Last month Arundhati Roy published an incredible piece of investigative journalism
in The Guardian
. Roy spent more than a week “embedded” with Naxal insurgents in Chhattisgarh and her piece is a rare window into the hidden world of India’s Maoist insurgency. I heavily recommend that all readers with an interest in international insurgencies or Indian politics give it a read – while Roy’s glorification of the Naxalite cause is trying, you will be hard pressed to find another reporter with the ability to expose the dynamics that underlay this insurgency as well as she does.
While the entire piece is excellent, one paragraph in particular caught my attention.
I feel I ought to say something at this point. About the futility of violence, about the unacceptability of summary executions. But what should I suggest they do? Go to court? Do a dharna in Jantar Mantar, New Delhi? A rally? A relay hunger strike? It sounds ridiculous. The promoters of the New Economic Policy —who find it so easy to say “There Is No Alternative” —should be asked to suggest an alternative Resistance Policy. A specific one, to these specific people, in this specific forest. Here. Now. Which party should they vote for? Which democratic institution in this country should they approach?
This sums up the problem perfectly.
In its current incarnation Naxalism has found its greatest base of support in the rural hinterlands of Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkand, Bihar, and Maharashtra. This is the home of India’s Adivasis
. Often called “tribals”, the Adivasi lived in relative autonomy for most of their history, losing such only with the arrival of the British. The Adivasis’ mobility and general disengagement from Indian society (even today many live hours away from the nearest roads) posed an administrative hurdle to the British, who decided to mitigate any problems they might have with the Adivasi by stripping entire tribes of their economic rights and transferring the legal possession of traditional tribal lands to the colonial government. The Indian government opted to keep most of these policies in place long after the British had been kicked off the subcontinent.
While unjust, these policies had little impact on tribal groups when they were first implemented. Most Adivasis simply were too far removed from the rest of India for it to matter. When the Indian government began aggressively promoting the economic integration of the interior with the rest of the country (circa 1970) this began to change. Cheap land leases and intensive highway construction brought a flood of migrants into close proximity with Adivasis. To make matters worse the government gave loggers and commercial farmers access forest reserves, transforming large swathes of forest – the Adivasis’ primary source of subsistence – into plantations.
Yet even as their isolation from the broader world has slowly eroded away, tribals have become more marginalized in Indian society. The Adivasi have benefited little from India’s two decade economic explosion; the tribal regions remain the poorest and least educated places in the Indian Republic. Adivasi are often displaced from their land with negligible compensation, while the businesses that move into the region prefer to hire more skilled laborers from the outside. Widespread debt and abject poverty prevent Adivasi from hiring the lawyers needed to move their grievances through India’s judicial system. Finally, the tribes do not form a political block. This gives them little leverage come election season; there is no “Adivasi lobby” working the rounds in New Delhi. For Adivasis all of the levers of power offered by Indian society are out of their reach – except one
Forgive me then for arguing that the solution to the insurgency is simple: provide the disenfranchised tribes with a less destructive avenue to power. Of course, this is easier said than done – but I doubt the government will even make the attempt. Ceding institutional power to the tribes undermines the broader economic strategy of the current regime and will ruin many of the corporations who bankrolled the election of the ruling MPs. Crusading for the sake of the Adivasi is anything but politically expedient. Even if it means ending the Naxal War.