Prominent social activist Aruna Roy pulled out another extension from the National Advisory Council (NAC) vexed over the rejection of her recommendations of paying minimum wages to MNERGA workers by the UPA government. As the NAC’s term was extended for another year through a notification from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), it was also learnt that Virginius Xaxa was appointed a new member of the NAC. Xaxa is a prominent academician and is considered a leading luminary on tribal issues in the country, having authored a book State, Society and Tribes: Issues in Post-Colonial India. His appointment to the NAC comes at a time when Congress party has been devastated by a brutal attack on its state leaders in Chhattisgarh that led to the death of 27 people including their state leader and other senior party functionaries. While the Congress has been stirred and shaken; this form of violence remains an everyday reality for the tribals caught between the viciousness of a rampaging state, the foxiness of profit-hungry corporates and brutality of the unrelenting Naxals. While ministers like Sachin Pilot have been indulging in war-mongering calling for a forceful retaliation, there seems to be some sense in the UPA over the multi-layered complex reality of this conflict.
Edited excerpts of an interview:
Is the Darbha attack a setback on the mobility of mainstream politicians into conflict zones? How do you view this attack from the viewpoint of integrating tribals into the mainstream?
The recent attack is utterly condemnable and the loss of lives due to the barbaric violence is unjustifiable. If one was to look beyond what we have been hearing and reading in the press, there are a host of important issues underlying the attack. Most important is the question on how you move into liberated zone. When people talk about developing these areas, the priority is to first take the areas from Naxal control and make them conducive to start development. There is a third aspect which is of political participation in the area. I believe that the effort of the Congress in organising political rallies like the ‘Parivartan Yatra’ and mobilising people peacefully in these liberated zones is commendable. The movement of mainstream politicians among the tribal population will help in weaning them away from Naxal influence. It may not have worked in the case of Darbha valley, which I think was a tragic incident, but I take it as a positive step towards bringing development in these areas.
Has the government not been late in waking up to tribal discontentment and ensuing Naxal foothold in their forests? Is there a feeling among tribals that they are better off helping Naxals than being under the Constitutional framework?
The government and civil society have been more concerned about tribal issues in the last 10 years, than they have been at any other time in India’s history. Earlier, all that the government ever did was pay lip service to tribal issues. Somewhere down the line, government has to send a clear signal to the tribals that development matters to them. Now this has to be done by first taking development activities to the tribal areas which are under government control, rather than make plans for all areas which may be liberated zones. Let us take the case of Chhattisgarh. There are some areas in Bastar and Dantewada that are under government control. There is a need to enforce Constitutional provisions and development measures in these areas. That would give a signal that the government is serious about tribal issues.
Tribal areas that are under the government continue to languish after so many years. How many areas under government control have been able to benefit from the various tribal development projects? Has the government been able to enforce provisions of the Forest Dwellers Act, or have they been sensitive to the rights of tribals? Has the government cared about the letter and spirit of the special provisions meant for Scheduled Areas that are meant to protect the rights of indigenous people? I believe government has failed to improve lives and implement special rights for tribals in areas which it governs, leave aside what might have been done in the liberated zones. The failure has eroded trust in the government’s ability and intentions. What government can do is at least provide bare minimum infrastructure in the areas where the state machinery exist. Provisions like basic medical facilities, roads, public distribution system and clean water do not exist in many areas due to the government failures. If such provisions were lacking in liberated zones, I would have understood the limitations because you need security and development clearances to go ahead with any projects. But when the government cannot even provide roads in areas where it exercises complete authority then it is a matter of serious concern.
In between the government controlled areas and liberated zones are the conflict areas that are slowly being taken back into state control. Now in these areas, development activities should immediately follow when security forces finish their job. This will inspire confidence among the tribals and engender faith in government. The other important issue is that of displacement of tribal people in the conflict zone due to development activities. I believe somebody in the government needs to take a serious view to tackle these issues especially in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha where discontentment due to aggressive development is rampant. In addition, tribals are being displaced because of the ongoing conflict between the state and Naxals. Yet there seems to be little seriousness in formulating measures to care for the rights of people displaced by conflict. Even when security forces move into certain areas, they treat tribals like prisoners. There needs to be a more humane approach to security measures or else development will be undermined. There should be an attempt to win the hearts and minds of people rather than bulldozing them into submission.
Has the infiltration of corporate interests into these areas further complicated matters for tribals who are already caught between the state’s might and the Maoist brutality?
There is no doubt that Maoists are being used to unleash violence in certain areas. If you go to certain areas that are Naxal strongholds, you will see that a lot of villages do not have young people. Most of the villagers are either old, or are children and women. Naxals are recruiting the young heavily. In the ongoing conflict, security forces also target young people. There is heavy intimidation of the tribals from both the security forces and Naxals. Since security forces represent the state, they need to have a more humane approach. I wonder if the Naxals even care about the tribals or are just using people in this conflict and putting them in a vulnerable position. I don’t know a way out of this tricky situation. It is true that only in the last 10 years, has the government really started caring about the tribals. However, the concerns must translate into affirmative action.
How would you define inclusive development of tribals in context of this conflict?
Inclusive development of tribals implies getting them to the same standard of life that is enjoyed by the larger population of the country. Wherever Maoists exercise control; development parameters like infant mortality, nutrition, education, women’s position, education delivery, et cetera are in a terrible condition. Under such circumstance, government should first work on improving these parameters, so they can show to those living in liberated zones about the pitfalls of siding with the Maoists. That is why I say that the security forces should clear an area first, and then development should follow.
You talk about a ‘clearing up’ by security forces. What does that mean?
By clearing up, I mean how tribal areas under the Naxals can be brought into our Constitutional framework. I do value presence of the state because without a state there would be anarchy. You cannot dispense away state mechanisms because that would create huge problem. What the state should do is to get people into the ambit of the law of land through humane methods. We do not even know how much of the liberated zone has the government been able to take back and establish rule of law in the last 10 years. Nobody has a clue of the progress that has been made in getting these areas under government control and setting up institutional mechanisms in these areas. We have to send a clear signal that government means business and that it is committed to tribal welfare.
Does that clearing-up require use of brutal force either through air power or army intervention?
We do not know exactly how the tribals are being used by the Maoists – are they being used as muscle power or as communicators to disseminate their ideology? We have no clue of how tribals are being used by them and therefore we cannot justify the use of brutal force against everyone. Who are the leaders of the Naxal movement? How many tribals have been influenced by their ideology? We have no clue about any of this and it is hard to say if tribals really think the way Maoists do.
After the Darbha Valley attack, the BJP has been claiming that Naxalism has spread to 250 districts of the country under the UPA, while it was entrenched in 57 districts during NDA rule. Is there any truth to what the BJP is claiming?
If you look at the history of state and tribes, it hasn’t really worked very well. Tribals were very much part of nation building process till 1960s. From 1970 onwards, there has been increasing alienation among the tribals. There has barely been any instance where government has been serious in addressing concerns of the tribals. With liberalisation, there has been a major influx of multinational companies into tribal areas for exploiting forest resources, mining projects and building dams. Earlier under the socialist state, tribal areas were being used for national projects. But tribals never got to see the benefits of development and somewhere down the line, starting from the 1970s, discontentment and alienation has increased that has allowed Naxals to gain foothold in these areas. Their penetration into tribal areas has been facilitated by the government’s sidelining of the non-neutral state. Tribals roughly constitute eight percent of India’s population and do even constitute a vote bank that probably explains this non-interest in upholding their legitimate rights. The ‘development agenda’ has become exclusive and focuses on the interests of the larger population that will always come into conflict with the interests of the tribal population. The government discourse today is to tackle issues related to the “working class” or the “agricultural class” or the “industrial houses”, but there is never a word on issues pertaining to the problems of the tribal population. Tribal issues have not been made a part of the discourse of the larger population in this country.
How do we draw tribals into the political process?
We have a lot of local institutions in which there are provisions. But these are unworkable and are not taken seriously in letter and spirit. When big mining projects and corporations come, all these democratic institutions meant to empower people fail. To acquire land, no Gram Panchayat meetings are held. No consultations with local villagers are done by mining companies. Opposing voices are stifled and tribals are denied their democratic space. Tribals are always confined to village administration and never get the opportunity to govern at the block and district levels. So, how can you teach them to govern themselves when the very democratic structures are keeping them confined to their villages? Tribals are lacking the macro-picture of governance and therefore they are not in a position to protect their rights despite the existence of democratic structures. How long can you do politics at the village or block level? Tribals cannot participate in national politics because we do not give them self governance at a level higher than a village. That is why they feel lost. Tribals need to be trained to move beyond the village and be part of the political process.
Can we put a timeline to end Naxalism in India?
It is very difficult to have a deadline. The best we can do is to tackle the issue in a phased manner. We have to make a plan for two years and then monitor its execution regularly to achieve the objectives of securing and developing areas in the liberated zones. You cannot go into liberated zones and free them from Naxalites all at once.