Hunted in Jungles like Animals
What shall people do when they can’t eat enough, sustain their families, or share in the wealth on their land? The origin of the Naxal problem in India’s forest and mineral heartland goes back before partition. The local tribal populace – 70 million strong, known as Adivasis – meaning “original inhabitants” – were tillers and workers for rich landowners, where all the tillers combined received only one-third of the harvest as legal payment. Over the years, this one-third portion failed to feed and clothe their families and community, and so they honestly asked and pleaded for more in the late 1930s. But, the rich landowners would not part with even one extra percent. What’s new about the greedy rich and unjust? The rich kept getting richer.
…because the tribals were not a military threat to the British, since their heaviest weaponry was crude bows and arrows, the British very rationally decided to leave the entire tribal belt alone to the tribals.
The British had deliberately not interfered in tribal development or politics. Not only did the British consider the tribals ultra-primitive, but the British also felt they themselves did not have the resources or manpower available for improvement of the tribals. Moreover, because the tribals were not a military threat to the British, since their heaviest weaponry was crude bows and arrows, the British very rationally decided to leave the entire tribal belt alone to the tribals.
The pleadings of the tribals did reach the British, but the British were more beholden to the thakur, the chaudhri, and the big landowners from whom they received tax money. The British had an incentive to not micromanage what was only perceived as a landowner’s business management problem. In any case, the 2nd World War intervened, and the entire issue was moved to the back burner, hopefully to be forgotten.
But it is difficult to silence empty stomachs. After the war, the adivasis restarted their pleadings in what was then a very peaceful manner. But the landowners still did not budge in their arrogance. This soon reached a natural limit for the adivasis.
The first offense came when the adivasis, unable to feed their families, raided the landowners’ grain warehouses in areas around modern day Chattisgarh. This resulted in the landowners calling in the police who did not fail to enforce the law. Very soon, the adivasis were criminalized as a consequence of their blatant burglary; so they ran, and looted again when they could, because they had no other recourse to food, or talent or education; and so they earned their way to wanted lists at police stations. And so, the problem gathered moss. This is the real history of the origins of the tribal trouble today.
Sixty years of neglect by the state and central governments, and complete lack of infrastructure investment left the adivasis helpless.
The adivasis are not considered Hindu, falling outside the castes and even below the untouchables. From the perspective of the Hindu Brahmin, the adivasi is a non-entity, soul-less, very much a person without a soul. This is problematic in the modern, secular perspective of thinking in modern, civilized nations. And, it is also against the spirit of secular India.
In the late 1950’s, when neither the state machinery, nor the central government, nor any corporate leader sympathized or empathized with the adivasis, the Communist Party of India members extended a hand to them, gave them legal support, opened schools, taught them their rights, provided minimal healthcare to the extent they could, and gave them a voice. Who can blame a fallen group for receiving help from those extending help? Instead of learning at that time, and stopping the suppression of the adivasis, the abuse and exploitation by the landowners and state police simply continued, in perpetuation of an ego crisis. China supplied the tribals with weapons in the mid-sixties, starting in the Naxal region of West Bengal, from where the movement gets its name, resulting in armed revolt that convulsed West Bengal in the late 1960s. This culminated in consequent suppression of the Naxalites by the Indian army’s Eastern Command in Operation Steeplechase prior to the Bangladesh war. The rational thinking of the Indian army and prime minister at that time was that the Indian army’s Eastern Command could not afford a distraction behind its lines when focused on invading East Pakistan. In any event, the resources of the communist party were meager and they could not pull the entire lot of adivasis out of poverty.
As time passed, commercial loggers found it easy to snatch the forest resources from where the adivasis lived. Any protest by the adivasis only resulted in the state police and para-military forces arresting the adivasis. Subsequently, some adivasis were herded into camps like the white man did the Native Americans in modern day USA. The difference between India and the USA in this context is that the USA has since “apologized” to the Native Americans. USA has also granted autonomy to the Native Americans in their former territories; Native American lands are considered “sovereign” by the USA. The white man is no longer hunting the natives; there is no war ongoing. The only thing the Native Americans cannot handle is foreign policy, defense policy, and intra-state transportation. But, India has not done anything like this to take care of its adivasis, not even close.
Owing to the Maoist problem, the Tatas and Mittals have been unable to build their steel plants in tribal areas because of opposition by the tribals…
With industrialization thereafter, new minerals were discovered, primarily starting in the early 1980s. The adivasis now span a belt – known as India’s heartland – that has an estimated 60% of India’s mineral and forest wealth. However, the adivasis were not given any of the mineral wealth because they could not prove they held title to the land, even though they had lived there for thousands of years. The tribals could not come up with any parchment or paper to prove they owned the land, because they had been ignored by the British and treated as slaves by the landowners. They had no land surveys for land ownership. So, without government programs to educate or assist them, and not being given a fair share of the harvests, and now being deprived of their forest and mineral wealth, what were the tribals to do? What would you do?
Sixty years of neglect by the state and central governments, and complete lack of infrastructure investment left the adivasis helpless. Add to this the constant and unspeakable rape and extortion carried out by the state and para-military security apparatus, which is never admitted by successive governments. And, it has been alleged for some time that Maoist forces and Pakistani terror outfits have been arming the sizable 70-million adivasis. If the nexus doesn’t already exist, it is a matter of logical time that the Manipur insurgents, Naga rebels, and ULFA join forces with the Maoists. With China having armed the Nagas and Manipuris since decades, perhaps the Chinese will forge them all into a united front, directed by none other than the PLA. What is India to do?
The local and central governments could actually have implemented reforms in the past sixty years to the Land Acquisition Law, Indian Forest Conservation Act, and the Mining Act. Though Native Americans and Australian aborigines were herded into camps and reservations, any mineral wealth found on their land today belongs to them, but not so in India.
The physical war against the Naxalites has now waxed and waned since the late 1960s. But today, they have become a potent threat, armed with IEDs, that they are being hunted in jungles like animals by the Indian security apparatus. Only a couple of years ago, 50,000 army personnel from the Central Command were being readied to quell these “terrorists,” and these forces are still on standby.
…analysts have openly spoken of a 2-1/2 front war against Pakistan, China, and the Maoists. But, if the terrorist outfits of Pakistan succeed in arming the 200 million or so Muslims of India, India will have another ½ front to face. This will require that India need to prepare for a 3-front war!
Owing to the Maoist problem, the Tatas and Mittals have been unable to build their steel plants in tribal areas because of opposition by the tribals, and foot-dragging by the state and local governments. It appears that India can’t progress, even if it wants to.
Much like the elephant is killed for its tusks, and the rhino for its horn, these adivasis are being killed for the minerals and forests on their land. And, India has let the problem simmer into an uncontrollable fire. Not having seriously undertaken civil reform, and corrupt in its political machinery, India is now using the only crude language it understands – the language of the bullet. Nearly 40% of Indian districts are under control of the Naxals and Maoists. This is much too large for a poor country such as India that needs to use its mineral and forest wealth for productive purposes. In fact, by not adroitly handling the adivasi problem (now the Maoist problem), India has hurt itself more than hurt the tribals.
The Manmohan Singh government initiated a new policy two years ago that would develop “liberated” tribal territories and aim to bring the tribals to the fold of civilized life. But, the success of this program is mixed and far and few between. India still sends in its freshly trained para-military personnel to hunt down the Maoists, and the vicious cycle of resistance and self-defense can simply not be overcome easily. It’s not as if the tribals were 5, 10, or 20,000 people: we are talking of 70 million people – a whole race spanning a thousand miles in a long geographical belt. The scale of the problem is much too large.
So who’s in the moral right? Those who fight terror or those who create terror, because India is doing both? Thus, it is inferred that India caused the terror in respect to its own tribals. India may (or may not) quell the “adivasis-turned-terrorists” but it seems to have lost the high moral ground, even after the latest initiatives by the Central Government. India is doing much too little too late. Lately, analysts have openly spoken of a 2-1/2 front war against Pakistan, China, and the Maoists. But, if the terrorist outfits of Pakistan succeed in arming the 200 million or so Muslims of India, India will have another ½ front to face. This will require that India need to prepare for a 3-front war!
Unfortunately, a simple problem of social justice was allowed to slide. The internal insurgency situation in India is now close to intractable. For instance, the Nagas have not given up their struggle for 60 years, and the adivasis have been seeking justice for 75 years. Regrettably, the world will remember that India could have solved the problem peacefully when it had the chance, but did not.
First published in May 2013
 Adi = original; from before. Vasi = inhabitant