A week after the carnage in Chhattisgarh in which the Congress’s State leadership was virtually wiped out, the differences in the party over how to tackle the Maoist problem, intimately linked with the welfare of the tribal population and mining in Schedule V areas, have surfaced once again.
The enormous anger in the Congress has not just strengthened the voices of those in the government and the party who favour a strategy based on primacy of paramilitary and police action; it has also seen those who earlier favoured dialogue with the Maoists accompanied by a push for development, such as Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, joining the throng of those advocating tough action, referring to the Maoists as terrorists. And on his return from the U.S., Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, who visited Chhattisgarh on Friday, told journalists in Raipur, “The incident is bigger than terrorism.”
Against this backdrop, it is interesting that Union Tribal Affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo, the government’s most vocal advocate of tribal welfare, has not allowed the incident to blur his understanding of what needs to be done — long term. “Nothing can justify the attack in Bastar,” Mr. Deo told The Hindu , “and it could be described as an act akin to a terrorist act, but you cannot call it terrorism — that has different connotations, and I would beg to differ on that usage.”
Mr. Deo said if the Maoist issue was to be addressed squarely, the government must first tackle the issue of mining norms in Schedule V areas (in central India populated largely by tribals and designated as such in the Constitution): “The biggest threat to the tribals,” he said, “is the threat of mining: the way it is being done in these areas is both unconstitutional and illegal.”
The second issue that he feels requires special attention is an investigation into the relationship between corporates and the Maoists: “There are reports of a nexus— these need to be probed as executives of big mining companies have been accused of sending large sums of money through couriers. The case of Soni Sori [tribal school teacher] is there: she is still in jail, accused of being a courier – what happened to that enquiry? Nothing has happened to those who gave money.” Ms. Sori, who was charged on several counts and was tortured in police custody, was eventually admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, after Mr. Deo took up the matter with Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad.
Today, the Congress is officially distancing itself from Salwa Judum, the vigilante group set up jointly by Chief Minister Raman Singh and Congress leader Mahendra Karma, who was brutally killed last Saturday. (In a statement later, the Maoists said Karma was the main target of the attack because of his association with Salwa Judum). “Salwa Judum was never our idea, it was the idea of Raman Singh. We never supported it – we had our differences with Salwa Judum,” party spokesperson Bhaktacharan Das said on Thursday, as he called for the resignation of the Chief Minister. But while it is true that Mr. Raman Singh was as responsible for the creation of Salwa Judum as Karma and there were differences in the Congress over the vigilante group, the party officially never disowned Karma: indeed, Shivraj Patil, Union Home Minister at that time, even gave it his full backing.
Mr. Deo, however, like some other senior leaders including Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh, openly opposed Salwa Judum right from its inception: “I have always opposed Salwa Judum openly within the party,” Mr. Deo said, adding, “as Minister for Tribal Affairs now, my position is very clear – the tribals were being massacred by both Maoists and Salwa Judum. Salwa Judum pulled out people and kept them virtually in concentration camps, depriving them of their traditional sources of livelihood, without even proper security. Young boys and girls were given just 24 or 48 hours of training with guns and then let loose. The Maoists also used the tribals — taken together it led to a mini-genocide.”
Pointing out that the tribals are in an unenviable situation of being at the receiving end of Maoists and security forces and “exploited to the hilt,” they live in areas that are not developed, with many not even having a record of citizenship,” Mr. Deo said, “It is high time these historical wrongs were set right,” as he cautioned against wielding too heavy a hand.