That India is surrounded by a ring of fire which is constantly burning and trying to expand its reach is something that has been recognized by successive governments. But the flames that are simmering within have been ignored for 60 years.
That was the admission of the Home Minister P Chidambaram in Parliament. That it is the single largest challenge we face today was admitted by none other than the PM Manmohan Singh. Admitting the existence of a problem is the first definitive step towards tackling it decisively.
For many years, we in the cities lived in a cocoon of comfort of a territorially united India, thanking Vallabh Bhai Patel for the excruciating task of uniting the princely provinces into that charming piece of land which looks like a bride when seen from space.
But a small village in West Bengal changed that. Red is the colour which is indicative of a bride’s good fortune; but that has become the colour of blood for our nation. When the government of West Bengal admitted that Lalgarh was ‘captured’ by Maoists- yes, within India, an entire village- and the Army needed to step in, the crude reality of red terror struck home.
Consider this: Around 180 districts in 13 states are under Naxal sway. That is 40% of the Indian territory. The Naxal belt of 92,000 sq kms stretches from Maharashtra to West Bengal. Over 6000 people- mainly security personnel- have been killed in dexterously planed attacks, as per a BBC estimate. Thousands more have been injured. According to Observer Research Foundation’s 2004 estimate, there are around 10,000 hardcore naxal fighters with access to over 6500 weapons and over 40,000 cadre around India.
What it effectively means is this- like an absence of governance in the wild north western parts of Pakistan, India’s flag and constitution hold little significance in many parts of the country. In 2009, we have our influence on Moon, but not in Lalgarh.
Like it always is in this country, the administration tried to ignore the issue for much of its existence and brushed it under the carpet. Now of course it wants to carpet bomb it out of existence.
Looking at it the Chinese way of tackling territorial problems, the response of our government is not wrong- snatch control of land, kill those who disagree, push in your kind of development. Tianmen and Xinjiang are classic examples for that strategy.
But, thankfully, we are not China and sadly we are not China. You read that right.
While a fair use iron fists is okay to maintain sovereignty, a focused acceleration of development will not harm any one. The difference here has to be in understanding the problems of all these districts and not merely in supplying mobile phone towers- the Maoist destruction of which Chidambaram keeps citing to justify his strategy of police action followed by development.
One of the main problems of these areas is severe drought compounded by total government apathy. Moreover resources here are exploited for everyone’s benefit, but the residents of the area who are the rightful owners don’t gain much. Reckless mining in Jharkhand, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh has aroused a war cry among Naxals.
They are inspired by Chairman Mao who said, “A revolution’s need for a base area… is just like an individual’s need for buttocks. If an individual didn’t have buttocks, he… would have to run around or stand around all the time”. Naxals have found their buttocks- they are swathes of impoverished lands. For your information, China’s People’ Daily called Naxals ‘a peal of spring thunder.’
For the people and government of India, it is time to face the truth. But then, our MPs are so against Sach Ka Samna, that there seems little hope of their realizing what Binayak Sen told me- it is ridiculous how people in some parts of our country are forced to lead their lives. Like worms. Or even worse. “Why”, he asks and his struggle centers round getting the answer and being tagged anti-national enroute.
It is another struggle for another freedom that is taking time and toll- years after freedom fighters gave their lives for a free India.
The truth is that Dantewada- which is another Red fort of India which has its own style of sound and light show that we wouldn’t like to see, really- is officially one of the most backward districts of India for over two decades now. Two decades- that was when IT revolution was being inaugurated.
It is the district with lowest literacy rate in India- 30%. Schools are regularly blown up and most are occupied by armed forces. NREGA is mostly non-existent, residents haven’t heard of it and whatever work is done is of sub-standard, as per the Central Employment Guarantee Council. 95% of villages have no basic medical facilities. Infrastructure is only on papers. Security and administration personnel fear to tread into Naxal-controlled areas and require permission of naxals to begin any work.
The area is endowed with forest and mineral resources. Adivasis- Gonds- who form 80% of the population have seen all benefits accrued from exploitation of these resources go to non-tribals for decades. The area is notified under Section V of the Constitution which empowers the state and central government to take all possible steps to ensure the safety of citizens. Needless to say, the rights of the government and people remain suspended in this naxal HQ from where the red fires are given fuel throughout the country.
Of course that does not justify the use of violence. There is no doubt that the situation is being exploited by a bunch of thugs, who are not letting development come in. As per a central estimate, the movement is worth Rs 1500 cr now- raised from ‘levies’.
But what should people do when the National Human Rights Commission is not even prepared to launch an investigation into alleged mass rapes by Salwa Judum men in Chattisgarh? It is not easy to run away from truth when it finally shows up one morning. That dawn has broken over Raisina Hill, thankfully, as new strategies are being thought up in strengthening the armed forces as well as development. But some are still asleep.
That is only one example of a fire that needs to be put out. Take in this list of demands:
1. A section of Kashmiris- supported by Pakistan- want a plebiscite to be a separate nation since freedom. They kill for the cause.
2. In the North East, almost every state has militants who want ‘Greater Everything’ but not a greater India.
3. Khalistan voices are still heard from overseas.
4. If not ‘freedom’, many want their own state within India on the basis of language, culture, beliefs etc. Example: Demand for Telengana, Gorkhaland, Purvanchal etc.
5. The states in south got divided on the basis of their languages and are still fighting over each other’s resources, cultural icons etc.
I don’t know if you have noticed, but that covers most of India. Sometimes I wonder if Delhi will be a country one day, what with so many demands for partition. That will be not just tragic…one can’t find the word for the feeling.
This, then, is surely the single largest challenge facing post-Independence India- unity. This time the challenge is far more complicated than it was during Vallabhai’s time as it encompasses struggle of people against perceived state failure, against an India which is seen to be sometimes failing Indians.
The good thing is, if this challenge is tackled successfully, it will not only save the integrity but also take the lives of the people to another level- paving way for the emergence of superpower India.
Are we up for this one?