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Pashtuns to Gonds: Protestors or Insurgents
|by Dr. Uddipan Mukherjee|
Anthropologist and historian K Suresh Singh asserts: “tribal communities revolted more often and far more violently than any other community including peasants in India”. Furthermore, the Subaltern School, which espouses a ‘non-elitist history from below’ affirms that insurgency of the Adivasis of the uplands was a deliberate and desperate way to escape from the clutches of extortionate usurers, venal police, irresponsible officials and the like.
Among the numerous tribal revolts in British India, few stand out. The Santhal ‘hool’ was one of them. In 1855-56, the Santhals, living between Bhagalpur and Rajmahal, rose in revolt against the dikus or outsiders. Their courageous insurrection was brutally crushed by the British Army.
While providing anecdotal evidence of tribal uprisings, it shall be difficult not to underscore Birsa Munda’s Ulgulan or Great Tumult in the region south of Ranchi in 1899-1900. Birsa’s hymns of hate against the then Europeans and the Thikadars still reverberates; albeit on a different octave.
Apart from these, the Chenchu revolt in the Nallamalai Hills (1898), the upsurge of the Oraons of Chotanagpur (1914) and the fituri led by Alluri Sitarama Raju (1922-24) were also significant.
Interestingly, it may not be pure coincidence that Bastar today is a highly restive region. It is home to the Gonds, the largest tribal group in India (about 7.4 million). In fact, the British feared a general Gond uprising along the Eastern Ghats so far as Kalahandi and Bastar and hence went about burning their villages.
A New Turn?
The tribal revolts have not shown any marked signs of abatement even in independent India. The ingredients fomenting a tribal insurgency are extant. In addition to those, a few more diabolical ingredients have evolved since the nation-state opened up in terms of economy in a post 1991 world. Inter alia, the corporate takeover of mineral-rich landmass in the Indian hinterland is supposed to be a major cause of the recent radicalization and consequent militarization of the adivasi insurrection. Rampant infiltration in the tribal domain by the Multi-national Corporations (MNCs) aided and abetted by the state machinery without any commensurate wergeld provided to the ‘sons of the soil’ have led to their marginalization.
A feeling of lack of empowerment and lack of effective governance from ‘above’, compounded with appalling poverty has given rise to belligerence amongst a considerable section of the tribal populace in India.
In the Indian context, the word Adivasi connotes the original and autochthonous inhabitants of a given region. The term "adivasi" has entrenched itself in ethnographic and historical narrative. According to Mohan Guruswamy, the very word denotes a ‘sense’ of past autonomy, which was disrupted during the colonial period in India and has since not been restored.
In this paper, whenever the word adivasi is used, it basically refers to the tribes and groups residing in the sub-continent apart from the North-Eastern region.
According to the last census of 2001, the total tribal population in India amounts to about 8 per cent of the net population of the country. Following the Gonds, the Santhals (4.2 million) are numerically the majority amongst the tribes. And interestingly, Central India is the region housing around three-fourth of the total tribal population of the land.
The Present Upsurge
Ranajit Guha’s conclusion regarding the ‘consciousness’ of the subaltern tribal is debatable. He states that the peasant or the tribal ‘revolts consciously’ and ‘does not drift’ into a rebellion.
The nature of post-2004 upsurge in the Adivasi heartland brings this core assertion of Guha further under the scanner. There is no gainsaying the fact that Adivasis have, from time to time, repulsed ‘oppression from above’ as can be deciphered from history. However, post-2004, the formation of a united Communist Party of India (Maoist) [CPI-M] has had a distinct bearing on the ultra-radicalization (or militarisation) of the tribal protests.
It may be safely concluded that at the outset, the ordinary Adivasi was disconnected from the ideological moorings of the intelligentsia professing Maoist dogmas. The concepts of ‘protracted people’s war’ and ‘comprador-bourgeoisie’ image of the authorities as propagandised by the CPI-M politburo could have hardly been appreciated by the tribal.
Nevertheless, with progress of time, with consequent ideological proselytization – which was facilitated by the lack of effective governmental structures in those regions; some of the Adivasis were indeed indoctrinated. But even this does not indicate that the so-called ‘Red Corridor’ is ‘Red’. It is ‘red’, no doubt, but due to incessant bloodletting because of the constant fighting between two warring parties. One party is led by the CPI-M leaders and the other party is the Indian state.
This is a war, rather a ‘bad war’. Technically speaking, it is viewed as a ‘low-intensity conflict’ from the perspective of the Indian state whereas the Maoists view it through the prism of ‘guerilla warfare’ in the line of Mao Zedong.
Opinions of contemporary scholars and writers have varied regarding the ongoing ‘conflict’ in the fat strip of land stretching from the Indo-Nepal border in the north to the Nallamalai jungles in the south. Aruna Roy, Mahasweta Devi et al. firmly believe that the adivasis may genuinely ‘protest’ against maladministration and misgovernance. However they have overtly not adhered to the view that the ‘Maoist-type of insurgency’ is the acceptable format of protest. They basically stress on ‘separating’ the tribal-adivasi from the Maoist insurgent.
On the other hand, Arundhati Roy opinesthat the Maoists have in essence granted the tribal-adivasis a semblance of dignity. At least, the importation of the gun; according to Roy, if not the ideology, has given the poverty-stricken adivasi a weapon to engineer ‘survival’; if not emancipation.
Bela Bhatia too, while analysing the Naxalite movement in Central Bihar agrees that the Naxalites (pre-2004 era) empowered the labouring and oppressed classes of the region. Nonetheless, she feels that the Naxalite leaders are ‘not interested’ (emphasis added) in ‘development’ and hence the quality of life in the villages have not improved.
Gautam Navlakha even goes to the extent of conflating the tribal with the armed maoist.
In this aspect, if one agrees with Arundhati Roy, then one is led to understand that Guha’s element of ‘consciousness’ (if at all there is such) is provided by the Maoist leadership. Does Roy intend to say that the Maoist leadership (who are mostly urban-bred intellectuals) alongwith their dogmatic concepts associated with the ‘1930s China’ have essentially provided the necessary ‘consciousness’ to the Adivasis?
If that is agreed upon, then how does one explain the host of tribal uprisings in a non-Maoist political landscape during the Imperial Raj? On the other hand, if we completely disagree with Roy, then surely we are led to accept the discourse that the urban intellectuals have acted as ‘usurpers’ in the tribal domain which upholds the spirit of primus inter pares.
A Kobal Ghandy or a Ganapathy have simply displaced a modern-day Birsa Munda or a Sido. Instead of being the torch-bearers for the ‘subaltern adivasi’, the Maoist leadership seems to have undertaken a ‘struggle for power’ enmeshed in their own abstraction of dismantling the comprador-bourgeoisie Indian democracy.
To a large extent, this idea seems to be echoed by past Naxalite leaders like Kanu Sanyal and Azizul Haq. Amusingly, they hold the opinion that the present Maoist struggle is nothing but a ‘power struggle’ and is using the tribal peoples as pawns.
One thing, however, is noteworthy and deserves attention. If the urban-bred intellectuals are merely perceived as ‘foreigners’ in the adivasi heartland, then how could they extend their influence? Actually, it is a bare fact that the palpable absence of any pro-people authoritative structure in about one-fourth of the Indian landmass created a power vacuum in those regions. Compounding it was the over-exploitation by the unholy nexus of money-lenders, bureaucrats, politicians and corporate honchos.
Thus, quite naturally, the ‘intellectual foreigner’ appeared to the adivasi as the neo-Birsa. Hence, Birsa’s chants of ‘Katong Baba Katong’ (O father, kill kill) of 1899 echoed in the form of the Liberation slogan:
Khet par adhikar ke liye ladho, desh me janawad ke lie badho
(Fight for land rights, march towards democracy in the country)
the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) slogan of
Apni satta, apna kanoon (Our power, our law).
In sum, there can hardly be any denial that post-2004, the tribal upsurge in the so-called ‘Red Corridor’ has visibly shaped up as a formidable insurgency so as to give the Home Ministry some sleepless nights. There is in fact, no need to check the veracity of this fact as Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh himself has acknowledged that the Maoist insurgency is the ‘biggest’ internal security threat to the nation-state. And the insurgency has also led the Home Ministry to formulate the Operation Green Hunt (allegedly a media-invented term) to rein in the ‘ruffians’.
What should the Government Do?
In these circumstances, the Indian government finds itself in a quagmire. Would law and order be given priority or socio-economic development and empowerment to the tribal weigh higher than the former? It appears like the proverbial chicken-egg problem.
In order to eradicate such a baffling situation, the Indian policy makers have embarked on a two-pronged strategy to deal with the insurgency. They have initiated a unified command structure under the advisory jurisdiction of Army personnel encompassing the major provinces afflicted with this ‘menace’.
And simultaneously, the Union government plans to go ahead with its socio-economic packages for the ‘undeveloped islands’ within the subcontinent.
This strategy, however, do not exhibit any novelty as also there is nothing ‘new’ in the government’s experience regarding the insurgency. It is a four-decade old problem. Though it subsided in the late 1970s and was dormant in the 1980s and 90s; Andhra Pradesh was to feel the jolts of the shock many a times in the late 1990s which culminated at the failed assassination attempt of its erstwhile Chief Minister. The machinery of the province did react and it was ruthless in its execution. It prepared an elite band of ‘Greyhounds’; on most occasions manned by the Indian Police Service officers and clubbed it with a penetrative intelligence department.
The strategy worked quite successfully. Incarceration and annihilation of the top brass of the Maoist leadership obliterated the preponderance of the Naxalites in the province and they were forced to shift base to neighbouring Chattisgrah. The new epicentre of the movement was in Dantewada-Bastar region.
If we talk about Counterinsurgency (COIN) in today’s era, then it shall be hard to extricate ourselves from a reference to the American definition of the same. The US COIN manual authored by David Petraues et al. is a meaty, scholarly treatise of years of experience of several military generals who withstood different kinds of insurgencies across various territorial domains and in challenging conditions. In fact, it is heavily influenced by the writings of David Galula: a French military officer who worked upon his country’s experience in Algeria. Moreover, the Vietnam case has invariably been a cogent input for the COIN manual.
In a post cold-war world, insurgencies fomented by non-state actors have come upfront; especially through the case studies of Iraq and Afghanistan. Be it the Sunni Muslims in the former region or the bellicose Pashtuns in the latter, it seems that insurgency has come to live with us. And thus COIN, or the American COIN is supposed to be the paradigm solution, for the menace. An influential section of the American army and marines (Petraues, John Nagl et al.) would have us believe that the US-COIN is the panacea for all forms of ‘parasitic’ insurgencies in the world.
The American COIN bases itself on the three-phase doctrine of “Clear, Hold and Build (CHB)”. It stresses more on ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the denizens rather than alienating them in the process of ‘hunting down’ the ‘bad insurgents’. A ‘bad Taliban’ (a hardcore militiaman) may be a Pashtun, but that should not encourage a US-marine to randomly pump artillery into a habitat where he has presumably taken shelter. Firing bullets into that house would necessarily kill few civilian Pashtuns. In the long run, a series of similar incidents would inflame the passions of more ‘civilian Pashtuns’ who through their tribal ‘jirgas’ (tribal assemblies) shall spew venom against the Americans: may be by bolstering the rank and file of the Taliban.
Thus, the very purpose of ‘defeating’ the insurgency will remain unfulfilled if such a policy is undertaken. So, the solution is supposedly the CHB-COIN. In the first phase, try and clear the targeted area of the hardcore militants (Clear Phase). Thereafter, Hold the area against the regrouping of and consequent recapture by the insurgents. Once the “hold” phase has been achieved for a considerable period of time, the Build Phase can be implemented; i.e. try to put in a pro-people, non-corrupt efficient administration.
On paper at least, the CHB-COIN looks absolutely fine. However, on practical terms, it can only be sustained and can achieve a definite degree of success if ‘time’ and ‘resources’ are put in adequate amounts; e.g. a troop ratio of about 10:1 (against the insurgents) can tip the war in favour of the state actor. No doubt, finances would be no less than astronomical, at least as far as Afghanistan is concerned.
USA proclaims that their version of the COIN has been triumphant in Iraq and hence can be a viable model for other countries as well. Will it be beneficial for India to adopt the model against the ongoing Maoist insurgency? And more so when it is imperative to ‘separate’ the adivasi from the insurgent.
Actually on the ground, the Americans are employing the COIN alongwith the targeted drone-attacks against the top Taliban-AlQaeda leadership. India, on the other hand, is following a ‘diluted’ version of the American two-pronged strategy. Socio-economic development in simultaneity with paramilitary action is a covert application of the CHB doctrine. And in addition to that, the targeted annihilation of as well as sending the CPI-M politburo members to the hoosegow is a ‘mellowed down’ format of the Drone doctrine enunciated by American Vice-president Joe Biden.
India’s own experience with insurgency has been as old as the republic itself. Kashmir, the North-East, Punjab and the 1967-Naxalite uprising must have taught the administrative machinery sufficient lessons. That is the reason that probably today, the Indian policy-makers are more into thinking (or re-thinking) about the implementation of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). At the same time, the Union government just cannot loll on the sofa by saying that ‘law and order’ is a ‘state subject’ as per the seventh schedule of the constitution because the problem is just not (emphasis added) a law and order problem. The horizon has extended beyond ordinary perception.
At the same time, it is a challenge for the Union government to go ahead with a unified approach against the insurgency when it straddles across many states and the provinces have different governments under contrasting party banners. However, it has been seen that such a scenario does not deter the respective provincial governments in colluding against the insurgents. For instance, Chattisgarh has shown that both the centrist-UPA and the right-wing assembly can act in unison in overthrowing the militancy. Nevertheless, the weird scheme of Salwa Judum (bestowing arms to non-Maoist groups and encouraging mutual annihilation) has exacerbated the problem rather than mitigating it.
There is another model of COIN. It has tasted huge success in subduing an apparently indomitable three-decade old insurgency. It is the Sri Lankan version of ‘hard COIN’. Rajapaksa’s modus operandi was crystal clear. He obfuscated the Jaffna war zone from any ‘non-official’ media. He attacked the LTTE guerillas like a guerilla; i.e. by deploying small units, each comprising around eight to ten commandos. The intelligence network was stepped up and factionalism within LTTE was encouraged; for instance, the faction led by Col Karuna cut-off a vital eastern arm for Velupillai. Rule of law went haywire, but Rajapaksa achieved what he set out for: the decimation of the LTTE. In the process, scores of civilian Tamils were displaced, thousands of them maimed and hundreds of innocents butchered.
On a similar tone, the Columbian government tackled the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) rebels. Instead of following the decades-old formula of focusing on the ‘narcotic’ aspect of the militancy, the authorities concentrated on the anti-insurgency mode. It followed a mixed diet of the US COIN and the Lankan Hard COIN. Columbia too has tasted success as in August 2010, the FARC rebels were suing for peace talks which the government could rebuff!
India had in fact, implemented the so-called Sri Lankan model of COIN during the Punjab insurgency through the instrument of Gill-Doctrine.It was a ‘success’: with some degree of civilian casualty. Actually it was practically easier to follow that approach in Punjab as it was basically an urban insurgency and the possibilities of spilling-over to other provinces were minimal. A similar methodology was applied by India against the rudimentary Naxalite movement which was also essentially urban-centric. Also, it is easy to convince the bulk of the countrymen with regard to the AFSPA in Kashmir and the North-East by invoking the Pakistan and China factors and by stressing on the regional specificities.
Whereas in case of the Red Corridor, the situation is dissimilar as compared to the other experiences India has had. Few things are for sure. The administration has to pursue a COIN- whatever that might be. At the same time, they cannot risk to alienate the adivasis. Moreover, a section of the non-adivasis needs to be explained with regard to the policies in ameliorating the downtrodden. For the Indian government, this is a complex matrix: fallout of decades of administrative fiasco.
There is a long way to traverse before the authorities are able to solve the imbroglio. In dealing with this cul-de-sac, the Indian government must shed its ambivalence; sooner the better. Actually, from a ‘law and order’ perspective the matter is still simple.
For the sake of argument, we may assume that the insurgency can be quelled based on either the Andhra Model or the American COIN or Sri Lankan formula. But from a nation’s perspective: alienation of a massive section of the populace is a gamble that probably it just cannot afford. Even if the insurgents are eliminated like the Santhals of 1855-56; what is in store for the future? Say a quarter century down the lane?
The challenge is not only for the present political dispensation but also for the archetypal liberal-bourgeoisie structure based on the western-democratic parliamentary model.
Tribal insurgency is a question which has no unequivocal answers. A complete overhauling of the bureaucratic machinery at some places and refurbishments at almost all places is very much necessary to tackle any future contingency. However, the lack of ‘values’ and ‘ethics’ in the power structures shall be a major impediment.
If ameliorative measures do not fructify, we may witness a ‘repetition’ of the cyclical chain of events (of exploitation) commencing from the colonial period to the present post-cold war era.
A very recent report (published Sep 28,2010) by India’s leading daily Times of India has a startling revelation that close to 58 per cent of the people in the Naxal-affected districts of Andhra Pradesh ‘appreciates’ Naxalism as a viable option against state exploitation. Considering that Andhra Pradesh is the province from where the Maoists have been hounded out, this is certainly ominous.
Image showing Adivasi women of India (c) Gettyimages.com
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