Force won’t end Naxal problem
The only sensible approach is to treat violent acts by the Naxalites as crimes, bring them to book through legal processes, and to launch a huge development programme, based on improved governance, which creates rights to food, water, work, healthcare and education.
At long last, the uniformly hysterical tone that dominated the early public debate on the Maoists’ killing of 76 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in Dantewada has partially yielded to a somewhat sober response from political leaders. Congress general secretary and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh has stepped out and questioned home minister P Chidambaram’s hardline militarist strategy of dealing with the Maoists, while urging the government to pay heed to “the hopes and aspirations of the people” living in the tribal belt of central India.
Former petroleum minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, one of our most thoughtful politicians and a remarkably articulate MP, has endorsed Singh’s position as “one lakh per cent correct” and underlined the state’s failure to implement the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, which empowers tribals by promoting local self-rule. Chidambaram stuck to his militarist line in Parliament on April 15. But the issue has been opened up for a wider political debate—for the first time.
Digvijay Singh knows Chhattisgarh better than most senior Congress leaders, having been the chief minister of undivided Madhya Pradesh for years. So, when he asks, “if our forest policies, mining policies, land and water policies are people-centric”, and pleads that “we should be paying more attention to (the tribals’) livelihood and (to) governance rather than converting the serene and calm environment of Bastar into a battlefield”, he deserves to be heard. Besides, Singh seems to be voicing the unease that many Congress leaders apparently feel with Chidambaram’s gung-ho “beat the hell out of the Naxals and solve the problem” approach. They apparently include Rahul Gandhi and his associates, and according to reports, even Sonia Gandhi.
Unlike TV anchors—who mindlessly push macho approaches, including the use of military means such as air power against the Maoists, but understand nothing about the horrendous injustices prevalent in the tribal belt—, politicians are at least aware of its crushing, grinding poverty and the ruthless exploitation of Adivasis, as well as the limitations of a purely coercion-based approach.
Hopefully, Singh’s intervention will trigger a debate within the ruling coalition and in the larger society, which goes beyond Chidambaram’s personal attributes and focuses on the cesspools of terrible iniquities and legitimate but long-unaddressed grievances in the tribal belt, in which Naxalism has flourished. Let’s recapitulate some of these.
Large parts of the Adivasi belt, such as Bastar, have been subjected to extremely predatory and fast-paced processes of exploitation, alienation of people from natural resources including land and forests, and a cultural invasion—all within one generation. Since the early 1990s, the impact of the wringer through which tribal society was put has worsened because of mining, industry and irrigation projects. These have destroyed prime forests, undermined the basis of Adivasi livelihoods, and dispossessed millions of land while severely impoverishing them. Over 70 per cent of the tribals have been reduced to chronic malnutrition, with a body-mass index of less than 18.5.
The state, dominated by non-tribal functionaries, and extraordinarily callous towards the Adivasis, has always been marked by a total failure to provide even a fig leaf of public services. It has been captured by mining, industry and mercantile interests. In Chhattisgarh, it created, funded, armed and trained the bloodthirsty Salwa Judum, which devastated 700 villages, and sent 200,000 people fleeing. This was the equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s Contras—Right-wing mercenaries created to attack Left-wing guerrilla movements who enjoyed popular support in central America. Reagan once compared these violent thugs to the “Founding Fathers” of America.
Maoism has grown in central India because the state has collapsed, political parties have ceased to function, and the people are disgusted with “normal politics”. The Naxals are the only current who at least vent the Adivasis’ grievances and defend them against attacks by the state. This involves certain costs: vanguardist leadership, reliance on violence, and militarisation of society. But the benefits probably outweigh the costs for most tribals simply because the state is so hostile to them.
The Maoist challenge cannot be tackled by force alone, even less by saturation-level force and military use of air power, as is being advocated. The state simply has no business to use military power against civilians, however recalcitrant. It is impermissible for the state to wage war against it own citizens. The only sensible approach is to treat violent acts by the Naxalites as crimes, bring them to book through scrupulously legal processes, and to launch a huge development programme, based on improved governance, which creates rights to food, water, work, healthcare and education, and empowers the tribals. This demands a radical change of approach and a difficult-to-achieve shift in bureaucratic and political attitudes. But there are no soft options.