Who are Adivasis?
‘Adivasis’ are India’s indigenous tribal communities. They constitute about 8 % of the population of India (over 84 million people) and have origins that pre-date the Hindu majority. However, because they are outside of the caste system, are scattered throughout the country and live mainly in remote, rural areas, they are increasingly subject to exploitation, and to dispossession of their land.
Corruption in Chhattisgarh
Chhattisgarh is a state in central India that was formed on 1 November 2000 from the 16 Chhattisgarhi speaking districts of Madhya Pradesh. It is incredibly rich in minerals, including iron-ore, limestone, coal, bauxite, tin, quartz, marble and diamonds, and produces 20% of the country’s steel and cement. However, about 34% of the population are Adivasi and the majority of the rest are listed as ‘backward castes,’ which makes it a rich state inhabited by a poor population.
Most of the resources, particularly the iron-ore, are on Adivasi land, so inevitably the tribal people are being displaced. They live primarily in the dense forests that cover nearly half of the state, and the trees too are very valuable. Private corporations such as Jindal Steel, BALCO Aluminium, TATA and ESSAR are already based in Chhattisgarh, and are keen to expand. They are backed by the central government, which is also involved directly through state-owned companies such as Bilhai Steel Plant, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC).
The ruling party in Chhattisgarh is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has strong associations with a fascist Hindu organisation called the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), responsible for demolishing a prominent mosque in 1992, and victimising muslims. The Chief Minister, Raman Singh, and many of the leading ministers and heads of business in the State are actually from Uttar Pradesh, so the indigenous people are largely excluded from politics. The Adivasi are meant to be protected under the Constitution, so that they keep their land and are free to follow their own customs etc., but in practice they are constantly charged by the forest guards for petty misdemeanours, such as cutting wood for fires or plucking leaves, or exploited by corrupt government officials and police.
Naxalite is a broad term, often used pejoratively by the Indian government, to refer to the various militant Communist groups active in different parts of India. The movement began in 1967, in a small village in West Bengal called Naxalbari, when a section of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), led by Charu Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal and Jangdal Santhal, initiated an armed struggle to redistribute land to the landless. This inspired violent uprisings of peasants and tribal people all over the country, supported by a large number of urban intellectuals, but the original movement was largely a failure. Majumdar wanted a peasant militia to occupy the cities and overthrow the ‘bourgeois government,’ but the Naxalites were too badly organised and corruptible to make this a possibility.
Since then the movement has fragmented into several disputing factions. Some of them, such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) are legal organisations; but others, such as the Communist Party of India (Maoist) (formed in 2004 from the merger of three major Naxalite parties), or Jan Shakti, are banned under the ‘Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.’
In the 1980s, Maoists from Andhra Pradesh began working in the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh. They took up issues such as land distribution, freedom from harrassment by the forest guard and higher rates for tendu leaves. Tendu leaves are used to make the local cigarettes and are a major source of cash for villagers. The Maoists recruited local people and their influence quickly spread through at least 9 of the 16 districts of the State.
Victims of the Conflict
The Naxalites have provided the Adivasis some protection, but ultimately the suffering of the tribal people has only increased. The Maoist policy was to forcibly recruit one cadre from each Adivasi family, and there were indiscriminate executions of ‘petty bourgeois’ among the villagers. In 2005 an organisation called ‘Salwa Judum’ was formed under the leadership of Mr Mahendra Karma, the Leader of Opposition in the Chhattisgarh State Legislative Assembly, to counter the episodic attacks of the Maoists. Salwa Judum means ‘Peace Initiative’, but in reality it is a vigilante organisation that goes around burning villages and killing people. Mahendra Karma is himself from the Adavasi community, but has exploited his own people by, for example, buying up a lot of Adivasi land at cheap rates (theoretically, only Adivasis are able to buy Adivasi land), and then selling the valuable trees. Hundreds of Adivasis, often as young as 16, have been given state-supported military training as Special Police Officers (SPOs), and since many of the Maoist soldiers are also minors, there are now armed teenagers fighting and killing one another. The SPOs are often recruited from the same families as the Naxalite cadres, so it has created a civil war where one is either with the Maoists or with the Salwa Judum. In the early stages, which began in June 2005 and lasted up to two years in some places, people were told that if they didn’t come to Salwa Judum rallies then their villages would be burned, or they would be fined. Villagers have described cases of killings, torture, rape and arson, but the government refuses to accept responsibility. In many cases, the police won’t even register that a crime has taken place, because they are the ones committing the atrocities.
In 2006, in the Dantewada district, about 50,000 people were forcibly cleared out from some 644 villages, so that the Maoists would lose their popular bases. This is similar to what the U.S. did in Vietnam, and the violence with which it was achieved is only now coming to light. Many people were put into roadside camps, where conditions were terrible and there were no education facilities apart from anti-Naxalite indoctrination and military training. The tragedy is that most tribal people do not share in Maoist ideals, they simply want an end to exploitation, yet there is evidence that the ulterior motive for ground clearing was acquisition for mining companies. Some of the displaced Dantewada Adivasis joined the Maoists, but a much larger number fled to Andhra Pradesh. By 2009 only about 8000 people remained in the camps, but those who refuse to cooperate and dare to return to their villages are declared to be Naxalites by the State. It is then considered legitimate for them to be beaten, starved of food, medical supplies and access to markets, or arrested The government has now launched a huge military offensive in Chhattisgarh, called ‘Operation Green Hunt’, that is causing hundreds of thousands of people to abandon their villages and seek refuge in Andhra Pradesh. They are forest people, but they try to survive by working for Andhra farmers for 20 rupees a day (about 37 U.S. cents). In 2010 a sample of these people were surveyed and about two thirds of the children had third grade malnutrition.
Government on the side of Profit
Meanwhile, the government continues to forcibly acquire Adivasi land all over Chhattisgarh (and indeed all over India, in particular Jharkand, Bihar, Orissa and the north-east), to be used for industrial development. People who didn’t even own that land have been fraudulently compensated for it, and when there are peaceful protests the government uses the hype about the Maoists to suppress them. In November 2007 there was a rally of about 100,000 people in Jagdalpur, protesting against both displacement and the Salwa Judum, and many of these people were beaten up and arrested.
In fact, the Maoists are probably a very small organisation, but it suits the police stations to declare themselves ‘Naxalite affected’ because they can then get access to more resources. The central government is sending in the army, the police and at least two separate paramilitary forces, all heavily armed, to fight against villagers who basically have nothing but bows and arrows to defend themselves with. Chhattisgarh is being militarized in the same way that Kashmir and the north-east of India have already been militarized.
Finally, apart from support by celebrated author Arundhati Roy, or articles by Nandini Sundar (a professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University) there has been very little media coverage of the Adivasi’s plight, even within India. This is partly because there are no Adivasi journalists, or even journalists who speak the local language, but mainly due to intimidation. The Chhattisgarh Special Security Act has made it a crime to write about the Maoists, and local journalists have been threatened. Most of the major newspapers are unquestioningly supportive of the government.
A Bleak Future
What is really needed in Chhattisgarh is food, water, health workers and school teachers, not thousands of troops. The government approach has simply increased support for the Maoist rebels. In April 2010, 76 Indian paramilitaries were killed, and a further 50 injured, in the deadliest single strike by the Maoists against government forces. This was undoubtedly in response to Operation Green Hunt. The conflict can only be resolved through talks, together with an independent judicial inquiry into all the killings and atrocities, but after the 2010 attack India’s Home Minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, said that ‘To talk of talks now is to mock the sacrifice of these 76.’ More Naxalite assaults followed in May and June 2010, and less than two months ago, on 17 February 2011, the District Collector of nearby Malkangiri district in Orissa, was kidnapped and held to ransom, together with a junior Engineer. The Maoists outlined several demands, including the ending of Operation Greenhunt and release of arrested cadres, and when some of these demands were met, the hostages were released within a week. Rather than support the Maoists, thousands of local people marched to appeal for their release. [See photo: protest in Koraput, Orissa]. Nevertheless, in spite of the efforts of country-wide groups such as the Citizen’s Initiative for Peace, more government military forces are being deployed all over India. Subduing the Maoists could take many years and it seems more than likely that a military solution will never work. In the meantime, thousands of innocent Adivasi villagers will continue to suffer and to die.
Lucy Calder, April 2011.