Land, conflict and injustice in India

Injustice in India

By Graham Peebles

There are many fires raging in India. The agrarian crisis is one of the most shocking and destructive, and it sits at the heart of a range of interconnected calamities.

The agrarian crisis is rooted in one fundamental cause: the “predatory commercialization of the countryside”, a destructive development model that includes huge infrastructure- and dam-building projects (3,600 dams have been built since independence, making India the third biggest dam builder in the world after China and the USA).

It has resulted in the transfer of large tracts of land to corporations for industrial arteries known as “Special Economic Zones” and massive mining projects, and it is causing the biggest displacement in Indian history, an epidemic of farmer suicides, the death of ancient cultures and ecological mayhem. And it has fuelled a spectrum of resistance movements, from the non-violent Gandhians in the homespun corner, to the armed wing of the Maoists (or Naxalites) armed insurgents, the more militant, members of which want nothing less than the dismantling of the Indian state.

Hidden war

The fiercest fire sparked by the commercialization of the countryside has to be the war tearing through parts of the northeastern and central states. The insurgency covers “over 40 per cent of India’s land area, encompassing 20 of the country’s 28 states, including 223 districts (up from 55 in 2003) out of a total of 640”, according to the Centre for Research on Globalization. Yet, it remains largely hidden from the world and the new city-dwelling middle class.

India may not be choosing to feed its 450-million-plus starving citizens or provide sanitation and health care to the rural poor and metropolitan slum dwellers, or even toilets to 50 per cent of the population who defecate in the open, but it comes tenth in worldwide military expenditure, has the third largest standing army in the world and is a nuclear-armed state.

The battlefields for the 40-year internal conflict are the mineral-rich afforested areas in some of the country’s poorest regions, where some of the poorest people on earth live. In order of intensity, the states affected (or “infested” as the Indian media describe it), are: Chattisgarh/Jharkhand, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Orissa, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh. These regions comprise the so-called “Red Corridor” (which covers over 1,000 kilometres), government slang for the most poor, backward and underdeveloped parts of the country. It is here that paramilitary forces, police and army are pitted against Maoist/Naxalite insurgents (numbering around 20,000 armed fighters with 50,000 supporters), made up largely of India’s indigenous people – the Adivasis, a marginalized minority accounting for around 8 per cent (or 85 million) of the population.

The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has called the Maoist insurgency “India’s greatest internal security threat”. Such hyperbole is designed to deflect attention from the true cause of instability: extreme inequality and social injustice.

In addition to paramilitary troops, the state has also used death squads, known as Salwa Judum, set up in 2005, to spread terror and drive out Adivasis from villages for the benefit of companies — and on a massive scale. The vigilante group, which contained Adivasi in its ranks, was banned in Chattisgarh by the Supreme Court in 2011, but the damage done was immense: “displacing 300,000 Adivasis, killing, raping and looting them, and burning down their villages. Five hundred charges of murder, 103 of arson and 99 of rape have been levelled by citizens against the Salwa Judum, but the Chattisgarh government has not investigated or processed a single case, according to Human Rights Watch.

The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has called the Maoist insurgency “India’s greatest internal security threat”. Such hyperbole is designed to deflect attention from the true cause of instability: extreme inequality and social injustice. The conflict is a “governance issue that has broken into a law-and-order issue”, revealing the flaws in the “way India is governed”, according to Sudeep Chakravarti, author of Red Sun: Travels In Naxalite Country.

Along with the Dalit community (15 per cent, or 190 million people), the Adivasis have been excluded totally from 20 years of economic growth and are seen by the government and the ruling elite in the cities as an embarrassment, an unsightly hangover from the past to be swept aside, allowed to fester and die in rural poverty or urban degradation. Infant mortality among the Adivasis is 57 per cent and child malnutrition is 73 per cent (the national average is the highest in the world at 48 per cent ), according to the International Institute for Population Sciences.

Although large sums of money are officially being spent on tribal groups, only 1 to 2 per cent reaches the Adivasi, with the remainder swindled or siphoned off by corrupt officials…

Ignored, many turn to the Maoists for support. Some Adivasi groups have formed their own resistance movements – in Orissa for example, several tribes came together to form the 5,000 strong Chasi Mulia Sangh, a tribal land movement unconnected to the Maoists, they say. Armed with traditional weapons, they are fighting for human rights and collective tribal ownership of their ancestral lands. They claim they are caught between the two fires of an escalating Maoists/Naxalite insurgency and the governments paramilitary backlash. Such movements face injustice and violent repression from security forces, which serve to push these groups into the arms of the Maoists. Once associated with the Maoists, “armed police are sent in, and village land is forcibly taken over with impunity”, anthropologist Felix Padel says.

Although large sums of money are officially being spent on tribal groups, only 1 to 2 per cent reaches the Adivasi, with the remainder swindled or siphoned off by corrupt officials, states Professor Manmath Kundu. The government has done nothing for them – no development, no roads, no drinking water, no schools and no healthcare. After 20 years of economic development India has of course progressed – it now produces a food surplus compared to a deficit in 1950, but most of its people have seen little improvement in their lives. On the contrary, there are more poor than ever and the poor are poorer.

Bulldozing the rural poor

Corrupt and heavily armed, the Indian security forces are in effect acting on behalf of corporate India, and Western multinational corporations and governments. A self-interested posse motivated only by profit, they are determined to loot the land of the vast mineral resources, particularly iron ore and bauxite, inflate their burgeoning multinational coffers and fulfil the Indian government’s vision of a post-modern industrialized nation, sprinting to the winning line in the race for global economic supremacy. The Indian state “has been thoroughly corrupted by neo-liberalism both at the national and provincial levels”, and in partnership with corporate India is at war with some of the oldest, poorest people in the world, people who find themselves in the way of the kind of development – rapid industrialization fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources” – being pursued by the government, says Mira Kamdar.

The Maoist insurgency, while containing extreme elements that fit neatly into the box marked “terrorists”, is the direct result a narrow colonial approach to development, for in a way India has been colonizing itself since independence.

Deep within the Saranda forest in the state of Jharkhand (where the Adivasis make up 26 per cent of the population) lie’s the world’s largest deposit of iron ore. The mining giants are firmly in residence in the northeastern state. This is now “a fully militarized zone – there are over 100 bases with a total of 50,000 official paramilitary troops involved in military action, [plus] the mining corporations’ security forces”, says Xavier Dias, spokesperson for the Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee. Such government intimidation is designed to create a climate of fear and suppression in which dissenting voices are silenced and the “corporations are free to suck out the minerals and forest resources”. The Adivasi are simply an inconvenient irrelevant gaggle that need to be cleared away, or at best put to work collecting scraps of coal or labouring on corporate farms for less than 1 US dollar a day.

The Maoist insurgency, while containing extreme elements that fit neatly into the box marked “terrorists”, is the direct result a narrow colonial approach to development, for in a way India has been colonizing itself since independence. The government has fuelled discontent and anger among the marginalized majority “through lack of development, political and administrative corruption, callousness in places where there is less bang for the political buck, mis-governance or non-governance”, says Sudeep Chakravarti.

Village life for the Adivasis and the Dalits is largely an interdependent one in which people share what little they have. If there is any hope for the world at all, Arundhati Roy suggests in Trickle Down Revolution,

it lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them. The first step towards re-imagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination.

That is, a re-imagination based on the right relationships with one another and the environment; a life free from the insatiable drive for material possessions and accumulation to one rooted in sufficiency, simplicity and sharing.

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