In­dian tribes­peo­ple trapped in Maoist cross­fire

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY ABHAYA SRI­VAS­TAVA

Grow­ing up in a re­mote tribal ham­let, Rupa Hem­brom used to be ter­ri­fied of the wild boars that roamed nearby. Now her big­gest fear is the Maoist gueril­las who prowl the jun­gles of In­dia’s “Red Cor­ri­dor.”

The left-wing ex­trem­ists have been fight­ing to over­throw the gov­ern­ment for decades, but the con­flict has taken on a new in­ten­sity since right-wing Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s elec­tion last year.

A rise in ab­duc­tions of civil­ians and ex­e­cu­tion-style killings mean they are now re­garded as In­dia’s num­ber one se­cu­rity chal­lenge, strik­ing fear into se­cu­rity forces and lo­cals alike.

While op­er­at­ing mainly un­der­ground, the Maoists of­ten de­scend on vil­lages to de­mand ev­ery­thing from pro­tec­tion money to live­stock as well as en­tic­ing young men and women ranks.

“Just look­ing at them makes me so scared. They have ma­chine­guns and they look so pow­er­ful,” said 24- year- old Hem­brom as she nar­rated her en­coun­ters with heav­ily armed Maoist pa­trols in Jhark­hand state.

Hem­brom’s vil­lage of lush paddy fields and sparkling streams falls in the so-called Red Cor­ri­dor strad­dling swaths of cen­tral and eastern In­dia.

Hem­brom be­longs to one of In­dia’s many in­dige­nous tribes col­lec­tively known as Adi­va­sis, who live in ab­ject poverty — fer­tile re­cruit­ing ground for the Maoists, also known as Nax­als, hid­ing out in sur­round­ing ar­eas.

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‘We have no life’

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“We have no run­ning wa­ter, no elec­tric­ity, noth­ing. We have no life here,” said Hem­brom, who uses fire­wood for cook­ing and kerosene lamps to light her dingy hut.

The tribal peo­ple’s plight is a ma­jor chal­lenge to the de­vel­op­ment nar­ra­tive of Modi who has pledged to raise liv­ing stan­dards at ev­ery level of so­ci­ety.

The in­sur­gency started in the vil­lage of Nax­al­bari in West Ben­gal four decades ago when peas­ant farm­ers rose up against feu­dal land­lords. Some 10,000 peo­ple have been killed since.

While other In­dian in­sur­gen­cies, such as in Kash­mir or Na­ga­land, have sub­sided in the last decade, Maoist at­tacks have in­ten­si­fied — inspired by the suc­cess of their fel­low rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in neigh­bor­ing Nepal.

A to­tal of 2,866 peo­ple have been killed since 2010, in­clud­ing 786 mem­bers of the se­cu­rity forces, says In­dia’s home min­istry.

The civil­ian death toll stands at 2,080, in­clud­ing 921 who were ex­e­cuted af­ter be­ing brand- ed po­lice in­form­ers.

Four po­lice­men were shot dead last month and their bod­ies dumped on the road af­ter be­ing hauled off a bus in the cen­tral state of Ch­hat­tis­garh.

Modi was left red-faced in May when the Maoists briefly took 250 vil­lagers hostage on the eve of a visit by the premier to Ch­hat­tis­garh.

Land Sell-offs

Tribal peo­ple have grown deeply wary of suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments, hav­ing gained lit­tle from sell-offs of min­eral-rich land to make room for gi­ant re­finer­ies and steel plants.

Such projects are cen­tral to Modi’s plans of re­viv­ing the econ­omy and his aim of pro­vid­ing elec­tric­ity to ev­ery com­mu­nity.

Jhark­hand’s Saranda for­est alone con­tains 25 per­cent of In­dia’s iron ore de­posits and around a dozen com­pa­nies are run­ning at least 50 min­ing projects in the area.

The Maoists be­gan build­ing a fol­low­ing in Jhark­hand in 2000 by promis­ing to pro­tect the Adi­va­sis who had seen their land taken away and rivers pol­luted by min­ing ac­tiv­ity.

Most es­ti­mates put the num­ber of guer­ril­las at around 20,000, although de­tails are hard to pin down as the move­ment shuns con­tact with the media. Mem­ber­ship of the move­ment, which is clas­si­fied as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion, car­ries a lengthy prison sen­tence.

But in a re­cent in­ter­nal memo that ap­peared in In­dian news­pa­pers, party gen­eral sec­re­tary Com­rade Gana­p­a­thy wrote of the new chal­lenges un­der Modi’s “neo-lib­eral” gov­ern­ment.

“The ag­gres­sive pro­mo­tion of Modi’s ‘de­vel­op­ment’ agenda will re­sult in dis­place­ment on an un­prece­dented scale,” he wrote.

“We will have to res­o­lutely con­front and de­feat this at­tack by unit­ing with all the sec­tions that will be ad­versely af­fected.”

Hearts and Minds

The heavy- handed tac­tics of the author­i­ties to­wards any­one iden­ti­fied as hav­ing far-left sym­pa­thies have played into the Maoists’ hands over the years.

Jee­tan Marandi, a Jharkand­based ac­tivist and writer, spent five years on death row af­ter be­ing con­victed of mur­der be­fore be­ing cleared by a judge.

“I was crit­i­cal of the gov­ern­ment and paid a heavy price,” he told AFP.

Marandi said the Maoists have earned the grat­i­tude of lo­cals who were sick of be­ing ex­ploited at ev­ery turn.

“The Maoist lead­ers gave back land to the peo­ple ... so the tribal com­mu­ni­ties be­gan to rally be­hind them,” he said.

Author­i­ties say they have be­come more sen­si­tive to the tribal peo­ple’s prob­lems, aware that win­ning hearts and minds is key to de­feat­ing the Maoists.

“We fre­quently visit them,” said Ku­nal, an ad­di­tional po­lice su­per­in­ten­dent in Jharkand’s Giridih dis­trict, ahead of a pa­trol in a Maoist strong­hold.

“It is the trib­als who are the sup­port base of the Nax­als (Maoists) so we have to un­der­stand their prob­lems,” added Ku­nal, who uses one name.

But for sol­diers tasked with pur­su­ing the Maoists, re­cent at­tacks have put them on edge in an en­vi­ron­ment that of­fers plenty of cover for guer­ril­las.

“We are not fight­ing an en­emy. We are fight­ing our own peo­ple,” said paramil­i­tary of­fi­cer Ajit Ku­mar, speak­ing be­hind a bar­ri­cade of barbed wire at a base in Giridih. “It is not easy, it takes so much out of you.”

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