Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

A touch-me-not attitude will not work for the tribals or the country. Committees have reported and their findings pigeon-holed. The Tribal Forest Rights Act is one silver lining that needs to be pushed forward and the Fifth Schedule and PESA pressed into service.

Talking With The Maoists

The State is not at war with the Maoists but it is certainly engaged in enhanced law and order operations against a misguided movement. Yet, the door to dialogue should remain open.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 26 October, 2009

The good news this past week has been the opening for a possible dialogue with the Maoists after several bloody encounters, some Naxal barbarities, a determined security mobilization and more recent kidnappings. The trigger was provided by the taking hostage of a West Bengal police official, Atindranath Dutta, and his release following a deal with the West Bengal administration which enabled 20 tribal women Naxal associates or sympathizers to walk free with their bail applications unopposed by the Government. Dutta was delivered to the media with a cheeky “prisoner of war” placard hung around his neck.

The State is not at war with the Maoists (and the Army is not involved) but it is certainly engaged in enhanced law and order operations against a misguided, ultra-radical movement that has been penetrated by adventurers and joined by assorted criminals and disgruntled elements under the banner of fighting indignity, injustice, exploitation and neglect. That tribals, dalits and other marginalised people have suffered feudal and bureaucratic oppression cannot be denied but none of this can extenuate or be reason for violence and an ideology that speaks of class annihilation, “liberation” and fighting “imperialism”.

However, the trade off of a police officer for 20 Naxal women has evoked much criticism in many quarters as a demoralizing official sell out, a panic reaction likely to embolden the Naxals countrywide. The State Home Secretary’s recalling what followed the Kandahar hijacking and the earlier Rubaiya Saeed episode in Srinagar was not wholly inaccurate but inept. The failure to consult the Centre, with whose support a concerted nationwide anti-Maoist operation has been mounted was certainly an error of judgement, which Delhi noted but sensibly passed over.

As a general rule one may argue that the State should never give in to terrorist blackmail even if it results in the killing of hostages. But each event needs to be assessed sui generis. In the instant case, Dutta was taken hostage after the Union Home Minister had announced the Government’s willingness to talk to the Maoists if they abjured violence and the latter had made a conditional response calling for the withdrawal of security forces. This latter demand was quite rightly rejected summarily as the State has a duty to protect all its citizens. Yet, it does not follow that the door to dialogue should be closed.

The West Bengal gesture should not be followed by an immediate stiffening of attitudes and a relentless assault on the Maoists to gain face. Taking advantage of the tribal women’s release, the initiative for talks should be pressed either directly or, as Mr Chidambarm has stated, through “well meaning people” who can act as intermediaries. The Union Home Minister has significantly stated that the Government is not insisting that the Maoists lay down arms but merely abjure violence and halt the wanton destruction of railway tracks, roads, transmission towers, bridges, schools and other developmental and social infrastructure and planting landmines.

The Citizens Initiative for Peace and other civil society groups in good standing with all sides should now take the field, not only in West Bengal but elsewhere, to promote dialogue with concerned state governments, acting in concert with the Centre. Schools, health centres and associated infrastructure could be declared safe zones so that normal educational, health and other services can be resumed. Both the Government and Maoists should declare a suspension of operations in defined areas and jurisdictions. The Maoists should not parade with weapons and the security forces in turn should halt aggressive patrolling though duty bound to challenge any infringement of the law.

Momentum should not be lost, especially as the Government has offered to facilitate such contacts. Meanwhile, even pending any localized “suspension of operations” agreements, the security forces should be advised to tread cautiously and be reactive rather than pro-active for a while in order to give the Maoist leadership sufficient time to instruct its cadres and make known its intent.

Much has said been about attending to the root cause of disaffection as a result of socio-economic neglect even though this does not admit of mindless violence and sabotage of infrastructure. However, there has to be a sound delivery system to ensure that social and economic development is possible and reaches the targeted population. This calls for structural changes which need to be urgently addressed.

The tribal areas are by and large constitutionally subject to the provisions of the Fifth Schedule and the more recently enacted Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act or PESA. These powerful instruments have been rendered effete through years of neglect. Most Governors, the kingpin or guardian of tribal rights under the aegis of the President of India, have virtually abdicated their mandate. They assume office without any Instrument of Instructions to operationalise their constitutional role and have no independent or effective instrumentality to execute this task. The Tribes Advisory Councils have become more ornamental than purposeful and the mandatory annual reports of the Governor to the President are virtually written by the State tribal affairs departments and, if prepared in time or sent to the President at all, are seldom presented to Parliament and almost never debated. The default appears to have become routine. The President (or Government of India) is not known to have sent back any specific or regular directives to the States on the basis of these reports, or otherwise, to take ameliorative measures as constitutionally stipulated.

Neither Parliament nor individual MPs, tribal or otherwise, have shown much interest in any of this.

This has led to administrative decline in the Fifth Schedule areas which are understaffed and under policed and treated as punishment postings. Governance is left to petty forest officials and other low level functionaries and minor forest produce and liquor contractors who together rule the roost. Corruption and indignity are rife and there is little redress. It is in these conditions that Maoists win sympathy as Robin Hood-type saviours until they make known their real intent, by when they are entrenched. Vigilante movements like Salwa Judum in Dantewade in Chatttisgarh have proved disastrous.

What is required is a simplified single window administrative system staffed by a select cadre akin to the hastily disbanded Indian Frontier Administrative Service in the NE and other Himalayan borderlands. Further, the development strategy has to be differently crafted trough value addition to traditional tribal activity and partnership through stakeholder participation of locals through PESA in the development of the rich mineral, biodiversity and other natural resources in Fifth Schedule areas under a well defined trusteeship regime that brings together the State, tribal communities and corporate interests that deliver back to the community as much and more as they take from it.

A touch-me-not attitude will not work for the tribals or the country. Committees have reported and their findings pigeon-holed. The Tribal Forest Rights Act is one silver lining that needs to be pushed forward and the Fifth Schedule and PESA pressed into service.

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