Adivasis, governance key

Adivasis, governance key

Conflict in Central India, though not much in the limelight, has been costing more lives lately than other trouble spots such as Kashmir and the North East put together.

A decade-long sincere effort by more than a dozen senior civil society activists in the then Andhra Pradesh (now Telangana) had brought Maoists and the state government to the table in 2004. Then, peace talks collapsed within a few weeks.

Many civil society members blame “betrayal” by the government for the failure. Some in government say the Maoists made demands on issues that are “non-negotiable”. There have been some individual efforts thereafter, but they resulted in loss of lives on the Maoist side. Again, betrayal by government was alleged. Since then, there has been silence about this violence.

The reasons given for the last failure remain intact. But a new initiative has started in recent weeks involving old and new players. The theatre this time has shifted to Chhattisgarh, where the Maoists are now concentrated.

The first learning for the new group has been the involvement of the sufferers. The last efforts were purely led by urban intellectuals. This time, local Adivasis are being involved. An effort has been made to learn from earlier success stories in states in the North East. Talks have resulted in peace deals in Mizoram, Assam, Bodoland, etc., in the past.

In the preliminary meetings in June 2018 (to which Maoists and the state were not invited) representatives of the Gond Samaj of Telangana gave a call for a peace march from October 2 to tell their boys and girls to “come back home”. They want to send a message: enough is enough. “Like you left our areas, please leave our brethren in Chhattisgarh also in peace.”

Maoist leaders in Chhattisgarh are mainly “our boys and girls” from Telangana, who moved to Dandakaranya forest after the 1980s, says Sidam Arju, a Gond leader from Adilabad in Telangana. “We do not want to involve any political party in this process, but want to help our suffering fellow Gond Adivasis in places like Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharastra”.

Prof G Haragopal, one of the only two surviving from the old group, said, “Our efforts were a failure, mainly due to betrayal by the government. We have no reason to believe that anything has changed there. But we welcome any peace effort. Even one life saved on either side is a success and we must try again and again”.

Pramod Boro of All-Boro Students’ Union said, “It must be an all-Adivasi effort this time, with Adivasis from all over the country taking part. We will come from the North East to help our fellow brothers and sisters in Central India in whatever way we can. All of us have the right to decide our future in peace”.

Bastar is a land of Adivasis, and the headquarter of the Maoist movement today. “They need to be dealt with differently” said Ramchandra Singhdeo, former finance minister of Chhattisgarh. “When I was head of the Madhya Pradesh state planning commission in 1982, when Maoists had just started to come to Madhya Pradesh after their debacle in West Bengal, Indira Gandhi had called me and then chief minister Arjun Singh. She asked us, ‘Siddharth Shankar Ray dealt with Maoists with force in Bengal. What should we do here’? I suggested a new Bastar Development Plan, with two major conditions. The plan will have to focus on agriculture and forest-based small-scale industry. Mining and big industry will have to wait. Let Adivasis get educated, they will make good use of the iron ore, that is not running away anywhere”.

According to him Indira Gandhi agreed to the plan, but by the time it could be put into action, she had been assassinated and Arjun Singh was sent away to Punjab as governor to handle the Sikh insurgency. “New prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had more important things to worry about and the Bastar plan has been gathering dust since. It could be revived even now,” Singhdeo says. “The key is education and livelihood. If we can educate the tribal and give her a job with increased income, this problem can be solved. The Maoist leaders from Andhra are only a few in number. We need to work on the upliftment of the Bastar Adivasis.”

Focus on basic needs

Some former Naxals also recall how the Andhra Pradesh government went on an overdrive to improve administration and give health and education in Maoist-affected villages, which finally led to Adivasis disassociating themselves from the Maoists. “For Adivasis, the medicines we carried was a major attraction. They were less attracted by our politics and more by our acts like stopping harassment by forest officers, which the State should have done in the first place”.

“Things have not changed much in 40 years. The Adivasis in remote Bastar villages still look for a dalam (Maoist squad) when they fall sick.”

“The government is putting up big district hospitals with modern facilities, just as they are planning big steel plants and wide roads”, says Dr Prabir Chatterjee of the State Health Resource Centre, a member of the new peace process. “The focus needs to shift to common people and their needs in villages. Health is first and then come education and livelihood. If we can work in these areas, that is the real peace process. It is a man-made disaster, and we can alleviate it”.

Former Madhya Pradesh chief secretary Sharad Behar has seen it all, and is now leading the process, “We need to also learn from international successes like Northern Ireland, but the key is to improve governance at home.”

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(The writer is co-founder of CGNet Swara, a community radio service on mobile phone, based in Raipur)

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