Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh spoke to a packed (and young) audience at Teen Murti Bhavan in New Delhi on the theme of Left-wing Extremism and how India can deal with it. Here is a lightly edited version of his speech in a question-and-answer format. Since so many people made the effort to come and listen to the lecture, I thought it would have a wider interest.
(1) What is India's Maoist challenge all about?
Ans: It is an ideological challenge which rejects parliamentary democracy and the political structure that we have built over the past 65 years. Over the years, the ideological basis of Maoism has got diluted. It has two versions now: one based on ideology and the other on extortion which can be called levy-based Maoism.
(2) How do Maoists propose to accomplish their objectives?
Ans: The Maoists are not interested in persuasion or ideological contestation. Instead, they seek to accomplish their goals through violence and terror. It is a guerilla-war challenge to the Indian State.
(3) Where is the challenge most visible?
Ans: Maoism began as an uprising in Naxalbari near Siliguri in West Bengal in 1967. It was an urban phenomenon. But it has become predominantly rural. Its geography is Central India, barring Bihar, in the mineral-rich, densely-forested and tribal-dominated areas of the country. In Bihar, it is primarily caste-based. Currently, Left-wing Extremism affects 562 gram panchayats in 82 districts of nine states.
(4) Who are the foot soldiers of the movement?
Ans: Ninety-nine per cent of the Maoist leadership is from Andhra Pradesh. Its lingua franca(mother tongue) is Telugu. But the foot soldiers are tribals because of disconnect caused by displacement, deprivation and discontent. In its initial phase, Maoism affected just six districts of Andhra Pradesh including (famously) Srikakulam. Now it has grown. This is because of three factors. (a) The tribals are politically neglected. No political party can ignore Dalits as they are central to electoral fortunes in 300 districts. They cannot ignore Muslims either, as they make a difference in at least 200 constituencies. But tribals can tilt the electoral balance in only 50 of 543 constituencies. Dalits and Muslims live with other communities. Tribals live in their own villages. Political neglect is the reason for tribal disconnect. (b) Mining has led to growing immiserisation of the tribals. We are more bothered about bauxite, iron ore, manganese and coal - minerals which are extracted in an ecologically unsustainable and socially devastating manner. Neither the public sector nor the private sector mineral-based companies have fulfilled their social or environment obligations. (c) We also have a most insensitive and rapacious forest administration. The forest guard is the most fearsome to the tribal because he is armed with the Indian Forest Act which regards tribals who go to forest to collect the necessities of their livihood as criminals. Thousands of them are in jail for no reason. In 2006, the government enacted the Forest Rights Act, which recognised the rights of forest dwellers. The greatest opponent of this law is the forest bureaucracy. (Even six years after implementation only 11,000 individual pattas and 4,000 community pattas have been given. The forest administration does not allow tribals to harvest bamboo. They have given in only in one village - Mendha Lekha in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra). Walter Fernandes (director of programme on tribal studies at New Delhi's Indian Social Institute) has estimated that 40 per cent people displaced (presumably since Independence) because of development projects like mining and irrigation are tribals. He puts their number at 10-15 million. Many of these tribals have been displaced multiple times. Our record of relief and rehabilitation is pathetic.
(7) What are we doing about it?
Our first response was to expand security operations. We have about 70,000 paramilitary personnel and 30,000 policemen dealing with the problem of Left-wing Extremism. In the last few years the limitation of a security-only approach has become evident. So now we have adopted a security plus development response. How far have we succeeded? The evidence is sketchy. Some areas have been 'de-liberated' from the Maoists. In some areas that saw no development for the past 65 years, there is a glimmer of development. This is the way to go forward.
(8) What more needs to be done?
The fundamental requirement is a political response. Where political parties are strong, the Maoist challenge is weak. Where political parties have local structures, Maoists are unable to recruit. The demographics of the Maoist movement are interesting. It has about 20,000 armed militants, most of them in their high teens or early twenties. Forty per cent of them are women. Among the Maoists who abducted (in February 2011) my private secretary (R Vineel Krishna), the former collector of Malkagiri district of Orissa, were a 14-year-old boy and a girl aged 13 years.
Two years ago, (then Home Minister) P Chidambaram set the rules of engagement. He told the Maoists that they did not have to give up arms, renounce their ideology or disband their cadres. He said the government was willing to talk to them so long as they abjured violence. There was no response. But in an interview to Jan Myrdal (son of the Nobel Prize-winning authors of Asian Drama, the Swedish Alva and Gunnar Myrdal), himself the author of Red Star Over India (released in February 2012), Comrade Ganapati, a Maoist leader set three conditions: the government must stop all-out war; remove the ban on various Maoist parties and affiliates; and cease torture and illegal detention of Maoists. There has been a political impasse. This is a classic case of an unstoppable force meeting an immoveable object. This is a political challenge. We have dealt with similar challenges before - in Punjab, Mizoram, Nagaland and Assam. My colleague in Parliament is an MP from Palamu of Jharkhand (Kamaleshwar Baitha of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, a former Maoist zonal commander). With sagacity and vision we can deal with Maoism. (To a question by Bharat Bhushan, former executive editor of Hindustan Times and former editor of Mail Today that if the Indian State could meet the same conditions which Ganapati set in the case of the insurgents of Mizoram and Nagaland and the student agitators of Assam why not make similar concessions to the Maoists as well, Ramesh said a similar 'leap of faith is needed' and he hoped that the government was making such efforts through back channels).
But we must also acknowledge injustices done to the tribals. There must be restitution. In Ranchi there is something called the Nagari movement. It is a protest against the government building the symbols of modern Indian aspiration - an Indian Institute of Management, a National Law Institute - on land acquired dirt cheap in 1958. People are saying, 'you bought, why do you not compensate us at today's prices?' They have a case.
We also need to expand the constituency of peace makers. Where are the Gandhians, the civil society groups in tribal areas? We must expand the institutional space for organisations outside of political parties. I went to Sevagram in Wardha (Maharashtra) where Mahatma Gandhi's ashram is situated. It is only one and a half hours drive by road from Gadchiroli, one of the areas affected by Left-wing Extremism!
If we do not respond to this challenge politically, humanely, we are going to see growing militarisation on both sides. And the tribal - as also the nation - will be the sufferers.