Note: This article was translated into Hindi and published in NAVBHARAT (22.06.2006)
Very recently, I happened to be sitting next to SJ’s charismatic chief Mr. Mahendra Karma on a flight from Delhi. There is no doubting the fact that what he is doing- undertaking padyatras in the very heart of Naxalite territory to mobilize tribal support against LWE- is incredibly brave, even heroic. For the first time, the Naxalites in Chhattisgarh are, to put it mildly, perturbed. Not surprisingly, Mr. Karma’s ‘threat-perception’ is among the highest for any politician in the country. Certainly higher than the Chief Minister. But the problem with all mass movements, even state-sponsored ones, is that they have a remarkably short shelf life.
Writing on Gandhian strategy, the nationalist historian Bipin Chandra postulates the concept of S-T-S (an acronym for ‘struggle-time-struggle’). To the utter disbelief of his compatriots, the Father of the Nation summarily called-off the Non-cooperation movement after a mob set fire to a remote police station at Chauri Chaura in Bihar. The way historians now see it he didn’t have an option. Frankly, it would either have fizzled out and died its own death or- and this was a far worse possibility- it would have turned violent and gone totally out of control. Indeed, almost a decade had lapsed before the Mahatma had his second epiphany on the shores of his native Porbandar. The resultant Civil Disobedience Movement, inaugurated by the historic Dandi march to protest the salt tax, too was called-off in less than two years when he journeyed to London to participate in the Second Round Table Conference, and didn’t quite resume even after the Conference’s failure. Taking a cue from the Master of mass movements, isn’t it time SJ too was called-off?
Perhaps, it’s not fair to compare SJ with other popular movements. Popular movements, as a rule, are anti-establishment. With the notable exception of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, I can think of no other mass struggle in contemporary history wherein the state has played such a pivotal role. Salwa Judum- literally ‘Peace Path’ in Gondi- now provides the other exception. The question is this: can the state’s direct involvement in popular movements be justified? Put simply, political scientists explain the birth of the modern state in terms of a Contract between the individual and his chosen form of government. For example, the individual surrenders some of his rights, and in return the state undertakes to protect his life. It is usually when the state fails to fulfill its part of the contract that popular movements arise.
In the case of SJ, its very existence is proof of the state’s failure to protect tribals from LWE but rather than the tribals taking the law into their own hands, the state has virtually handed it over to them. That’s not all. It has conveniently displaced its responsibility. This has been done without equipping tribals with the wherewithal and training to fight a remarkably sophisticated militant organization. One might even say it has senselessly sent them- two hundred and six, according to official estimate, but thousands if first-hand reports are to be believed- to their deaths. I remember a press conference addressed by the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao in Singapore. When asked by a correspondent, how he could justify sending three hundred thousand troops to Kashmir, he curtly said its for the state to decide what it takes to protect its citizens. Mind you, he didn’t say that he expected untrained Kashmiri civilians to do battle with militant outfits.
Surprisingly, Mr. Karma also cites the Kashmiri example to justify the displacement of over sixty thousand tribals from their ancestral villages into makeshift ‘camps’. Infact he views this ‘displacement’ as an unfortunate but necessary phase in the fight against Naxalites. Once again, this comparison isn’t entirely correct. Several Islamic militant outfits had given the call for Kashmiri Pundits to leave the valley, seeing them as traitors supporting the Indian Government. At no time have the Naxalites ever asked tribals to leave their homes. Infact such a demand would be self-defeating: a CRZ (Central Revolutionary Zone) minus inhabitants for the Politburo to lord over doesn’t make sense. They don’t want a lebensraum, like Hitler did, to repopulate it with purebred Aryans. The fact is that there can be no historical justification for displacement of thousands of tribals from villages they have inhabited for thousands of years. Instead any justification has to be geographical. When I asked Papa what he would have done had he been Chief Minister, he replied: “I would have fortified villages and trained villagers to defend themselves instead of abandoning them for the Naxalites to take over and herding them into camps.” That’s easier said than done. Its one thing to train tribals into a sterling fighting machine- as late as the 1960s, villagers of Lormiguda had revolted en mass against the state- but to fortify villages that are spread over several square kilometers is too big a task. Infact, herding them into camps is a lot more practical. But pragmatism cannot be allowed to defeat principles, and the principle is this: it is the state’s paramount duty to protect its citizens, more specifically those who inhabit its peripheries, and failure to do so cannot justify the uprooting of an entire people. The NBA is fighting displacement of tribals in the name of development. SJ, on the other hand, justifies displacement in the name of death. When Mr. Pisda, the Collector of Dantewada, tells Outlook that ‘either they are SJ or they are Naxalites’, that’s precisely what he means. The third option, of just going about the business of living, no longer exists for the tribes of Bastar, who must either fight or die.
I haven’t been to SJ camps but from what I gather a lot of the tribals who have been evicted from their villages now want to go back: monsoons, after all, is ‘a time to sow and a time to reap’. They are told that they would be shot if they did. By whom: Naxalites or SPOs? That isn’t made very clear. Why is this Government so keen on keeping them in camps? More than the security concern, this has to do with the politics- and economics- of displacement. Camps no doubt provide a remarkably convenient incubation zone for the Sangh Parivar to indoctrinate thousands of unsuspecting tribals into its ‘Hindutva’ fold. RSS-run shakas, I’m told by no less an authority than the correspondent of a leading national daily, have already become a common camp feature as have Saraswati Shishu Mandirs (ekal-vidyalayas) and Valmiki Kalyan Ashrams. Furthermore, camps have given birth to their own peculiar industry: to sustain sixty thousand tribals, the state has budgeted a daily expenditure of crores of rupees in the form of food and other civil supplies, health care and education, not to mention law and order. As with every other government welfare scheme for the tribals, its real beneficiaries are the middlemen- bureaucrats, suppliers and political cronies- entrusted with its overall implementation. Infact, to maximize its profits, people associated with this industry are only too happy to inflate figures of the number of ‘refugees’- this is precisely what the hon’ble home minister called them- living in SJ camps. Naturally, the living condition in these camps is bound to be atrocious, and in direct proportion to the ‘refugees’ desire to risk return.
I asked Mr. Karma how many Naxalites- ‘full-timers’- does he think are active in Bastar. He said: “about five thousand”. And how many SPOs (Special Police Officers) has he recruited? He said: “three thousand and five hundred”. And how long does he expect the fighting to last before the ‘Naxalite menace’ is wiped out completely. He said: “three more years”. These, broadly speaking, are the battle-statistics. What then are the problems? First, total intelligence failure. Fifty tribals were abducted from a SJ camp. Half a month later, thirteen bodies were found littered on the national highway. Now, to abduct and guard fifty tribal requires atleast one hundred able-bodied adults. Moreover, to avoid detection by the security forces, this band of one hundred and fifty persons must be constantly on the move, as indeed they were. The fact that nobody had a clue where they were shows just how little the security forces understand the terrain even though they- the abducted and their abductors- never ventured more than ten kilometers beyond the national highway! Secondly: SJ- by evicting villagers into camps- is perennially on the defensive. The whole point of SJ is to reclaim territory from the Naxalites, not hand it over to them. This can’t be achieved if Mr. Karma plays pied piper, leading tribals everywhere he goes into the illusory safety and comfort of camps. Ofcourse he hopes one day to send his SPOs- recruited mostly from surrendering Naxalites and among the youth of the camps, who are paid a monthly salary of Rs. 1500- into the abandoned territory to do face-to-face battle with the Naxalites. His contention with Mr. KPS Gill, the newly recruited Advisor to the CM, is more likely to do with this particular ‘phase’ of SJ. Super Cop Gill would no doubt favor deputing armed forces to systematically comb the jungles and flush out any Naxalites. The problem with this, as Mr. Karma points out, is that the armed forces wouldn’t differentiate between innocent tribals and dreaded Naxalites, leading to avoidable civilian casualties. The SPOs, according to him, would. That may not be entirely correct. Recent reports of SPO-activity suggests that these relatively untrained but armed men with an almost blanket license to kill are more likely to settle personal scores than wage sustained warfare. After all, isn’t this what happened with Mr. Hiteshwar Saikia’s SULFA (Surrendered United Liberation Front of Assam)? Infact, in the not-so-long run SULFA came to be more dreaded than ULFA.
To make sense of all this, let’s look at the tribal himself. For him, it’s not a simple matter of choosing between the good guys and bad guys, as indeed Mr. Karma thinks it is. Frankly, we- those who believe in the legitimacy of the state- aren’t all that good. When Papa was CM, I had insisted on going to Orchha. At the heavily fortified government rest house opposite the tehsil office, I was accorded a traditional song & dance welcome by a bison-horn Maria troupe comprising mostly men and women my own age. I asked one of them, who knew a smattering of Hindi, what they were singing. His reply was revealing: ‘heaven is miles and miles of forest of mahua trees; hell is miles and miles of forest of mahua trees but with one forest guard in it’. This one forest guard- the single most visible state-representative and executor of the Forest Protection and Wildlife Conservation Acts (1980) in the area- has the potential of transforming heaven into hell. Indeed, the twin-legislations, based as they are on the presumption of dichotomy between tribes and their habitats, have not only reduced tribals to the status of exiles in their own homes but also given rise to a new species of environmentalism that has today become the greatest hurdle to development of the tribal habitat. Crores of rupees sanctioned as part of various tribal development projects have been pilfered. Successive governments have shamelessly exploited them as easy votebanks. Indeed the tribal experience with the welfare state has been one of disenchantment, and this more than anything else, explains the recent profligacy of LWE- from less than 100 districts in 1995 to over 170 districts in 15 states by April 2004 when the NDA was voted out of government- in tribal areas. Tribal leaders like my father and Mr. Karma understand this only too well. That is why they strongly advocate the setting-up of new steel plants by NMDC and Tata; construction of the Dondi Lohara-Jagdalpur railway line; opening of Raoghat mines; resumption of Bodhghat Hydel Power; and most significantly, the enactment of the Tribal Bill repealing the 1980 Acts. The bottom line is this: restore tribals as masters of their own destinies.
Isn’t that what the Naxalites also want?
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
Note: This article was translated into Hindi and published in NAVBHARAT (22.06.2006)