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India: Adivasis march for an end to violence

Mohan Yadav, an indigenous activist depicted on the peace march. Credit: Hannah Kirmes-Daly

On 2 October, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, more than 150 Adivasis (India’s indigenous population) and their supporters began a 10-day peace march in Chhattisgarh, Central India. They walked nearly 200 kilometers on foot, symbolically taking the same route that the Maoists took in 1980 into Dandakaranya forest, the base from where their guerilla warfare operations have been launched since then.

Shubhranshu Choudhary, one of the organizers of the march, said that the aim was to call for all parties in violence-affected areas of the region to shun violence, and come together in dialogue to end a conflict which has claimed the lives of approximately 20,000 people over the past 20 years.

But the roots of discontent are older and wider. In a village called Naxalbari in West Bengal in eastern India, on 25 May 1967, persistent social and political tensions led a group of peasants to attempt to forcibly seize land, to which they were legally entitled, from the landlords who controlled it.

The Indian state uses the Naxalism label to silence any opposition to its agenda of displacement and dispossession of indigenous and rural communities

This event was itself deeply rooted in the socio-economic inequalities of the region, such as unequal land distribution and forced labour which had persisted since British rule. The disadvantaged rural population was mainly comprised of Dalits (lower castes) and Adivasis, supported by Charu Mazumdar, who would later become the ideological father of Naxalism. 139 people were killed in the 52 days of this revolt, which saw landlords put on trial and revolutionary committees established to implement political power.

The uprising was violently suppressed by police forces. But this incident birthed an armed movement against the Indian state that continues till this day.

The seeds of this movement though, date back further than Naxalbari, to the era of British rule across India.

The British Empire in India oversaw mass ‘repurposing’ of agricultural land for industry and the institutionalization of the landlord system, which dispossessed huge numbers of peasants and indigenous communities across the subcontinent. People who had lived a self-sufficient, rural lifestyle on their own land free of any state control were forced into bonded labour, as their land was seized and exploitative landlords were installed, who were often part of the Hindu elite faithful to the British Raj.

In 1947 when the Indian state took over political administration from the British, these inequalities persisted; no land redistribution took place and the state continued its mass appropriation of forest land for various industrial projects. The rural communities of independent India saw little change to their situation.

In November 1967, in the wake of the Naxalbari uprising, radical left activists from across the country gathered in Kolkata and formed the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR).

The AICCCR decided the socio-economic conditions provided an ideal basis for a revolution along Maoist lines and their strategy was to seize political power through armed struggle.

‘Maoist’ and ‘Naxalite’ quickly became umbrella terms for the factions who were operating under a similar ideology, including those who would later unite as the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in 2004.

In the early days Maoists operated in the hills and jungles of Andhra Pradesh, where exploitation of the local tribal populations attracted many enthusiastic followers, and the mountainous, forested terrain was ideal for waging guerilla warfare.

In the Srikakulam district they established a liberated zone in which police or state authorities were unable to enter or wield any influence, and came to control 300 of the 518 villages in the region. There, they installed something of a parallel government – redistributing land, imposing taxation and setting up courts.

‘Do the indigenous communities not have the same rights as everyone else to live free from these struggles? The way of peace is the most effective way to be free from this conflict’

Over recent decades, and in response to the continuing repression and exploitation of the rural poor, the Naxalites have continued to expand their territorial control and succeeded in establishing an area of influence known as the ‘red corridor’. This area spans much of Central and North-Eastern India, including parts of West Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. But they faced serious setbacks along the way, such as Indira Gandhi’s state of emergency in 1975, which saw 40,000 cadres imprisoned. Till date no central government has succeeded in diffusing the conflict.

The rise of the Naxalites’ power should be understood through the lens of deepening socio-economic inequalities, persistent poverty and dispossession and exploitation at the hands of the state. The poverty of India’s rural population is among the world’s most extreme; the continuing epidemic of farmer suicides reflects the desperation of these communities who only experience the state as absent, corrupt or as a force of repression.

Since Independence, the Indian government has passed repressive legislation which restricts traditional ways of life, such as the Forest Conservation Act (1980) and the more recent Forest Rights Act (2006). While on the surface these laws appear to benefit conservation efforts and protect indigenous rights, in reality they facilitate the appropriation of vast tracts of forest land for purposes of industry, massively restrict traditional ways of life such as foraging, and are responsible for the displacement and dispossession of hundreds of thousands of people.

The route taken by the protesters from Chattisgarh to Jadalpur. Credit: Hannah Kirmes-Daly

But the state’s crackdown on Naxalism means that anyone who speaks out against these issues is deemed a ‘Naxal’ – a threat to the state – and is subject to the same persecution.

Far from simply repressing the Naxalite armed uprising, the state uses the Naxalism label to silence any opposition to its agenda of displacement and dispossession of indigenous and rural communities.

Despite this, the violence committed as part of the Naxalite armed struggle cannot be sidelined. The Naxalites have committed numerous acts of violence, usually against government property and agents. They have attacked police and seized their weapons, kidnapped and executed politicians and bureaucrats, and destroyed symbols of the state such as roads, railways and police stations.

Nevertheless, in contrast to this mostly discriminate violence, the state responds with indiscriminate violence against India’s rural and indigenous populations. Official estimates state around 12,000 people, only 3,000 of whom were member of the security forces, were killed in the last 20 years of the conflict. Activists claim that the death toll is as high as 20,000. Many people living in remote villages, especially Adivasis, are not registered as citizens and so their deaths pass unnoticed and uncounted.

Over the years there have been various failed attempts to foster peace in the region. Peace initiatives in 2010 and 2011 ended abruptly when central Maoist leaders were killed by security forces as they prepared to enter into negotiations with the state.

In June this year, activists and indigenous leaders launched a fresh attempt to restart the peace process. During a meeting in Chhattisgarh the group agreed to form a civil society group to mediate negotiations and called for the peace march to take place this October, pressuring both the state and the Maoists to accept their demand for formal negotiations to take place.

But a spokesperson for the Communist Party of India (Maoist), Akhil Vikalp, called for a boycott of the march, claiming that it was organized by multinational corporations and NGOs to stop the Adivasis of Chhattisgarh from fighting for their jal, jangal, jameen (water, jungle, land – a slogan for land rights movements).

In his statement, Vikalp said that if the marchers are serious about peace then they will urge the government to stop displacing peasants, remove the paramilitary operations and release all prisoners who were falsely accused of Naxal activity.

Shubhranshu Choudhary emphasized that the marchers are not dismissing the issues raised by the Naxalites, but are calling for an alternative solution of greater democratic participation: ‘Jal, jangal, jameen, it’s all protected in the constitution but it’s not delivered. How can we improve governance and delivery of the constitution? We need more people taking part in democracy, joining processes and making decisions.’

Mohan Yadav, an activist who has dedicated his life to promoting indigenous rights in India, explained: ‘If we don’t want these deaths to continue, we have to think, we have to understand, so that this struggle doesn’t take any more people’s lives. Do the indigenous communities not have the same rights as everyone else to live free from these struggles? The way of peace is the most effective way to be free from this conflict. Come, let’s talk about peace, and make a plan for the future.’

Heera Bai is a freelance writer and musician, and Hannah Kirmes-Daly is a freelance reportage illustrator. They work together on documenting individual stories through art and music. Follow them at brushandbow.com and on Twitter @brushandbow2


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