After the recent attack on the Congress convoy, you referred to the Naxals as terrorists. Does that reflect a radical shift in your stand? Do you also now believe the issue should only be tackled by a security-centric approach? Bring on the air force!
That’s a completely bogus debate generated by NDTV. What I said was that there are geographical areas that need more intensive policing and security operations, without which no political and developmental activity is possible. At the same time, there are areas today where security operations have de-esca-lated and development and politics have taken the front seat. For example, there’s Saranda in Jharkhand and Jangalmahal in West Bengal. Or, for that matter, some parts of western Odisha and central Bihar.
We have a four-pronged strategy to deal with the Maoists, which includes security, politics, development, and a sort of redressal of past injustices and ensuring a rights-based approach. Unfortunately, there are places where all four cannot go on simultaneously. For instance, clearly, the five districts of Sukma, Dantewada, Bijapur, Narayanpur and Kanker in southern Chhattisgarh are fundamentally different from the other areas. Here, you have large areas that are so-called Maoist “liberated zones” where the writ of the Indian State doesn’t run. Sarpanches, Block Development Officers, superintendents of police and local political activists cannot go in there. So it’s meaningless to talk of political engagement and developmental activity in these areas until circumstances allow it.
I also said that the Maoists operate on a fundamental principle of spreading fear and terror. The NDTV journalist asked me, “So aren’t they terrorists?” I replied, in my book, anyone who spreads terror is a terrorist. What’s the big deal whether you call them terrorists or not? The fact is, it was a carnage; carefully executed and deliberately planned. If we still romanticise these guys, we are barking up the wrong tree.
There’s no doubt that the attack was heinous. But the semantics do matter. It shapes the response.
No. Frankly, the semantics don’t matter. This whole debate — security versus development, Digvijaya Singh versus P Chidambaram — is completely bogus. As I said, in any multi-pronged strategy, the relative importance of each component will depend upon the specific geography and circumstance. Two years ago, development was inconceivable in Saranda or Jangalmahal, both of which were “liberated zones” for many years. Today, you are seeing both developmental and political activity there.
But you can’t treat southern Chhattisgarh on par with these areas. What sets it apart is that the Maoist-affected area here covers nearly 10,000 sq km. Within that, Bastar is not in the same category as Sukma or Bijapur. And the whole Abujmarh area is sui generis. This area also spills over to Gadchiroli in Maharashtra and Khammam district and other parts of Andhra Pradesh. So it’s a tri-junction area.
In October 2011, the first time I went to Bijapur, only 80 out of 157 gram panchayats had MGNREGA activity and there were absolutely no roads. This year, I was in Bijapur two days before the massacre and work was going on in 111 gram panchayats and 12 roads are being constructed. So in two years, 31 gram panchayats that had earlier been inaccessible had come under the developmental radar. How did this happen? Fundamentally, because security operations had created an environment that raised the confidence level of the people and reassured them that if they come out and participate in the activities, they will not be targeted.
This is not happening because I have been there five times or because the state government is doing something remarkable, but because the security operations have enabled the cycle to be completed.
But security operations have darker impacts too. Barely three weeks before the 25 May massacre, eight tribals — including three children — were killed by the forces at Edesmeta village in Bijapur, and 17 in Sarkeguda a year ago. Instead of greater militarisation, why is there no attempt for talks?
That’s not true. Talks take place on tracks 3, 4 and 5. You and I will not know whether talks are taking place. You can’t hold talks by saying like Swami Agnivesh that “Main talks kar raha hoon (I am engaged in talks)”. Look at Laldenga (of the Mizo National Front). He took on the Indian State for almost 25 years, but through a period of negotiations, the insurgents finally joined the political mainstream. So there could well be talks taking place with the Maoists just now.
Really? I seriously doubt it. I could say with fair amount of certainty it’s not. The last time there was even a semblance of it, Maoist leader Azad was killed off.
Frankly, I don’t know. In a sense, dialogue with them is impossible. If I show you a record of my conversations with Maoist ideologue Vara Vara Rao, you will see there is simply no meeting ground. It’s just entrenched ideological arguments. When P Chidambaram was home minister, he told the Maoists: don’t give up arms, don’t give up your ideology, don’t disband your cadres, just abjure violence and come for talks.
Yes, he said that in an interview with us. But what covert channels of talks did he set up?
As I said, we can’t know. In an interview to Swedish author Jan Myrdal, Comrade Ganapati put out two conditions: remove the ban on the CPI(Maoist) party and release all their leaders in jails, who can then become the interlocutors. The Indian government has three conditions, the Maoists have two. So, at what level should the talks take place? The only thing I do know is that the Indian State operates at multiple levels. To paraphrase former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, there are some known knowns, some unknown knowns and some unknown unknowns. We are operating in the realm of the unknowns here.
It’s quite possible some sort of talks are taking place, but the notion that if we address some of these issues, the Maoists will come on board — I think that’s a big question mark.
Instead, you may have an occasional Kameshwar Baitha (MP from Palamu, Jharkhand, and a former Naxalite) who says, okay, I have had enough; I will contest and go to Parliament. Alternatively, in Saranda, the villagers told me one of the sarpanches is a part of the Maoist cadre. What’s important in both cases is that the end result is they have become part of a political process. That’s good in my view.
The trouble is, in southern Chhattisgarh, absolutely no political process is taking place. I have been to Sukma and Bijapur three times; four times to Narayanpur. It’s only since last year that the Congress was beginning to even be visible on the ground, with hoardings, posters and rallies. We had a rally in Dantewada; the Parivartan Yatra was taking place; we went to Bijapur and Sukma. This unnerved the Maoists. This was the second attack on Nand Kumar Patel (the Congress president in Chhattisgarh) because for the first time he was challenging the status quo, engaging in intensive political outreach. The Maoists would have seen this as dangerous in the long run. How can we allow this to happen in our territory? So far, the Chhattisgarh government seems to have maintained a low-level equilibrium: you do what you want there; we do what we want here, and we don’t disturb each other. But in the past 14 months, Patel had challenged that equation. I’m not saying we would have won, but people were coming to the Congress rallies.
You have been driving the development process through your ministry. But that is not the only criteria. The big elephant in the room is mining. Does the Indian State have any new thinking on mining? There’s a sense that if the insurgency is curbed, rapacious mining will take over.
It’s always easy for a liberal crowd like you to find rationalisations for Maoist violence. You can always say the Forest Rights Act (FRA) hasn’t been implemented, or there is mining, so there is violence.
That’s a cheap shot! We have never rationalised the violence.
I don’t disagree with the substance of what you are saying. It’s true the Maoists are raising very serious concerns. In fact, the tragedy is that tribal issues have been brought onto our radar because of the Maoists. Our attention has been caught because of them. The Indian State has a track record of failures in the tribal areas. Laws have been enacted but not implemented. In fact, they have been brazenly violated. It’s also a fact that the tribal is caught between the devil of the Maoists and the deep sea of the security forces. But their methods are very wrong.
There’s no argument on that. Of course, their methods are wrong. But apart from the tribals sandwiched between the Maoists and the State, the dilemma is, there is only a thin layer of entrenched ideologues who make up the Maoist leadership. Our concern is for the foot soldiers, the tribals who make up their ranks. You yourself have said 40 percent of them are women. They are also the poorest of Indian citizens. Many of them have no desire to unfurl a red flag on Red Fort in Delhi. Their impulse is to defend their land, their chicken, their grain, their families, their huts.
They are still foot soldiers. They are coldblooded killers.
What was not cold-blooded about the security forces gunning down tribals while they were celebrating a seed festival in Edesmeta and Sarkeguda? We always get trapped in this dialectic of Maoist and State violence.
There are 15-year-old kids who kidnap people.
Should we not ask ourselves why then?
This root cause theory will get us nowhere.
I agree. By extension, one could argue the root cause of the Gujarat riots. But…
Root cause theories are very dangerous. I would say one has to completely and strongly reject the violence, yet address the symptoms. This is not to deny a lot of violence has taken place in the name of development. I often say that, but I’m in a minority. It’s true, mining is taking place; mining leases are being given, even in Saranda. I have written repeatedly to the prime minister saying we have had a security success and are striving for at least a moderate developmental success. Please don’t jeopardise it by opening up Saranda to the mining lobby. But it has happened.
In his farewell speech in 1961, Eisenhower warned America against the military- industrial complex. I think we have to wake up to the mining-politician complex in our country, which is wreaking havoc in our politics, in the tribal areas. These guys have absolutely no compunction, no social conscience. They are not doing it because it’s essential for economic growth. It’s just a sort of developmental theology. I’m against it. It’s not that mining has to be stopped altogether. But we have to do it in a calibrated, nuanced, prudent manner. We must ensure socially and environmentally responsible mining. It should not increase the misery of an already deprived community, but that is happening. So our track record has no doubt given ample ammunition and fodder to the Maoists. But still we have mining buccaneers masquerading in Parliament as political leaders.
How do you read what happened in Andhra Pradesh? It’s often cited as a success model.
I applaud what Andhra Pradesh did, but in a national context, we just exported the problem. In the past, Andhra Pradesh used to be the main theatre. Hard security measures over 30 years, as well as a process of development and political engagement helped sort out the state. But basically the Maoists spilled into the adjoining states. The forests of Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra used to be a sanctuary for the Maoists. Now the sanctuary has become the arena.
This is why the Centre has a very important role to play in the tri-junction areas and quadri-junction areas: the Odisha- Chhattisgarh-Jharkhand border; the Odisha-Andhra-Chhattisgarh border; the Andhra-Chhattisgarh-Maharashtra border; the Bihar-Odisha-Jharkhand border; the Jharkhand-Chhattisgarh-Madhya Pradesh-Uttar Pradesh border.
But the lesson to learn from Punjab and Andhra Pradesh is that, within the state, unless the local police and local intelligence network is up to the task, there is no way pumping in 70,000-80,000 paramilitary forces will work. But the SP of Sukma in Chhattisgarh told me he has only 1,000 men when what he really needs is 3,000. This is the story in district after district.
There seems to be no fresh legal or constitutional thinking on this. Even in the British era, the tribal areas were seen as special zones. What is the thinking within the Indian State? The Fifth Schedule is almost toothless and Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act as you said has not been implemented.
Let’s not undermine what the Indian State has attempted to do. At least it did not adopt the American or Australian policy of extermination. The Gandhi and Nehru route was to bring them into the mainstream but at a pace that they determine. So, let’s not be self-flagellatory about what we have attempted to do. To bring 80 million people into the ‘mainstream’. It has no precedent anywhere in the world. Actually, I’d rather not use the word mainstream; it’s an abused word. We have tried to ensure their constitutional rights through a democratic process.
There are many reasons why we have had greater success in the case of the Scheduled Castes than we have had with the Scheduled Tribes — primarily it’s because they affect elections in far less constituencies. There are many obligations in the Scheduled Areas that have not been met. Land alienation has taken place on a large scale. Land transfer regulations have been violated. Non-tribals have usurped tribal land. There is no denying that, but we have to just keep moving forward and get it sorted now, instead of moping. PESA was passed in 1996. FRA was passed seven years ago, but even in a politically conscious state like Kerala, when I visited the Attapadi hills of Palakkad district — one of the most deprived tribal areas — only half of the tribals’ claims under FRA had been dealt with. But the answer to all this cannot be armed confrontation.
Ironically, an RSS man from a Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in Sarguja district in north Chhattisgarh told me part of the reason the forests in the area are intact is because of the Maoists. If not for them, the forests would long have been cut and cleared for development.
That’s an intellectually lazy argument. The forests are intact because of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA). The FCA has nothing to do with the Maoists. Having been the forest minister, I can tell you the FCA is seen to be draconian from the development point of view. But from the forest point of view, it has been the single most important reason why the forests have been intact. Had it not been legislated in 1980, many of our forests, Abujmarh, for instance, would not have existed.
You have been travelling constantly on the ground since you took over as rural development minister. How many Naxal affected constituencies have you been to?
Out of 82 Naxal-affected districts, I have been to 47; some of them I have been to three to four times; some five-six times.
That’s pretty intensive. When you speak to people first-hand there, what are the issues they raise?
Harassment by the local forest administration, which is the first face of the government they encounter. They also complain about the police, lack of electricity, teachers, doctors, health centres, etc. After a visit to Bijapur district, I wrote to the prime minister. As an Indian, I felt appalled and ashamed that the only two agencies providing basic healthcare facilities in the district were Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Red Cross.
There is no explanation for this. After 66 years of Independence, why are we unable to assure basic health services? Why are the roads and power supply the way they are? Why don’t post offices and banks function? When I ask bank officials, they say they can’t recruit locally and others don’t want to serve in tribal areas. If you recruit locally, someone will take you to court saying it’s unconstitutional. There are all sorts of issues. But the fact is, if the Indian State actually wants to do something, it can do it. It has enough powers. I see that effort in Bihar and West Bengal; I don’t see it in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand or Odisha. Some Congressmen were very upset when I praised West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. But supported by Suvendu Adhikary, Mamata did a political outreach programme in Jangalmahal. I took part in a rally there, it was unprecedented. The former CRPF DG told me, ‘Sir, the photo of Mamata kissing a tribal baby is equal to five CRPF battalions going there.’
But the point is, no matter how much one disagrees with what’s happening in some parts of the country, you cannot pick up the gun. Am I picking up the gun because I have been overruled on Saranda?
I agree. It’s just a slightly glib argument because in cities, people beat each other if they can’t find parking spaces or don’t have electricity for a few hours and then are judgmental about those who react to their houses being burnt, women being raped, kids being killed, grain being stolen.
Let’s concentrate on addressing the issues the Maoists raise but let’s not romanticise them. Let’s not justify the root cause theory. I’m all for concerted action on mining, displacement, forest rights, etc. I wrote to three chief ministers — Arjun Munda, Naveen Patnaik and Raman Singh — telling them how their own officers have told me there are literally thousands of tribals in jail without due process and on flimsy charges. Why can’t they be released? I have been bombarding them with letters. They don’t do it. But one has to persist. Remember, Bihar was once a hotbed of Maoist activity, but now only two areas of Jamui and Gaya are affected. So the democratic process can prevail.