Naxalism and angst of Jharkhand tribals

Naxalism and angst of Jharkhand tribals

This is where a former state health minister, Bhanu Pratap Shahi, told media in early 2007 of a novel method of combating Maoist rebels—interchangeably known as Naxalites. One vasectomy in a “Naxalite-dominated" village would mean that many “potential comrades less", the minister offered, in a situation of “many mouths to feed and little food to eat".

A state chief minister, Madhu Koda, received an official certificate from the Limca Book of Records, India’s version of the Guinness World Records, for becoming the first independent legislator to gain that position. He formed a government with four other legislators and the support of the United Progressive Alliance.

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Koda is now history, accused of using his tenure to amass a fortune along with some cronies and allies, mainly from concessions to mining.

The newest chief minister, Shibu Soren, has this past fortnight troubled hawks for suggesting negotiations with Maoist rebels in the state. Leaks to media mentioned slowed police operations against Maoists. Such moves would, according to conventional wisdom, permit Maoists breathing room to regroup and gain ground. Failed peace talks in Andhra Pradesh in 2004, and overtures in Orissa, are held up as examples of what not to do.

Soren, too, carries baggage, marked as he is by scandals such as money-for-votes during the premiership of P.V. Narasimha Rao; and the death of a once-trusted lieutenant. But it is important to understand Soren’s background with fellow travellers, as it were.

Jharkhand is blessed with iron ore, manganese, coal, limestone, graphite, quartzite, asbestos, lead, zinc, copper, and some gold, among others. It supplies to the region electricity from thermal and hydroelectric plants. But there has always been a discrepancy between generating wealth and its application.

The Jharkhand region received minimal development funds from undivided Bihar based on a time-honoured presumption: tribals live there, and they need little. Resettlement and rehabilitation issues were—and continue to remain—poor on delivery.

The area’s displaced tribals were gradually organized by a tribal rights and right-to-statehood organization, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), which also took on exploitation by a concert of contractors, moneylenders and public servants. Bihar’s response was to send a large team of armed police, which intimidated and arrested at will. To protest, an estimated 3,000 tribals gathered in September 1980 in Gua, a mining-belt town near Saranda forests to the state’s south, for a public meeting.

There was an altercation with police. The police fired; the tribals fought back with bows and arrows. Three tribals and four policemen died; human rights activists place the number of tribal deaths at 100.

Both groups took their wounded to Gua Mines Hospital, where the tribals were made to deposit their bows and arrows before the hospital took in their injured. Then the police opened fire on the now unarmed tribals, killing several more.

The police, thereafter, went on a rampage in nearby villages, in much the same way as some of their colleagues in Chhattisgarh: looting and destroying homes; molesting and killing as much for revenge as suspicion of collusion with rebels.

JMM leader Guruji—Soren—became a bulwark for key tribal leaders, who led movements in Saranda to prevent the illegal felling of trees such as sal and teak.

As resentment peaked through the 1980s and 1990s, leaders sought allies with greater firepower: the Maoists—through the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), the key rebel entity in undivided Bihar. This alliance of expediency has since matured.

Saranda is a Maoist area of operation and sanctuary. MCC has merged into the Communist Party of India (Maoist), the presiding conglomerate. Besides attacks against police and paramilitary, looting weaponry and imposing levies on small to big businesses to fund the rebellion, Maoists have also carried out spectacular strikes. For instance, they shot dead member of Parliament and bête noire Sunil Mahato and three others as they watched a football match at Baguria in early 2007.

Leaders with deep roots, such as Soren, understand the dynamics of tribal aspiration and angst. Soren can, on a good day, still hold the power to bring disparate issues to the table for resolution of conflict. But tribal leadership is otherwise compromised, adding to the rot and ineptitude that have marked governance in Jharkhand since it attained statehood in 2001.

Even funds meant for modernization of police forces are known to have been appropriated to purchase sports utility vehicles for ministers.

With pressure from major businesses to deliver on now-dusty memorandums of understanding and from Maoists—as they reconnoiter new areas and call in old debts—Jharkhand will witness more churn.

Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes a column alternate Thursdays on conflicts that directly affect business.

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