Green of this valley is Red

The Maoist insurgency has popular support among Dalits and adivasis. This is not a law and order problem, as the PM thinks, but consequence of a failed State

Mohan Guruswamy Delhi

The Indian establishment seems to have finally woken up to the fact that while they have been obsessed with economic growth and India's place in the world, the country's hinterland is witnessing an awakening of another kind. A raging insurgency, with its epicentre in the adivasi homelands of central India, is fast engulfing at least a fifth of India's districts. Over 200 million people live in areas where militant Naxalism takes on the Indian State. This is probably the last communist ideology-inspired insurgency in the world, but the scale dwarfs every such conflict the world has known save in China that ended with Mao's victory.

China has moved on a great deal, and China's chairman is no longer the Naxalites' inspiration. In fact, China's chairman too is part of the enemy. On December 20, 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh formally declared war on Naxalites when he addressed a high-level conference on internal security comprising chief ministers, police and intelligence chiefs, top civil servants and representatives of most political parties. The prime minister gave the clarion call to crush the Naxalites. 

Having travelled several times through the 'affected' areas in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, I have little hesitation in testifying that the insurgency has considerable popular support, particularly among Dalits and adivasis for whom trickle-down has meant a little more of little less. In the forest areas of central India — police, forest and excise departments are hated. This is not a mere law and order problem, but a consequence of a failed State. It calls for a revamp of the public administrative system and new paradigms of equity and justice.

The prime minister has a bureaucratic response to this crisis which has gripped six states. The government will now raise 25 more battalions of police, for the CRPF and other para military forces. It is unfortunate that he is looking at this as a law and order problem. One would have thought Manmohan Singh would have known that more coercion by the State will only beget more violence against it by the people.

However, the prime minister's threat of more force got favourable response with all the participants of the conference, including the Congress, CPM and BJP chief ministers. In his closing remarks, Singh said that conferences of this nature send a strong message that the “political leadership of the country can rise above political and party affiliations when it comes to facing national challenges, particularly those concerning internal security”. It seemed that the entire national political spectrum was not just speaking but thinking as one.

The spread of Naxalism is an indication of the sense of desperation and alienation that is sweeping over large sections of our nation who have been not only systematically marginalised but also cruelly exploited and dispossessed in their homelands. Historian Nihar Ranjan Ray once described the central Indian adivasis as “the original autochthonous people of India”. Anthropologist Verrier Elwin stated this more emphatically when he wrote: “These are the real swadeshi products of India, in whose presence all others are foreign. These are ancient people with moral rights. They were here first and should come first in our regard.” Like indigenous people all over the world, India's adivasis too have been savaged and ravaged by later people claiming to be more 'civilised'. They still account for almost 8 per cent of India's population and are its most deprived and oppressed section.

Decades after independence, the exploitation has only become more rampant. The adivasi homelands are rich in natural resources and the new modernising and industrialising India needs these resources. Today, all of India's mineral resources except oil are to be found only in these areas and the State has not been lax in exploiting them. The only problem is that the people whose homelands were ravaged to extract nature's bounty got little or nothing of it. 

We all now know very well that a 'big government' in the absence of a responsive nervous system actually means little government, and whatever little interaction the people at the bottom have with the State is usually a none too happy one. Most tribal villages and settlements have no access to schools and medical care. Very few are connected with roads. Forget about electricity, although all the coal and most of hydel projects to generate electricity are in tribal regions. Virgin and thick forests with giant teak and saal trees are now past.

In Orissa, over 72 per cent of all adivasis survive below the poverty line. At the national level, 45.86 per cent of all adivasis live below the poverty line. Incidentally, the official Indian poverty line is nothing more than a starvation line, which means that almost half of India's original inhabitants sleep every night starving. Several anthropometric studies have revealed that successive generations of adivasis are actually getting smaller unlike all other people in India who benefit from better nutritious diets.

What little apportions to the welfare and development of indigenous people gets absorbed in the porous layers of our government. A typical instance of this is in the eight tribal majority KBK (Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput) districts of Orissa where over Rs 2,000 crore was cumulatively spent, ostensibly on social welfare and rural development schemes during the past three years. The crores have just vanished.

The police first went into Bastar, now in Chhattisgarh, in 1966. The Gond people in Bastar revolted against the Madhya Pradesh Congress government led by DP Mishra. He had few qualms in unleashing police on the adivasis who congregated in Jagdalpur to pay their customary Dussehra homage to their raja, Pravinchandra Bhanjdeo. Not only did the MP police kill scores of adivasis, they also shot down the raja in cold blood.

Soon after this incident, central forces were deployed in Bastar and one got a first-hand look at the havoc they wrought.  The military only repeated what they had done in the Naga Hills in the northeast. Those days the armed forces used Lee Enfield .303 rifles and the adivasis used bows and arrows and the occasional muzzle-loading gun. With the advent of AK-47s, capable of delivering over 650 rounds per minute, combined with an intimate knowledge of the terrain, the Naxalites, now mostly adivasi volunteers, are not as disadvantaged as before. In the recent months, the police have been at the receiving end and the prime minister is a worried man.

During my last visit to Bastar, I drove down from Narayangarh to Chota Dongar, deep in the jungles. The only sign of the presence of the State here were the pockmarked buildings that once housed government offices. At the village haat at Chota Dongar, as we stood watching cockfights, a Naxal patrol quietly came along and searched our vehicle. They had a few good laughs over the cartons of mineral water we were carrying but refused to pose for pictures.

Two days prior to this, the vehicle was stopped and searched in Andhra's Warangal district by a police patrol. The sub-inspector leading the team was drunk, along with most of his men. The first question was whether we were carrying firearms. Then they wanted to know how much cash we were carrying. Then things got a bit hairy. They wanted to know how we had entered the forest area without 'permission'. Only our facility with English and the Delhi license plates prevented an 'encounter'. Manmohan Singh is now proposing 25 more battalions to defend our democratic way of life and to uphold the Constitution.

Quite clearly, the solutions lie elsewhere. There are several paradoxes that must be dealt with. The most important of these is to provide a good government. A better civil administration structure must come up in place of the one sent packing by the violence and by popular sanction. Instead of the state capital controlled government, the instruments of governance dealing with education, health, irrigation, roads and land records must be handed over to the local government. The police must be made answerable to local elected officials and not be a law unto themselves. The local community must get all the royalties for the minerals extracted from their areas.

We cannot have any more episodes like that in Kalong Nagar where the Tatas got adivasi land at a fraction of their market value. Tatas and others now want to exploit Bastar's iron ore. We have before us the experience of the National Mineral Development Corporation's (NMDC) giant iron ore extraction project at Bailladilla in Bastar's Dantewara district. The locals get nothing but the most menial jobs and in return their hitherto pristine environment is ravaged beyond recognition with the streams choked with the debris and toxic waste of excavation.

Another manifestation of civilisation here has been the incidence of venereal diseases and the number of children fathered by NMDC employees who exploit liberal adivasi values. Clearly, we need a new paradigm of development. Merely establishing a 'plantation' does not develop an area. In return for their land, heritage and sheer cultural assault on their mores and values, the poor Muria Gonds of the region have got nothing.

No doubt, India needs more iron ore, but in exchange of a price commensurate with the costs. If hydrocarbon reserves are opened to exploitation to the highest bidder, surely, a similar equitable way can be found for the extraction of other mineral wealth. Just like Ratan Tata pays full value for acquiring a Jaguar, he must now learn to pay full value to the people of the region who own the land.

When Manmohan Singh became prime minister, he promised that the reform of governance was his priority. He promised a government by the people, of the people, for the people. Instead, he seems to have frittered his time schmoozing with the fat cats of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and World Economic Forum and running a government for them alone.