Those that have governed in tribal areas must share the responsibility for the negligence of the adivasis.

There has been a flurry of concern as also vituperation over the activities of the Maoists in the forests that are mostly home to tribal society. There is a confrontation between the state and this society through the intervention of the Maoists. One pauses while reading the speeches of those in authority and thinks back to the past. The texts of the past represent the people of the forest, the forest-dwellers, largely as “the Other” – the rakshasas, and those who moved like an ink-black cloud through the forest with their bloodshot eyes, who ate and drank all the wrong things, had the wrong rules of sexuality and, as strange creatures, were far removed from ‘us.’

Kautilya in the Arthashastra condemns them as troublemakers and Ashoka threatens the atavikas, the forest-dwellers, without telling us why. The interest of various kingdoms in extending control over forests has an obvious explanation. The forests supplied elephants for the army, mineral wealth including iron, timber for building, and by clearing forests the acreage of cultivable land increased and the consequent agriculture brought in revenue. In later times, even when there were situations of dependence on forest people, the conventional attitude towards them was that they were outside the social pale and had to be kept at a distance.

So is this pattern essentially different from the present?

Naxal activity started in the 1960s and gained some support in the rural and later urban areas of West Bengal and subsequently Bihar and Andhra. It raised the ire of the state but did it make the state more sensitive to problems of the adivasis? It was treated as a law and order problem and put down although sporadic incidents kept occurring to remind ‘us’ that ‘their’ problems have remained. So this activity is not new but there is an increase in anger and with attacks from both sides. This makes it far more palpable even in our big cities, as yet far away from the ‘jungle areas.’

The government’s anxiety over Maoist activity has at this point increased and needs explanation. Violence on both sides has been stepped up. The Communist Party of India (Maoist) was banned. Now the Maoists are being threatened with Operation Green Hunt but at the same time are also being invited to cease their violence and negotiate. The Maoists have slowly cut a swathe through the sub-continent and the fear is that this may expand. Would this be sufficient reason for a “hunt” or could there be other factors changing the equations from 40 years ago?

The current violence on both sides is fierce enough but what happens if the state launches a semi-military offensive trying to snuff out the Maoists and the Maoists retaliate, as they are likely to? It would displace and kill many hundreds of our people, villagers and tribals living in areas of Maoist activity, including those who are not sympathetic to the Maoist ideology or objective. Any “hunt” would have to be on an enormous scale since groups claiming to be Maoists are now widespread in over 200 districts in the country in contiguous areas. Has this kind of hunt helped solve our problems elsewhere? Manipur, Assam, and Kashmir continue to remain areas of on-going civil strife.

Perhaps we should look at it less as an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation and more as an ‘us’ and ‘us’ situation. At the end of the day, we are all involved as people who live in this country and what is more, as people who have to go on living in this country. Even those whose lives have not been remotely touched by what goes on in ‘tribal societies’ will find themselves ill at ease with expanding civil strife.

If we see it as an ‘us’ and ‘us’ situation, then the need for a dialogue with all the groups involved becomes the most immediate concern. The question is who should be talking to whom and about what. If the state has to start the dialogue — as the strongest party in the conversation — it should be conversing with several groups:

1. Those living in the rural areas and the forested areas affected by the current civil strife, frequently referred to as ‘the people.’ This should be the primary and most important dialogue. It is not about who is right and who is wrong but about what is it that is leading to people becoming embroiled in revolts. People do not support insurgent groups or get imposed upon by such groups unless there is a reason. The adivasis live in areas where the benefits of development hardly ever reach them. Education, health care, communication, access to justice are mentioned sotto voce, since in most places they don’t exist. Our Prime Minister and Home Minister have had long tenures in earlier governments as finance ministers and have been well aware of patterns of development. Did they and their colleagues not recognise the injustice of unequal “development” and the anger it could produce? The same applies to the State governments of these areas who have not exactly distinguished themselves in addressing the problems of the adivasis. The situation now demands attention because it has turned violent.

2. Then there is the state. What has the state done in these areas to annul the terror of poverty over the last 60 years? Perhaps terrorism and its victims should be redefined to include many more varieties of terror than the ones we constantly speak of. The spectacular increase of wealth despite the recession has still done little to make poverty less immanent in much of the country. As the arbiter of Indian citizens, it might explain what it would propose to change in order to remove the injustices that encourage poverty. For example, what should be the terms and conditions that should prevail in a transfer of land between adivasis and others?

3. Many areas under Maoist control are those that the corporate world would like to “develop.” These have rich mineral resources — once again, almost as in earlier times, the attraction is timber, and water, and also mineral wealth such as coal, iron, bauxite. There is of course a history to such “development” since colonial times: except that it has now been intensified given the increase in the number of corporates and more importantly, their hold on the state. Are the corporates the new factor, as some would argue? The state acquiring land to hand over to private corporations is not identical with the appropriating of the land and resources of the forest-dwellers in earlier times, but there are some echoes. Both the appropriators and the appropriated have to have their say in any dialogue with due respect to PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996), which recognises the right of the adivasis to decide on the use of their land. For any successful dialogue, the state has to be neutral without biases in favour of corporations in its notion of “development” in these areas.

4. The Naxals/Maoists. Are they a unified party with a common programme? And is their programme tied to development for the people only through a revolution accompanied by bloodied violence? Do they reflect immediate demands related to the daily life of the people that sustains them or an ambiguous promised utopia that may never come? Discussions between the state, the Maoists, and the people on the implementation of development are far too compelling to be ignored.

If there is such a dialogue, what should the corporates be concerned with? Clearly land is the key issue and most of it is in forested areas. Is all and any land up for grabs? Surely there should be some categories of land that should be left alone if we are to survive on this planet. Is the demand for large tracts of land in these areas not a subversion of the much-vaunted Forest and Tribal Act of 2006, which promised 2.5 hectares to every tribal family that had rights to the land? And what does the forest dweller get in return for selling his land? He cannot use the money to secure his future income since there are no such facilities available to him. He is left with money with which to buy hooch — the pattern that was followed all over the colonial world in North America, Australia, and Africa. Are we now internalising a colonial history to repeat it on our own citizens?

And where lands have already been sold to corporations, one does not hear of the corporate organisations first setting in motion the essentials of development in education, health care, communication, and access to justice among the displaced or resettled communities, before they actually start working for profit on the land they acquire. Should this not be considered as part of the sale deeds, particularly as the state is the broker? Corporates are good at drawing up contracts so there should be contracts with the people, vetted by lawyers representing the people where agreements can be examined and negotiated, and those that have been pushed around can still make demands with the possibility that they might be heard.

Such actions may be more effective, certainly in the long run but even in the short run, than an Operation Green Hunt. Violence is a dead end even for the Maoists. When practised by the state on its own citizens, its collateral damage is unacceptable in a democracy; lasting civil strife escalating into a civil war in these areas will create its own demons of the arbitrary repression of ordinary citizens. An alternative form of intervention ushered in through a multi-lateral dialogue involving all the concerned parties is not merely an option, it is imperative.

(Amit Bhaduri is an economist and Professor Emeritus at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Romila Thapar is a historian and Professor Emeritus at JNU.)

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