In September 2001, the US reacted to al Qaeda’s attack with an explosion of rage and declaration of a War on Terror that has so far cost more than a million lives and turned the CIA into what author and The New York Times columnist Mark Mazetti calls a “killing machine”. Has the US gained anything from this bloodletting? Has it destroyed al Qaeda? Has it made its allies in West Asia feel more secure? Has it won the hearts and minds of the people it set out to ‘liberate’? One has only to ask these questions to know the answers.
The Congress party has reacted to the Maoist attack on 25 May that claimed the lives of its leaders in the Darbha hills of Bastar with a similar burst of rage and demands for retribution. The Chhattisgarh government has promised to bring the culprits to justice and sent in 600 additional paramilitary personnel. Accusing the Maoists of not being interested in talks or following the democratic process, MoS for Home Affairs RPN Singh has said there is an urgent need to review the policy on dealing with the Maoists. Echoing what former home minister P Chidambaram had said in 2009, he affirmed that there would be no talks with the Maoists until they gave up violence.
The Centre has inducted the air force into the battle by making it agree to provide helicopters for search, rescue and surveillance missions against the Maoists. It has thus broken the cardinal rule of the armed forces — not to intervene in insurrectionary wars within the country.
All the signs are therefore pointing to another campaign against the Maoists. Will this meet with any more success than Operation Green Hunt, launched in 2009? Or will it leave behind a trail of bitterness that will further swell support for the Maoists in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere on the ‘Red Corridor’?
The answer, here too, is self-evident. In the past five years, the number of districts “seriously affected” by left-wing insurgency has increased to 56 and those seriously or moderately affected, to 83. These make up almost one-sixth of India. In the worst affected areas such as Dantewada and Bastar, as Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh conceded, the writ of the State has virtually ceased to run, and there has been no development for the past 20 years.
New Delhi and Raipur have placed the blame for the 25 May slaughter on a monumental intelligence failure and launched not one but two inquiries into this ‘lapse’. But this is no isolated incident. The failure was equally complete when the Maoists wiped out almost an entire company of CRPF personnel in Dantewada in 2009. It was highlighted, less tragically, a year later when the government discovered a road that the Maoists had built in the forest to spirit away hijacked trucks, entirely by accident.
Although it began decades earlier, the alienation of the Adivasis gathered momentum only after the pace of economic growth increased the hunger for land. When Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand were carved out from Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh began to shower mining concessions on corporates like confetti. Neither he, nor anyone at the Centre, spared a thought for the Adivasis, who would lose their traditional rights of usage in forest lands, their livelihood from selling forest produce and the herbal remedies on which they relied for their health.
What completed their alienation was the creation of the Salwa Judum, an armed militia of tribal louts recruited mostly by Mahendra Karma in 2005, but quickly endorsed by the state government. Its main purpose was to drive the villagers off their land in the name of ‘development’. This was a rare example of Congress-BJP collaboration that somehow escaped Sonia Gandhi’s notice.
By 2011, the Salwa Judum had driven people out of at least 644 villages, killed almost a thousand tribals and displaced at least 1.5 lakh more. Of those it has killed, Maoist leaders in Chhattisgarh told Shubhranshu Choudhary, author of Let’s Call Him Vasu, no more than 200 were members of their Sangham. Human rights organisations brought 537 of these killings to the notice of the Chhattisgarh government, but so far the state has ordered only eight magisterial inquiries, of which only one has begun.
In 2011, when the Supreme Court banned the Salwa Judum in one of the harshest indictments of a state government on record, Raman Singh inducted 3,000 of its cadres into the police as Special Police Officers (SPOs) on a salary of Rs 1,500 a month. Since then these SPOs have been responsible for some of the worst massacres in the state. To the Adivasis, this is the democracy that the politicians are extolling. No wonder, they consider the Maoists their defenders and the State their oppressor.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must prevent another mindless resort to violence, for it will only accelerate the onset of a full-scale insurgency. The war that will ensue will be unwinnable for, unlike the US, which has won battles but is losing the War on Terror, New Delhi has been losing both the battles and the war against the Maoists. Green Hunt was a failure because the Maoists emerged from it not only ideologically but also militarily stronger. In 2011 and ’12, the scales have tilted further in favour of the Maoists because, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, while the security forces have killed 80 Maoists, they have lost 126 of their own people.
As for the battle for the people’s minds, it is already, irretrievably, lost. According to ‘Vasu’, Choudhary’s eponymous contact in the Maoist leadership, “Though we called the movement People’s War, it was the Salwa Judum that made it a real people’s war. The Salwa Judum left no room for fence-sitters.”
Before going further down the road to repression, the PM would do well to re-examine the assumptions upon which it has been based. The first is that the insurgency is being fed by acute poverty. The second is that this can only be alleviated by ‘development’ — roads, schools, hospitals and power supply. The third is that the tribals are the authors of their own misery because they are not interested in development. The fourth and most important is that the Maoists are against democracy and oppose development. Therefore, they have to be eliminated for good sense to prevail among the Adivasis once more.
Choudhary’s book, written after months of living with the Maoists and chronicling their lives, thoughts and aspirations, shows the superficiality and hollowness of these assumptions. Poverty does not feed the insurgency any more than it fed the French revolution. What feeds the insurgency is injustice. The government claims to have been elected by them, yet takes decisions that take away their rights, break the slender thread that binds them to nature and its bounty, and make their lives more precarious. Denied any voice in decision-making, when they protest, they have to face atrocities by the police or the Salwa Judum. Maoists spoke of these events as casually as townspeople talk about corruption. But the anger that burned in them accounted for the high proportion of women in the armed cadres. It also helps us understand why Karma was stabbed 78 times in addition to being shot.
It is true that the Adivasis are not interested in New Delhi’s concept of economic development, because this is the root cause of their misery. But it is most certainly not true that they do not want any development and wish to be left as noble savages. Choudhary describes the pains the Maoists take to procure medicines, attract doctors, create village schools, bring out ‘comrade’ teachers to teach in them, and enable the tribals to get better prices for their produce.
As for their goals and willingness to seek them peacefully, Rajanna, the Maoists’ chief armourer, has the following things to say: “The party has addressed, and to an extent alleviated, excessive poverty in Dandakaranya. People have access to the forest and the land now. A single Mahua tree yields an income of Rs 5,000 a year; people are not starving anymore. The fight should transform itself into a demand for tribal autonomy. We should demand that all Dandakaranya be able to decide its fate without interference from outsiders. Schedule Five of the Constitution gives these rights in theory, but we should work towards making them a reality.”
When people cite the Indian Constitution, it means that given the right circumstances, they are not averse to living within it. Rajanna is not a moderate or an aberration. So his reflections need to be treated seriously.
(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 10 Issue 24, Dated 15 June 2013)
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