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Land Conflict and Injustice

Hedonism is said to be the hallmark of a civilization in decline. Is it fear or avarice that consumes the revelers, content to avert their gaze as their countrymen, doused in poverty, burn on the party pyre.

There are many fires raging in India; the agrarian crisis is one of the most shocking and destructive and sits at the heart of a range of interconnected calamities. “Don’t detach this crisis from the overall political, economic social direction of the country” advises P. Sainath. It is a crisis rooted in one fundamental cause – the “predatory commercialization of the countryside,” a destructive development model that includes huge infrastructure and dam building projects (3,600 dams have been built since independence making India the third biggest dam builder in the world after China and America), gifting large tracts of land to corporations for industrial arteries known as ‘Special Economic Zones (SEZs)’ and massive mining projects. It is a collection of corporate sports which together are causing, “the biggest displacement in Indian history,” an epidemic of farmer suicides, the death of ancient cultures, and ecological mayhem. A redundant model of civilization that has fuelled a spectrum of resistance movements from the non-violent Gandhians in the homespun corner, to the armed wing of the Maoists (or Naxalites) in AK47 combat boots, the more militant, members of which want nothing less than the dismantling of the Indian state. . As Kishanji – Maoist leader is reported as saying, “We are the opposition in the true sense. All the political parties are the same in all the states. We want to destroy the state. This is a real war.” [Adivasi Caught Between two Fires (ACBTF)]

Hidden War

The fiercest fire sparked by the commercialization of the countryside has to be the war tearing through parts of the north-eastern and central states. The insurgency, or “corporate war” as Arundhati Roy calls it, covers “over 40% of India’s land area, encompassing 20 of the country’s 28 states, including 223 districts (up from 55 in 2003) out of a total of 640”[The Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG)] and yet it remains largely hidden from the world and the new city dwelling middle class we hear so much about.

India may not be choosing to feed its 450 million plus starving citizens or provide sanitation and health care to the rural poor and metropolitan slum dwellers, or even toilets to 50% of the population who defecate in the open, but it comes tenth in worldwide military expenditure, has the third largest standing army in the world and, Om Shanti, India is a nuclear armed state.

The battlefields for the forty-year internal conflict are the mineral rich afforested areas in some of the country’s poorest regions – where some of the poorest people on earth live. In order of intensity the states affected, (or ‘infested’ as the Indian media describes it), are: Chattisgarh/Jharkhand, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Orissa, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh.  These regions comprise the so-called “Red Corridor” (which covers over 1000 km), government slang for the most poor, backward and underdeveloped parts of the country. It is here that paramilitary forces, police and army are pitted against Maoist/Naxalite insurgents (numbering around 20,000 armed fighters with 50,000 supporters), made up largely of India’s indigenous people – the Adivasis (from adi meaning from the earliest times), a marginalised minority accounting for around 8% (or 85 million) of the population. In addition to paramilitary troops, “the state has also used death squads known as Salwa Judum (SJ), [set up in 2005] meaning Purification Hunt, to spread a reign of terror and drive out Adivasis from villages for the benefit of companies — and on a massive scale” [Global Issues (GI)].

The vigilante group, which contained Adivasi in its ranks was banned in Chattisgarh by the Supreme Court in 2011, but the damage done was immense: “displacing 300,000 Adivasis, killing, raping, and looting them and burning down their villages. Five hundred charges of murder, 103 of arson, and 99 of rape have been levelled by citizens against the Salwa Judum, but the Chattisgarh government has not investigated or processed a single case. According to Human Rights Watch” [GI]. In May 2013 in an attack by Maoists in Chattisgarh that killed 28 Congress Party leaders, Mahendra Karma the founder of the Salwa Judum “was stabbed 78 times and shot 15 times”.

The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh has called the Maoist insurgency ‘India’s greatest internal security threat’. Such hyperbole is designed to deflect attention from the true cause of instability: extreme inequality and social injustice, feeding crippling levels of poverty. The conflict is a “governance issue that has broken into a law-and-order issue,” revealing the flaws in the “way [New] India is governed”[according to Sudeep Chakravarti – author of Red Sun: Travels In Naxalite Country].

Along with the Dalit community (15% or 190 million people) the Adivasis have been excluded totally from twenty years of economic growth and are seen by the government and the ruling elite in the cities as an embarrassment, an unsightly hangover from the past to be swept aside, allowed to fester and die in rural poverty or urban degradation. Infant mortality amongst Adivasis (or Scheduled Tribes – of which there are 635 distinct groups)_ is 57% and child malnutrition is 73% (the national average is the highest in the world at 48%) [International Institute for Population Sciences].

Ignored, many in desperation turn to the Maoists for support. Some Adivasi groups have formed their own resistance movements – in Orissa for example, several tribes came together forming the Chasi Mulia Sangh, a tribal land movement (unconnected to the Maoists they assert) 5,000 strong. Armed with traditional weapons they are fighting for human rights and collective tribal ownership of their ancestral lands. They “claim they are caught between the two fires of an escalating Maoists/Naxalite insurgency and the governments paramilitary backlash” [ACBTF]. Such movements face injustice and violent repression from security forces, which serve to push these groups into the arms of the Maoists. Once associated with ‘India’s greatest security threat’, “armed police are sent in, and village land is forcibly taken over with impunity” [anthropologist Felix Padel].

The Adivasi people have “an ingrained regard for truth and law”, they have lived in harmony with the land for generations: within their culture the natural environment is sacred and belongs to the whole community – there is no concept of individual ownership. They are ‘the sons of the soil’ condemned to live in grinding poverty outside the economic growth bubble by a government that is firmly wedded to the corporations and sees the shining future of India in post-modern industrialized (meaning market capitalist) colours. Corruption is endemic within all sectors of Indian politics, the police and, it is said the judiciary, and although large sums of money are ‘officially’ “being spent on tribal groups, only 1% or 2% reaches them, 98% is swindled, siphoned off”, states Professor Manmath Kundu.

The government “has done nothing for us, no development, no roads, no drinking water, no schools” and we could add – no healthcare (rural India is deprived the constitutional right to a universal health care system). After twenty years of economic development India has of course progressed – it now produces a food surplus compared to a deficit in 1950, but most of its people have seen little improvement in their lives; on the contrary, there are more poor than ever and the poor are poorer, as Arundhati Roy states, “the price that is being paid for development – for growth, is displacement, deaths, environmental destruction.”

The government has given nothing to its most vulnerable citizens, and taken everything, “thousands of Adivasi farmers have had their land stolen” [Chasi Mulia Sangh leader, Nachika Linga], and with the land goes the culture, including language and traditions. The Adivasi in Dr. Kundu’s view, “have a very bleak future, because the development is not ‘tribal friendly’ and means ‘de-tribalisation… ultimately there will be hardly any tribal groups left in the true sense.”

Angered by such government neglect and extreme levels of social injustice the Maoists are fighting against a political-economic system that (despite constitutional guarantees) ignores the 800 million oppressed and downtrodden: they describe their fight as a “democratic revolution, which would remain directed against imperialism, feudalism, and comprador bureaucratic capitalism.”

Bulldozing the Rural Poor

Corrupt and heavily armed the ‘imperialist’ security forces are acting on behalf of corporate India, Western multinational corporations and governments. A self-interested posse motivated by one thing only – profit. They are determined to loot the land of the vast mineral resources (particularly iron ore and bauxite), inflate their burgeoning multi-national coffers and fulfil the Indian corporate-governments vision of a post-modern industrialised nation, sprinting to the winning line in the race for global economic supremacy. “The Tata’s and the Ambani’s are using armed might. I think everything that happened in Latin America and Central America with the creation of Contras, the arming of society, dividing of society, is being tried in India” [says environmental activist Vandana Shiva]. The Indian state “has been thoroughly corrupted by neoliberalism both at the national and provincial levels,” and in partnership with corporate India is at war with some of the oldest, poorest people in the world, people who find themselves “in the way of the kind of development – rapid industrialization fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources,” being pursued by the government [Mira Kamdar].

A World Bank/IMF model of development that is causing extreme hardship for the majority of Indians, and has displaced millions of indigenous people: as many as 56 million people have been displaced by dam building alone since 1947. According to the 1894 Land Acquisition Act the government is not bound to compensate displaced people with anything other than a cash payment – little use to an illiterate Adivasi man – women get nothing at all, who has just lost his home, his livelihood and his cultural heritage. This is feeding an insurgency which has taken tens of thousands of lives. A media-managed conflict in which paramilitary forces have herded large numbers of forest dwellers off their ancestral land into police camps, or forced to migrate to cities where they join the millions living sub-human lives in the slums. A war, according to Felix Padel, is “the worst war there has ever been in India, because it is directed against village people.” And yet, throughout the world, the majority “don’t know there is a civil war going on in India,” so great is the corporate state’s control over the ‘free press’ and the international community’s indifference to tribal people who are unlikely to be particularly heavy shoppers.

The violent pattern of mining, environmental destruction, death and displacement of native peoples is an ancient story. It is a colonial epic, the story of the powerful versus the vulnerable, corporations versus indigenous people, who happen to live on ancestral land rich in mineral deposits worth trillions of US $. From their exalted point of privilege the rulers of India, the upper and middle classes, “look down on the land and ask [of the Adivasi people] ‘what’s our bauxite doing in your mountains, what’s our water doing in your rivers, what’s our timber doing in your forests?” [Arundhati Roy] Far from understanding the delicate ecological balance all is seen as a profitable commodity. Deep within the Saranda forest in the state of Jharkhand (where Adivasi’s make up 26% of the population) lie’s the world’s largest deposit of iron-ore.

The mining giants are firmly in residence in the north eastern state, which is now “a fully militarized zone, there are over a hundred bases with a total of 50,000 official paramilitary troops involved in military action, [plus] the mining corporations’ security forces.” [Xavier Dias, spokesperson for the Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee]. Such government intimidation is designed to create a climate of fear and suppression in which dissenting voices are silenced and the “corporations are free to suck out the minerals and forest resources,” in the process “transforming large fertile areas into industrial wastelands” [Felix Padel relates in Deconstructing War on Terror]. The Adivasi are simply an inconvenient irrelevant gaggle, that need to be cleared away, or at best put to work collecting scraps of coal or labouring on corporate farms for less than US$ 1 a day [Adivasi Caught Between two Fires].

The Maoist insurgency, whilst containing extreme elements that fit neatly into the box marked ‘terrorists’, is the direct result a narrow colonial approach to development, for in a way the India has been colonizing itself since independence. The government has fuelled discontent and anger amongst the marginalized majority “through lack of development, political and administrative corruption, callousness in places where there is less bang for the political buck, mis-governance or non-governance” [Sudeep Chakravarti].

Village life for Adivasis and Dalits is largely an interdependent one in which people share what little they have. If there is any hope for the world at all Arundhati Roy in Trickle Down Revolution suggests, “it lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them. The first step towards reimagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination.” A re-imagination based on right relationship, with one another and environment; a life free from the insatiable drive for material possessions and accumulation to one rooted in sufficiency, simplicity and sharing.

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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