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The Maoists, the centipede and the owl

For a person who has traversed the tribal areas of Orissa, especially the southern tracts of Koraput and Kalahandi, the experience was heart-wrenching.

Living in sub-human conditions, exploited by tendu leaf contractors, ravaged by drought, it would appear that these are people that God forgot.

But further north, in Mayurbhanj district, the state of the tribals was a study in contrast. These tribals used the forest and forest land, grew produce, and came to Baripada town for the weekly bazaar or ‘haat’ to sell and buy. After the ‘haat’ closed in the evening, some would go ‘partying’, drinking the liquor they brewed, dancing and singing  ‘Kadam suda re….’.

We, as children, would sometimes go and watch these gentle, carefree people, revelling in their simple ways with God as their witness.  The tribals are India’s original people. They believe God gave them their land.

Why was there this difference between the Baripada/Mayurbhanj tribals and the others? The answer is simple. The so-called super human predators.

The laws passed on tribal forest rights reminds one of a parable.

A centipede suffering from pain in his many legs met an owl. The wise owl contemplated on the centipede’s problems and advised him to become a two legged creature like him, so that the number of legs to take care of would reduce. How could he turn into an owl, asked the centipede. The owl replied that he could only advise and pass laws, but the centipede would have to find someone else to implement them.

This is the first problem. Everything is there to protect the rights of the tribals, but no one has cared to implement them. This is not a simple oversight, but deliberate. The state governments concerned have been more involved with the exploiters who fund them and their elections with the blood of tribals and poor peasants. One must not forget that today’s tribal issues taken up by the Naxalites or Maoists also include the landless.

The founders of the Naxalite movement in 1967, people like Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal or even Jangal Shantal, had started to change their ideological direction and action when they realized that the policemen, peons, chaprasis, and low level officials they initially targeted for killing, were the same deprived people they were fighting for. These people were doing these jobs for a basic minimal living for their families.

Given the opportunity, Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal would have come overground. Charu Mazumdar’s son, who is still an activist for the downtrodden, does not believe in the politics of the new Naxalites or Maoists.

The modern Maoist’s most famous face, Kishanji, and his colleagues have really no claims as the successor of the original Naxalite movement. This must be realized by all concerned.

The Maoists have clearly demonstrated that their agenda is not really the upliftment of the tribals and securing their natural rights. What they are doing is using the tribals and the landless for a much bigger objective – the overthrow the Indian constitution and democracy, but with no vision of what will happen after that.

Bihar, as of today, has no real tribal problem. West Bengal’s land reform programme had greatly mitigated the problem of the landless. Of course, there are serious problems in other states, especially Andhra Pradesh, where politicians and landlords hold obnoxiously huge stretches of land and continue to exploit the landless.

Another problem is the mining industry, which has become a power unto itself. This industry in the private sector has become a mafia, with zero social commitment.

A third issue is government land acquisition, which has become a political issue between different political parties to use against each other. The TATA Nano car project in West Bengal is an outstanding example of this tussle. Trinamul Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee’s machinations against the West Bengal CPM’s operations just show how the Maoists have positioned themselves as a critical election balancer in West Bengal.

The Maoists are actually laughing all the way to the bank, as our myriad political parties try to protect them in one way or the other to buy their support not only for votes but also to damage their opponents.

West Bengal is a classic case. The ruling CPM in the state went soft on the Maoists and tried to make a deal with them by suggesting that both were on the Left and had a common agenda for the people. There have been instances in the past when the CPM government could have demolished the Maoist leadership in the state, but did not. Despite the Maoist attempt on the life of Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the CPM tried to assuage them.

TMC chief Mamata Banerjee did one better to score brownie points against the CPM by taking up the Maoist cause in a rather crude fashion. Her Lalgarh rally in July was a blatant attempt to use the Maoists against the CPM, putting the Maoist terrorist attacks on the shoulders of the CPM. At the same rally, Mamata described the killing of Maoist ideologue Azad as a violation of human rights by the central forces.

The Congress-led government at the centre has dithered on Mamata, because her party is a key coalition partner. The Congress is also depending on the TMC to oust the CPM from West Bengal.

Most recently, the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar made a mess of the abduction of four policemen by the Maoists, one of whom, Havildar Tete, was beheaded by the Maoists in captivity. The Maoists wanted eight of their comrades –including two ‘Zonal commanders’ — to be released in exchange for the four policemen.

Even more galling is the role of the self-appointed civil society activists like Swami Agnivesh, Prof Sai Baba of the Delhi University, journalists, author Aurundhati Roy and a host of others.

In more ways than one, they seem to support and endorse the killings and other terrorist acts of the Maoists with bizarre explanations.

One such Maoist supporter tried to argue that the government had jails to keep Maoist detainees for months, but the Maoists did not have such facilities, thus  implying that they had no option but to kill the abducted policemen.

Decades ago, such people would have had a genuine reason to take up the cause of the Naxalites. But not now.

Today, the Maoists do not want any development programme for the tribals. Their aim is to keep them deprived, even by force, so that they can exploit the situation. Ask any tribal if he wants development or Maoist revolution, and he will opt for the former if he is given protection by the state. The tribals are also taxed by the Maoists.

This is where the state and central governments have failed. The state forces go into the area, intimidate the tribals for information on the Maoists and also indulge in their petty atrocities, and withdraw after an encounter.

The forces will never get cooperation from the people if they leave them to the mercy of the Maoists. And this lack of ground information makes the work of the forces more difficult. Using technology to locate Maoist leaders and fighters is proving difficult. Satellites and UAVs cannot penetrate jungle foliage. Intercepting mobile phone conversations to locate them will require further upgradation of technology, and the Maoists have reduced use of mobile phones to the minimum.

The most reliable way to collect information is through human intelligence. To do this, however, the human resources will have to be given credible protection.

It is appalling that the central government, and the Home Ministry in particular, has not understood the rudimentary rules of counter-insurgency. The first thing to win over the tribals, the people, is to hold ground for at least four to five years. Only if they are assured of protection will they cooperate. On the other hand, if the people do not cooperate with the Maoists, these terrorists will be left naked. Tribals that have joined them, some by force and others by conviction, will desert them.

Holding ground has to be the primary step. But simultaneously, the holding would have to be supplemented by immediate development work, and not repeating the story of the centipede and the owl.

It must be understood by the political parties using the Maoists that these people are nobody’s friends. If our political leaders think that the Maoists are working at their behest, they are totally wrong. It is a classical case of the ‘tail wagging the dog’.

The Maoists have changed the game definitively. It is no longer a people’s movement. As Govindan Kutty, editor of ‘People’s March’ and a diehard supporter of Maoist actions told a television channel recently, it is a war.

The government must view the Maoist action not as a people’s war, but a war waged by terrorists against the state of India. And in a war, there can be no quarters. The government has to be prepared to suffer losses, like in any war.

Negotiations with terrorists after each incident of killing of a government combatant is only self-defeating, giving the terrorists space, time and encouragement. There has to be determination from the side of the state of India that the enemy has to be eradicated.

There is now no middle ground to come to an agreement because no such condition exists. Otherwise, this cancer is going spread faster than we can deal with it. Perhaps it already has.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a China analyst based in New Delhi. Views expressed are his own. email:

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