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Home > 2022 > Reflections on Tribal Unrest in Central India | Suresh Khairnar

Mainstream, VOL LX No 15, New Delhi, April 2, 2022

Reflections on Tribal Unrest in Central India | Suresh Khairnar

Friday 1 April 2022, by Suresh Khairnar


Terming the Tribal Unrest as a law and order situation would be gross underestimation of this long-drawn symptom. Exploring the historical root of unrest would be the right way to formulate pragmatic response to this problem.

1946-51 Telengana Kisan Andolan spearheaded by Leftists is even now termed by some as the golden period of Indian Peasant Movement. Mao’s People’s Movement that took place at the same time in China gave a philip to Indian Communist Movement. As the movement progressed, difference of opinion started emerging. B T Randive led the Communist Party of India’s faction was called the Stalinist CPI, and Mao as the Tito of China.

Another faction that was fighting against Nizam at Telengana, having seen that the Congress could succeed in dethroning the Nizam and liquidating the Zamindari system and it’s clutches over poor peasants, CPI’s prominent leaders like Ajay Ghosh and S. A. Dange took a Centrist line, and insisted upon parliamentary politics. And the Communists succeeded in forming an elected government in Kerala. This sent a clear wedge across the Movement. Just after the Chinese War the difference was formalized with the factions in CPI — then divided into three factions: the Nationalist, the Internationalist, and the Centrist.

The Nationalist led by party general secretary S. A. Dange, were supporting India’s war on China. The Internationalist denounced the war and stood in fever of China. They had also made up their mind to break away from the CPI. The centrist on the other hand, although in favour of a friendly relationship with China, were not ready to split from the CPI as yet. While the former proposing peaceful road to non-capital development, the latter adopted the Centrist line, both parties entered into Parliamentary Politics and formed United Front Government in West Bengal.

The advent of Naxalbari communist upsurge in 1967 gave a scope for the far left primarily from CPI(M) and substantially from CPI across the country to consolidate their forces to orchestrate an Indian Red Revolution, with Charu Majumdar even declaring Mao Tse Tung as “our Chairman”.

The Rise of Communist Movements and their success across the world, particularly in South America and of course the grand success in China strengthened the resolve the far left wing of the Indian Communists, towards people’s revolution and non-parliamentary means of transformation. While the Parliament brought about a fine Constitution and the government believed that every problem of the people, be it at the elite level or grass-root can be addressed within the frame of the constitution. Congress, the then ruling party could not reach the grass root as much as it reached the middle and upper section of the nation society. Communists groomed themselves in that void.

Congress which had a strong socialist bent did pursue social justice through parliamentary processes and gave nationally a fair image of governance. The political influence of Congress was the limit of Communists. Prolonged delay in succeeding much at the grass-root had the left in a despair, for their movement was not progressing as intended. This despair drove the sections of the far left towards violent revolt.

Naxalism: Present status:

Much of the Naxal movement is spread over the Tribal forest and mountain ranges of central India. Statistics say there were over 67 groups of Naxals in the early 70s which grew to about 150 factions of Naxalism. Most of them are named after their founder leaders – Reddy Group, Misra Group, Ganesh Group, Santhal Group, Bhajjee Group… There are over 10000-20000 armed cadres in various factions put together. Periodical efforts to form a united front of Naxals did provide results, but not conclusive. Prominent among them was the 2004 effort to build a United Front to re-orchestrate China like ‘People’s Movement’, involving youth, women cadres armed with sophisticated modern weapons, pledging for harakiri.

Government launched ‘Red hunt’ to curb Naxal mushrooming against which the Naxals launched thier counter offensive. It was yet another harakiri. It seems Naxals suffer gross over estimation of their strength vis a vis Government’s. With the availability of surveillance systems and combat equipment, a determined Government can curb Naxals in few weeks’ time. Looks like Government is determined otherwise; perhaps allowing the existence of Naxals in a sense helps the Government maintain stiff security cover in those naturally rich zones and allow the MNCs to creep in to those zones and exploit the minerals in the name of development. It is evident from history, Governments are more comfortable with violent upsurge than peaceful people protest (for e.g. Project on Koel Karo Dam in the then southern Bihar had to be abandoned on the face of widespread public resistance; Kerala’s Silent Valley project, Bhamragad (Gadchiroli) Dam projects were abandoned all on account of peaceful public protest), and maintaining stiff armed security under the pretext of Naxalism, enable the Government to promote such hyper exploitative MNC Mining without any trace of people’s upsurge.

There is evidently an increasing discontentment and anxiety among the people. Without going to the root of this discontentment, and by adopting ad hoc legal remedies we will be only aggravate the situation. The actual problem is related to livelihood of millions, it is inequitable distribution of development benefits.

In a society where even today over 60 per cent of the people are dependent on land, of whom substantial section is landless labourers, the issue of livelihood is a colossal problem. In spite of the historical Land Reform, Land Ceiling Acts, we have not addressed even after 75 years of independence, the issue of on the one side large scale land holding and on the other hand large section of people remaining landless. Pushed to the edge of poverty people are driven to eke out life depending on their own Jal, Jungle and Jamin. Whereas, after the MNCs set their eyes on Land, Water and Forest resources (mines), even that livelihood scope is denied to them.

The anger and aggression of the masses of those areas are the result of such systemic denial and deprivation which Naxals claim to represent through their armed revolt.
Government claims to have achieved a healthy GDP growth. Where the benefit of such growth does flow and who are the beneficiaries are matter for economic scrutiny. A cursory glance of the real beneficiaries would lead us to the source of general discontentment and how it works for widening the gap between City-Rural divide, upper-Lower class disparity, pathetic life prospects of tribals in remote forests are matters of grave concern. In the name of development over 10 crores people are displaced; it is in fact more people than the population of quite a few countries.

Displaced people are uprooted not only from their land, but mooring and social binding too, susceptible to easy provocation and violent retaliation. It is unlikely that the vastly equipped Government machinery doesn’t understand this. Efforts to address the problem of Naxals would be in vain, until these issues of peoples’ livelihood are sufficiently corrected.

Community is polarized on development front too. Few rich beneficiaries and large section of marginalized constitute these two poles. Health, Education, Information, Standard of Living etc. are distributed between these poles with blatant inequality. Power and Money goes to the pole of few while the large other pole remains powerless, aggravating the anxiety and anger. And by committing the mistake of branding is anger as Law and Order issue, the government has only succeeded in complicating and perpetuating the problem.

As it is not a law and order issue, but a clear socio, cultural, economic, ethnic and political problem, enhancing security budget is not going to help us solve it any more.

In fact Parliament made earnest effort. Constitutional amendment 73 and 74 pertaining to Tribal self-rule as well as Rural Employment Guarantee Act, National Rehabilitation Policy are some of the finest endeavour to change the plight of the people on the disadvantaged pole. However, the problem still lingers in the sector of implementation.

In his speeches during Bihar Total Revolution campaign -1974 JP used to say: If only the laws and acts that are enshrined in the books of parliament are translated into meaningful action, India would have solved her problems long before. It’d not be an exaggeration if one says, delay and defect in implementation of these constitutional provision are also reasons that aggravate the problem of Naxalism.

Such endless delay for reasons unknown, lead us to question if the Government is interested in solving the problem or to actually aggravate it. This doubt is further deepened when we learn the government causally brand the problem of Naxals as Law and Order issue.


The survey of the Forest Department, sixty per cent of forests and sixty three per cent of Reserve forests come under 187 Districts. These districts are classified in Schedule 5 and 6. Over 10 crore Tribals are living in these districts. Barring few districts in Punjab, Hariyana, Chandigarh and Pondicherry, Tribal people life in every other districts of the country.

Most of them still live in forests and mountains. Hence they were protected by the special provisions of Constitutional Articles 244, 244A, 275 (1), 338(0), 339, that provide for their cultural preservation, security to their socio, economic and political institutions and systems. As part of special provision for these masses, Constitutional Special Amendment Act 73, 74 (PESA) were brought about by which their panchayat system of governance was preserved.

Rural Development Ministry constituted a one man committee in 2004. Similarly Planning Commission and Home Ministry together constituted another committee that submitted its report in 2008. The Committee Chairman Mr. D Bandobadhyaya, who drafted the famous Operation Bargha, Recommentation – 1977 on account of which the then West Bengal Government could curb the challenges of Naxals considerably, brought out a well studied report with proactive suggestions entitled: “Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas”

Committee reports are effective indeed. If only the Government cares to translate these recommendations into meaningful actions in letter and spirit, our struggle against issues such as Naxal would bear definite fruit. The casual attitude with which the recommendations of the committee are dealt with by the Government, compels people like me to doubt the very intention of the Government vis a vis its fight against Naxal Violence.

Mendha (Lekha) is a Tribal hamlet of 84 Families of 434 members belonging to Gond Tribal Community, situated 3 Kilometer from Dhanora (Tahsil) and 30 Kilometer from Gadchiroli (District HQ). This tiny hamlet stands as an iconic model for self-rule, in spite of being in the thick of Naxal belt. Thartee years before this hamlet proclaimed, ‘In Delhi and Mumbai, it is our Government; and in our village we are the Government’ and started walking on the path shown by Gandhi and Vinobha. After long persuasion the village panchayat unanimously resolved that their village was ‘Gramdan Village’ in the year 2013. Surprisingly this is the first Gramdan village in the country in 50 years. Their Panchayat takes every decision unanimously through consensus. They have formed ‘Gaon Samaj Sabha’ which is different form Gram Panchayat, to deliberate the affairs of the village. Every decision of the village is made through this Sabha.

Ministry of Rural Development brought out, in 2012 an act to preserve the economy of forest based villages. According to this act, forest villages have get as their common property the surrounding forest to the extent of 2 Kilometer radius. Mr. Jairam Ramesh, the then Minister of Rural Development came especially to Mendha Panchayat to pronounce this act. They now harvest every minor forest product from their surrounding forest of 2 KM Radius. Panchayat has the right to decide their development and without their consent no action can be taken over their common property (surrounding forest). The village is now completely free from poverty and unemployment. This village is a rare example of collective effort of the entire village.

Emboldend by their democratic strength and economic experience, now Mendha Panchayat has demanded a forest stretch of 18 Kilometer.

This village is an ideal example for the more than seven lakh villages and cities of the country. As naxalism hovers over the issue of poverty, underdevelopment, it is important the Government and the Naxal leaders learn from the experience of Mendha and emulate in other villages, much of Naxal killing and violence can be reduced to nil. All we need is concern for humans and care for their welfare.

Naxalbari Legacy and the present situation of West Bengal

Much of West Bengal’s reputation of being politically volatile and violent derives from the specific form of violence that marked the state in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. This was a period of big mass struggles – the food movement in 1966, land occupation under the aegis of the two United Front governments (1967 and 1969-71), and militant industrial workers’ strikes that gave birth to the gherao as a particularly coercive form of protest. All this led to massive flight of capital, giving the state its reputation of being violent.

At another level, though, it is not incorrect to say that West Bengal and its youth have had a long romantic involvement with violence: Violence seen not merely as a force of transformation.

At the end of the 1960s, West Bengal saw the rise of the Naxalite movement, which openly proclaimed the armed overthrow of the state as its ultimate political objective. Slogans like ’bonduker nol sokol khomotar utso’ ( all political power grows out of the barrel of the gun’), taken straight out of Mao Zedong’s little ‘Red Book’ of quotations, adorned Kolkata’s walls, stimulating the radical imagination of the youth impatient with the political system.

This romance with violence was to soon degenerate into a ‘cult of the bomb’.

More than five decades later the scenario is something different.

Raju Mahali and his wife, Geeta, two local residents were amazed but nervous when they were told that Amit Shah would come to have lunch with them in their hut. It was the first time Shah would visit a Dalit home in the state of West Bengal. And the important fact is that it would be the territory from where he would launch Operation Lotus in the state. It is to be noted that this is a region close to the hearts of numerous liberal Bengalis and legacy of naxalite movement still haunts the hearts leftist minds of Bengal.

Amit Shah began a saffronised political programme completely contrary to the ideology of the naxal movement. His programme was a clear intention to damage the legacy of the place and turn the place into a lotus zone.

The Mahalis later admitted that they were forced to have Shah as a guest. After Shah’s visit a local Trinamool congress cabinet minister visited Manalis house and offered Raju and Geeta jobs and were given a tin- roofed house.

According to Geeta “Life is very beautiful, now,” “All pains of the past have gone away with the visit of a single person. I will feed Amit Shah again if he comes here.”

As one enters the district, one can see the BJP big party and booth offices, and there are huge cut-outs of its leaders all over the Naxalbari area. The BJP had won 22 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and one from the Darjeeling constituency.

Shanti Munda, is the only surviving leader of the Naxal movement. Munda had killed several policemen in the late 1960s with bows and arrows. The eighty year old admits that Naxalbari is now a BJP stronghold. “Whom should we blame for this except our own fate?” She is highly disappointed with the CPIM party. “I never thought in my lifetime I would have to see an alliance of communists and the Congress. I feel sorry for the Marxists in Bengal. Are they totally unaware of the basic foundation of communism? How can a communist ally with a party who is their class enemy?”

They also have no support for the present regime- the Trinamool Congress. So, we have instructed our party members to use NOTA this time,” said Nathuram Biswas, state committee member, CPI-ML (Janashakti), and resident of Naxalbari. Biswas was a child activist during the Naxalbari movement.

According to a local resident Baidya, the failure of the communists is that they could not come up with a parallel development policy to attract the youth. He said “In Naxalbari, communist parties had no programmes.” “They become only visible during the election season. The BJP targeted this region long ago with strategy. Where are the new programmes of the communists and Marxists here?”

The house-cum-party office of the former Naxal leader Kanu Sanyal is closed in Hatigisha village of Bengaijote area, since his death in 2010. There are communist flags around the old party office, which has been turned into a memorial by the CPI-ML which for a long time was defunct but recently has become active in political discourse. The entire village are draped with saffron flags by BJP workers except for the house of naxalite messiah.

Bengal’s naxalite legacy is a past and the land from where it all began fifty five years ago bears a fading testimony of time.

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