Amidst a rising chorus asking to send more forces into Chhattisgarh in the wake of the deadly Maoist attack on political leaders, activist Himanshu Kumar has undertaken an indefinite fast at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. “I’m trying to draw the attention of the urban middle class, so that they at least understand what the problem is, before asking for absurd solutions,” Kumar told TEHELKA. While civil rights activists have gone hoarse asserting that the Maoists are not a law-and-order issue, large sections of the media and influential, powerful urban classes keep reiterating their demands to send in more forces after every untoward incident. “What the Maoists did in Darbha valley is heinous and condemnable, but it doesn’t mean the government is any less guilty of massacre,” said Kumar, claiming that the state government has deliberately not implemented development works in remote regions. He claimed that by inflicting brutality on the tribals through its foot soldiers, i.e. the police, the state was terrorising them into leaving their lands, which would then be passed on to the multi-nationals. “The government doesn’t realise how angry the tribals are with its policies. The Naxals are taking advantage of this anger.”
On the killing of Mahendra Karma, the founder of Salwa Judum, an anti-Naxal outfit, Kumar said the brutality, although inexcusable, was not inexplicable. “Karma was stabbed more than 70 times by female cadres of the Maoists. They could have just shot him dead. But what happened was the seething rage for all the rapes and torture unleashed on the tribal women by the Salwa Judum.”
Kumar also alleges that the media is complicit in ignoring the unconscionable crimes committed against people across the tribal belt. He mentions the time when then Chief Justice of India YK Sabharwal ordered the sealing of all illegally-obtained properties in Delhi, the media had turned activist for the rights of those facing ouster. “Even though everyone admitted it was illegal, they wanted the court to take a lenient view on humanitarian grounds. But when we talk about how tribals are being uprooted from their lands, which they have inhabited for thousands of years, everyone falls silent. Why this hypocrisy?” asks Kumar.
It is in this backdrop that calls for sending in more forces to tackle the Maoists seems like a reckless idea that will serve to alienate the tribals even more and benefit only the Reds.
But according to the government, it’s the Maoists who’re not letting development work take place in remote places. Kumar rubbishes this view, “We almost persuaded the Naxals to stay away from school buildings. The problem, as the tribals told us, was that the police and the CRPF would occupy the school building, and start harassing their people. They raped the girls, beat up the sons, and destroyed their crops. So the Naxals started demolishing schools to prevent security forces’ piling up.” Kumar says the biggest setback was when the government ignored the proposition that both the forces and the Maoists should stay one km away from the school buildings. “The Naxals agreed instantly to this demand of ours. But when the Chhattisgarh UNICEF head Lata Menon wrote to the chief secretary about this, she didn’t even get a reply,” says Kumar of the government’s arrogance. It’s not just the state government that’s guilty, according to him even the Prime Minister has let the people of this country down by asking for the abolishment of the clause that requires a 51 percent majority in the gram sabhas to allow development work. This is in contrast to the recent ruling of the Supreme Court in the Niyamgiri case, empowering gram sabhas to decide if they want a mining company to extract from their land.
Kumar rattles off other foolish decisions of the administration, “When they heard Naxals were pilfering mid-day meal rations from the schools, they shut down the schools. If there’s a rat in your house, you don’t burn the house down, do you?”
When asked for a response to those who claim that the tribals themselves are wary of and opposed to the government coming in to their villages to build roads and development works, Kumar says the answer to that is in the 5th Schedule of the Constitution. “Development and roads can come later. But first, are you letting the tribals have even the fundamental rights – right to life and life of dignity – as enshrined in the Constitution? When you deliberately don’t want schools, hospitals or a ration shop in the region because your first priority is to oust people from those lands, how can you talk about uncooperative tribals?” says Kumar.
According to Kumar, the discourse on Dandakaranya gets trapped between two extreme schools of thought, one that gives tribals absolute rights over their land, and one that believes a developing nation like India should harness all her resources to create more industry and jobs. “In the midst of that, the everyday violence inflicted on the tribals never gets the spotlight. Eight innocent villagers were killed in police firing on 17 May in Edesmeta village of Bijapur district. Where were the panel discussions? Where was the outcry?” asks Kumar, his pitch rising with every word.
“The plight of tribals is not a very attractive issue, I’m not expecting a crowd like the other activists get. But I know there are many in this country who care about democracy, justice and equality for all. They will come and join this movement, and express solidarity,” says Kumar, reminding once again that “the tribals are the original inhabitants of this land; we are the outsiders, the intruders.”
Many in the know believe that the latest attack on Congress leaders by Naxals has led to a revaluation of the party’s stance, claiming the government has no choice but to send in more forces to the region. Kumar indignantly cuts in, “No choice? Why can’t the government try us as the last choice? Send back Binayak Sen, Himanshu Kumar to the forests. Admit that you made a terrible mistake by driving the activists out of Chhattisgarh and apologise to them. We’re willing to take the bullet, but is the government willing to bite it?”