Blessed with mineral and forest wealth, the people of Chhattisgarh are caught between the State and the Maoists
Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab (August 2011)
At the periphery of neglect and impoverishment, outside the realms of roadside earthen stoves, where women jostle with cattle to cook the evening meal and far beyond the collective imagination of thousands of those who have been robbed of their land, dignity and the way of life, is the amorphous state of Chhattisgarh government’s fantasy.
Quite like the new capital of chief minister Dr Raman Singh’s dreams, Naya Raipur, on the outskirts of the existing city in which, according to Singh himself, the government has already sunk in Rs 2,000 crore with Rs 2,000 crore more to be spent in the next couple of years. Singh hopes to move into this new swank capital city on the outskirts of noisy Raipur with six-lane tree-lined roads running parallel to sculpted water bodies and landscaped greens in December 2011.
Clearly, there are two diametrically opposite Chhattisgarhs: One on the ground and another in the fantasies of those who rule it (not govern). Timeless tales of exploitation, opportunism and greed connects the two. The inconvenient truth that the Maoists’ area of influence and operation in Chhattisgarh is steadily expanding and the challenge that they pose to the State is becoming increasingly daunting is neatly tucked away behind the glossy illustrations of the new city.
In popular perception, Bastar and Dantewada are top of mind recall as Maoists-affected districts. In conversations, most people in Chhattisgarh also talk essentially of Bastar when referring to the Maoists. But as the police map of Chhattisgarh shows, these are only two among the worst-affected districts. When the state police and Paramilitary forces push them in one area, they creep into the neighbouring one, so much so, that the southern part of the Raipur district is today among the affected areas. However, to gloss over this, the government has carved out a new police district within Raipur, called Gariaband, so that at least Raipur can be shown as not affected. Gentle twisting of facts, casual fudging of figures and blinkered view of reality form the foundation of the fantasy world that lives in the p
ages of the coffee table book that Dr Raman Singh’s government has released to celebrate its second term in office. Having come into its own in November 2000, Chhattisgarh is a young state in a hurry. Given that the much sought-after statehood came with the millstones of poverty, backwardness and the overwhelming presence of the Maoist ultras, the successive state governments took recourse in escapism. Hence, without pausing, the state officials talk of building towers of development in double time, when on national human development index, Chhattisgarh hovers close to the bottom. The government aspires to generate 60,000 megawatt of electricity in the state and for this purpose MoUs for 32 power plants in one district alone, Janjgir, have been signed among others. Locals lament the impending ecological disaster, but the government is eyeing the figures on the developmental graph. Even as inequities become starker by the day, between the haves and the have-nots, the privileged and the dispossessed, the tribal and the non-tribal, this rift and its inherent injustice, does not trouble anyone; neither the politician nor the bureaucrat.
On the Same Side
Talking about the state government in another context, an editor of a Raipur newspaper says, “The chief minister is very fond of figures and rankings. He likes listing his achievements in terms of being number one on this parameter and number two on that.” But he missed the biggest achievement of the state government: Raman Singh’s government has managed to get everyone in the state, from bureaucrats to the media to prominent members of the society on its side. Not only do they support him whole-heartedly, there is an uncanny similarity in the choice of words all of them use to describe the government, the ongoing and future industrial projects, the Maoists, the civil society activists and so on. It’s almost like everyone has memorised certain sentences from the same précis book.
Example: “In Chhattisgarh, even a backward area like Bastar gets uninterrupted power supply and the government has ensured the 97 per cent efficacy of the public distribution system by delivering grains to the remotest areas.” Chief minister Raman Singh said this to FORCE in the interview, but before him, editor/publisher of an evening newspaper, Chhattisgarh, Sunil Kumar, said the same thing in nearly the same words. Another case in point, everyone says that the civil society activists are apologists for the Maoists — “Why don’t they criticise the Maoists when they kill innocent people? Why are only the police accused of human rights violations?”, the chief minister told FORCE (see interview). But both before and after him, several people that FORCE met, including retired bureaucrats and private entrepreneurs said exactly the same thing.
“The state government along with the police has very carefully divided the society into ‘us’ versus ‘them’, which is to say that if you do not support the government then you are supporting the Maoists,” explains one activist, who works in the area of preservation of tribal heritage. “Such is the pervasiveness of this indoctrination that even an intelligent person does not pause to reason that the State is the custodian of human values and democratic rights. Hence, only the State can be accused of violating these values and rights. How can a non-state actor be held responsible for violating human rights?”, he asks.
But is the allegation correct? “All human rights and civil liberty organisations, including the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) have condemned Maoists violence from time to time,” he says. However, he points out, “What forum do the civil rights activists have to voice their condemnation. Issuing a statement in the vacuum means nothing once the state has decided to isolate them.” Moreover, even if the statement condemning violence is published, what is the chance that it will not be ridiculed as a publicity-seeking move? “The state government either ridicules the civil society, as in the case of Swami Agnivesh, or vilifies them, as happened to Dr Binayak Sen,” says a television journalist. In any case, once the perception is created that human rights activists do not condemn Maoist violence, it becomes more of the popular rhetoric than truth.
Sen’s just one of cases in point, which garnered international attention. So severe has been the government’s vilification campaign against him that even commentators in public sphere started to question his credibility. Dr Sushil Trivedi is a former IAS officer who retired as the state election commissioner. An author of several books on public relations, he writes regularly for the local media on issues pertaining to Naxalism. Talking to FORCE, while accusing Maoists of debasing the constitutional values of food, health and educational security, he said that the so-called civil society has been playing a dubious, non-constructive role. “Take the example of Binayak Sen,” he says. “I know so many unsung organisations, like the Ramakrishna Mission, who are doing yeoman’s service in the tribal areas. Sen has hardly done any work. Most of it is simply hype. Add to that his suspicious associations with the Maoists, what choice did the government have.”
Hence, exercising its limited choice, the state government has systematically crushed the middle ground, which creates the space for those seeking peace. The evidence of this lay in the fact that whoever FORCE spoke with, requested not to be identified when criticising the government. One activist, who is currently battling two court cases, enunciates the reason for anonymity, “Since 2004, people like us are being targeted by the administration on specious grounds. Our lives have been completely ruptured. One can never be sure what will be held against us.” Only those who spoke in support of the government went on record, both in the media and outside.
Only Good News
A couple of days later, leaving Raman Singh’s office after interviewing him, we tell him that he is probably the luckiest chief minister in India because he gets very friendly press; not a single local newspaper criticises him. Raman Singh shrugs and gives a fulsome smile before walking back to his office. However, one member of his government is not so economical with words. Later in the day, as familiarity bred confidence, he says, “What choice do the media have? If the government stops supporting them, 90 per cent of them will have to shut shop.” Does it mean the local media survive only on government advertising? “Advertising is only one way,” he says casually, dipping a biscuit in his cup of tea. “There are several ways of supporting the media.”
He was right, as FORCE had discovered over one week in Chhattisgarh. Pelf, pressure and power have emasculated not only the media but also the people of the state, all of whom appear to have surrendered their judgement and discriminatory senses at the altar of expedience. And expedience these days means being on the right side of the state government and its enforcement arm, the police. Pelf comes through direct doles to both individual journalists as well as the owners of the media group. For instance, state newspapers like Dainik Bhaskar, Navbharat and Hari Bhumi have been allotted coal mines by the government. Shrugging this off as routine, one bureaucrat says, “This is a state policy. Why should anyone have objection to that? Tomorrow, if you apply and meet the requirements, even you can get a lease for a coal mine.” Apart from coal mines, the government also frequently hands out land to media houses to run shopping complexes or other commercial ventures. Little wonder, the silence of the media is unnaturally deafening in Raipur.
One activist who is working on establishing democratic institutions at the grassroots level in the tribal belts of Chhattisgarh says, “Chhattisgarh is flushed with funds. Apart from the royalty that the state government gets for the natural resources, it has been selling mining rights to various industries. The government has signed over a dozen MoUs with various industrial houses in the last couple of years for power plants. It also gets security related expenditure (SRE) for counter-Maoists operations from the Union government. In that respect, it is a rich state. All this easy money has corrupted the government, which in turn has corrupted the media and the society at large. When everyone is on the take, who will tattle against whom?”
Pressure comes through the 2006 Chhattisgarh Jan Suraksha Adhiniyam, popularly known as Chhattisgarh Special Powers Act. The Act is meant to counter Naxalism, but as one senior editor says, “It has a provision under which a journalist can be prosecuted if he is found writing about the Maoists or if Maoist literature is found in his possession. Even interaction with the Maoists for the purpose of writing can be held against a journalist. Dr Binayak Sen was arrested under this Act. This Act is not meant to fight the Naxals, but to gag the voices of dissent.”
The Ugly Truth
Chhattisgarh is a state with a difference. Ninety five per cent of its population is impoverished and backward. But they sit on unimaginable wealth. Raman Singh calls them, ‘amir des ki gareeb janta (rich state’s poor people)’. Here’s the population mix: 51 per cent comprise Other Backward Communities (OBCs), 32 per cent are tribal and 12 per cent are scheduled caste. This leaves only five per cent for caste Hindus and Sikhs. Yet, in the power structure of the state, both political as well as economic, the 95 per cent of the population finds itself at the bottom. According to Dr Trivedi, the reason for this is, “Since decades, the local SC/ST leadership has failed its people. As a result, they could never get integrated into the mainstream. Moreover, in the absence of credible leadership, they remained vulnerable to exploitation by the lower government functionaries.”
Stories of neglect, exploitation by patwaris and forest official, criminalisation of tribal because of the erstwhile Forest Act of India, displacement of thousands because of mining, infrastructure and industrial projects are now part of folklore. The only difference today is that the exploiters have changed. The state government wants to rake in as much money as possible in quick time by commercialising minor forest produces, rampant leasing of mines, power projects and steel and aluminium plants. The Maoists are fighting for the same resources as they sustain their movement (see following article), which is why certain districts of Chhattisgarh are so crucial for them. The tribal and villagers are caught in this crossfire with some finding relief in the Maoist and some in the State. Unfortunately, instead of addressing this predicament at the policy level, the government-in-hurry has pitched its tents behind its police and security forces.
Hence, figures like 740 empty villages in Bastar and nearly three lakh displaced people living in penury at states like Maharahstra and Andhra are par for course. Such is the comfort factor with these realities that bureaucrats and politicians talk of them as a matter of fact before moving on to more cerebral subjects. Holding Maoists responsible for non-existent infrastructure in southern parts of Chhattisgarh, one bureaucrat told FORCE, “Since the Maoists keep blowing up the roads and threatening the contractors, we are not able to carry out developmental work in these areas.” Why weren’t the roads built earlier when there were no Maoists in these areas?
“But when am I saying that we have not been lacking in this respect?” he asks, his tone rising in exasperation. “We admit that we should have done this long ago, but now that we want to do the work, let us do it,” he says. It is unfair to single out one official. The apathy runs deep, and stems from the belief that certain privileges are due only to certain class of people; others can make do with much less. And this mindset is not unique to Chhattisgarh.
However, what is unique to Chhattisgarh is the deliberate attempt to change the religio-socio profile of the state under political patronage. The government has outsourced education and social uplift projects to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) which has been running schools as well as hostels in tribal areas. According to Sunil Kumar, “Tribal are mostly animist, they do not consider themselves Hindus; ditto for the backward communities, most of which follow their distinctive sects like Satnami or Raedasi, which are monotheist in nature. However, RSS considers all of them to be Hindu.” As a result, apart from imparting its brand of education to the children, it is also gradually introducing religious rituals like jagrans and mass pujas (prayers) in the tribal areas which were unheard of till a decade ago. Clearly, several tribal communities resent this.
The bigger cause of friction though stems from the RSS’ cultivation of non-tribal communities in the tribal belt. In the last few years, the government has encouraged junior government functionaries, like revenue or forest officers to settle down in the tribal areas after retirement by giving them land. While on the one hand, their status accords them privileges that the tribal don’t get, on the other hand, these people comprise the support base for the BJP government in the state. “How else would the BJP get 11 seats out of 12 in Bastar with bare minimum voting?” remarks one journalist. Especially, when in the entire state the honours are nearly shared between the BJP (48 seats) and the Congress (40 seats).
No social organisation has yet done a study to assess how much of RSS’ activities are adding to the resentment of the tribal people, but given the history of the region, it is not difficult to imagine that this would be one of the growing reasons for angst. According to the Chhattisgarh government’s website, the tribes of Chhattisgarh have always been proud people who repeatedly resisted outside influences. Their history (as mentioned on the official website) is replete with stories of armed resistance against Muslims, Marathas, the British and subsequently the independent Indian government. It was primarily because of this history that the Indian Constitution made a special provision for the tribal population. The Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution specifies that the resources in tribal areas belong to the tribal people. And to ensure that this is not violated, the Constitution gives special powers to the state governor.
Yet, not only have the constitutional provision been conveniently ignored, several other Acts of Parliament, like Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), 1996 and the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, which returns the right of forest produce to the tribal, have not been implemented in the right spirit in the areas where they are sorely needed.
Clearly, state government’s focus is elsewhere. FORCE had earlier visited Chhattisgarh in 2007 (see August 2007 issue) and had heard three different versions of how Salva Judum started. This time we heard the fourth version: Apparently, some village elders in the Bastar region were being harassed both by the Maoists and the police. Pushed to the corner, they decided to take the matter in their hands. When the Maoists returned to the village to torment them, they caught them and handed them over to the police. More Maoists descended on the village and threatened the villagers. Frightened, the villagers fled, seeking police protection. That was the beginning and all accounts are faithful to this. The variations come later. According to the version we heard now, both the government and the opposition saw in Salva Judum an opportunity to seize land for mining and other such purposes. Village heads were bought over, who moved from village to village urging people to join the movement, threatening them that if they do not join they will be considered to be on the side of the Maoists. Villages were emptied en masse and people moved into the government-built camps.
“The Salva Judum movement started the day the government signed a MoU with Tata Sons in 2004,” says the narrator of the fourth version. “Roughly 700 villages were razed to ground and not a word appeared in the local media, which till recently continued to write how Salva Judum was a peaceful resistance by the people.” Even if this version is not entirely correct, the fact that there is so much ambiguity about an event which is only seven years old points to something sinister. Moreover, despite all the professions of peace, Salva Judum left terrible violence in its wake. Talking off the record to FORCE, a very senior state police officer told FORCE, “Once I took charge, it was very clear that the movement was causing unnecessary friction in the tribal areas. I bluntly told the local leaders that they should not take out any more processions for recruiting people. The movement is more or less over now. Most camps have been shut down.”
The Big Picture
Experience, advice, rule of law, resources and willing foot-soldiers. The state government has everything at its disposal. Yet, instead of being sensitive to the fears and anxiety of its own people (tribal, SC and OBCs), the government is focussed on crushing the Maoists whichever way possible or driving them out of Chhattisgarh. And in doing so, it is creating fresh pools of people for the Maoists to poach on as its support-base. Why is it that the government is not able to see the pitfalls of its short-sighted approach?
A local media analyst has an interesting explanation. According to him, Raman Singh is trying to carve out a national role for him. In BJP’s narrow nationalistic image, an anti-Maoist hero will have greater pan-India acceptability than the anti-Muslim Narendra Modi. “Just as Modi has been pushing development in Gujarat, Raman Singh’s single point agenda is to showcase Chhattisgarh as a developed state despite all odds. If he can do this in the next couple of years, his achievements would be greater than Modi’s, because of the adversities he faced,” he said. He will then have a bigger claim on the seat in Delhi. Chhattisgarh is no place for ambitious people.