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Dealing with naxalism in Chhattisgarh

Posted by Indian Vanguard on October 5, 2007

by Praful Bidwai

RECENTLY, Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh described Naxalism as “the greatest internal security threat” facing India. Naxalism has struck roots in more than 150 of India’s 600 districts. Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have now decisively replaced Andhra Pradesh and. Between January 2006 and June 2007, Chhattisgarh recorded 529 deaths, and the displacement of nearly lakh people. Yet, Chhattisgarh provides terrifying lessons on how Naxalism should not be fought — by unleashing state repression against unarmed civilians, by creating, training and instigating bandits who target Naxalites, and by violating the citizen’s civil liberties, even while perpetuating gruesome injustices against the poor.

This conclusion, drawn by social scientists, jurists and civil liberties activists, was reinforced during a visit I made to Chhattisgarh last fortnight with Mr Mukul Sharma, director of Amnesty International-India. We made the visit to express solidarity with Dr Binayak Sen, a noted health activist, and general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties-Chhattisgarh, who has been detained since May 14 under draconian laws. We also wanted to investigate whether there’s anything in Dr Sen’s work which warrants such harsh measures. Besides Raipur, we toured parts of Dhamtari district, where Dr Sen’s organisation, Rupantar, has run a clinic for 10 years. Upon talking to more than 20 people in Bagrumnala, Kekrakholi and other villages, we failed to find any evidence of Dr Sen’s culpability in inciting the public to extremism or helping Naxalites penetrate the area. On the contrary, Dr Sen has been doing exemplary voluntary work in the Gandhian mould in providing primary and preventive healthcare to people long deprived of access to any health facilities.

Rupantar’s Bagrumnala clinic offers an extraordinary range of services at nominal cost, including rapid testing for the deadly Falciparum strain of the malaria parasite. Many of these services are provided through local volunteers and “barefoot doctors” trained by Dr Sen, who give the public invaluable advice on nutrition and preventive medicine. The Rupantar clinic caters to villages in a 40 sq km radius, which otherwise have no access to healthcare. Its work is irreplaceable and worthy of universal support. Its closure is bound to cause preventable loss of life and well-being among some of the poorest tribals of Chhattisgarh, many of whom suffer from chronic malnutrition and a host of infectious diseases.

People described Dr Sen’s role as a noble and selfless one. No one spoke of even the remotest sign of his instigating people to extremism or soliciting support for pro-Naxal ideas. However, it’s not an aberration that an outstanding activist like Dr Sen was detained under a nasty law like the PSA, which criminalises even peaceful activity and protest, by declaring it “a danger or menace to public order, peace and tranquillity”, because it might interfere with or “tends to interfere with the maintenance of public order… the administration of law or its… institutions”, and encourages or preaches “disobedience to established law and its institutions.”

There’s a clear purpose behind this legal monstrosity — to set a horrible example for all civil rights defenders and intimidate them. This isn’t the first time in India that trumped-up charges have been brought against an innocent person. But it’s probably the first occasion when a civil liberties defender has been explicitly and exclusively targeted, and that too, one belonging to a broad-church, inclusive and politically unaffiliated organisation like the PUCL, originally headed by Jayaprakash Narayan, which has defended people of all persuasions against the state’s excesses. Dr Sen was victimised precisely because he formed a bridge between the human rights movement and other civil society and voluntary organisations, and created a forum of empowerment for Chhattisgarh’s disadvantaged people.

The state government, whose very existence is premised upon the rapacious exploitation of Adivasis and the staggering natural wealth of Chhattisgarh—and whose primary function is to subserve Big Business, forest contractors and traders—, is loath to tolerate such organisations or individuals. If this sounds like an exaggeration, consider the following: One of India’s most remarkable and creative trade unionists, Mr Shankar Guha Niyogi, who founded the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, and ignited a mass awakening encompassing a range of social, cultural and economic issues, was brutally assassinated at the behest of the state’s powerful and politically well-connected industrialists and contractors in 1991. Those who planned and financed the murder still roam scot-free. Chhattisgarh has among India’s worst indices of wealth maldistribution and income inequality. Raipur (capital), Durg and Bilaspur are veritable boom towns, parts of which would put even Bhopal (capital of Madhya Pradesh, from which the state was split off seven years ago) in the shade in their ostentatious affluence, spanking new hotels and glittering shopping malls.

At the other extreme are predominantly tribal districts like Dantewada (one of the three carved out from erstwhile Bastar), which present a dismal picture of malnutrition, starvation deaths, rampant illiteracy, and severe scarcity of health facilities and of safe drinking water. The literacy rate among tribals here is less than one-third the national average—just 30 percent for men and 13 percent for women. Of its 1220 villages, 214 don’t even have a primary school. Worse, 1,161 villages have no medical facility whatsoever. Primary health centres exist in only 34 villages. In Bijapur, the district’s most violent tehsil, where 55 policemen were gunned down in March, only 52 villages have 25 percent literacy; 35 villages have no literate people at all.

To make a stark comparison, the difference in life-expectancy between Kerala and tribal Chhattisgarh is a shocking 18 years. The two regions could well belong to different continents like Europe and Africa. Naxalism has thrived in Chhattisgarh as a response, albeit an irrational and violent one, to this obnoxious system of exploitation, dispossession and outright loot, along with the complete collapse of the state as a provider of public services and a relatively impartial guardian of the law. The Naxalites flourish because the state has failed. Yet, to defend the system of exploitation, the state is waging war against its own people through the sponsorship of Salwa Judum, a government-funded and -trained militia which is specifically meant to kill and incite violence against the Naxals. This is an extraordinarily predatory organisation. Its violence has uprooted and rendered homeless almost 1 lakh people, who are forced to live in appalling conditions in temporary camps.

Salwa Judum represents an unholy nexus between the Congress and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, buttressed by powerful entrenched interests of industry and trade. Its violence and atrocities only ensure that the Naxalite problem will never be settled. Chhattisgarh is rapidly getting polarised between “Red” (Naxals) and “Saffron” (BJP). It’s also divided between what Niyogi called mankhe gotiyar (the human species) and baghwa gotiyar (the bloodsucking clan), or the forces of human compassion/solidarity, and the forces of destruction. If the Chhattisgarh government has proved utterly bankrupt in dealing with Naxalism, the Centre has done no better. By solely relying on maximum, brute force to fight Naxalism, it’s inviting grave disaster.


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