Equitable justice

Dealing with Maoist menace

The ongoing Maoist menace is a far more serious and complex threat to the country than that from the radical Islamic terrorists. Unlike the extremist religious groups who do not have any significant support among the educated Indian public (much of it is financed and engineered from across the border) the Maoist movement is getting mixed up with some genuine grievances of the tribal people whose cause appeals to a lot of well-meaning people in India.

It is generally recognised that the tribal people in India have not shared the benefits of development. Many of them do not have any legal rights to land they have been cultivating or living on for centuries. They do not have access to schools, medical services, fair price shops or even safe drinking water. Many of them still live on gathered forest produce and firewoods while some contractors and elected officials have amassed huge wealth.

Their relative deprivation gets magnified when rich mineral resources in the tribal areas are being leased out by the government to big industrialists. The popular feeling is that the big businesses make crores of rupees by exploiting these natural resources but the tribals are not getting their due share.

In addition, there are some who think that industrialisation on these lands and forests (even with reasonable compensation) will deprive the tribals their customary way of life by making them slaves of an industrial society. All these grievances have been used as a springboard by some radical leaders.

The goals and motivations of the motley crowd under the Maoist banner are diverse. Most of the participants in the movement are not hard ideologues. They are uneducated or half-educated unemployed young men and women. Since the current system has not benefited them, any other alternative promised by the Maoists is appealing to them. Such people can be isolated from the so-called leaders by delivering material benefits in the form of development, education, health services and jobs.

One major problem is that the most radical elements may not allow the local administration to enter and pursue the development projects in these areas as any development would weaken their case against the present system. Here the threat of an impending all-out armed offensive against the Maoists may induce some of the leaders to change track.

Though laws exist, most of the state governments have been tardy in distributing land title rights to the tribals. The leaders of the tribal movement, if they are genuinely interested in the welfare of the tribals within the present system (which hopefully some of them are), should put pressure on the local administration to implement these laws in a time-bound manner.

Regulation

Along with the settlement of land rights, a comprehensive system of norms for land acquisition and compensation need to be put in place so that the mineral and forest resources can be exploited in a sustainable and equitable manner. The local people, as legal owners, would then automatically benefit from the enhanced value of the land. In addition, they can be made stakeholders in development by giving them a share of the future profits of the projects coming up on their lands.

The radical fringe in a movement often serves one useful purpose. They force attention on an issue which otherwise remains neglected. If the current Maoist movement forces the powers that be to recognise the plight of the tribals and hasten the process of equitable development in those neglected areas, then something good may come out at the end.

A path of armed struggle against the state will mean deaths of thousands of innocent people, along with the armed rebels and the government troops, as it would be extremely difficult to isolate innocents from the perpetrators of violence. Some hard-nosed Maoist leaders may like it this way as the harassment and killing of innocents would alienate more adivasis who may join their ranks.

However, in any radical movement substantial differences of opinion exist among the leaders which inevitably lead to many factions. If the majority of Maoist leaders now leave aside the path of armed struggle and participate in the development process as responsible leaders of a mass movement in a democratic system, then they should get satisfaction for having played a historical role in helping the poor.

They should take lesson from the fact that even after many decades of Maoism, China has rejected the Maoist path. A Nepalese style capture of power by Maoists is not possible against the military might of a huge country like India. Further, even the Nepalese Maoists have returned to democracy.

Joan Robinson, the noted ‘Marxist’ British economist said: “There is one thing worse than being exploited by capitalists — that is not being exploited at all.” The problem with most poor people is that they are not exploited at all — no jobs for them. It should be the responsibility of all concerned to see that the people get exploited by capitalists but in as equitable a manner as possible by reforming the laws and methods of implementation.
(The author is a former professor of economics at IIM, Calcutta)

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