Restore the tribals' rights

Restore the tribals' rights

Dealing with Naxalism

After the Dantewada killings, there is acrimony between the government and civil society groups. The former accuses the latter of supporting naxalites, while the latter claim they condemn all killings. Do citizens have a right to rise against the state?

Should the state treat rebellious citizens as enemies or people who must be persuaded by reason and corrective government action? Is the function of civil society groups to act as intermediaries between rebels and government, or to take sides?

These are not new issues. They have only grown in magnitude. Thus, in 1976 the Tamil Nadu chapter of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties was established with Cho Ramaswamy as president. ‘Naxalites’ in the very backward Dharmapuri district, were leading a revolt against landlords. They sought PUCL’s help. Cho resigned because he felt that these ‘naxalites’ were subversives, while the rest of PUCL felt that it was PUCL’s mandate to protect the rights even of those who were trying to subvert the state.

The situation today in a broad swath of India is far more serious but not very different. Naxalites are now well-organised and trained, have sophisticated arms, considerable revenue from blackmail and fees charged to miners and industrialists.

They are now fighting the state and have the skills to plan and implement operations meticulously in the jungles against the Central and state police forces. They have successfully ambushed, fought and killed many policemen as well as civilians.
In the areas they control, they are the government. They settle local disputes but have
done little to promote infrastructure, health and education. The tribals that they claim to support have little choice but to accept them in the face of their militant strength. Many tribal youth are attracted by and join the naxalites.

Arundhati Roy, the noted civil rights activist and superb writer, for example, argues for the state not to unleash violence against naxalites. The passion in her words is absent in her condemnation of naxal violence.

A path-breaking study of human development in different states of India (conducted by NCAER in 1994) and other subsequent studies, conclusively show that the worse off amongst all communities in India on every parameter are the scheduled tribes. In almost all tribal regions, the tribals are exploited by contractors, traders, mining and industrial interests, supported by compliant and venal government officials.


Their land has been taken away, their sacred groves and hills violated, their women sexually exploited, and the tribals left destitute in a society alien to them and where they have no hope of competing for survival. This exploitation continues and the Central and state governments have shown singular inability to help them.

Only the young college educated urban naxalites appear to show active concern for the tribals’ welfare. But they have done little to improve their condition except in many places to keep the government officials out of tribal areas.

Verrier Elwin had in the 1950s successfully convinced Jawaharlal Nehru to adopt a different approach to the tribal areas of the North East. Government officials were specially trained to be respectful of tribal customs, practices and cultures, and offer to tribals, services like basic health, sanitation and potable water without interfering in their traditional ways of living.

In the naxal-controlled areas today, government officials and police fear for their lives from naxalite violence and are unable to offer normal government services. That is perhaps why the government first wants to rid the areas of naxalite violence before offering development services.

In this process there will be much collateral damage to tribals. Police forces, never sensitive to people’s feelings, are even less sensitive to tribal feelings. This insensitivity probably creates more naxalite sympathisers among tribals.

In this situation, the only option to mutual killings appears to be an uneasy truce that enables dialogue between government and naxalites. Asking naxalites to first lay down arms is impractical. So is requiring the government forces to first withdraw from naxal areas.

Government must develop its strategy for protecting tribal lands and cultures. Statutory protection is essential, to make tribal lands inalienable. We might learn from recent Canadian and Australian legislations for their ‘natives’.

Entry of plainsmen, especially merchants, miners, contractors, etc, should be restricted and strictly regulated as it was in the North East. A special administrative cadre might be developed to do the work of government in tribal areas. They will need training in sensitivity to tribal mores. If in the process the country is unable to exploit tribal lands for minerals we might have to forego those mineral resources.

Verrier Elwin’s proposals in his ‘Philosophy for NEFA’ of over 60 years ago should be retrieved and the present government might use it as a text on how they should deal with this most exploited section of India’s population.