India Column: Hara Kiri in the Indian Tribal Heartland

by Francis Gonsalves

As citizens of the world’s largest democracy, Indians are understandably proud of their Constitution that pledges “to secure to all its citizens justice, liberty, equality, and to promote fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation.” However, these Constitutional ideals are but illusions for many Indians. Development models favoring the privileged and adversely affecting the marginalized continue to be introduced by successive governments. This invariably results in increased violence towards the tribals, or adivasis (meaning ‘original inhabitants’), one such marginalized group.

Adivasis in India traditionally manage their affairs as members of a virtual ‘village republic.’ They depend on the abundant natural resources of their habitat, which they see as God-given gifts, collectively managed, to be used for the welfare of all. However, over the years, the adivasis have not only been unsuccessful in getting legal entitlement over their lands, but have become victims of (and even engage in) various forms of violence, broadly referred to as ‘Maoist-Naxalite violence.’

The Naxalite movement in India began in the late 1960s. It represented the revolutionary stream of Indian Marxism, with the aim of capturing control of the state through armed struggle rather than parliamentary democracy. The state crushed the movement in the 1970s, causing an already ideologically fractured movement to splinter further. In 2004, two of the major parties united to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The CPI (Maoist) is currently a significant political force across several states, especially in rural areas in central India where state services have been inadequate or absent. Their cadre comes from sections of India’s poorest people, especially the dalits (former untouchables) and the adivasis.

Since 2005, the Maoists have become the main target of the Indian state, with thousands of paramilitary forces (also comprising adivasis) committed to eliminating them. As a consequence, there is armed conflict in large parts of central India, taking several hundred lives annually. This is a kind of hara-kiri, with large groups of adivasis pitted against each other while the Government seems ineffective in tackling the situation and the multinational companies (MNCs) greedily eye adivasi land and hope to benefit from the conflict.

Delhi University’s Professor Nandini Sundar holds that three main perspectives dominate the present discourse. The first, the ‘security perspective,’ equates the Maoists with terrorists. India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said, “The Maoists are the greatest threat to the nation.” India’s Home Ministry described the Naxals as “cold blooded murderers” in the newspapers. The second, the dominant liberal perspective, can be called the ‘root causes perspective.’ According to this view, poverty and the lack of ‘development’ and primary services are to blame for pushing people to support the Maoists. The third, the ‘revolutionary perspective’ held by the Maoists and their sympathizers, portrays the movement as a product of structural violence. While they describe people as forced into resistance and armed struggle, there is equally an emphasis on active agency and sacrifice, contrary to the ‘root causes perspective’ that sees people as passive victims. Professor Sundar opines that the situation is further compounded by many social, economic, political, historical, and ideological factors.

According to Government estimates, 92,000 square kilometres are under the control of the Maoists (the Government calls this the ‘Red Corridor’). In 2005, the Chhattisgarh Government felt that the Maoists were a danger and started the Salwa Judum, meaning ‘Collective Peace Campaign’ – an adivasi contingent who, with Government support, began to accuse fellow adivasis of protecting the Maoists. The Salwa Judum began forcing the adivasis out of their villages and into camps at the edge of the village. Currently, the Salwa Judum has been reinvented in the form of ‘Special Police Officers’ (SPOs) who are mostly illiterate and unemployed armed youth who help the Government in combing operations, arresting and killing people, burning houses, and looting. The struggle by the Government to wipe out the Maoists across states is termed ‘Operation Green Hunt.’

While numerous civil society groups have condemned the violence by the Maoists, many ask, “Why have the Maoists-Naxalites been successful in winning over the confidence of the adivasis?” Himanshu Thakkar, a Gandhian who has worked for tribal development for two decades, replies,

“All roads for the adivasis are closed. The police beat them. The political leaders – be they from the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – support the Salwa Judum. The courts do not give them a hearing. The media does not care. To whom will they go except to the Maoists? When the police attack them, the Naxalites defend the adivasis.”

Although the adivasis have been exploited for centuries, one must ask: why has the Maoist-Naxalite violence peaked recently? In 2001, the formation of the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand provided an incentive for the ruling parties in these states to intervene in areas that had hitherto been relatively neglected. Both Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, states with large mineral and forest areas predominantly inhabited by adivasis, explicitly set out to promote industrialization. Yet, when people protest against land-grabbing and forced displacement, successive governments have always pointed out that this is done in the name of development. Also notable, the formation of the CPI (Maoist) in 2004 roughly coincides with the liberalization of India’s mining policy in 2003 and with the Special Economic Zones Act in 2005, both of which resulted in indiscriminate land grabbing of adivasi lands.

Human Rights activist Gladson Dungdung from Jharkhand points out,

“In violent attempts to grab and gift adivasi lands to MNCs for business ventures, the Government has never bothered about the plight of the adivasis. In Jharkhand, the Government signed 102 MoUs (Memoranda of Understanding) with 40 corporate houses, one of the biggest being the POSCO project… Our ministers argue that India’s top priority is economic growth. Jairam Ramesh, the former Indian environment minister, said: ‘Projects such as that of POSCO have considerable economic, technological and strategic significance for the country’.”

POSCO’s plant, which will produce 12 million tons of steel every year, is to be built on a plot of 4,000 acres. The adivasis are denied their rights under the Forest Rights Act of 2006 but POSCO is given the same land at throwaway prices. Is this development?

The saddest part of the crisis is that the adivasi community and its leaders are never consulted about the development that they require. Thus, it is time to ask: what development is being promoted? By whom? For whom? At what cost? Dr. B.D. Sharma, who was once Advisor to the Indian Government on tribal affairs and now dedicates his life to the welfare of adivasis, says,

“The whole scheme of so-called development will have to be redrawn with reference to the customs and traditions of the adivasi. His well-wishers would do well, as advised by Tolstoy more than a century ago, ‘to get off his shoulders’ on which they are all perched so that he can stretch his back up and move upright around as a free person and master of his own destiny.”

Unless the Government, the police, the Salwa Judum and the SPOs, the MNCs, and other parties with vested interests respect the rights of the adivasis and genuinely seek their welfare, they must be told by the adivasis, “Get off our backs!” Because, if they do not, there is little hope of seeing the end of this violence.

Dr. Francis Gonsalves, a Jesuit, received his Licentiate in Dogmatic Theology from the Gregorian University in Rome and his Ph.D. from the University of Madras, India. He has taught at the Vidyajyoti College of Theology since 1997, and has been the Principal since 2009. He has taught at a number of other institutions, including the University of Madras. His areas of interest in teaching and study include interdisciplinary approaches to theology, interfaith dialogue and initiatives, socio-religious and subaltern movements, and developing the arts as alternative sources of theology. He has published extensively both in India and abroad on issues of religion and theology, political affairs, and social justice. He currently serves on the board of editors for four publications. He has also lectured widely and conducted numerous seminars on his areas of interest.

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