I have never been to Chhattisgarh or Lalgarh. I’ve never been on a Naxal safari, either the kind where you hunt them for trophies or the kind where you just wander around chatting with them and photographing them while admiring their lithe movements and beautiful stripes. I have never camped with the Greyhounds, the Bauxite Rangers or the Assam Rapists and nor, indeed, have I ever been embedded with the Red Tigers of Szechuanwada or the Revolutionary Older Children’s War Group. I have, till now, sadly, completely missed out on partaking of the nutritious ant-marmalade (red ants, naturally) favoured by the fighting Comrades as well as the energy pellets supposedly procured from the Israeli Special Forces’ Product Export Wing, the so-called ‘Chidu-biscuits’ that our ‘Elite Forces’ allegedly chew on before setting out to make a meal of Communist Insurrectionists.
Like many of us, it seems I have missed out on the haptic hypnosis of both sets of nightmarish fairy tales now being sold to us. Horror-Fairy-Story 1 tells us: there is a huge, beautiful forest in the centre of our country; it is full of poor, lovely-looking, innocent tribals who are being manipulated by camouflage-wearing rakshasas who would destroy everything our democracy stands for and replace it with a dictatorship run from Beijing. If it wasn’t for these Naxa-shaitans everything would be just fine in the tribal anchals. Therefore, these rakshasas need to be decimated by any means necessary, even if it means raping or killing a few innocent tribals in order to protect them from their protectors.
Horror-Fairy-Story 2 tells us the opposite: there is a huge forest etc, full of poor tribals (again with beautiful smiles — those smiles stretch over all discourses) and there are huge corporations who are after the tribals’ land and the mineral wealth that lurks under that land; these tribals’ only hope of survival, their only chance of fending off the profit-hounds (and their puppet government and army) are the selfless comrades of the Revolutionary Vanguard who are leading them in logical and heroic battle; therefore all right-thinking/Left-leaning humanist people should completely support the comrades and, yes, turn a blind eye to the occasional ‘excess’ or ‘mistake’ such as summary executions and other types of murder and violence the Revolution might require from time to time
What’s interesting is that while trying to put a cartoonish spin on both the competing plot-lines one has no choice but to include statements that are partly true. For instance, it is undeniable that the private sector is out to ravage the specially succulent parts of the tribal areas. For the mining barons, hydro-power-hydras and SEZ-fanatics the protection promised to the adivasis under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution is a pesky obstacle, one which has to be ignored, circumvented or dismantled. The big seths have (and will again) ruthlessly get killed any serious opponent to their plans, even if these opponents follow strictly non-violent methods.
On the other hand, it is also true that the Neo-Naxals are bent upon imposing their ideal of Red Sharia Raj, which has nothing but contempt for all the gains the common citizen has clawed from our frayed, ramshackle contraption of a democracy over 60 years. It is undeniable that, except for a water-harvesting project or two, these Comrade-wallahs pay unwavering obeisance to a model of revolution screwed together by Mao Zedong and friends nearly 70 years ago, in the shadow of a massive and brutal Japanese invasion of a feudal China that was already falling apart.
Yes, both fairy stories have elements of ‘truth’ in their components. But they are bloody bedtime tales being spun mainly for adults who want to revert to being small children. Reality is a ripe and grown-up mess and it’s not going to go away while people keep sucking on either of these lullaby-lollipops. The facts are un-sexy and mostly require hard work to understand. And neither the Establishment nor the Maoists nor most of the Indian media like to get their hands too dirty with them.
The tribal population of India is huge, as is the land in which the adivasis are rooted. This population is made up of the poorest and most neglected sections of our so-called great, shining Indian society. The mining projects and other real or intended industrial depredations actually affect a small fraction of the overall tribal population of India. The threat of ‘developmental’ rape is large, horrible and dismaying but neverthless it affects only pockets of adivasi land and population and it’s wrong to think that this is the main problem for the poorest of our poor.
Underneath the now speeded up battle between the Naxals and the Chidambdits is a huge, slow, wrestling match going on between different shards and spikes of the ‘State’ and ‘Capital’ and the different strained and fractured bones, sinews and musculature of the tribals and the non-tribals working with them. The spectacle of the kung fu battle can perhaps be replicated on a Playstation game: “so many CRPF dead”, “such and such Maoist body-counts”, “such and such Government Official held hostage”, “such and such Naxal leader arrested at such and such bus station” etc, etc, but the larger struggle resists being modelled by any button-driven game-designer. By and large, the bigger fight is not a shoot-’em-up entertainment involving AK-47s, INSAS rifles, IEDs and laser-trackers.
The most spectacular ‘match’ in this non-game involves something called the Forest Rights Act of 2006, which was the result of prolonged peaceful mobilization by adivasi groups across the country and which secured for the poorest and most vulnerable people a basic resource crucial for their survival. The most tragic and dramatic event in this struggle over adivasi lands and livelihoods involves the cold-blooded murder of one Shankar Guha Niyogi, leader of the inspiring Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, but a killing which didn’t result in any Mafia-like retaliation on the industrialists who ordered his killing. And the most banal action in this battle involves the Maoists coming and telling an activist to shove off from their area because he was ‘watering down’ their case against the State by showing that non-violent, slow, small leg-work was actually yielding some results. When he hesitated, the Naxals killed two of his workers. The activist upped sticks and left.
The only adivasi area I’ve visited recently has been in the districts of Alirajpur and Jhabua, in the north-western corner of Madhya Pradesh, and to the extent that I could observe, there seemed to be no mineral treasure-troves underground, no big multinational corporations, no paramilitary and no Maoists present in this obscenely poor area. However, like much of the rest of adivasi India, this region too has witnessed protracted struggles to gain rights to the forest and to get fair treatment from the State. Through decades of militant yet non-violent collective action, the adivasis here have managed to wrest these rights and secure the resources essential for their survival. This is not an isolated instance. There are hundreds of such groups, labouring in relative obscurity, fighting everyday battles, losing many but winning some.
The point is that these adivasis have chosen to defend their land and to strive for dignity without recourse to arms. They believe in the wisdom of their choice and the worth of their long-term ‘war’, a struggle that calls upon the State to live up to its rhetoric of development for all. By ignoring these initiatives, we not only dishonour the people who have staked their lives on them, we also risk delivering them into the hands of the Maoists. As Marx said, people “make history under conditions not of their choosing”. The Maoists are one such route to making history but they are far from being the only one. In a sense, both the Maoist CEOs such as Kishanji, and Comrade Chidambaram have internalized Henry Ford’s famous axiom. Both would have us believe that the choice is simple: the tribals can have any kind of People’s War they want as long as it’s Maoist and involves AK-47s. There is a logical ‘assembly-line’ to this kind of war and it’s both relatively easy to construct and destroy.
But, across the country, adivasis are exercising a kind of ‘consumer choice’: they are waging ‘war’ by participating in andolans, satyagrahas, morchas as well as tying up with various political parties; and their efforts have resulted in reluctant recognition from the State in the form of the Panchayati Raj Act, the Forest Rights Act, the formation of separate states and, on the level of everyday experience, more equal and respectful behaviour. True, the large and looming problems of displacement and devastation do not go away easily. But for every Maoist-led insurgency, there are 10 adivasi movements which are fighting non-violently and are not giving up. These people don’t all have pictures of Gandhi in their little offices, they don’t have beautiful smiles, they don’t polish guns and they do a lot of paperwork. They are a Hollywood producer or a Playstation game-merchant’s ultimate nightmare. The next time we read or see a horror-fairy tale in the press or on TV it might be a good antidote to remember this alternative non-story.