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‘It is no longer a revolt, it is a war’: Shubhranshu Choudhary on the Maoist movement

Dec 20, 2012

The launch of the book Let’s Call Him Vasu: With the Maoists in Chhattisgarh generated an explosive debate on the pattern of development currently undertaken, reportage in the Red Corridor and the rights of tribals vis–à–vis the policies of the State.

The book was launched by Digvijay Singh, who was introduced as ‘the freewheeling conscience of the Congress’ by Shoma Chaudhury, Managing Editor of Tehelka. The book by Shubhranshu Choudhary, who has worked with the BBC, the Guardian and the Deshbandhu contains an account of his seven years spent in Chhattisgarh watching closely the Maoist movement. Delhi School of Economics’ sociologist Nandini Sundar to was present on the occasion.

Shoma, the moderator began the session with a critique of that part of the book that implicated Dr. Binayak Sen for his involvement with the Maoists. She stated that many innocent people were jailed simply for knowing the Maoists and it was becoming increasingly difficult for people working in complex zones such as Chhattisgarh to be critical of the State, or provide explanations for what was happening without being branded as sympathisers. “You can be pro-constitution, pro-justice and anti-State at the same time,” she argued.

Shubhranshu’s account seemed one such attempt at explanation. He spoke about the conviction amongst the adivasis that unless they picked up guns, the government wouldn’t listen to them. Observing that the ‘comrades from Andhra’ had worked hard in spreading their theory, Shubhranshu quoted a Maoist cadre, ‘We adivasis will have to fight. But this fight is not for hunger alone. It is one for change, and will be a long one.’

What began as a struggle against the exploitative tendu patta contractors gradually emerged into what the Prime Minister described as the gravest threat to internal security. Examining the roots of the issue, Digvijay Singh minced no words in locating the cause as the exploitation of the tribals, stating that the Indian Forest Act, 1927, took away their land rights.

Nandini Sundar too argued that the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), while ostensibly bringing local governance to tribal areas in the 5th and 6th Schedules was nevertheless subservient to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the infamous 1894 Land Acquisition Act, thus rendering it powerless. She also blamed the way, the adivasis were treated as second-class citizens and animals, arguing that it was ultimately the sheer impunity of the State in getting away with burning villages, raping women and carrying out other forms of atrocities that so infuriated the tribals and made them look to the Maoists for support.

Shubhranshu went a step further, arguing that as the very language of the Gond tribals in Chhattisgarh, Gondi, was not understood by the majority of journalists, bureaucrats and politicians, there wasn’t even a proper understanding of the problem itself. He pointed out the irony of airing seven radio programmes in Sanskrit everyday for a population of 15,000 Sanskrit speakers while 27 lakh Gondi speakers had absolutely nothing in their language to listen to.

When it came to solutions, however, there were plenty of interesting propositions. Singh flatly said that contractors had to be eliminated, stating that not only were they exploitative for tribals, they also provided a revenue source for the Maoists themselves. Cooperative societies could be formed so that the collectors of forest produce would become owners. He argued that the 1927 Forest Act be amended to give tribals rights over their land, that contracts be given to tribal youth and they be made accountable to gram panchayats and that they have control over their own resources including minor forest produce, major forest produce and mineral wealth. He critiqued the compensation in the proposed Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation (MMDR) Bill that sought to give tribals a share in the profits made, arguing instead that they be given a per ton royalty on every mineral mined in the area.

Shubhranshu was all admiration for the adivasis’ lifestyle, finding it as far more sustainable than the current consumption-based model of development. “What happened in 1492 should not happen after 500 years and there should be another way of developing and progressing,” he said, in a reference to Columbus’ discovery of the Americas and the ensuing slaughter of the native population.

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