Sunday, April 06, 2008

My "Encounters" with Maoists/ Naxals

Well, to be honest, I did not have any such "direct" encounters... only some "vicarious" ones

One of the most recent ones was today, when I finished reading Sudeep Chakravarty's travelogue "Red Sun: Travels through the Naxalite Country"...

For those who have not read the book, it is highly recommended. It breaks through the veil of denial, which the aspiring urban middle-class, the "India Shining" media, the politicians and bureaucrats tend to deny/under-represent in the public awareness/ discourse... Even when this growing phenomenon is publicly noted, it is seen/described as a regional problem; the news gets covered in the regional newspapers/editions...

However, if one pays attention, the phenomenon is growing, and becoming increasingly noticeable. I tried to find out and in Google News, there were 210 news items on "naxal maoist" in last one week....

And as the timeline shows, the trend has shot up in last 3-4 years...

In any case, when the Prime Minister of India describes "Maoists" as the "single largest internal security threat" (as he did last year) - and accepts that 165 of the 600-odd districts are affected by this threat - then, if you are travelling into the hinterlands of India, the chances are more than one-in-four that you have a direct or vicarious brush with this "threat"

(These 165 districts, incidentally, are spread across 14 Indian states. Among the other non-Maoist-effected states are the otherwise-troubled J&K, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and Meghalaya - thus, leaving only eight Indian states as "peaceful")

Reading the book, brought back these memories of my "encounters" during last few months. During last couple of months, I had a chance of travelling across the interiors of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chattisgarh in connection to some assessment of NGOs... This was also an opportunity to cross-check the official line that the Maoists - described as "these thugs/ anti-national elements/ criminals" etc. - resist "development" (industrialisation, mining projects, large dams, investments, job-creation, building of infrastruction, etc.), because they feeds on poverty, misery and lack of development and so on.

Here are some snapshots from my "vicarious" experiences:

Snapshot 1:
I was in Hazaribagh (Jharkhand). My hosts were one of the largest - and oldest - NGO in the region (Bihar & Jharkhand). The NGO was started by four engineering graduates in 1971, who were inspired by the ideas of Gandhi, Binoba Bhave and Jai Prakash Narain. They had continued working in programs related to socio-economic development (e.g., supporting micro-entrepreneurship), health & sanitation, education, community mobilisation through forming SHGs, etc... And they covered virtually the whole of Jharkhand and Bihar.

"Just out of curiosity," I asked, "all that you are doing is in the region heavily infested by Maoists. And all that you are doing goes against what these people stand for. Your funding comes from foreign, mostly foreign donors, and your work helps people becoming self-sufficient... And so, they will not have any reason to join the Maoist revolution. Don't you come in conflict with the Maoists?"

"Not really," one of the founders told me, "yes, sometime they accost our people. But you only have to tell them that you are part of "Samiti" - that's how we are known - and they let us do our work. We may not agree with them, but they do agree with what we are doing.... No, there is no conflict of objectives."

Snapshot 2:
This was in the interiors of Chattisgarh. My hostess, an old self-effacing missionary sister, managed an NGO which had worked in the four districts of the state in area of healthcare since 1969. Over a period of time, they had established more than 90 Rural Health Centers (serving 1200 villages), managed by registered nurses, and supported by Mitanis - the Village Level Healthworkers - who were trained by the organisation. It had pioneered a Community Health Insurance scheme, at an yearly premium of "2kg of rice", which provides comprehensive healthcare to more than 90,000 poor and tribals in the region.

The focus of their activities, however, goes beyond the just the physical health. It is a holistic approach, which delves deeper into the causes of ill-health, and deals with them through people-centred activities like leadership training, health education, livelihood-promotion, formation of self-help-groups and tackling the various antecednts of malnutrition. It is more like a social movement, than just a healthcare venture...

When I asked the sister the same question, she said, "No, we never had any problems with them. Maybe, we are not in "The Corridor". But even if we were in their area, why would there be any problems? We, these women in the SHGs, have often achieved the same aims, like fair disbursal of money from government schemes, social justice in a caste-ridden village, through more peaceful means." She thought about it, and then added, "we do have problems of wild elephants, though."

That was January 26th, a very cold day in Pathalgaon. We celebrated the Republic Day by hoisting the Tri-colour...

Snapshot 3:
"You see that hill over there? Beyond that is "The Corridor"," Mr Meher - the "Public Relations Officer" of the NGO I was visiting - mentioned in passing, as if he was describing the location of a roadside dhaba. It was early morning, and I had gone to see the "innovative schools" which the organisation runs in the interiors of Orissa. These classes were held in the premises of the local government schools.

"No government teacher comes to teach here," Mr Meher told me, "but we use their building before the school timings. We recruit a local educated youth to teach the basics of reading and maths, and about health, hygiene, environment, their rights and responsibilities, etc."

There was, of course, an incentive to attend for the kids - free soya milk and bread... which, of course, was also a great attraction for many to even bring their toddler siblings to the school :0)

Later is the day, when we were returning, I asked him about the Maoists. "Your activities cover the whole of Orissa. Even though an NGO, you are almost like a mid-size private-sector company with a "turnover" of Rs. 250cr and employing 1200-1500 professionals" - they are into everything from micro-finance, micro-insurance (with tie-ups with some of the well known corporate insurance companies), micro-enterprise, social development (from running a home for destitute women to SHGs for village craftsmen... including a chain of retail outlets for the produce from the SHGs) - "You are trying to bring income, prosperity, self-sufficiency at grassroot level. Doesn't your work come in conflict with the Maoists?"

He weighed the question, looked at me quizically, and said, "We are doing things which are good for people. Why would we come in conflict with anyone? Yes, there were instances when one of our people were caught by them. But we explained, and they released him."...

Snapshot 4:
I was packing my bags to return the next day, and glanced at the headlines of local edition of Indian Express. Its headline screamed of about the murder of an ex-surpanch by the Maoists/Ultras - he was supposed to be a police informer. What caught my eyes was this line in the news:

"The ultras left behind the posters in which they warned against sale of liquor, trafficking of timber and encroachment of tribal land".

I was/am confused. Do I sympathise with the violent "ultras"? NO!... There are better - non-violent - ways...

On the other hand, shouldn't such posters be distributed by the government/ state to its populace?...

We live in confusing times...


fr33kast said...

As an American Indian, I do agree with your idea. But, India is a very diverse country, this was a country that used to be made up of kingdoms and villages. Everyone there has an opinion, yours is just one of many, good for you to express your thoughts

On your article, I find it very informative, there was a time when the Maoists where a threat to India, but that is a thing of the past. I think they are understanding that India is growing and they find no need to go up against the government in any militaristic way because like India, they too are trying to are trying to make a living and aid in the boost of economy.

Madhukar said...

I think you are dead wrong.. and did not read the post completely!

I find the Maoist "threat" is growing precisely because of what the "Indian diaspora" - living both within in India and outside - feel that "India is growing"... against all facts to the contrary!!

Jo said...

That warning against the sale of liquor seems as if it came from a religious militant outfit. Such kind of moral policing is not fair from any organization.

I think the NGOs that you have visited are a good answer to Maoists. What we should make people do is not to sympathize with maoists, but to make them start working on the alternatives like such NGOs (but then there are NGOs who are after only monetary benefits. Remember Tsunami times?)

By the way, you have written about a missionary NGO. There has been lots of hue and cry over conversion in the rural/tribal India. Have you encountered anything as such in your journey?

Madhukar said...


thanks for the comment.

My take is that before one sympathises or condemns the naxals/maoists, One needs to understand them - to understand why someone will take up a violent option... or on a personal plain, if we introspect about when do we as individuals become angry and violent, one will find the answer.... it is when either "nothing else seems to work" or "to protect oneself from an onslought"... that violence is either the last expression of frustration or the first expression of self-protection.

In an earlier post, this is what I had tried to do:
have a look at it...

re the "warning against the sale of liquor" - no, that has nothing to do with religion!... I was interacting with some women from an SHG in Karnal (Haryana) two years back, and they had protested and had got the license of a liquor theka in their village cancelled. The reason was simple issue of livelihood. Liquor addiction is one of the major causes for rural tribal families to slip below poverty. They resisted because they knew that if liquor is available in the village, their men will splurge away family income in that addiction.... No, I am not a teetotaller, and enjoy my drinks ;0), but also appreciate that what we may call "moral policing" in the individualistic ("It is my choice") urban society, is a responsible community action in places where people are living on the edge of penury.... actually, all NGOs also communicate the same message to their beneficiaries! :0)

but do agree about the need for the "alteranative forms of action" - essentially, what the grassroot NGOs do is to fill an unserved space in 'governance'... so, incidentally, do the "ultras"! (*_^)

Jo said...

Madhukar ji,

I do understand your take on the subject. I completely understand the situation where people turn to violent means of protest. Believe me when I say that I understand, because I belonged to that lowest financial tier of the society who dropped college after 12th, who was born in to a family of 8 children and who started his career from a telephone booth operator (Rs. 150/month, but it was a good addition for the family), bakery sales man (Rs. 12 a day plus I could attend college hours of pre-degree course, it was not quite in the old days, it was 1996), office boy (for 450 bucks a month), goldsmith for 4 years (started from 600 bucks and 2,200 at the fourth year (in 2002) etc) and now ended up in a software career (and earns a five figure salary now). I don't condemn the whole situation, but I am against any means of violence.

I remember once a royal family member was complaining that "the youngsters prefer blue collar jobs" and I told him from my own experience that I was getting least recognition in the society while I was working as a goldsmith and after I turned out to become an IT professional, people (who usually ignored me and my family because of our financial status), people who lived in the same street kept coming to me to consult for the best computer courses for their children. I didn't turn my back to them, I didn't take any revenge. In fact I had given them the most helpful advices with a saddistic pleasure in mind. That those 'rajas' came to me asking for help. That they recognized my place in the society now.

I said all these to mention that I do understand the situation where Maoists benefit. But I think India needs sincere people who work with sincere intentions. I want to see people who are not driven by any 'ism's, but for humans and humanity. As much as I appreciated "hazaar chaurasi ki maa" and the people whom the director talked about in that movie, I still think we should find the means of non-violence. At times, yes, the poor are forced to take law into hands when all hopes are lost, like what happened in Muthanga, in Vayanad, in Kerala.

And I don't harp on the India Shining campaign (I'm amongst the people whom some of my colleagues call me 'pseudo-secularist', 'communist' and 'christian fundamentalist'). :-)

I can understand that tribal men are easily addicted to liquor. Actually, I have heard news reports that outsiders use arrack to influence these poor tribal men to acquire their lands. In that sense, the liquor supply should be prohibited, yes.

It is a sad situation that our governments are not doing what they are supposed to do. I agree with that. But along with questioning the governments, we should also do our bit to help the poor. That's why I say we should support NGOs who functions properly and not after money. I have lost faith in many NGOs after a journalistic friend reported on how NGOs benefited from Tsunami disaster in Kerala. How the money went out to places where Tsunami never happened. How 50,000 crores (yes, crores!!! - not officially reported though) vanished in the land of Kerala and Tsunami victims still live in bad conditions here when these 50,000 crores could have made the entire Kerala three times richer. Well well, so many of such things to rant about. :-)

By the way, would like to know your answer on what I had mentioned about conversion. Does that happen there in the name of financial benefits?

Madhukar said...

thanks for sharing this... and really glad to get to know the person behind the id/blog-profile.

I am not either for or against the Moaists. I only try to understand why this phenomenon is becoming larger. Whatever I have understood, I sympatise with those who become a part of this. But I do not support their methods, however. As I said earlier, there are better and more productive ways of achieving similar aims. That is why I also agree with you that we need more people who get into social/ NGO sector. My own experience with NGOs is that there are all kind. There are the NGOs who work more like "contractors" for funds/schemes (or wherever money is); often the motivation is money, and what you mentioned wouldvery well apply to those. But there are also NGOs, who are in the field because they are committed to a cause, and people involved feel deeply enough about it to invest their time and efforts.

About the "conversions", yes, obviously that happens. In this part of the country, a large number of Christians are tribals. But I don't think there is any forced conversion, or even people being enticed into conversion. It is simply that many see some of the missionaries doing some very meaningful work for the community, and so try to follow in their footsteps, and there are also those who make this choice because they see this as a window for better life.

Jo said...

Madhukar ji

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.

RP said...

Madhukar Ji,

Your postings are exellent. Since it has been done after interacting with real people it has substance.

I only wish that your answer about "conversion" were as acurate as other reasons. I have seen how the conversion has been taking place in Jharkhand. Yes it is not forced but I dont know how you describe a situation mentioned below,
A remote village where no one has heard of school, health care or Govt, a church opens up which has primary school and health centre in the campus. The one who joins Christianity gets all these facilities free other wise one has to pay 10-20 rupees for the doctors services and more for school fees. With no earnings and some how managing food one does not care about religion. They opt for the only course left and join the group.

I fully appreciate the work done by mission in remote areas, but feel ashamed to be a part of society where an elected Govt committed for the cause of people is not able to provide basics to atleast 50% of the population in Jharjhand.

I am a peace loving person but feel that the system which has created such a devide has to be apposed. With my 34 years of experience with working hard within the frame work of law of the land,I find that people who consider themself as rulers of India, dont feel that the person who does not accept their suprimacy have no right to live.
The frustation and anger cant be contained by every one and I have full sympathy towards the youngsters who are lured by Maoists.
What option do the majority have! Mr Jo's life may be an example, but every person cant be same. I feel that the people at the top should be more sensitive towards the situation and we the common citizens should find out a way to make them realise it.

I come from a Hindi background and the word for Govt in Hindi is "SARKAR" which mean the superior. It was in English and Mogul period that Sarkar word was used by common man for Jamindars, Rajas and other rulers. Now with the same people and same word the meaning have also remained same. If not then why a person getting salary from my peoples earnings, does not bother to answer him. The moment one becomes an IAS, APS or any other Govt cadre, he starts behaving as a defferent class. In fact a common person is supposed to bow down to him and request his favor for every thing.
I being a law abiding, tax paying citizen ,what means do I have to defend myself and my rights. For every thing I have to request and beg from a much junior and corrupt person who is living in 5 star facilities on my money. A system which allows these people to ride a private helicopter/plane, stay in 5 start hotel and meet his corrupt bosses in Delhi every week rather than take care of general population need to be changed.
At this age I have started having doubts in my life long believes and feel that some alternatives have to be tried out.
The growing gap between the top and ground people is alarming. The voilent approach by general population or group may be the result of this. People who have seen Jharkhand Ministers ,MPs and IAS, IAS officers at the joining dates and are seeing their wealth now may feel that unlawful activities are the only way to earn money.
Please forgive me for such a long posting, which may seam irrelevent at amny points, but I hope you understand the feeling of a person who finds himself lost at this point of age.
RP Shahi