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