by D. Bandyopadhyay
(Mainstream Weekly, 22nd May)
Ms Arundhati Roy’s “Walking With The Comrades” (Outlook, March 29, 2010) is one of the finest pieces of political travelogue in the current Indo-English literature. It compares well with the classic socio-political writings about the Chinese Revolution like Red Star Over China, Fan Shen, The Scalpel and the Sword and the like. Any convulsive political event does produce such literature from the pens of sensitive and empathic writers.
That such a piece would create discomfort and unease in the minds of persons who believe and thrive in the status quo is natural. Hence, I am not surprised to read B.G. Verghese’s “Daylight At The Thousand-Star Hotel” (Outlook, May 3, 2010). I would not have joined issues with the doyen among Indian journalists but for correcting some of the wrong information he tried to put forward. In polemical writings a certain degree of sarcasm, banter and derision is permitted. I have no problem with that and Ms Roy is highly competent to handle it if she so desires. I felt a bit uneasy with the word “massacre” used by Verghese in his first sentence. Massacre conveys a sense of indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people who may or may not be involved in any conflict. More often than not, it means the killing of a large number of unarmed persons unable to defend themselves against armed marauders.
In the present case the facts are completely the opposite. A company of armed constables of a CRPF battalion went inside the jungles on a mission to “seek and destroy” the armed Maoist groups. They were fully aware of the possibility of fire-fights with armed Maoist cadres. They did not enter the jungle for bird-watching nor did they go there for a picnic. They went there to kill. Instead they got killed because of their ineptitude and foolishness. Such incidents do happen when one armed group attempts to eliminate the other. That they were improperly trained in jungle warfare and badly led is a different story. If they had done proper scouting and reconnaissance before they moved in company strength, they could have easily detected possible sites of lethal ambush. Obviously, that was not done, and if it were done, that was done in a shoddy manner. As a result, devoid of any local intelligence, unaware of the lie of the land, the company walked merrily into the death trap laid by the Maoists. Criminal stupidity of a much higher order was committed in the case of the charge of the light brigade in the Crimean War when the entire brigade was wiped out by the enemy artillery fire. Hence while condemning the killings, one should not condone the utter failure of the local and superior leadership of the CRPF for their culpable negligence and grave dereliction of duty in allowing such a preventable event to happen. The fault lies with the superior command.
At this point, let me make it clear that I do not believe in the Maoist theory of capturing state power by violent means. The Constitution of India provides for peaceful transfer of power through elections based on universal adult suffrage. Human history has not as yet found any better alternative to the change of government other than through free and fair elections. I also do not buy the thesis that the change of government does not change the character of the state. Apparently it may be true. But in case of any mass mobilisation of the downtrodden who would send up their own representatives it could certainly make significant change in the character of the state. Hence in the present context I consider the Maoist thesis as inappropriate. But that does not mean that I would condemn everything that the Maoists are doing for the benefit of the masses at the grassroots as bad. That would be unfair.
Verghese indirectly and condescendingly concedes that tribals were, perhaps, victims of malgovernance. But as the denizens of the other India they are not expected to have all the goodies that the citizens of India have. Like any member of the elite class he believes in the Roman prescription of building roads as straight as an arrow on which the Roman Legions could march with rhythmic steps to the beats of kettle-drums. No, that would not do. All the imperial powers from the Romans in the earlier era to the British and the French in recent history had failed. So would the Indian state, if it did not address the basic issues of the tribals of the other India. Incidentally, Verghese’s response was quite typical of that of the “Koi Hai Col Blimps” of the world who would sneer at any movement or agitation to alter the status quo. Being the sole beneficiaries of the system they feel insecure and threatened at the mere possibility of changing it. It had happened in the past, it is happening now. And it will happen in the future. But, unfortunately, history marches on inexorably.
From 1947 to 2004 nearly 2.4 crores of tribals out of the total of 8.2 crores were involuntarily displaced for “development” in which they had neither any participation nor any benefit. The original oustees of the Indravati Dam Project of the fifties had to shift five times over later on because of the march of development in their exclusive domain. No one came to their help. The state failed miserably.
Verghese would certainly agree with the Union Home Minister’s policy prescription for regaining of hearts and minds of the tribals initially through the “controlled and calibrated” use of force. First, “reconquer” the area where the Maoists are operating by force, for example, through Operation Green Hunt. Second, reintroduce civil administration in the reconquered territory. After that “development”, would, if at all, follow in due course.
Would Verghese kindly try to check up what type of governance the tribals had before the civil administration collapsed? A basic ingredient of any civil administration is the administration of justice. How was it done before the territories were “lost” to the Maoists? We shall take the example of one law specific to the prevention of atrocities on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (1989). One would have expected that this special law would be administered fairly and speedily. Facts belied that expectation. The Report of the Expert Group of the Planning Commission entitled “Development Challenges in the Extremist Affected Areas (2008)” showed that between 1991 and 2000 the conviction rate under this law was less than one per cent with an acquittal rate of 10 per cent and pendency of 89 to 90 per cent. These were the figures long before the civil administration was taken over by the Maoists. The same is the state of implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006. The forest establishment is subverting it in every possible manner and the political establishment in cohort with the corporate sector is meekly watching this process of subversion of an ameliorative measure for the traditional forest dwellers. To the best of my knowledge, in the Jungle Mahal of West Bengal hardly any patta has been issued. The tribals suffered from utter insensitivity and neglect, of those who were charged with dispensation of justice to them in respect of all laws enacted for them. There was mounting dissension among the victims that the Indian state was not serious about giving them justice.
Then there are laws and regulations in every State against the alienation of tribal lands to the non-tribals. Non-tribals look upon it as a big joke. More tribal lands had been alienated in the recent past compared to that in pre-independent era. With all its crudity the “kangaroo” courts in the Maoist areas administer justice promptly which the tribals appreciate. The law regarding the Panchayats Extension in the Scheduled Area (PESA) was enacted in the mid-nineties to strengthen the traditional tribal institutions of self-governance; it remains a non-starter even today more than a decade later.
The Council for Social Development, New Delhi, mounted a mission in the late nineties to study tribal unrest in the Koraput-Raigada area of Orissa. The author was a member of the Mission, others being Muchkund Dubey and B.N. Yugandhar. The mission was shocked to find how the district administration was subverting this law to acquire lands for the giant national and transnational aluminum producing companies. They were openly acting as agents of those corporate bodies. When the tribals organised and offered peaceful resistance, police repression was unleashed to smother the dissent. With all these that the tribals had been suffering, particularly after the neo-liberal economic reforms with aggressive corporate intrusion in the tribal domain, would anyone in his (her) senses expect the tribals with their past history of armed resistance to meekly surrender? Materially they are very weak compared to the might of the State. But nobody could douse their spirit of defiance.
Verghese ends with a sarcastic and censorious remark on Ms Arundhati Roy’s piece saying that she “has conjured up another bad dream in tribal India and perhaps unwittingly is working overtime with other misguided ideologues to make it come true”. Verghese missed the essence of the Indian Constitution which provides for a pluralistic society where a hundred ideological flowers can bloom and co-exist. As to his prediction of the fading away of Maoism, one can only call it his own brand of wishful thinking because hard facts give contra-indications. Naxalism started in April 1967 in one State (West Bengal), in one district (Darjeeling) and in one police station area (Naxalbari from which it derives its name). Fortytwo years later, according to the statement of the Union Home Minister in November 2009, it had spread to 23 States, 250 districts and over 2000 police station areas. Thus spatially the movement had spread over 2000 times. A guess-estimate suggests that during this period the combined police budget of the Centre and States had gone up by 600 times (firm figures are not available in one place). Perhaps a statistican could find out whether there was any significant corelation between the increase of the police budget and the spread of Naxalism. Naxalism seems to be a hardy plant in a sturdy soil. So far it has shown no signs of wilting or waning.
I am deeply touched by a couple of sentences in Ms Arundhati Roy’s concluding paragraph. She writes: “When I looked back, they were still there. Waving. A little knot. People who live with their dreams, while the rest of the world lives with its nightmares…. I know she must be on the move. Marching not just for herself but to keep hope alive for all of us.” The inner lilting lyric of these lines vibrates in my mind like soft sweet music.