Uneven Democracy : the Cry from Chhattisgarh.

Sumit Verma was being rushed by his wife Isha to the medical emergency centre of PGIMER – Chandigarh with hope in her heart. PM Manmohan Singh was also there on a visit. His security detail didn’t allow them to go in for over one & half hour. By the time they were allowed in he was declared brought dead. Manmohan Singh, the nice gentleman that he is, has apologized to Isha & has assured the country that he has instructed the authorities to be ‘more sensitive’ to the concerns of common man. Unluckily our PM doesn’t know that authorities are downright callous to common man when it comes to VIP movement & security in our country. The story got picked up because it was Chandigarh & main stream media must have been present in strength to pick up the concerns of the VVIP. Poor tribals living in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa & other states are not as lucky as Sumit Verma. Their spouses don’t get the courtesy of an apology from their PM. In fact, mostly they had been left to their own devices since independence to eke out an existence in remote, inaccessible, forests & hills that had been their home for millennia. They were pushed into these hostile landscapes since the time of earliest migrations into India. Situation changed when their lands started beckoning ever hungry Corporate with their untold mineral riches. Official website of the Government of Chhattisgarh (GOC) describes it as the land of tribals & natural resources. Natural resources are just the things that are needed for mighty growth & development in the age of ‘globalization’, but tribals are the nuisance. Tribals are unwanted even in these remote, inaccessible, parts now.

Again GOC website describes that this region has been beset with “process of questioning and protest” for past three centuries because of expropriation & exploitation of the poor populace. After independence nothing really changed for these people. Actors changed, but actions did not. Expropriation & exploitation continued unabated by sundry officials of every denomination. Even after the agrarian revolts over oppressive conditions in Telangana (Andhra Pradesh) & Naxalbari (West Bengal), which were crushed with brute force, the apathy of the state towards these forgotten subjects continued. Maoists grew in this vacuum feeding on the discontent of these marginalized people – what some describe as ‘Harvesting the Grievances’. When state satraps woke up to the opportunities for money making from tribal lands, spates of MOUs were signed with multinationals. The secrecy of many of these MOUs was jealously guarded like Swiss Bank accounts. When Corporates came to occupy the lands where miming leases were granted, the tribals & social organizations working among them rose up in revolt. What to do with these stupid, adamant tribals, who were resisting the golden dawn of development shining on their ancient land? ‘Salwa Judum’ or the peace movement was the answer. Ostensibly this was the corps of tribals & ex-Maoists disaffected by the excesses of CPI(Maoist). State governments armed this ‘Sarakari militia’ ably aided & supported by state police & paramilitary forces like totemic Cobra & Naga battalions to engage Maoists in armed combat. Salwa Judum went about its task methodically. Goading tribals to come & stay in camps especially created by them. This was to save them from Maoist depredation. Also to deny Maoists food supplies & other help that they coerced out of tribals. Tribals stubbornly refused to see what was ‘plainly good’ for them. Then the iron fist came out. Tribal possessions were looted, villages were burnt, crops were destroyed, women were raped, and individuals were killed; just so that they will see reason. In Dantewada district alone some 650 villages were made to see reason this way. Some fifty thousand tribals saw reason and were rounded up & herded into camps. Overwhelmingly large numbers though were so unreasonable as to flee into surrounding forests or even cross border into neighboring states. Several civic society organizations sent fact finding mission to discover that “the Salwa Judum and paramilitary operate with complete impunity &the rule of law has completely broken down”. The truth came out. Government was not trying to protect the tribals, but in fact was trying to get rid of them. It was vacating the lands of tribals for the ‘golden development’ to take place. It was following the scorched earth policy that has been pursued by many like the military dictatorship in Sudan in the infamous Darfur region and earlier in oil producing Unity, Heglig, & Melut basins. It is for oil in Sudan. It is for iron, bauxite, diamonds etc. in India. There it is orchestrated by a military dictatorship. Here it is handiwork of a democratic government. Salwa Judum was set up by threatening, coercing and by offering lucrative inducements to arrested Maoist cadres & other tribals. Orwellian doublespeak of ‘peace movement (Salwa Judum)’ lay in tatters. It succeeded in turning tribal against tribal, brother against brother.

Tribals don’t live in Chandigarh, Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore. How does the game of democracy play out for them in their tribal-lands?

1. Freedom of speech & expression (article 19 of constitution) granted to every citizen has no value in the absence of means to communicate those views. Even whatever meager avenues were available were muzzled in 2005 through the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. Mainstream media hardly has the time or the inclination to investigate the situation first hand and often carries the official version unverified – (“I wouldn’t like to call it a war. A war is fought against the enemy, not against our own people. — Vijay Raman, Special Director General, Central Reserve Police Force and commandant of joint Centre-states anti-Naxalite operation Green Hunt”. “These words from the man-in-charge of the biggest anti-Naxalite offensive underway in the Naxal-infested areas of central India should dispel the general impression that the much-hyped operation is set to march on like a juggernaut stomping the affected areas mercilessly). A favorable verdict is announced even before the official version is in place.

2. Personal liberty & life (article 21) that are guaranteed cease to have meaning when tribals are forcibly evicted from their home & hearth. In 2008, the Supreme Court ordered the GOC to implement the National Human Rights Commission’s recommendation to facilitate safe return and rehabilitation, compensate for damages and restore democratic rights.Largely it has gone unheeded.

3. Right to food & Right to livelihood are being/ have been legislated but are denied to tribals when their grains are destroyed & farms are devastated. Blockades by Salwa Judum vigilantes & security forces prevent villagers from attending nearest village markets few kilometers away and have to trudge several times more to go to distant places to meet their daily needs.

4. A woman who is raped has a right in law to have her complaint registered immediately without any dillydallying. Not so if you are a tribal. Six women who were raped in village Vrechhapal failed to get their FIR registered by superintendent of police. Then they approached chief judicial magistrate –Dantewada, who directed them to go to Konta, 140 kilometers to the south – a Salawa Judum stronghold. (The whole story is movingly captured in Havoc and the Dogs of war by Gandhian activist Himanshu Kumar of Vanvasi Chetana Ashram at Dantewada – demolished illegally on 17th May 2009).

A tribal is forever pushed away from food, livelihood, safety, liberty that our constitution expects us to enjoy. When humanity of a tribe woman is thus denied, her citizenship is rendered worthless, isn’t it the act of grossest & most degrading violence? It is this violence that is prompting the tribal to use the arms – bows & arrows – that they have always held. It is this violence that is forcing the tribals into the arms of Maoists, who act & pose as their saviours. Operation Green Hunt (described by India Today as A Hushed Raid on Naxals) that central & state governments have launched in cohort will only magnify this systemic violence further compounding the misery of our already wretched fellow citizens. A co-opted wretched soul like an indebted cotton farmer from Vidarbha will commit suicide in shame & utter hopelessness. A free-spirited wretched like a tribal will fight back with whatever means at his command, may be to a last man.

On 4th November PM admitted in a conference of Chief Ministers & State Ministers of tribal affairs that “systemic failure in giving tribals a stake in modern economic processes that inexorably intrude into their living spaces has built alienation over decades that is now taking a dangerous turn in some parts of our country”. He further said, “Over the years, a large number of cases have been registered against the tribals, giving rise to a good deal of harassment to those whose traditional rights were not recognised by earlier forest laws. The heavy hand of the criminal justice system has become a source of harassment and exploitation”. He then added “Systematic exploitation and social and economic abuse of our tribal communities can no longer be tolerated……. But the fact is that no sustained activity is possible under the shadow of the gun”. Very well said, Mr. Prime Minister! But mind that the shadow of the gun that the state is holding under your leadership looms ominously over any arms that tribals hold or groups claiming to hold on their behalf. It is not a level playing field.

Our democracy is patchy. Our democracy is uneven. Even in our cities it is the experience of every ordinary citizen that law is not applied to everyone evenhandedly. There is justice of choice for the high & mighty, quite another for the rest. A judge of the Supreme Court had to recuse himself the same day PM was addressing the above conference from hearing a case of dispute between Ambani brothers. He did so over possible conflict of interest. He is the third judge who had to recuse himself in a case involving Ambani brothers. Earlier, ministries of GOI were found playing favourites to one or the other Ambani brothers. One may not find a single position of power in the great Indian State that is untouched by the Reliance group empire in one way or the other. That is the power of Corporates. Would the democracy work the same way for an Ambani and the man in the streets of our cities? How would it appear to a half naked, half hungry tribal in the back of beyond? Would he see it as a “Level Playing Democracy”? Operation Green hunt wouldn’t level democracy, but probably bludgeon one set of actors – the tribals – into oblivion, into history, forever. Their land left to grieve over the loss.

O O O O O O O O O O

1. Citizens Initiative for Peace Letter to Chidambaram

2. Congress’ Digvijay Singh writes to Himanshu Kumar

3. Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas – Planning Commission

4. Sri Lankan Model favoured by GOI

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2 Responses to “Uneven Democracy : the Cry from Chhattisgarh.”

  1. A C Rao Says:

    In free democracies like India and USA, human righs violations come to light because of the very nature of the democratic process (freedom of speech,press etc). The worst offenders are in (non democratic or sham democratic) countries i.e. Libya, Sudan,Somalia,Syria, Iraq under Saddam Hussain, Saudi Arabia, Iran etc where nothing much is reported. Can you kindly investigate these countries and their unreported, factual Human Rights records.

    Cheers

  2. Sadanand Says:

    Point is not if Democracy is better or worse than dictatorships (military/ communistic) or sham democracies. Point is that democracies are work in progress – requiring great lot of work to be done to improve and to keep them good. Those who are at the benefits end of the democratic spectrum either don’t understand its blessings or think it is the same for everyone. That is sadly not true. This is an attempt to show how ‘democracy’ unfolds for many at the costs end of the democratic spectrum.

    Cheers / Sadanand

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