Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Salwa Judum vigilantes, the underaged among them, have been placed alongside the CRPF to man road blocks.

Middle India Under Siege

In Chattisgarh, confrontation and vigilantes are queering the pitch.

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald, June 6, 2006

Middle India is under siege along a long-neglected, exploited, underserved, ill-governed, poorly connected poverty belt of forest and hill country covering contiguous areas in nine states “from Pashupati to Tirupati”. This is dalit-tribal Santhal-Oraon-Munda, Gond corridor defines the geography of Indian “Maoism”.

At its heart lies Chattisgarh. Regions rapaciously exploited for generations by feudal-caste oppressors, robbed the under class, especially tribals and dalits, of their forests, land rights and human dignity with the connivance of successive governments of all hues. They became incubators for the Naxals. With pressure on the People’s War Group and Maoist Communist Centre cadres in Andhra and Bihar/Jharkand, before they united, the Naxals sought refuge in the jungle fastnesses of Dantewara-Abujmarh, their first revolutionary liberated zone and launching pad for the establishment of a New Democratic Society.

Under Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh was far away and the policy was to “live and let live”. The new Chattisgarh state abandoned the earlier policy of abdication. Confrontation was inevitable. Casualties run to hundreds. The Naxals have mined the roads extensively and now launch large assaults.

The Naxals had first come to the tribals as friends and teachers but gradually assumed dominance, seeking enrolment of a male or female member from each family to their cadres, a grain tithe, the cultivation of distributed land to fill the Party larder, a levy on all traders and contractors and a bar on development, especially of roads, culverts and bridges, hand pumps, schools and panchayat ghars, so as to prevent connectivity and administrative penetration, which might threaten their supremacy.

2004 and 2005 were drought years in Chattisgarh. The Naxals insisted on a steep increase in tendu (beedi) leaf prices, which contractors found unviable. In the result, there was no tendu plucking during April-May 2005 nor the Government bonus that follows final market sales, thus depriving the tribals of their main source of cash incomes from minor forest products in an otherwise subsistence-barter economy. Resentment sparked tension, spontaneous marches and meetings in Kotru in western Dantewara to resist further Naxal diktats. Politicians smelt opportunity and, under the banner of Mahendra Karma, Congress Leader of the Opposition and a tribal from the district, assumed leadership of Salwa Judum, or “purification/peace hunt”. The Jan Jagran Abhiyan on similar lines had failed in the mid-1990s for lack of support. Now the BJP government readily clambered on to the bandwagon.

The narrative becomes murky at this point and the sequence of events unclear. Much is anecdotal. However, clashes, reprisal killings and torching of huts created divisions among the people, some 45,000 of whom have fled (been brought?) to miserable roadside camps as victims of a disaster they do not fully comprehend. Fear and compulsion keep them there though some would return to their deserted villages if permitted to do so or given security.

Some among the 5000 or so Salwa Judum vigilantes, underaged youth among them, have been recruited as Special Police Officers, given rudimentary training and placed alongside CRPF and other para-military units to provide camp security and man road blocks to check movements. They make an aggressive rabble and seem under nobody’s control.

On the best construction, a hapless Government used an incipient popular upsurge to confront the Naxals but soon lost the plot, lacking a clear strategy. It claims to have merely supported, not sponsored, Salwa Judum and denies any plan to clear the jungles to regroup villages. However, critics allege that this is a diabolical prelude to granting juicy mineral and industrial licences to large corporate houses within what wold have been reduced to a quiet forest. This is far-fetched. In fact, significant corporate investments that open up the area in partnership with the tribals could be part of the solution.

However, with the monsoon only days away, the Government is assisting a fluid camp population to construct semi-permanent houses with minimal services. Epidemics threaten. Beyond that, there is no official thinking. Rations are being withdrawn and people are dependent on food for work, which is yet to be widely organised. The unspoken hope is that people will be able to return home sometime next year. With para-military reinforcements coming in, a crackdown is on the cards. Great sensitivity and care will be needed if tribal life and culture is not to be torn apart in battling the Naxals.

A law and order approach by itself will not suffice. The Bastar and Sarguja Development Authority and similar body for a scheduled caste zone have been set up under the Chief Minister and special funds sanctioned. A coherent approach and delivery system seem lacking as the present administrative machinery cannot cope.

Eight of Chattisgarh’s 16 districts are Naxal-affected. The Salwa Judum is limited to part of Dantewara and not all among the political class, bureaucracy or ordinary people want it to spread. Its alleged misdoings need to be investigated. Policy too needs to be better concerted across states and the Centre has to play a leading role rather than merely exhort from afar after tolerating and partnering rampant mis-governance for decades.

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