The views of the Lalgarh siege are largely determined by what the media considers the essence of the confrontation. We have seen pictures of torched CPI(M) buildings with the trademark hammer and sickle going up in flames, Maoists (angry villagers?) on the rampage, a chilling shot of a corpse outside the party office, the paramilitary forces in action — in combat positions and clean-up operations (men being dragged out of homes and taken into custody). Fundamentally, these tell a story of an uprising that is being brought under control by the heavy hand of the security forces nearly eight months after it started, a small battle that may be won in the many insurgencies that shake India.
But there is a more striking image that merits closer attention — of a huge rally of peasant women on November 7, 2008. They are dressed in colourful saris, hair neatly pulled back in buns, their dark faces determined and unsmiling. Most of them are wielding bow and arrow, a few with arrows at the ready. Others have axes slung across their shoulders, as is the wont of tribal folk, as they march on the Lalgarh police station.
Who are these women? Yes, we know these are women from Lalgarh who were incensed when men of their village were arrested randomly after Maoists had ambushed a convoy of the West Bengal chief minister just a few days earlier. Most of the angry villagers have banded themselves under the banner of the Lalgarh People’s Committee against Police Atrocities, which seems a fairly straightforward description of their cause. But they have all been dubbed Maoists now by officialdom and the media, even if ideology is far from being the spur that drove them to take on the state.
Take the case of the Dongria Khonds who managed to make their way to the Belamba village in Kalahandi district of Orissa for a public hearing in April on Vedanta’s plans to expand their aluminum refinery to the world’s largest such facility. Most of them were not allowed to speak — the brute force of the state aligned with corporate power, managed to keep them out. The Adivasis are fighting to retain their sacred mountain, and the source of amazing natural bounty that keeps them from the hungry maws of the bulldozers seeking the rich bauxite deposits in Niyamgiri. The clashes began six years ago and are set to become more confrontational when the mining work starts. Soon, the Maoists/Naxalites will come to their aid, or the tribal people will themselves be dubbed Maoists.
The point here is, does 21st-century India, determinedly pushing for higher and higher growth rates, understand the women with the bows and arrows, or the hill people with a radically different perspective on life? Does Lalgarh provide some pointers to what fuels the Naxalite/Maoist insurgencies across 125 districts of the country? The answer is yes and no. Although such struggles are fuelled by different causes, there are some fairly well-known reasons why the extremist movement is burgeoning. They draw their support from the deprived and dispossessed. To start with, one can be fairly certain that the Lalgarh women who are said to be Maoist supporters if not Maoists themselves, are predominantly Dalit or Adivasi. As such they are likely to have faced various forms of oppression, and been denied justice along with social, legal and political rights. They are also likely to be among the poorest strata.
This is the analysis of the report of an expert group set up by the Planning Commission in 2006 which submitted its report in April 2008. ‘Development Challenges in Extremist-Affected Areas’, a 95-page report prepared by a group of administrators with experience of dealing with extremism, social scientists and human rights activists, is an excellent delineation of the causes of alienation, some well-known and others that give a fresh perspective on the issue. The report says it found some common aspects in its study of the 125 Naxal-influenced districts.
The main support for the Naxalite movement, it points out, comes from Dalits and Adivasis, who comprise about a fourth of India’s population and usually in areas where there are high levels of rural distress among SCs and STs. And predictably, the report listed land issues, internal displacement from industrialisation, the growing hordes of the project-affected, as other contributory factors. But it also touched upon the class divide that makes even the best policy prescriptions futile.
“It is a matter of common observation that the inequalities between classes, between town and country, and between the upper castes and the underprivileged communities are increasing. That this has potential for tremendous unrest is recognised by all. But somehow policy prescriptions presume otherwise. As the responsibility of the state for providing equal social rights recedes in the sphere of policymaking, we have two worlds of education, two worlds of health, two worlds of transport and two worlds of housing, with a gaping divide in between.”
It’s a stark truth that the newly-enlightened government of Manmohan Singh, which harps on inclusive growth, should not ignore. Clearly, it would be extremely difficult for the largely urban and Western-educated ruling class—the current UPA government has the largest number of MPs who studied in American and British universities — who are also among the richest in the country (300 crorepatis in the Lok Sabha, mostly businessmen) to relate to axe-wielding women who seek justice and honour in the rough backwoods of the country. And it matters little what the political persuasion of the rulers is. States ruled by parties as different from each other (or perhaps not) as the Congress, the BJP, the CPI(M) or the BJD are all struggling with the problem of alienation and extremism.
All of them ought to take the dust off the report which offers some excellent administrative suggestions for coping with the Naxalite challenge. What the report does not offer is a political solution that is at the heart of the problem. It was not the brief of the group; for the government though, it must be the guiding core. It needs to put forward a vision of development that addresses the concerns of the millions who do not feel part of the changing India. Politics has to change before anything else can.
June 20, 2009, Business Standard