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  Tales from Dantewada: State, Maoists and the Tribals

The question ‘whose side are you on’ is an often repeated one in history. Marx, Gandhi and even Hitler arrived on the world stage as answers to this particular question. Revolutions, freedom struggles and revolts have all been different manifestations of the quest to answer it. They all happened as responses by the people to their realities in different contexts in history. But what happens when the very concept of a single reality is shattered? The 21st century is characterised by multiple voices, true, but it’s also characterised by multiple realities. This short introduction is meant to draw your attention to the changing nature of the Indian state since its ‘conversion’ to neo-liberalism, especially after the 80’s. Also, to impress upon the contemporary complexities of the seemingly simple ‘on whose side are you’ question.

It was in 2005 April that Dr. Manmohan Singh described Maoism as the ‘gravest internal threat’ of India.The  Maoist movement back then  hadn’t really qualified itself for such a remark. But today what we see is a movement spreading over 60,000 sq.k.m of forest land, with lakhs of supporters, in thousands of villages. It has become a movement that has established itself as the strongest rebel force challenging the writ of the Indian state.


The  Naxalbari movement of 1967 in Bengal under the leadership of Charu Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal and Jungle Santhal (which later came to be known as Naxalism) is the first organised Maoist movement in India. This movement characterised by the adage ‘the thunder of spring’ rose to prominence in the 70’s and was suppressed by the 80’s. Charumajumdar’s essays and speeches inspired by Chairman Mao gives a general idea regarding the nature of this movement. Majumdar’s violent and unpopular ‘annihilation theory’, lack of influence in the urban areas etc were some of the reasons for the failure of the movement. The Naxal uprising in AP during the 80’s can also be viewed in this context. Like Naxalbari, it was also suppressed ruthlessly and effectively by the state. The goverment intervention using special forces such as the ‘Grey Hounds’  in AP is regarded as a model for anti naxal campaigns even today.

Today, India is witnessing the strongest Naxal resurgence ever in its history. The media, irrespective of its corporate and alternate avatars, has been continuously voicing its concern over the issue. The Indian state has launched ‘Operation Green Hunt’, a massive military campaign against the Maoists. In one of their most brutal attacks, the maoists massacred 75 CRPF personnel in an ambush in Dantevada recently. Special Police Officers and civilians have also been targeted. Maoists have also had to face severe setbacks. Talks about the armed forces being brought in to action are in the air.

What is it that enables the Maoist movement to re-emerge from their ashes time and again even after being repeatedly and brutally suppressed by the state? What makes a country that claims to be the largest democracy, declares war against its own people? What exactly is the alternative put forward by the Maoists? What should be the stand of the civil society of this country in this highly volatile and threateningly huge issue? These are some of the important questions to which answers are sought through this article.

An analysis of the history of the Indian Maoist Movement right from its beginning in 1967 reveals a crucial fact. Be it Naxalbari in WB or Wayanad in Kerala, the adivasi population has been the strongest bastion of all these movements. The voice of this highly marginalised and exploited section of the Indian society has been unmistakably loud and clear in all these battle fields. If we take a look at the maoist strongholds in the country, tagged as the red corridor by the Indian state, this will become very obvious. The states of Chathisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and W B are the core realms of influence for the Maoists. These states are largely inhabitated by tribal populations like Ho, Santhal, Oron, Kole, Munda and Gond, ‘black people’ who  have been around much before the birth of a country named India, much before colonisation took roots here.

These are people with a history of entering in to conflict with the mighty British empire even before the uprising of 1857. They have also offered resistance against the exploitation of the Jamindars who came later at the scene. Today, armed and organised by the Maoists, they’re fighting yet another battle, this time with the Indian state.

What exactly makes the gigantic Indian state so worried about the Maoist movement? After all, it’s just poor, illiterate and malnourished adivasis led by a bunch of ideologues. This question inevitably leads us to the concept of sovereignty, a basic tenet of state as the highest political association. Apart from sovereignty the other important elements that characterises a state are territory, population and government. When these basic elements are challenged it’s the very existence of state structure that comes under question. Today, this is exactly what the Maoist movement has managed to achieve. The system of parallel government that exists in Maoist dominated areas bear testimony to this fact. If one also takes in to account the self declared goal of the Maoists, the overthrow of the Indian state by 2050, the picture becomes clearer, but also grimmer. The system of government followed by Maoists in their areas of influence goes roughly like this:

These areas are governed by janatha sarkars, modelled on Chineese revolution and Vietnam War. Each janatha sarkar is elected by clusters of villages with populations ranging from 500 to 5000. They function with the help of 8 depts. -agriculture, trade, finance, justice(nyay), defence, health, public relations, education and culture and forest conservation(ironically, gov. statistics say that the forest cover has actually increased in naxal affected areas!)

The chief aim of ‘Operation Green Hunt’ is to ‘liberate’ these areas from the Maoists (in yet another instance of irony, these are already ‘liberated zones’ as per the Maoists i.e., liberated from the tyrannical Indian state). The relevant questions here are:

1)    Why does the Indian state insist on bringing these areas under the “rule of law”?

2)   What prevented the state from achieving this goal till now?

3)    What exactly was the role of the Indian state in these areas which are comparable to Sub-Saharan African countries in terms of poverty and backwardness (as per MPI-Multi Dimensional Poverty Index- Study done by Oxford backed by UN)?

It can be seen that it’s the adivasi communities that has been at the receiving end of almost all the large scale developmental projects undertaken by the gov. of India ever since independence. It’s true that the country needs hydro electric projects, express highways and mineral ores for its growth. But nothing can justify our wilful negligence of this basic question which an egalitarian society is supposed to pose at every mode of its journey-“On whose cost development?”

How on earth can you expect a people to accept and acknowledge a ‘state’ that shows no interest whatsoever in fulfilling their basic needs such as food and education? Why would they recognise such a ‘state’? For the people in the states of Chathisgarh and Jharkhand, for a long time, the officials of the Forest Dept. have been the chief symbol of the Indian state. These were men who took raping adivasi women as a matter of their right, whose routine involved destroying adivasi farm lands, day after day. It’s this brutal face of the state that forced the people in to direct confrontation with it, under the leadership of the Maoists. Today the whole Dankaranya region is devoid of the dreaded forest dept. officials. The reasons for the rise of the  Maoist movement are obvious.

There’s no dearth of statistics. More than two and half crores  of people have  been displaced as a result of mining activities in the first four and half decades of Indian independence. Not even 25% of these people have been rehabilitated. Out of this population more than half are Adivasis (‘Rich Lands, Poor People’- report by CSE, 2008).  The blatant loot by private players empowered by National Mineral Development Policy of 1993 is largely responsible for this sorry state of affairs. More than 164 lakh hectares of forest has been cleared for this purpose till now. Official statistics say that there are more than 15,000 illegal mines in the country. All the gallant declarations made by the Indian gov. in various international forums for climate change regarding its commitment towards forest conservation and environmental protection has been reduced to just another joke.

Arundhati Roy, in her brilliant essay titled “Walking with the Comrades”, raises yet another aspect of the problem.  The Gond tribes of Orissa have been worshipping the ‘Niyamgiri’ hills as their gods for centuries by now. MNCs like Essar, Tata and Vedanta have  signed various MoUs with the state government to mine these hills which happens to be a  rich source of bauxite, iron ore and other natural resources, obligating the gov. to provide basic infrastructure like roads and conducive atmosphere for the same. Now, the question is, “would the government have acted in the same way if it was faced with a situation involving, say temples or mosques instead of these hills?” Isn’t Right to Religion applicable when it comes to adivasis?  The 5th schedule of Indian constitution dealing with Administration and Control of Tribal Areas assigns the governor to report directly to the President regarding the administration of tribal areas. But all these safe guards provided by the constitution vanish in to thin air at the prospect of multimillion dollar agreements between the MNCs and the government.

This reflects the inevitable internal contradiction faced by all ‘democratic’ governments that follows the neo-liberal paradigm of development. This happens when the very conception of development becomes extremely one sided and the majority of people gets evacuated from its premises. The neo liberal slogan of development above politics effectively reduces the scope and depth of political activity in the society. Politics devoid of a dialogue about the nature of development is undoubtedly impoverished and ineffectual. Above all it makes Democracy a  meaningless and wasteful exercise that’s visible only in the polished streets of Delhi and not in the villages of Dantewada.

It was in 1980 that the Maoists, fleeing from AP, reached Dantewada, amidst the unorganised and exploited tribals. They had to build the organisation from scratch, and that’s exactly what they did. It all started when the Maoists intervened to secure higher prices from the contractors for the ‘tendu’ and Bamboo products on which the sustenance of the adivasis depends upon heavily. They won over the peoples’ hearts with a relentless struggle against forest officials that saw the men in uniform retreating in to safety, out of Dantewada. The Maoists’ dominance in these areas is not an overnight phenomenon. It happened as a result of relentless struggle for the peoples’ rights along with ideological education and military training. Today the Maoists claim that there’s not a single landless adivasi left in the whole region.

But we also need to enquire here about the nature of the alternative put forward by the Maoists. It’s obvious that that in the last 30 years of their campaign they have been focussing almost solely on building up a well trained armed force. Till now, disappointingly, they’ve not been able to effectively intervene in basic issues of the people such as agriculture, health and education, nor have they managed to raise the standard of living of the people. Most importantly, the Maoists have failed to initiate Panchayathi Raj institutions, a vital prerequisite of people’s democracy, which is promised to be heralded by the Maoists. Also, pro poor legislations of the state like NREGA and Forest Rights Act etc also remains largely under utilised by the Maoist administration which denied the people the little relief that they could have got from their daily routine of penury and exploitation. Of course the Maoists were severely crippled as a banned organisation, no doubt, but even then there were things they could’ve done, if they were willing to shift the focus from arms.  It’s a fact that almost all the money tolled from the contractors was dedicated for the procurement of arms.

But the most disappointing aspect has been the rise in the violence unleashed by the Maoists in the last few months. One might even be able to justify the resistance they offered against Salvajudum, the tyrannical and government sponsored militia which heralded a reign of terror in the villages. But the killing of civilians in recent times strips them off from whatever moral justification they had and points to a serious degradation in the organisation. It also offers a taste of things to come.  The ultimate casualty is undoubtedly the life of the poor tribal, caught in the crossfire between the state, Maoists and the salvajudum.

The Maoists have time and again proclaimed their reluctance to compromise with the “bourgeois democracy” of the Indian state. But when one takes a closer look, what’s happening in Dantewada doesn’t look like a struggle to capture the state at all.  Instead, what’s revealed is the sad plight of a people forced to take up arms when their last resource, the land, is being forcefully looted by a corporate-state nexus.  In their struggle for existence they’ve none to turn to, except the Maoists. So naturally, they become Maoists.  But it’s not the Maoists who have forced the adivasis to take up arms; it’s the vicious and unyielding exploitation inbuilt in to the system that’s responsible.

The conflict that’s snowballing in to a full scale war in the Indian heartland is a cause of concern for every citizen in this country. With the murder of Azad (maiost spokesperson) in a fake encounter, the prospects for dialogue between the gov. and the Maoists have become bleaker. The Indrāvati river in Dankaranya is turning dead red.

“History had taught him

how dictators are  born

from the blood of the poor

time and again.

but at this moment

he’s with the these black people

singing the songs of liberation

under these tamarind trees”

(There, Sachidanandan)

Today, the Indian democracy is confronted with the  ‘on whose side are you’ question. It doesn’t look like as if it can escape answering it, not this time.

Will it be able to stand with these “black people singing the songs of liberation”? Shouldn’t it be?




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