The Situation In East India – by Felix Padel
The situation here in East India is both complex to understand and very simple. As an anthropologist knowing & living in this area for 30 years, I’d like to try and explain the outline of what is happening so more people understand.
People outside India as well as inside it are becoming aware that there are thousands of local movements going on here of people trying to save their land from being invaded and taken over by big corporations, and the contractors, sub-contractors, NGOs, media firms, biofuel & seed companies, Banks, Hedge Fund/Private Equity Fund investors and others who serve and finance the mining companies. Living here, Anthony Sampson’s title comes to mind from his Anatomy of Britain series: Who Runs This Place? The Governments, or the Companies and Banks?
Village people (tribals and non-tribals alike) are trying not just to hold onto their land and homes, communities and age-old systems of cultivation, but also, as part of the same thing, to prevent ecocide: the long-term destruction of every aspect of the land and environment where they have lived for centuries. If they accept displacement, even
World Bank statistics show that displaced villagers’ standard of living drops drastically (in India, and as a worldwide pattern), and that they hardly ever regain their standard of living, let alone improve it (which by the Bank’s own standards, is meant to be a key requirement of any project).
These movements are aimed at saving the people and their environment – “For what future will our grandchildren have if our mountains and streams are destroyed?” This is the land of their ancestors over thousands of years. It’s also the heartland of tigers, leopards, bears and elephants – the whole cast of Kipling’s Jungle Book. But the hunting mafia has taken a massive toll on all the cast, and these animals survive as best as they can, as far as they can get from Man. Even wildlife sanctuaries cause conflict, displacing yet more tribal villages from their forest. Tribal people and their forest are one: damage that bond and the culture and environment are slowly but surely killed, together: cultural genocide and ecocide.
British geologists in the 1900s named the base rock of south Orissa’s bauxite-capped mountains ‘Khondalite’, after ‘those fine hill men the Khonds’. These mountains are classed as one of the world’s best deposits for making aluminium – prime strategic metal for the arms industry (‘Mining as a Fuel for War‘ at War Resisters International, ). Preventing a whole series of mining projects are the movements. The war against the Maoists, ‘Operation Green Hunt’, acts a filter that often draws attention and support away from these movements, as the situation escalates towards a classic resource war.
2,270 years ago, the ‘first recorded event of Indian history’ was Ashoka’s massive attack on the Kalinga people in Orissa. By his own admission (was he really repentant, or was he just doing his own PR for history?) he killed 100,000 and enslaved 150,000, while many more died of disease and hunger. The Kalinga did not have kings and they put up a terrible fight to try and keep their freedom. Ashoka’s two inscriptions in Orissa threaten the ‘forest tribes’: the Kalinga who could retreated to the mountains and forests to preserve their independence as best they could, and have lived there till today. The Khonds’ name for themselves is Kuwinga, and there is no doubt they are essentially the same people. So the ongoing takeover of tribal land now conjures a structural memory of Ashoka’s terrible violence.
The PR now is gross. ‘Kalinganagar’ is the name of the steel complex with a dozen new plants in various stages of planning and operation, that has already displaced thousands of Adivasis of the Ho and Munda tribes (whose heartland is in Jharkhand), just beside the Sukinda chromite mines in Jajpur district of Orissa, characterised as ‘one of the ten most polluted places in the world’. Kalinganagar is where Adivasis who refuse to shift to make way for a huge new Tata steel plant have got together as the ‘People’s Platform Against Displacement’. They were fired on and 14 killed on 2nd January 2006, when police and contractors tried to start construction of the plant. Last November, Orissa’s Chief Minister conveyed his public thanks to the steel companies for constructing a new hi-tech Kalinganagar police station. Police with goondas started an attack on the 20 or so protesting villages on 30th March (2 weeks ago), breaking houses, stealing possessions, wounding many with a new type of ‘rubber bullet’, and taking over people’s land and villages in the guise of building a big road across the area. The People’s Platform Against Displacement has made it clear throughout that they are not Maoists, and have kept their movement non-violent (e.g. The Hindu, 3 April 2010. ‘Tension continues in Kalinganagar‘
Who made proper mention at the Copenhagen summit on Climate Change about Orissa’s 40 new steel plants and the carbon emissions from making 60 million tonnes of steel per year (Orissa’s stated target)? Or are these essential for India’s ‘development’? How can it be ‘development’ to destroy ecosystems and communities of people whose lives are based on long-term sustainability – who have sustained in the face of assaults from Ashoka to the East India Company to now, and who are fighting these projects with everything they gave? Knowing our Indian history, what we witness is a return of the East Indian Company. It took power here on the East side of India in Bengal/Madras in the 18th century, taking over Orissa from 1803 onwards. And the subsidiary company it formed was called the Government of India, based around collecting tribute, and implementing the laws being made to facilitate this all over the country. The senior administrator of a District in India is still called the Collector or District Magistrate.
Analysing the causes of the conflict, and the reasons why many tribal people join the Maoists, the following are some of the main ones:
1. The system of endemic exploitation of tribal people, coupled with ingrained disrespect for tribal culture.
2. the escalating dispossession of tribal people from their land and resources – by numerous industrial projects but also by the war itself. No-one disputes the figures of 644 tribal villages burnt by Salwa Judum and an estimated 200,000 tribal refugees from these burnt villages.
3. The atrocities perpetrated on tribal villages by the Salwa Judum and security forces, and the impossibility of getting justice through the courts. The case of Sodhi and the villagers killed at Gompad has highlighted this impossibility of bringing securitymen responsible for atrocities to account, and the appeal of Maoists arises directly out of this impunity to prosecution. Numerous human rights reports and courageous journalism have highlighted a definite pattern of attacks on tribal villages, in which most of the village flees, and the women, old and young who don’t get away are raped, killed, tortured or taken away. The best aspect of Arundhati Roy’s recent article “Walking with the Comrades” is that she brings out the voices of young Maoist women and men. These voices need to be heard. All of them witnessed close friends and family raped and killed, and were motivated to join the Maoists by these atrocities. Having suffered such loss and witnessed such horror, if there is no chance of bringing the perpetrators to account, and the Maoists are there, offering comradeship and guns – who wouldn’t go with them?
4. However, the Maoist ideology and leadership believes in war, exactly as many do in the mainstream & military. War has an attraction, and we all need to fight internal as well as external battles to resist this attraction. What is happening is a polarisation into two sides who both believe in war, leaving no space for neutraility, truth and peace. The recent attack is a deliberate escalation of war. We should not blame the individual Maoist fighters, any more than the individual CRPF men: both are pawns in a game where leaders actually believe in sacrificng people’s lives, on a huge scale. Mao himself was one of the worst tyrants: during his rise to power as well as his ‘great leap forward’ (upping steel production, causing a massive famine) and cultural revolution, he was responsible for millions of deaths of innocent people & even loyal party supporters. He was a superb propagandist though, and in that, very similar to mining companies’ PR machine, turning truth on its head. As the Brigadier said in yesterday’s interview, the ideology he created promotes war, and promotes an escalation of war. We must not let this happen. Maoist attacks instigate huge-scale counterinsurgency attacks on villages. This pattern must stop.
5. In other words, the attack on tribal communities as a strategy to wipe out Maoists is paradoxically a principal cause of the growing strength of the Maoists. This mirrors the worldwide ‘war on terror’ (in Afghanistan, Iraq etc), where everyone can see that attacks on ‘terrorists’ – and the ‘collateral damage’ on countless civilians whose outrage has no outlet through judicial process – have increased the number of ‘terrorists’ exponentially. In Dantewara, the systematic attacks on tribal villages are a campaign of terror. In other words, the primary perpetrators of terror are the security foces rather than the Maoists. In the recent attack, the CRPF people killed are human beings too and their death is very sad. Police in the area live in fear of attack. The difference is – armed policemen are trained to fight and have chosen a job that involves high risk of killing or being killed. Current news portrays this Maoist attack as an outrage, and the CRPF armed policemen killed by the Maoists as ‘martyrs’.
What of the countless villagers who have been killed and terrorised by the Central Reserve Police Force and other ’security forces’? The tribal villagers living in the eye of the conflict are essentially innocent – even if they often support the Maoists, they do so because they experience an invasion and atrocities in which they lose their land, food families, culture – everything. We get to hear of only a tiny percentage of the atrocities committed by security forces in villages, while every killing by Maoists gets high publicity. (See some excellent examples of such journalism published in the New Indian Express, e.g. ‘Operation Tribal Hunt?’ 11 November 2009)
If there is a genuine move for peace, one essential step will be repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – this has often been called for, esp from the Northeast and Kashmir. This has become essential for the war in Dantewara. If it can be seen that security personnel who commit atrocities are punished this will automatically take wind out of the Maoist sails. Human rights work is a prerequisite for peace. Tribal culture places a high value on Justice and Truth. Some kind of Truth and Reconciliation process will have to take place if the escalation towards war is to be halted. Responsibility lies on both sides. Where it does not lie is with the tribal communities, and when they know they can get Justice, Peace will prevail.