To win the war against the Maoist insurgency, the underlying issues of tribal alienation needs to be addressed first, writes Shyam G Menon.
For weeks we saw the deployment of security forces in Maoist-affected areas -- trucks, fatigues, AK-47 and choppers. Operation Green Hunt unfolded like a badly-made action film.
Then 75 soldiers were gunned down in Dantewada. The public response was shrill. Playing to the times, magazines declared war and television presenters reviewed weaponry -- from attack aircraft to laser guided bombs -- which they said the government could use against the rebels. Not a word mentioned that using warplanes would be to advertise civil war in India or that on the occasion it was done before in the northeast, and years of insurgency was the legacy. Such embarrassing over-simplification can be avoided if the existing security personnel acted and stopped complaining of terror being savage.
Union Home Minister P Chidamabaram was right when he observed that something had gone wrong. Except that happened long ago and it was with us at large. When India's tribal people and hill dwellers cite alienation, they speak the truth. In the first few decades of independence our struggle was finding resources to integrate remote locations.
In the years after that, while economic growth produced the required resources, our struggle has been to find people for the job. The teachers, doctors and other representatives of the mainstream, who ought to be at their posts in wilderness, are often absent. A posting to the wilderness has no social standing unless it is a civil servant or army officer. This is a story familiar to anyone who has lived away from cities and the fewer who explored the wilderness.
In contrast, to our discomfort and the greater discomfort of our proxy warriors ruing harsh terrain, the ideologues controlling the tribal people are with them. In power, they will inevitably change to exploiters. But for now they endure the forest to impress their cadres. Who should the tribal choose?
Compounding this, mainstream India's ambassador to its periphery is often mercantile interest. The trader and the businessman stomach hardship in the hope of distant fortune. That is also their undoing. Every part of India that rebelled against government had a grouse against these folks who were no doubt enterprising but rarely saw beyond commerce.
In the Indian context, where wealth is guarded by family and family is furthered to guard wealth, the exclusivity breeds apartness. Result: lack of inclusive society, disillusioned communities on our periphery and assessment in our mercantile capitals of dissent in remoteness as sacrilegious. There are parts of India where the plains dweller is addressed as Indian. Something acutely annoying in our behaviour has cast us as unwelcome intruder. We feel no need to introspect.
When remote India rebels the righteous mainstream dispatches its proxy warriors who put up a show of force. The dead on both sides become martyrs. All the time, there is somebody in those jungles with less of everything who can handle the terrain better than us. What motivates them? Ever heard rebels complain of uncaring attitude?
Following the Dantewada massacre, the Maoists took away the soldiers' weapons. As many soldiers killed for as many weapons taken betrays a chilling appetite for murder. You can't fault the mainstream for screaming war. That has been the public mood since. Still, there's something strange in everybody readily declaring war for these murders confined to particular geography, when we never said 'we declare war' against terrorists and religious bigots who killed recklessly all over India.
We didn't declare war against corruption and commercial crimes, which have hit this economy from north to south and east to west. We didn't declare war on inflation! Look back for a minute. Notice both the pattern and how we probably had this coming all along. The areas currently troubling us are so much the same old territories identified with caste wars, social and economic inequalities.
An entire generation grew up to urban wealth reading the worst possible news from these places. We allowed this administrative vacuum to bloom by the side and attract local panacea including Maoists. To then address it with firepower (not to mention, calls for airpower) puts us all monolithically on one side of the divide instead of exploring a solution or salvaging the tribal from totalitarian politics.
After all, how many of us can support mining interests and bulldoze the pleas of a tribal on his land? In the days of the Right to Education Act these would be questions to the meaning of education itself or the definition of an educated mind. You can't genuinely educate a mind and then wish it to see only the commercially relevant. While violence in the jungle must be snuffed out, we must ask who we are doing that for. Is it mining lobbies and feudal clans?
Critics would say that empowering the tribal makes the resources under his feet uneconomical in a world competing on low cost. Less than a decade ago when the global automobile industry writhed in pain, a few perceptive analysts highlighted a simple problem -- the issue of right cost. Rather than argue for still lower price to trigger demand they faulted ever lowering car prices for creating an unsustainable supply chain, vulnerable to demand swings.
First, the car had to be right-priced to make it a responsible product and free roads from consumerist excess. Two, if people in the automobile industry were to continue having their jobs, if the good times were to last longer, if industries were to sustain themselves then right cost was imperative.
Although it wasn't hard to see the logic in this argument as cars proliferated enhancing social cost of motoring and zero interest loans soaked up demand to periods of downturn, the message of right cost was ignored because it went against the grain of industrial scale and dominance. Once dominant, the pattern of business was familiar -- reap profit. That's the financial destiny of market enterprise.
What is a tribal person's claim to cost, when right cost to industry is always lower price for greater demand and higher profit from higher demand?
Some years ago, when a South Korean steel company sought mining rights, the Indian steel industry responded like the tribal. At least one senior industry official called Indian iron ore resources 'strategic' and emphasised they were not to be wasted. He was absolutely right. However, he was heard because he spoke corporate language. In the years since, his company as well as others in India grew several times bigger including acquisitions overseas. Nobody mentions 'strategic' anymore.
They should, given the Chinese origin of Maoism. China is the world's biggest steel producer and a country with poor iron ore resources. India on the other hand has rich iron ore deposits. Why did our strategists lose their voice when the tribal was still an Indian tribal and not a brainwashed Maoist?
In the politically important shining economy with its scorn for divergent views, a lot of us don't mind ignoring these angles. The shining economy dislikes dissent, another hallmark of being corporate. Probably that's why politicians across party divides have joined hands to fight the terror. Normally, they can't unite on anything.
Their last recorded chaos was the Women's Bill. What got them so united this time -- was it the atheism of the threat; its challenge to caste, the importance of being corporate or the war game mood of the electorate? Whatever, they must have reckoned it is safer to be in the profitable mainstream than the losing fringe.
Decades ago, there would have been some revered political figure taking the initiative to end the bloodbath, park oneself at the trouble spot and encourage talks. It hasn't happened. Perhaps the era of such leaders has ended or the approach is way too fringe for mainstream interest. Today we have the market and its proxy warriors.
So the government takes the Maoists head on, hopefully targeting ideologue and not tribal, in a fight for governance of the land. This is a valid fight for Maoism advocates subversion of India's democracy. It also justifies violence as means. Should such war be the case, then one hopes that the government's approach, strategy and commitment would be different from the homesick huddles currently going into battle.
No more complaints of 'savage nature', 'harsh terrain' and 'nobody cares for us' please. What we brought upon ourselves, we must end it ourselves. There is no room for self pity.
Shyam G Menon is a freelance writer based in Mumbai.