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Naxalism: It's time to redeem the promise

By Nitin Desai
June 17, 2010 12:44 IST
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The central challenge of Maoist insurgency is posed by the lack of political space for disgruntled tribals, writes Nitin Desai.

Two months ago, this column (The Indians we forgot) had dealt with the challenge of Maoist insurgency in Central India. In that context, it referred to the great tribal leader from the pre-Independence days, Jaipal Singh Munda. Today he is a forgotten man and several readers, intrigued by my reference, have inquired to find out more about him.

Jaipal Singh was a Munda from Chotanagpur. He was sent by missionaries to study at St John's College in Oxford. He was an extraordinarily talented man who excelled at his studies, at sports, particularly hockey, and at debating. He was selected for the ICS but interrupted his training to captain the Indian hockey team that won the gold at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928. Because of the interruption, he was asked to repeat a year of his training (babudom was the same even then!) which he refused to do.

Jaipal Singh became a voice for tribal rights in pre-Independence India and formed the Adivasi Mahasabha in 1938 which asked for a separate state of Jharkhand, to be carved out of Bihar. His finest hour came in the Constituent Assembly where he argued eloquently for affirmative action in favour of tribal India. The tone of his politics is captured well in the following quote from his speech on the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly on December 19, 1946:

"Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily treated, it is my people. They have been disgracefully treated, neglected for the last 6,000 years. The history of the Indus Valley civilisation, a child of which I am, shows quite clearly that it is the new-comersĀ -- most of you here are intruders as far as I am concernedĀ -- it is the new comers who have driven away my people from the Indus Valley to the jungle fastness... The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellions and disorder, and yet I take Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of Independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected."

The Maoist insurgency has arisen because we failed to keep our word. The central challenge of the insurgency is not law and order or development but the lack of political space for the young, disgruntled tribals who are taking to arms either out of conviction or peer pressure. And why would you expect them to do anything else but take to arms when confronted by the mafia of illegal mining and forest contractors, land-grabbers, corrupt officials and policemen and venal politicians?

A more effective law and order approach and a real effort at delivering development are certainly worthwhile. But that is not enough. The most important need now is to create a political environment that allows political expression for tribal concerns and gives tribal communities the power of self-government so that they can themselves fight these local mafias.

We also have to recognise the special constitutional position of the tribal areas that are a part of the Fifth Schedule, which applies to nine states outside the North-East. In these states, the Constitution states that "the executive power of the Union shall extend to the giving of directions to the state as to the administration of the said areas". Why does the central government not use this provision instead of moaning about how their hands are tied by state governments? Why are the governors failing in their constitutional responsibility to give an independent report on the administration of these scheduled areas?

We also need to look beyond the state level. Leaving aside the North-Eastern hill states, there is no state with a majority tribal population. Even the so-called tribal states, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are only 26 per cent and 32 per cent tribal, respectively. So, at the state level, even if there are some tribal leaders, political (and economic) power rests in the hands of non-tribals.

We must begin at the geographical level at which effective control can be exercised by tribal groups. The Forest Rights Act is a useful first step. But more needs to be done to empower panchayati raj institutions and joint forest management committees in the Central Indian tribal belt. They should become the vehicles for delivering development rather than the discredited state machinery. These local institutions can be run by local tribal youngsters and leaders who can become the allies of development functionaries.

But development administration, however well-run, is not enough. We need a full-fledged political engagement of tribals. The history of dissent and how it has been accommodated shows that violence only stops when more constitutional means of political expression become accessible to the dissidents. This is how the Dravidian movement and insurgencies in the North-East were contained and provided with political space for the aspirants to power. In a different way, the same process was at work in accommodating the various caste-based groups that sought political power with the emergence of OBC- and Dalit-based political parties.

This has not happened with the tribal population. There is no tribal leader from Central India comparable in his or her national influence to Jayalalithaa or Karunanidhi or Mulayam Singh Yadav or Lalu Prasad or Mayawati. In the cacophony of voices that compete for attention on Raisina Hill, Race Course Road and Janpath, the tribal voice is altogether lost.

Given the numbers, the tribal voice will remain marginalised in national politics. Hence, we may do better to begin at the grass roots by creating a political process that inducts young political workers from schools and colleges into a structure that connects the national and local political process. This political outreach to engage tribal youth in local politics is far more important than more money for development or more forces for counter-insurgency operations. Rahul Gandhi is trying to do that in the Gangetic heartland with his reforms in the Youth Congress. He now needs to extend his remit to tribal India and provide young people there with a political option that is more promising than the Maoist gun. He must redeem the promise that his great grandfather implicitly made to Jaipal Singh Munda. Only then will this insurgency end.

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Nitin Desai
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