India has a Naxalite problem, like Pakistan’s terrorist problem. The problem is that the state lacks sovereignty over large parts. In Pakistan this area is the Frontier (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Fata) and Balochistan. In India it is a belt of states running northeast to southwest. What is common to these states is a large population of tribals, India’s indigenous people. Scholars believe they came to possess their lands before the invasion of the Aryans from Iran and the Caucasus that started the Vedic age. This began 3,000 years ago after the Indus Valley civilisation collapsed in Punjab, Sindh and Gujarat.
The tribals are quite primitive and live mostly off the land. Their religion is animist and does not conform to the purity of Vedic ritual (which is one way of identifying them as being different). The word tribal means preliterate and it is true that these people are neither literate nor possessing of the sophistication that modernity and literacy brings. Because they are close to their land, they are affected when its features — forest, river, mountain, animal - are taken from them. Or when the tribals are forcibly displaced, as often happens.
This separation has created conflict. Indian industry needs the space to expand, and it needs raw materials. The government does this by handing out licenses to mine these areas for metals.
The state is corrupt in India, and land is signed away with little regard to the tribals who have association with it. Often companies breach the conditions under which they may mine. Other than facilitating the mining and the deforestation, the state is absent from these areas. The conditions are quite inhuman, and the tribals are the lowest group on India’s Human Development Index. In the 1970s, when the state did enter the areas to set up heavy industry like hydroelectric dams, reports of contractors sexually exploiting the tribal women, who were not particularly moralistic, regularly appeared in magazines. The state is clearly the offender here. But even those who accept this feel the Naxalites have no proper solution to the problem of development. This is because Naxals are from a faction of the Communist party called Marxist-Leninist, whose wild ideas may be compared to the Khmer Rouge’s. The Naxals (their name comes from the Bengali village where the movement started) are fighting a revolution, but what comes at the end of it is not very clear, and there is really no substitute for the modern state. And the problem of the state in poor nations is, of course, that it is inherently corrupt.
Corruption also touches tribals, and when one of them becomes a leader, his behaviour is no different from that of a leader from another community. The latest news is that on Monday, a landmine was detonated under a bus that killed 44 people. As in Pakistan, there are Indians who see the other side’s view, and think the solution is not state violence. They also look at the link between the state and the exploiters. For instance, one company accused of exploitation is Vedanta, which makes aluminium. Home minister Chidambaram, who leads the fight against Naxals, used to be a director on Vedanta’s board. He is one of our few good leaders, but this is a serious conflict of interest. He brushes this aside as irrelevant, and perhaps it is.
Meanwhile, the violence continues.
Published in the Express Tribune, May 19th, 2010.