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Rural poverty and India's Maoist revolt

12 November 09 13:40 GMT

By Mark Tully
Former BBC Delhi Correspondent

The Indian government has ordered hundreds of paramilitary troops into eastern parts of the country where Maoist rebels have increasingly been taking control.

This year, 669 people have died in violent incidents involving the Maoists.

October was a particularly humiliating month for the Indian police.

First, members of the Communist Party of India [Maoist] captured an Inspector and beheaded him. Then, a police station was attacked and two policemen killed.

The officer in charge was abducted and only freed after the government of West Bengal released 24 Maoists it had arrested - a humiliating climb-down.

In two other attacks, 21 policemen were killed. Then came the hijacking of one of India's prestigious express trains running from the capital of the east coast state of Orissa to Delhi.

Maoists and supporters of a group known as The People's Committee Against Police Atrocities, most of them armed just with bows and arrows, halted the train and overcame its staff.

When the police eventually arrived, the hijackers, numbering some 1500, dispersed without putting up any resistance. There were no casualties.

Decades of conflict

The Maoists are often known as Naxalites because of the Maoist uprising in 1967, which started from the Eastern village of Naxalbari. That was put down by the police.

But over the years, the Naxalites have established effective control over vast forests stretching across six states in the heart of India.

The villagers who live in the forests, are known in India as tribals.

They come from tribes who, under the British Raj, led their traditional ways of life isolated in the forests, although India has changed dramatically since then.

The government is officially committed to bringing tribals into the mainstream - few schools, health centres and other facilities have reached them.

Whenever I have travelled in tribal areas, I have been shocked by the resentment the tribals feel at their neglect by successive governments.

The train hijacking occurred on the day that India's Home Minister, P Chidambaram, told a parliamentary committee that the police needed urgent reform.

Chidambaram told the parliamentarians he had ordered a massive expansion of the paramilitary police forces controlled by the central government.

But they could well become part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Being central government forces and recruited from all over India they will be strangers, not speaking the tribal languages or understanding their ways.

The central forces are not exactly known for their softly, softly approach.

When they were very active in Kashmir, I remember having several conversations with the governor about the failure to punish police responsible for human rights abuses.

Bitter criticism

The governor was a humane man himself, and he had the honesty to admit the government feared the forces would be demoralised if action was taken against them every time they went too far.

Although the Naxalites operate in remote areas, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has described them as "the single largest internal security threat."

But many Indians question whether Chidambaram's campaign is the right way to deal with this threat.

One of his most vocal opponents is the Booker Prize winning author Arundhati Roy.

Writing in a very recent edition of the Indian weekly magazine, Outlook, Arundhati Roy said: "If the tribals have taken up arms they have done so because a government which has given them nothing but violence and neglect now wants to snatch away the last thing they have - their land."

She bitterly criticised the plans of multinational companies to mine the forest's bauxite and other rich mineral reserves.

The national daily The Indian Express, put the case for Mr Chidambaram's operation Green Hunt as it is called: "The ultimate and foolproof solution to the Maoist threat is to end it. The Indian state must progressively reclaim territory currently in Maoist control and establish the rule of law therein."

But it is unlikely to be as simple as that. India now faces the prospects of a brutal campaign which could last four or five years according to the home minister.


The tribal people, who both sides claim to be representing, will be crushed between security forces demanding they provide information about Maoist movements, and the Maoists themselves who have already shown how brutally they treat anyone they believe has betrayed them.

Once again, the root of the problem is the Indian government's inability to provide what those they govern rightly feel is their entitlement.

Nowhere is this more manifest than in the callous handling of tribals who have been dispossessed of their land.

Reading Arundhati Roy, I was reminded of a visit I made to a resettlement villages for tribals, who had twice been evicted in order to make way for power stations.

When they complained to the official accompanying me that they were not being provided with electricity, he shot back: "Well you cannot afford it, can you?"

With that sort of callousness all too common amongst officials, is it any wonder that tribals support Maoists who promise to protect their lands?

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