The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- It is in tribal districts that the Naxalites are most active

Part IV: What is to be done'

Of all the conversations I had in Bastar, the one I might remember longest was with a Muria tribal named Hadmo Ram Poyam. He was a first generation literate, who had been sent to study in an ashram school across the river. After graduation he returned to his native village, Parkeli, to teach in the school there. At the same time, he obtained a BA degree through correspondence. A teacher, if he does his job well, is among the most respected men in rural India. Hadmo Ram was that, but when the Maoists came to his village, he experienced an abrupt fall in status and authority. For in their eyes, he was an official of the Indian state, and thus subject to harassment and extortion.

Last year, at the age of 25, Hadmo Ram fled the village of his forefathers and crossed the Indravati into the sarkari side of the district. His qualifications allowed him to get a job in the village of Kotru. There he lived, at first in a tent, and then in a house built by himself on government land. In fact, I first came across Hadmo Ram while he was painting the walls of his home, pail in one hand, brush in the other.

A slim, dark man with a moustache, clad in a simple lungi, Hadmo Ram talked to me while his two little kids played around him. He told me that when the Maoists had first come to the district, they were full of idealism and good intentions. Over time, however, they had been corrupted, turning from defenders of the tribals to their tormentors. I answered that we could say the same of the Salwa Judum. It may have once been a people's movement, but it had since been taken over by contractors and criminals, these mostly non-tribal. We argued the point, back and forth, while a crowd of interested parties gathered.

Finally, Hadmo Ram said that while he could contest what I was saying in public, and in front of other people, among the Maoists such free exchange of views was simply impermissible. As he put it: 'Naxalion ko hathiyar chhodne aur janta ke samne bath-cheeth karne ki himmat nahin hai.'

I could scarcely dispute the point. For the Indian Maoists do not have the courage to put down their arms and state their case openly before the people. The armed revolutionaries in Nepal have spoken about their support for a 'multi-party democracy'. But as a Naxalite leader in Bastar told us, in this country they did not (at least at present) countenance this option. Here, they remained committed to the destruction of the Indian state by means of armed struggle.

The Maoist insurgency in parts of central and eastern India is without question the greatest threat to the democratic foundations of our republic. How can the challenge be met' Not, certainly, by the method practised by the Salwa Judum movement in the district of Dantewada. By arming civilians and handing over authority to them, the Chhattisgarh government has fuelled violence and a near breakdown of lawful administration. The costs of the experiment have been very large, and they are mounting. Only the pride of politicians ' that is, their generic tendency to refuse to admit to mistakes ' has thus far prevented a more open acknowledgement of this failure.

A second way of meeting insurgency is through action by men in uniform. To stiffen the police, the Chhattisgarh government has established a Counter-Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College just outside the town of Kanker. Here, constables are sent for an intensive six week course that tests their intelligence-gathering skills, their facility with weapons, and their ability ' or readiness ' to climb up rocks and slither through grass and slime. The college is run by a retired brigadier of the Indian army, B.K. Ponwar, who has been given the rank of inspector general in the state police.

On our way back from Bastar, we stopped in Kanker to meet Brigadier Ponwar. He took us through a one-hour Power-Point presentation, speaking briskly and with an impressive command of idiomatic English. He looked the part ' spruce and fit, clad in shorts and a smart yellow T-shirt bearing the insignia of the Army Polo and Riding Club. But in his answers to our questions the brigadier was less impressive. Among the themes listed as taught by his college was 'Human Rights'. When we asked what this meant, the brigadier offered an illustration. When a policeman saw a village headman, he was instructed not to address him as 'Abh' idhar aa' ('You, come here!'), but instead gift him a box of oranges. Where the constable might find oranges in deepest Bastar was left to the imagination. Local knowledge was not the brigadier's fort'. He apparently believed that the tribe that dwelt in Abujmarh were the Bhils (who, in fact, live in Rajasthan and Gujarat).

We had seen, on the ground, that the Chhattisgarh police was cowed as well as corrupt. It seemed scarcely credible that six weeks spent climbing ropes and listening to lectures of dubious authenticity would convert them into upright and effective guardians of the law.

To aid in its fight against Naxalism, the Chhattisgarh government has also taken on, as a consultant, the retired police officer, K.P.S. Gill. One cannot say that this commission inspires confidence either. The terrain that Gill knows ' the flatlands of Punjab ' is very different from that of Bastar. He does not know the local ecology, nor the culture of its tribal people. Nor apparently, has he any desire to remedy these gaps in his knowledge ' in several visits to Chhattisgarh he has not ventured out of Raipur.

A prime reason for the spread of Maoism, in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere, has been the failure of the state to provide remote areas with facilities for health and education, and the prospect for dignified employment. It is in tribal districts in particular that the Naxalites are most active, and it is tribals in particular who have gained least ' and lost most ' from sixty years of Indian independence. In this time, they have had to cope with an administration that is always indifferent, often corrupt, and sometimes brutal. Meanwhile, economic development has been powered in good part by wood, water and minerals found on lands inhabited by tribals, and for whose profitable exploitation they have often had to make way. As recent studies show, an adivasi is five times as likely as the rest of us to be displaced by a large dam, mine, or steel plant.

How then might the Maoist insurgency be ended or at least contained' On the Maoist side, this might take the shape of a compact with bourgeois democracy. They could emulate the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) by participating in and perhaps even winning elections. On the government side, this might take the shape of a sensitively conceived and sincerely implemented plan to make adivasis true partners in the development process: by assuring them the title on lands cultivated by them, allowing them the right to manage forests sustainably, giving them a solid stake in industrial or mining projects that come up where they live and at the cost of their homes.

In truth, the one is as unlikely as the other. One cannot easily see the Maoists give up on their commitment to armed struggle. Nor, given the way the Indian state actually functions, can one see it so radically reform itself as to put the interests of a vulnerable minority ' the adivasis ' ahead of those with more money and political power.

In the long run, perhaps, the Maoists might indeed make their peace with the Republic of India, and the republic come to treat its adivasi citizens with dignity and honour. Whether this denouement will happen in my own lifetime I am not sure. In the forest regions of central and eastern India, years of struggle and strife lie ahead. Here, in the jungles and hills they once called their own, the tribals will find themselves pierced on one side by the state and pressed on the other by the insurgents. Thus the unhappy verdict of the Bastar adivasi ' hum beech m' pis gay' hain.

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