The threat from society's margins

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 March, 2007, 12:00am

The daylight gunning down of an Indian politician this week has revived speculation about what is called the Naxalite threat. More significantly, it draws attention to the time warp in which 80 million Indians are caught. Economic liberalisation has aggravated their anguish.

The Naxalite name comes from Naxalbari in West Bengal, where adivasi, or aboriginal, tea garden labourers went on a rampage in 1967 against low pay and hard working conditions. A bunch of educated young Calcutta Maoists made common cause with the Naxalbari agitators, and the Naxalite label stuck for militant Marxist-Leninist organisations like the People's War Group.

Adivasis lived in India long before the Aryan influx of around 1500BC. The official term for them is 'Scheduled Tribe', or ST, a term used in the constitutional schedule in which they are listed. Romantics present them as India's answer to Rousseau's nobel savage.

Crimes like the murder of member of parliament Sunil Mahato are a reminder of the need to integrate adivasis in society instead of trying to preserve a doomed lifestyle with ineffective special privileges that are widely abused.

As a member of India's parliament and general secretary of the local ruling party, Mahato was a member of the establishment. That set him apart from his deprived adivasi brethren. He was also a powerful political operator and dispenser of patronage, reputedly with a finger in many pies, especially construction contracts. Naxalite gangs allegedly extort 12 per cent protection money - they call it 'tax' - from all contractors.

Jharkhand state, where Mahato was murdered, was created in 2000 in response to long-standing adivasi demands. The more than 50 Scheduled Tribes spread across northeast, central and southern India account for over 8 per cent of 1.1 billion Indians. Unassimilated in Aryan culture, socially and geographically isolated during Muslim and British rule, they are by no means cohesive or homogenous. Their common feature is that they have not benefited from the nation's social and economic progress.

Despite reserved seats in legislatures and programmes to improve their status, they suffer deteriorating public health conditions, inadequate education, poor sanitation, limited potable water and, above all, loss of traditional lands to massive projects like the Narmada dam.

Officials say that about 50 per cent of STs support the Naxalites - either from choice or through coercion. The authorities have withdrawn from many tribal areas, leaving surviving forests unguarded and police and medical posts unmanned, which encourages guerillas - at the cost of the population. Jharkhand's more than 230 Naxalite attacks last year took 81 civilian lives.

Economic liberalisation has encouraged urbanisation, wealth concentration and conspicuous consumption, which may have widened the gulf between adivasis and others. But the tribal identity was under siege long before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's reforms.

Mahato's killing might or might not have been part of the insurgency. But, to the extent that an evil act can ever serve a purpose, it might help to inspire the search for ways of easing the pains of transition. No one any longer expects the noble savage to survive, not even with lashings of political patronage and reserved quotas.

The search is on for ways of persuading adivasis to come to terms with more positive aspects of modernity than that represented by trigger-happy Naxalites.

Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray is a former editor of The Statesman in India