India drives tribals into Maoist arms
By Sudha Ramachandran
KORAPUT, Orissa - Six weeks after police action in Narayanpatna in Koraput
district in the eastern state of Orissa left two tribals dead and scores of
others injured, tension here shows no signs of abating.
Arbitrary arrests of tribals continue with about 109, including at least 12
children, thrown in jail so far on charges that include criminal conspiracy,
rioting, sedition and waging war against the state - and police and
paramilitary forces have stepped up
operations to hunt down activists of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangha (CMAS), a
tribal rights organization active in the area.
The CMAS activists have retreated deep into the forests, where they are said to
be regrouping. "The hunt for CMAS activists and the intimidation of tribals by
the police has forced tribals to seek refuge in the surrounding forests, which
are Maoist hideouts," a senior official in Koraput told Asia Times Online. "By
their actions, the police are pushing the tribals to turn Maoist."
This is the case not just in Narayanpatna but also across villages and towns in
India's tribal areas in Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bengal and Andhra
Pradesh. Police atrocities against tribals are fueling support for the Maoists.
Tribals are the most marginalized section of Indian society, worse off than
even the Dalits (formerly referred to as Untouchables). Around 49.5% of tribals
live under the official poverty line, 76.2% are illiterate and almost 30% have
no access whatsoever to doctors in clinics. Displaced from their land and
discriminated against in the industrial job market they are now fighting to
keep their land, their only remaining resource.
With peaceful agitations and democratic institutions having failed to redress
their grievances or provide them with a modicum of justice, tribal alienation
in India's democracy has grown at a massive pace. And it is among this anger
and alienation that Maoists are increasingly finding support and recruits.
India's Maoists believe in armed struggle to overthrow the state and bring
socio-economic change. Many tribals say that they are opposed to the use of
violence but are left with no option but to pick up the gun to counter the
violence of the state and of its police and paramilitary forces. Many tribals
still engage in mass politics and agitations to address their grievances. But
are being pushed by the state to embrace Maoism and armed struggle.
And the line between tribal political activism and Maoist armed struggle is
increasingly blurring with Maoists often coming forward to endorse and support
tribal causes. The targets of Maoist violence are often those who exploit the
tribals or harass them, like landlords, police and moneylenders.
Analysts have been pointing out that it is the failure of the state to address
tribal grievances that is fueling support for the Maoists and their growing
influence in the country. But the state seems to think that eliminating the
Maoists militarily will resolve the problem.
A massive military offensive to eliminate Maoists was launched recently in the
forests of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Orissa. About 80,000 troops have been
deployed here, with another 20,000 more to be sent in the coming weeks. This,
in an area that has around 2 million people, over half of whom are tribal.
While officials far away from the battlegrounds sound confident of success,
those at ground zero are not optimistic. There is a feeling that as the
anti-Maoist offensive gathers steam, tribal alienation from the state - already
dangerously high - will soar.
"The CMAS will grow, gain ground and capture Narayanpatna," the Koraput
Police officials say they are hunting down CMAS activists as they are engaging
in violence and "anti-people activity". However, it is hard to dispel the
feeling that the police action against the tribal organization has more to do
with protecting the interests of powerful sections in the area.
The CMAS has been mobilizing tribals to take back land that was illegally
grabbed from them by non-tribal landlords and moneylenders. And it has been
successful in re-appropriating about 800 hectares acres of land. Not
surprisingly, this has raised the hackles of the non-tribal landlords. The
growing assertiveness of the CMAS has rattled mining companies and the liquor
mafia, as well.
This motley group of private mining companies, the liquor mafia, land grabbers
and contractors is reported to be behind the setting up of shanti (or
peace) committees in Koraput, Malkangiri and other districts to counter tribal
organizations like the CMAS.
Orissa has rich mineral deposits. It has 70% of all of India's bauxite reserves
(the sixth-largest deposit in the world), 90% of India's chrome ore and nickel
and 24% of its coal. But tribals inhabit much of this mineral-rich land. Mining
companies - Indian and multinational - have been lining up to extract this
wealth. But tribal agitations and Maoist violence have been blocking their
Informed sources in Koraput say that mining companies are putting money into shanti
committees to clip the wings of the CMAS and other similar tribal
While shanti committee members in Koraput and Malkangiri say that they
came together "spontaneously" to counter the "forcible grabbing of land and
looting of crops by outfits like the CMAS", it does seem that the local
administration has played a role in putting them together.
Worse, it appears to be backing the shanti committees' activities. Shanti
committees have been attacking and beating up tribal activists, even murdering
them. Members of an independent fact-finding team who went to Narayanpatna to
investigate the November police-firing incident were beaten up.
Still no action has been taken against the shanti committees. P K Sahni,
deputy superintendent of police, Koraput, said that the activities of the shanti
committees are "peaceful, legal and democratic". Its members are not taking the
law into their own hands. Hence, "no cases have been filed against them".
In contrast to their handling of the shanti committees with kid gloves,
stands the police's extra-tough approach to the CMAS. The Koraput police have
called for a ban on the organization.
Non-governmental organization activists in Koraput point out that the CMAS
campaign to re-appropriate land grabbed from tribals is not illegal. The Orissa
government has enacted laws recognizing the tribals' right over ancestral land
and prohibiting the transfer of land to non-tribals. If the CMAS has been
forcibly re-appropriating land this is because tribal appeals to the state for
justice have fallen on deaf ears.
The CMAS has been a political movement so far, working for tribal rights
through mass mobilization of tribals, agitations and protests. It is the police
and the powerful interests they are protecting that are pushing them
underground by hounding its activists, arresting them and calling for a ban on
There are striking similarities between what is happening in Orissa with the
controversial salwa judum (peace march) in neighboring Chhattisgarh.
Like Orissa, Chhattisgarh's southern districts of Bastar and Dantewada are rich
in minerals. And as in Orissa, tribals who have been resisting the takeover of
their land by the state and private mining companies inhabit these areas.
Vigilante groups peopled by tribals, armed by the state and reportedly funded
by mining companies and liquor mafias to counter the Maoists active here, have
wreaked havoc in Dantewada and Bastar since 2005. The cycle of violence and
counter-violence triggered by the salwa judum is reported to have driven
tens of thousands of tribals out of their land - an important goal of the
mining companies and landlords who fund the vigilante violence.
It does seem that Orissa's shanti committees are aiming to achieve a
similar goal in mineral-rich Koraput and other areas.
The ongoing military operations supposedly against the Maoists will enable the
police and the mining companies, landlords and liquor mafias they protect to
get rid of the tribals, all in the name of fighting the "Maoist terrorists".
Tribal activists in Malkangiri Asia Times Online spoke to say they are not
Maoist as they are working overground and engage in mass politics instead of
armed struggle. But this is a difference that the police do not or rather do
not want to see. Police have apparently told them that when the paramilitary
forces reach their village, tribals and Maoists will be treated similarly.
India's tribal heartlands can expect a bloodbath.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in