a tax-paying and voting citizen, at least hope to address the latter. Rather than think in narrowly militaristic terms, our political class should consider constructive long-term measures to bring dignity to the tribals. Thus, state and central governments must put in place a ban on new mining schemes, and make tribals partners in the mines and factories already sanctioned. They must also implement health and education policies that allow tribals to compete on equal terms with the rest of the nation.

The social analyst Badri Raina recently wrote that ‘not a school, not a dispensary, not a policeman, not a land-revenue dispensation, not a government office, not a road, bridge or culvert, nor drinking water or assured supply of the barest modicum of food is to be found in [many parts of] Bastar, Dantewada, Koraput, Gadchiroli and so on.’ Sending in fresh battalions with deadlier armaments will solve nothing if unaccompanied by a genuine desire to make amends for the neglect and abuse of adivasis by governments of all parties down the decades.

Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy

The views expressed by the author are personal