If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Picnic on a volcano

An American executive of the multinational company DuPont narrated this story to a friend of mine when they met at an international conference. DuPont had been setting up a plant in China and the person who my friend met had been in the team negotiating with the Chinese authorities. The Chinese laid before the foreign investors a map of the area and asked them to identify their preferred location. After they marked a point on the map, they were taken to inspect the place. The area consisted of an old village with people, homes, and everything. A few months later, the land was delivered to DuPont in the shape of a barren tract, shorn of every sign of the past human settlement.

The story fits in with the information available on China. The worst of both worlds seem to have converged there: greed of capitalism and ruthlessness of totalitarianism.

It is therefore paradoxical that the Maoists who are waging an armed struggle to protect the Central Indian tribals from forced eviction aim to set up a structure similar to the one in the People’s Republic of China. Arundhati Roy and others, who have emerged as their spokespersons, are not unaware of this. Roy says: “But can we, should we let apprehensions about the future immobilise us in the present?”

I heard Arundhati Roy speak in Kolkata recently . Much of what she and Goutam Naulakha said that evening is in Roy’s article Walking with the Comrades in the Outlook magazine (29 March 2010) that has created a furore. Roy goes deep into issues and raises the level of the debate to a height that is scarcely reached by the self-seeking politicians who decide our destiny. That evening, despite my misgivings about her sympathies, I felt I was hearing someone who history might treat with great respect in the future.

The Indian Forest Act, 1927, India’s main forest law, was created to serve the colonialists’ need for timber.  It redefined the traditional rights and forest management systems by declaring forests state property. Sadly, the Constitution of free India ratified the colonial position and the forest dwellers continue to be “encroachers” on the land they enjoyed for millennia. As the NGO Campaign for Survival and Dignity  put it, “Their lives became a legal twilight zone. At any time anything can be taken away; your land, your livelihood, your money and, if you resist, your freedom.  The forest guard is king, and, as the Warli adivasis say, is interested only in daru, kombdi and baiko – liquor, chickens and women.”

Until 1980, there were no Naxalites in Dandakaranya, the primordial, 60,000-square-kilometre forest that is home to millions of people. Three entities existed there: tribals, the largest among them Gonds, non-tribals, and the government. The entire commerce, including the lucrative trade in tendu leaves, was and still is in the hands of non-tribals. The traders made millions while the people were paid in paise. But the biggest scourge for them, Roy says  echoing the view quoted earlier, was the Forest Department: “Every morning, forest officials … would appear in villages like a bad dream, preventing people from ploughing their fields, collecting firewood, plucking leaves, picking fruit, grazing their cattle, from living. They brought elephants to overrun fields and scattered babool seeds to destroy the soil as they passed by. People would be beaten, arrested, humiliated, their crops destroyed. Of course, from the forest department’s point of view, these were illegal people engaged in unconstitutional activity, and the department was only implementing the Rule of Law.” [Walking with the comrades]

In 1980, a small band of Naxalites came in from Andhra Pradesh and began working among the tribals. They organised the local people. Protests and strikes followed, leading to better remuneration for the forest dwellers. Emboldened, they went on to throw away the forest officials and successfully fought the police who came in to protect the forest machinery. The Maoists claim that between 1986 and 2000 they distributed 3,00,000 acres of land for cultivation and “there are no landless peasants in Dandakaranya”  now. As of now, the Maoists run a government in much of the area and collect “tax” from forest contractors and mines.

The latest spiral of violence began in 2005, after Chhattisgarh government signed MoUs with Essar and Tatas to set up two steel plants, the terms of which are secret. The government backed militia Salwa Judum was set up the same year. Salwa Judum’s was a ground clearing operation aimed at clearing land for the steel plants and mines. They, together with the police, moved out people from their homes and herded them into camps. They stole chickens, pigs, and cattle, killed and raped, and burnt down village after village with impunity. The Maoists retaliated, killing Salwa Judum members, alleged police informers and policemen, including 76 men in a single ambush in April. The situation started drifting towards a civil war.

Did it have to happen?

Dantewada, which is at the eye of the storm, was the least literate district in India as per the 2001 census. Himangshu Kumar, a Gandhian social worker, has been providing educational and legal aid there since 1992. His Vanvasi Chetna Ashram was demolished  by Chhattisgarh police in May 2009. Dr. Binayak Sen was kept in jail for two years, without a shred of evidence against him. Chhattisgarh government does not tolerate even Gandhian activities aimed at improving the lot of the poor. Not even legal or medical aid to them!

In an article  in Hindustan Times (19 April 2010), Ashish Chadha, a former activist of Narmada Bachao Andolon (NBA) says that the non-violent NBA hasn’t made any impact on our rulers, whereas the Maoist armed struggle has. Chadha also says it is a people’s movement: “This is different [from earlier Naxalite movements] because this time there is no Brahmin, no intellectual, no middle-class activists leading them.”

Chadha has a point: our rulers are deaf to everything except the rattle of guns. They have squeezed out the democratic space and are out to achieve military victory. The Maoist violence is basically counter-violence: an extreme response to a pathological stimulus. It is possible that, in their quest to win state power, the Maoist leadership is using the poor merely as pawns. In an interview with Smita Gupta published in the Outlook (22 February 2010), a Maoist commander made a chilling observation: “They can only kill innocents, not us.

Even if we put aside the philosophical question whether violence can lead us to a more civilised society, by no stretch of imagination can we think that the Maoists will ultimately win and set up a People’s Republic of Dandakaranya. On the contrary, the situation is likely to go the Sri Lanka way, bringing untold misery to people and loss of countless lives on either side.

That can be prevented only if the civil society stands up and forces the government to work for the poor instead of working as agents of private capital like Tata and Essar. Also, the government must give dignity back to the forest dweller.

The proposition looks absurd at the moment. The mainstream political parties from the left to the right are ranged against the poor and people outside the conflict zones know little about the cataclysm. Only a few papers like the Outlook and the Statesman have been reporting the “other side” of the story. The electronic media are sold out on the government’s economic agenda and behave more like cheerleaders in a stadium than serious analysts.

Our tragedy is that while 70 million Adivasis in Central India are being pushed to the brink, no one cares. Rather, we are all engrossed in our private happiness. Aren’t we having “a picnic on a volcano ”?

[Agneogirir sikhare picnic (Picnic on a volcano) is the title of a Bangla book by late Ashoke Rudra]

Kolkata / 3 May 2010


  1. Thanks for this inside view on the problem. Earlier on the news of Maoist insurgency and killing of jawans greatly upset me. But i think activists like Arundhati roy have done a great job in bring forth the plight of the suffering villagers. Its high time the world distinguish her efforts and recognize her as genuine advocate of peace ( and not a menace).

    But, I feel, the irony is that the government is still obsessed with the idea that Maoism needs to be culled from its roots coz it could one day takeover the sovereignty of the nation( in 2050 or whichever year), and does not admit that the root cause is the tyranny, injustice and a mentality of evasion done by itself over the years since independence, towards the citizens of the “grassroot level”. Perhaps the same political mindset of the rulers, which dosnt want these people to come to the mainstream and usurp their “Kursi”(chair).

    I feel Unless we solve this problem there is no growth for the nation. Its highly distressing that nothing drastic has been done inspite of the recent killings of 100s of jawans, who are not even acknowledged ( unlike 26/11 martyrs who became instant heros) . Nation is and should be highly grateful to activists like Arundhati roy who bring these issues to the collective consciousness of the nation, and force people in power to take notice.
    Nice article Santanuda.

  2. And aptly named “Picnic on a volcano”….When I visit India on vacations, I see the results of the economic progress. Posh cars in plenty: BMWs, Mercedes frolic the roads, flaunting the newly minted super-rich. Posh luxury apartments, malls, designer labels fitting only for a king etc. But the irony is, its only meant for less than 25%( in Kerala, which has lesser poverty comparably) of the population. Rest are still hungry, in misery and struggling to meet ends. Inflation is so high that people in Switzerland or Luxemburg would worry for “value for money”.We are turning into a creature of consumption. Easy loans, credit cards are killing our saving habits. We are surely on a self destructive path, unless government sticks am]=damently on the manthra of “inclusive growth”.

  3. I am woefully ill-informed about these matters, but I cannot help feeling that violence might make the govt. sit up and fire back, but it will not really solve any of the really deep=rooted problems.

  4. Thanks, Manoj and Sucharita, for your thoughtful comments.

    Manoj, it seems the government is exposing untrained paramilitary personnel to Maoists without providing them with adequate intelligence and infrastructure. It is possible that the government is as much unconcerned about their lives as they are about the Adivasis of the Dandakaranya. Both are poor and dispensable.

    Sucharita, I too was almost totally uninformed about this problem not very long ago. The more I read about it, the more I feel there is something grossly wrong about the whole thing and there is a conspiracy of silence around it. Things must change and for that to happen, we must educate ourselves and send the message around. If there is strong public opinion on the issue, things might change.

    And I entirely agree with you, violence is not the answer. That makes information the most useful weapon in the hands of the people.

  5. Sir, thanks for an extremely timely and relevant post. Most of us do not know or rather even care to know the exact reasons behind the whole problem. Even if tribals are displaced from their lands or a few CRPF jawans are killed in retaliation, it makes no sense to us. The media too is happy in catering us news that would fetch them higher TRPs. Thus, the amount of share that Shilpa Shetty holds in Rajasthan Royals is of more importance than the problems of the tribals. The problem lies in our attitude.

    Though I am a stern believer in non-violence but I can understand the reason why the Adivasis might have taken up arms. Decades of neglect, exploitation and torture can force you to do all this. It is more out of self-defence rather than an act of violent crime. It is important that we understand their needs and listen to their voices. Compassion is more important than guns in such a situation. I am not sure that the government thinks in such a way.

    I am more concerned that the genuine grievances of the tribals should not be hijacked by the naxals or maoists for their own benefit. The tribals should not be made pawns in the war between the government and the maoists. This will never help solve their problems and the cycle of exploitation will continue. As of now, I do not know which way it is moving but the future surely looks grim.

  6. Thanks, Anirban. I agree, IPL is lot more important to us than Dantewada. It's partly because of the fact that the middle-class is economically and emotionally closer to the ruling class today than it was twenty years ago. Secondly, the TV has a tremendous power to manipulate our thinking. Earlier, newspapers did the job, but much less effectively. (One wonders why the milk of kindness that flowed so freely during the American invasion of Iraq dried up!) That makes it all the more essential that people devise other means to educate themselves. Fortunately, the Net offers one such medium. And I am sure that only a small fragment of its power has been tapped so far.

    And Maoists have already hijacked people's issues in a vast stretch of the country. There is no light at the other end of the tunnel, but we have to keep trying. That people's opinion has a force is beyond doubt. On 15 May, there was a newspaper report that the Congress party is rethinking their strategy against the Maoists, because of the widespread criticism of their trigger-happy approach. The war of words must go on.


I will be happy to read your views, approving or otherwise. Please feel free to speak your mind. Let me add that it might take a day or two for your comments to get published.