Saturday, April 10, 2010

Suppression won’t work. Caring may

Let us say P.Chidambaram has his way. Crack army battalions are ordered into the forests of the Naxal-tribal belt. A formidable arsenal of weapons short of the nuclear are pressed into service. The Air Force, despite its better judgment, is ordered to reduce suspected hideouts into ash heaps. In no time Chidambaram will be able to proclaim triumphantly that the Maoists have been wiped out.

But that’s what Chief Minister Sidharth Shankar Ray did in West Bengal in the 1970s. By then the Naxal movement had grown strong enough to launch a full-fledged guerilla war. A determined Ray unleashed a reign of counter-terror and eliminated the guerillas. Then what happened? A generation later the underground movement reappeared as “the biggest threat facing India” in the Prime Minister’s words. Which means that Chidambaram’s grandstanding can at best do another Sidharth Shankar Ray, nothing more. That is what has always happened in history when policies are shaped by one-dimensional thinkers.

Chidambaram’s analytical powers must be strong as he is both a lawyer and an economist. It is therefore surprising that he has learned no lessons from India’s experience in Kashmir and the Northeast. In both regions prolonged operations by “special powers” army have only heightened the local people’s sense of alienation. In these cases, however, we can say that the “foreign hand” complicates matters for India. In the so-called Maoist movement there is no real foreign involvement, despite occasional suggestions to the contrary. There is an ideological solidarity with Maoists in Nepal and the Philippines, but operational links are clearly out of the question. And in China, of course, there are no longer any “Maoists”.

India’s Maoist problem is rooted in the social and economic deprivation of the poor. Bad enough before independence, the plight of the tribals in particular became worse after it. The tribal areas attracted attention only for the bauxite and uranium and diamonds as well as the iron ore they held. These in turn brought big companies and big contractors into the forests with greedy government officers in their wake. The tribal people were a nuisance to them. Not a single government since independence, whether in the states or in the Centre, has wasted a minute worrying about the welfare of the tribals and the dirt-poor.

The Maoists may be exploiting these destitutes to achieve their own political ends. But how did the tribals become so easily exploitable in the first place? Elected governments, the “legitimate authorities” as Chidambaram likes to put it, are guilty of creating a situation that drove people into the arms of exploiters. Politicians also exploited them. True to character, they exploited the tribals and also used the Maoists to settle their petty local quarrels. The state itself stepped in with the Salwa Judum, a band of government-sponsored thugs with the licence to kill, rape and plunder. This helped swell the Maoist ranks, in yet another demonstration of typical government foolishness.

It does not require the analytical powers of a lawyer-cum-economist to realise that there is a lesson in a simple statistic. Maoists were a notable presence in 55 districts in 2003, in 155 districts in 2005 and in 170 districts in 2009. They have become so strong that Home Secretary G.K Pillai estimates that it will take ten years to contain them.

Contain them like Siddarth Shankar Ray contained the first wave? It will take shorter and the outcome will be surer if the Government acts on a few meaningful ideas: Launch a crash programme for tribal people’s economic and social welfare; take quick and effective action against forest contractors and government officials and landlords who make tribal life hell; make it obligatory for mining companies to conduct supervised welfare schemes like the Tatas used to do in Jamshedpur in the early days. In short, have a caring policy instead of just a suppression policy.