Last month, the Indian Air Force announced that the MI-17 helicopters it has deployed in Bastar, a district in the southern part of the state of Chhattisgarh, will engage in retaliatory fire against members of the insurgent Naxalite movement so that troops can defend themselves while carrying out rescue operations. Such action can be seen as an extension of what the Indian media terms Operation Green Hunt, the aggressively offensive stance the government and paramilitary forces have taken have taken since 2009 to combat the growth of Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) across roughly five Central, Southern, and Eastern states – a region often referred to as the Red Corridor.
The growth of LWE is considered one of the India’s most critical domestic issues and one that, in 2010, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared as the country’s biggest internal security challenge.
While the LWE movement itself is multifarious, consisting of numerous groups and coalitions across the entire country, the Naxalites, formally known as The Communist Party of India (Maoist), and particularly their factions based in Bastar, have received a great deal of media attention. This has increased significantly following a violent incident in 2013, when the outfit attacked a motorcade of politicians in Dharba Valley in Chhattisgarh. The assault killed at least 18 Indian National Congress members and party workers, including Mahendra Karma, founder of the Salwa Judum anti-insurgency militia.
For several years the government has sought to mitigate conflict nationally vis-à-vis institution building and restorative justice; in 2006, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs inaugurated its Division, which was tasked with initiating to improve education and medical infrastructure, and security procedures in remote areas of the country affected by the burgeoning Maoist movement. This unit’s program also includes the coordination of LWE policies and schemes designed by other ministries, as well as management of the Integrated Action Plan, through which District Collectors can commit government funding towards infrastructural improvements. The aim of the unit is to improve the lives of historically underrepresented populations and prevent them from engaging in terrorism. Despite these efforts however, leftist insurrection continues to destabilize governance and threaten the lives of citizens throughout the Red Corridor.
In 2013, I travelled to the states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in Central India—the region between the Deccan Plateau and the plains of the Ganges—to understand the history and development of the current insurgency as well as why government policy addressing this problem has been, at best, only palliative. I lived amongst and interviewed residents of Burghan, a village in the Janjgir District of Chhattisgarh, of Raja Bendra and some other villages in the buffer areas surrounding the Kanha Tiger Reserve.
Many of my interviewees were Gonds, members of Central India’s largest tribe. The Gonds’ tribe numbers over 10 million members, and it has often been tied to LWE movements in various capacities, including as subscribers, accomplices and victims. Much of the media coverage of Bastar has focused on the violence and militarization of this community, and the egregious abuse tribal populations suffer at the hands of the government and the armed forces.
According to Saurabh Singh, an ex-Member of the Legislative Assembly of Chhattisgarh, the state of domestic emergency in the state can be attributed to a conflict over finite resources, the resulting displacement of tribal people, state government corruption, the inadequacy of policy, and the hegemonic persuasions and even despotism of mainstream political parties. During my interview with Singh in 2013, he claimed that “A large part of the displacement of Gond tribals has occurred due to the commercialization of mineral resources in Central and Eastern India. The lands on which their villages have been settled for centuries are sites very rich in bauxite, iron ore, coal. The government is claiming their right to these minerals and the conflict begins when tribes are made to abandon their ancestral lands.” An interview conducted by the Centre for Research on Globalization, an independent research organization based in Montreal, with Sudha Bharadwaj, a lawyer and member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, corroborates Singh’s account of the government’s activities to claim land and further elucidates the process through which it acquires these territories.
Singh also surmised that the Naxal militancy can be traced back to the assassination of Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo, champion of Gond rights and ruler of the erstwhile princely state of Bastar, by the incumbent Indian National Congress in 1966. During the same interview he explained, “This was followed by a period of alienation of the Gonds from the state and federal governments, and an influx of outsiders into the Bastar area, who exploited the population through grossly disadvantageous trade.” Singh explained that the tribespeople of Bastar, distressed and desperate, eventually “took up arms against their oppressors, and this became the Naxalite movement, a parallel government, where the writ of the Indian government, does not apply.”
Not all Gonds agree that their communities are systematically excluded in contemporary Indian politics. In Burghan, I spoke with a number of the residents including Om Prakash Jagat, the head of a Gond community which numbered at about 300 people. On the topic of political and social inclusion, Jagat insisted that all regional tribes have been provided reservation, or affirmative action of the quota variety, in government institutions and at various levels of democratic participation. He claimed that of these tribes, the Gonds have especially benefitted from such programs and that “Most of the leadership of all tribes is managed by the Gonds though they account for less than 40% of the tribal population in this area. This is because we happen to be the more progressive of the tribes and have cleverly acted to capitalize on these opportunities.” In fact, he reminded me that in 2013, the Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly reserved 32 seats for tribal people and almost 80% of these were held by Gonds.
Nawal Pratap, the feudal lord of the village, but not a Gond himself, added that “Many people in Burghan, probably 90% of all residents now, also have bank accounts, because government welfare schemes make use of them to provide [monetary aid].”
The Indian national has ostensibly been making a dedicated legislative effort to support . In 1999, for example, it established the Ministry of Tribal Affairs with the intent of “providing [a] more focused approach on the integrated socio-economic development of the Scheduled Tribes (STs),the most underprivileged of the Indian Society, in a coordinated and planned manner.” This branch routinely introduces government schemes to assist tribal access to education, better nutrition and healthcare.
What severe symptoms of bad governance and political exclusion such as the mobilization of extremist groups continue to pose a critical threat to domestic stability and safety? (see a list of incidents between 2005 and 2009 here) And why do news reports abound of the forced eviction of tribal people?
It is clear that the government’s response to LWE as well as treatment of various tribes has not been consistent, and its attempts to pursue restorative action have hardly been pervasive. In Raja Bendra I interviewed Ram Kanwar, who belongs to the relatively less populous Baiga tribe; she complained that government officials and business representatives often attempt to coerce her husband to move their family off of their plot of land. She claimed that despite having applied numerous times, they have still not been able to obtain a patta, a legal document establishing their right to the property: “Without the patta,” she lamented, “we do not have any case to defend our home if they try and force us out of it.”
According to Singh, the shortcomings of domestic policy are manifold and generally have to do with political corruption and lack of efficacy.
Dr. Aditya Pratap Deo, a professor in the Department of History at St. Stephens College of The University of Delhi, addresses the first of these issues in his essay “Of kings and gods.” “One of the most significant reasons for the exclusion of the people from questions of sovereignty in the discussions of ‘state’…has been our inordinate reliance on statist records that are always already situated in conceptions of sovereignty that are statist, where state/sovereignty is constructed as singular, exclusive and total,” he states.
During our interview, Dr. Pratap Deo added that what can broadly be described as the ‘tribal problem’ in India “has its history, and primary font, in colonial policies of demographic classification and modern sociological epistemological practices, including the discipline of History, both of which connectedly, for reasons of managing large, complex and resistant populations in South Asia, came to divide Indian society problematically through the separation of clear, fixed categories of ‘tribe’ and ‘caste,’ in which the former was seen as ‘civilizationally’ inferior and imbued with attributes of ‘backwardness.’”
So the plight of subaltern communities that are particularly vulnerable to political extremism, such as Gonds, starts when the state (previously the feudal lords and British colonists, and currently the parliamentary democratic government) historicizes a fixed, inequitable, even partial conception of tribal peoples and their role within broader Indian cultural and political paradigms. This account inheres in the process of policy-making and drawing on it, right-wing, religious and nationalist organizations coerce tribal communities to renounce their culture to integrate with more general and archetypically Indian identities, such as by adopting Hinduism, as politicians usher them towards a conventionally rural lifestyle.
Unless the policy-making process is predicated on a revised, egalitarian, relatively particularist and culturally informed account that treats Gonds as autonomous citizens with every right to their heritage, no amount of restorative justice effort a history of marginalization. And until then, it is likely that some members of this group, exasperated by this history, will continue to turn to radical ideology.