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Commentary: Pain, protest and the Naxalite label

Posted by Indian Vanguard on November 21, 2007

MAJUWARA, India, Nov. 20 BIJO FRANCIS Column: Incredible India Majuwara village, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is known for its forest-dwelling community, the Vanvasi. It is also infamous as a base for Naxalite insurgent activities within Uttar Pradesh and the neighboring state of Bihar.

The Naxalites, broadly, are the Indian version of Maoist rebels. If by chance anyone from Majuwara is questioned by law enforcement agencies anywhere in the state or in neighboring states, and if the person divulges that he is from Majuwara, he is immediately arrested and detained. It doesn’t matter whether the person has committed a crime or not. The villagers in Majuwara do not appear to be Naxalites. If one takes time to talk to them, they do not sound like insurgents either. If one asks about their concerns in life, they will say they would like to escape their tainted image and stop being branded as criminals.

If one persists and manages to establish rapport with these villagers, they will slowly divulge their side of the story, which explains why the entire village has been branded as Naxalite and anti-state. In Majuwara the government is represented by the local forest office and the police. Most of the villagers come from the low Vanvasi caste, which literally translated means “forest dweller.” The members of this community once depended upon the pristine forest that existed in the region.

There are huge buildings in Naugarh town, close to Majuwara, where the state government once planned such institutions as a forest research institute, a cattle research station and even a seed farm. These buildings were never occupied, however, since by the time the buildings were constructed, the forest had disappeared. The State Forest Department, charged with administering the forest, has “protected” and “preserved” the forest to such an extent that there is hardly any forest left in the region. Once the forest was gone, the fertile land opened up new opportunities for the once nomadic tribe to settle down and cultivate the cleared land. Poverty, malnourishment and deaths from starvation among the Vanvasi community came down considerably. But the one and only landlord in the village was opposed to this.

If the Vanvasis were allowed to have their own cultivable land, the landlord would lose the free labor which he and his forefathers had long enjoyed at the expense of the Vanvasis. The landlord, who had contacts within the Forest Department, sought assistance from the department to evict the “illegal occupants.” Department officials readily agreed and came down with full force upon the Vanvasis and their families. Huts were destroyed and the occupants chased away. The patches of land cultivated by the Vanvasis were eventually handed over to the landlord, not officially but by illegal means. Left with no forest, land or homes, the Vanvasis were pressed to accept forced labor on the landlord’s farms. Poverty, malnourishment and deaths from starvation returned in full force. All of this happened some three decades ago.

Since then two generations of Vanvasis have lived and died in Majuwara. In the meantime, a human rights group known as Gramya intervened in the village and started organizing the villagers to protest against the unfair practices forced upon them. The villagers managed to reclaim small patches of land to cultivate. The son of the earlier landlord, like his father, was furious and again sought assistance from the Forest Department, which was readily provided. Once again, homes were destroyed and people were thrown off the land. However, this time there was resistance. The human rights group, mustering support from similar groups in the state, organized a protest march, which later led to the Forest Department returning some land to the Vanvasis. Still, many of them lost their property and livelihoods. During the span of these years, the Naxalite movement began spreading in the region.

This had nothing to do with the Vanvasis in Majuwara. It had much to do with the lack of government attention to the region. For example, although concrete buildings were constructed for a public health center, the center is not functional as there is no staff. Virtually no government services are provided in Majuwara. The spillover of Maoists from neighboring Nepal, whenever there was trouble in that country, resulted in a number of Maoist cadres settling in and around Chandauli district near Majuwara. The remote area was an ideal location for the rebels due to its proximity to the completely lawless state of Bihar and the poor quality of local policing. Meanwhile governments changed, and local issues started getting attention beyond the borders of Majuwara village. Many more human rights groups joined the struggle. Some participated only on paper; some made money by selling projects that were supposed to benefit the people. Some joined hands with Gramya to fight for the rights of the Vanvasi.

The government also came under pressure and implemented the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 in the district. The implementation of the rural employment act has not been much of a success, however. The third generation of the landlord’s family still commands considerable authority in Majuwara. The act in theory is supposed to ensure a minimum of 100 days of work per year to unskilled adults in the rural community. With this intention, job cards are issued to those who qualify. However, the cards are not handed over to the applicants, the Vanvasis. Instead the landlord, who now also happens to be the village head, collects the cards from the government, keeps them in his custody and also collects the minimum wage that is due to the laborers. The minimum wage in Uttar Pradesh now is 100 rupees (US$2.50) per day. The landlord however only pays 50 rupees for the men and 35 for the women. Gramya came to know about this and asked the villagers to ask the landlord for their cards and demand proper payment. The landlord obviously refused. This time too, learning from his ancestors, the landlord sought help from the Forest Department and also the local police.

The landlord and government officers warned the Vanvasis that if they protested against the practices of the landlord they would be branded as Naxalites and arrested. The result is that anyone challenging the established feudal practices in the village is by default branded a Naxalite. Gramya has taken up this issue and is attempting to pursue it further with local authorities. Branding a person a Naxalite and detaining him makes things easier for the administration in Majuwara. No one dares to challenge the authorities about the detention since the moment one expresses concern, that person too could be branded a Naxalite and taken into custody. This is in fact what the landlord has done. Additionally, the landlord and his private mafia make use of the Naxalite image of the village to engage in illegal activities like the smuggling of whatever timber is left in the region. The Naxalite tag attached to the village has served the landlord’s interests very well, and also those of other criminals in the locality.

The losers in this game are the Vanvasis in Majuwara. They are pressed into bonded labor by a powerful landlord, backed up by the Forest Department and the local police. Yet for the malnourished Vanvasi men, women and children, even if they cry aloud when they are assaulted by the landlord or his men, it is enough to send them to jail. Crying aloud is not a crime in India. But as a form of expressing pain and protest, it is good enough reason to be sent to jail in Majuwara. Those who protest are Naxalites, and Naxalites go to jail. — (Bijo Francis is a human rights lawyer currently working with the Asian Legal Resource Center in Hong Kong. He is responsible for the South Asia desk at the center. Mr. Francis has practiced law for more than a decade and holds an advanced master’s degree in human rights law.)


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