There is no end to the studies of popular discontent in India, and the Indian nation state is always eager to find ways to control such uprisings of discontent. That it fails strongly is a moot point, for it the main point is that it wins. It has the army, the police, the required ability to brutalise its own people and the complete lack of scruples. But after all that, New Delhi’s writ still does not run in nearly one-third of the country.
From time to time, New Delhi’s rulers keep setting up committees to study the Naxalite problems. And for India, the Planning Commission is one of the most reliable repository of comprehensive information. That it is also a helpless witness to the government’s unpardonable apathy to its important proposals for remedying the situation all these years is a separate story.
The government however requires the Commission for hard statistical facts and figures, and understanding of what is happening at the ground level. That after all this, the GoI leaves all planning to the magnates of the market economy is also a different story.
The story that we are to tell you is based on a report now in the possession of the WSN that was commissioned by the government to understand Naxal problem. That even such a wonderfully produced report may also end up with the usual obligatory list of remedial measures should not reduce its importance since these measures have remained unimplemented for years.
“Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas” is the title of the report of an expert group set up by the Planning Commission of the Government of India. Dated March 2008, the report contains meticulously collected latest facts and figures, rigorously examines the causes of the continuing economic exploitation and social discrimination in the adivasi and dalit-inhabited areas even after 60 years of independence. It is significant that this particular expert group was set up by the government in May 2006, in the background of increasing Naxalite activities in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa.
That even such a wonderfully produced report may also end up with the usual obligatory list of remedial measures should not reduce its importance since these measures have remained unimplemented for years.
The group consisted of a variety of people ranging from veteran ex-bureaucrats (like D Bandyopadhya who chaired it, and is well known for his implementing the Operation Barga land reform measure in West Bengal, and S R Sankaran who heads the Hyderabad-based Committee of Concerned Citizens which had been trying to bring the Andhra Pradesh government and the Maoist rebels to the negotiating table) to retired police officers like Prakash Singh, ex-director general of police, Uttar Pradesh and Ajit Doval, former director of the Intelligence Bureau. From the other end of the spectrum, we have well known activists and academics like K Balagopal of the human rights movement and Sukhadeo Thorat, chairman of the University Grants Commission and a champion of Dalit emancipation, among others.
That a mixed bag of this nature, consisting of experts from different disciplines with differing opinions, could prepare a consensus report on several contentious issues and come up with a unanimously agreed set of recommendations, suggests that all is not lost. But all will be, given the Government of India’s ability at remaining deaf and dumb.
Dalits, Adivasis and Naxalites
Although the terms of reference did not specifically mention Naxalites (or Maoists), the group’s brief was to identify causes of unrest and discontent in areas affected by “widespread displacement, forest issues, insecure tenancies and others forms of exploitation like usury, land alienation and imperfect market conditions…”. Clearly, such areas fall in the above-mentioned five states – and significantly enough, the group organised field visits in these areas to observe the situation at first hand, on the basis of which it has come out with stark revelations that expose the culpability of the state in denying the poor their basic rights, the treachery of a corrupt bureaucracy to implement the laws, and its complicity with a trigger-happy police to suppress popular protest.
Maintaining that “the main support for the Naxalite movement comes from dalits and adivasis”, the group concentrated on these two sections (termed as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes respectively in official parlance) which comprise about one-fourth of India’s population, the majority living in rural areas.
Apart from the high levels of poverty, the dalits suffer from various types of disadvantages like limited employment opportunities, political marginalisation, low education, social discrimination, and human rights violation. As for the adivasi population, besides remaining backward in all aspects of human development including education, health, nutrition, etc, they have been steadily losing their traditional tribal rights and command over resources. The report points out in this connection the administration’s failure to implement the protective regulations in scheduled areas, which has resulted in land alienation, forced eviction from land, dependence of the tribals on moneylenders – made worse often by “violence by the state functionaries”.
Incidentally, every dalit and adivasi poor in India has not joined the Naxalite movement. There are many states with pockets of high proportion of adivasis and dalits but little Naxalite influence, as in Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Rajasthan. The report quite rightly points out that “poverty does create deprivation but other factors like denial of justice, human dignity, cause alienation resulting in the conviction that relief can be had outside the system by breaking the current order asunder”. It adds that for such a violent upheaval to happen, there is the likelihood of the “spread of awareness and consciousness”. And this is where, as the report suggests, the Maoists have played a significant role by stepping into the craters of dalit and adivasi deprivation in the five states, and organising the deprived for their rights.
Its authors situate the Naxalite movement in the historical context of the “development paradigm pursued since independence”, which they assert, has “aggravated the prevailing discontent among marginalised sections of society”. While explaining the current surge in Naxalite activities, they slam the neoliberal “directional shift in government policies towards modernisation and mechanisation, export orientation, diversification to produce for the market, withdrawal of various subsidy regimes and exposure to global trade” as “an important factor in hurting the poor in several ways”.
Following this conceptual approach, they look at the Maoist movement in a way that is different from the prevalent official attitude which primarily blames the Naxalites for the violence. Instead, the present report lays stress on the “structural violence which is implicit in the social and economic system” and which in the opinion of its authors prompts the radical groups to justify their own violent acts. The authors of the report admit that the Naxalites have indeed carried out certain socio-economic reforms in their areas of control.
Naxalites as a Surrogate State
The report brings out that the Maoists are actually carrying out the reforms that the executive ought to have implemented, and are replacing the judiciary and the police in ensuring law and order for the poor and the oppressed.
In the forest areas of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, Orissa and Jharkhand, the Naxalites have led the adivasis to occupy forest lands that they should have enjoyed in the normal course of things under their traditionally recognised rights, but which were denied by government officials through forest settlement proceedings that have “taken place behind the back and over the head of the adivasi forest dwellers”. While the government remained indifferent to the need for paying minimum wages to the adivasi tendu leaf gatherers in Andhra Pradesh, the Naxalites by launching a movement have secured increases in the rate of payment for the picking. The practice of forced labour in the same state, under which the toiling castes had to provide free labour to the upper castes, was done away with due to a “major upsurge led by the Naxalites in the late 1970s and early 1980s of the last century…”. Commenting on the “peoples courts” set up by the Naxalites in their areas of control, the report observes that “disputes are resolved in a rough and ready manner, and generally in the interest of the weaker party”.
The report also reveals how despite change of government, successive rulers suppress the poor and the disadvantaged. There is a design behind this continuity. The rulers, irrespective of party affiliations, are lackadaisical and sloppy in implementing pro-poor legal measures. But the moment the Maoists try to enforce those measures they are quick to use against them with extreme efficiency another set of laws – the draconian laws that have been enacted over the years (e g, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act; Chhattisgarh Public Security Act; Andhra Pradesh (Suppression of Disturbances) Act, etc).
Asserting that the Naxalite movement has to be “recognised as a political movement with a strong base among the landless and poor peasantry and adivasis”, the experts warn the government against resorting to “security-centric” measures like setting up vigilante groups such as Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh. Instead, they have called for “an ameliorative approach with emphasis on a negotiated solution”, and urged the government for a resumption of the peace talks with the Naxalites which was initiated in October 2004, but broke down in January 2005.
As for the Indian state, the experts have been rather frank.
They have shown how, in quite a large swathe of inaccessible territory, the state’s writ does not run, and the Naxalites have been able to establish a parallel and alternative order that has largely benefited the poor – especially the dalits and adivasis. It is better that India recognises this reality and legitimises the positive Naxalite contribution to the implementation of the pro-poor laws – which the state had failed to carry out. In other words, the government should negotiate a settlement that allows the Naxalites to run their administration in their pockets of control – on the lines of the settlement arrived at with the Naga rebels of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak Muivah) who have not given up their arms and run a parallel government in parts of Nagaland.
Referring to the Indian government’s conciliatory approach to such insurrectionary groups, the authors of the report raise the legitimate question: “Why a different approach to the Naxals?” It is for the Prime Minister to answer this, since he is the one who calls Naxalite violence the most serious internal security challenge faced by India.