Who is Killing the Tribals?

With Operation Green Hunt, the collateral damage is the tribal communities caught between the government and the insurgents

A villager begs a polieman to spare him after his arrest near Lalgarh on 18 June 2009. REUTERS/JAYANTHA SHAW
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01 June, 2010

The naxalite movement derived its name from a peasant uprising that began in the village of Naxalbari in May 1967. The Naxals were deeply influenced by the tenets of Mao Zedong. During his turbulent time, Mahasweta Devi penned a novel, Hajar Chaurashir Ma (1975), based on the Naxal issue. Today-along with West Bengal, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra—several states are dealing with Maoist insurgencies. The ruling dispensation in West Bengal describes Mahasweta Devi as the other face of Maoism.

For several decades, Mahasweta Devi has worked for the welfare of tribal communities. She has involved herself in the development work for the Lodha, Khedia and Shabar tribes in West Bengal and Jharkhand, but she is circumspect about her alleged ‘closeness with Maoists.’ On being asked to give her opinion on the Naxal problem the country faces, she has said time and again, “Why am I only told to write on this issue? I don’t know any Maoist.” Moreover, while discussing this issue, she made it clear that she didn’t approve of the killings in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada by Maoists and that she is completely against such violence. She called on the central government to start a dialogue with the Maoists immediately and stop Operation Green Hunt as it would not solve the Naxal problem. It would victimise the tribal people, and this she didn’t want.

Independent writers, intellectuals and NGOs from West Bengal and across the nation who sympathise with the pain and suffering of the tribal communities are being castigated, directly or indirectly. Today, it has become customary to consider Maoists activities and tribal revolts by the same standards, as if they are complementary to each other. One can clearly see the effects of the warnings on Mahasweta Devi’s exclusive writing for Delhi Press on the Maoist issue.

Here is her opinion:

Today is 23 April. Delhi Press wants me to write on the growing violence, especially the Naxal violence. As far as Maoism is concerned, I accept that until today I have not met any Maoist, nor have I had an opportunity to talk to anyone. For us (who have closely watched the Naxal movement), their violence is the result of continuous injustice meted out to the common man, especially the tribal people.

Today, Maoists have their influence in forests and tribal belts. I am thinking about Lalgarh in the west Midnapore district of West Bengal. I have with me the list of the 56 people who were allegedly killed by the Maoists. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is responsible for killing 24 of them. The rest were killed by CPI (M)’s Harmad Bahini  (goons) or cadres. I have argued the same point in an opinion for a newspaper published in Kolkata and so far,  nobody has refuted my claim. Significantly, there is no mention of any involvement of Maoists from any quarters. So who is killing the tribal people in Lalgarh? Why did Buddhadeb Bhattacharya call on P Chidambaram for the Centre’s help, and why was the CRPF despatched to the region? When the CRPF entered Lalgarh, some local people telephoned me, saying, “Our land is so arid that digging a tubewell is impossible. We have just empty wells which state police, central force and CPI (M) goons use as toilets.”

Lalgarh is the region where the whole populace is below the poverty line; it is inhabitated by Dalits, Muslims and tribals. Nobody in Lalgarh possesses a ration card. The state government’s apathy aside, the Centre is victimising this area. People here are paying a price for the SEZ (Special Economic Zone) agreement between Jindal group and the West Bengal government.

Bhattacharya has sold Lalgarh for millions of rupees. But how many? We don’t have any information about it, just as we don’t know the amount Tata paid for the Singur deal.

We are just taxpayers. We don’t have the right to ask; we don’t have right to seek the reason for such a sell-out.

And now there is a proposal by the central government to use missiles to flush out the Maoists from Lalgarh. I say ‘no’ to the use of missiles, central force, state police and CPI (M) cadres (goondas). Missiles will not solve the problem. Only transparent governance will solve it. That’s why we want the CPI (M) government to quit and this is why I write about the West Bengal government. However, states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa are facing similar upheavals. They too are the targets of Maoists.

These are the regions that still remain cut off from the development radar even after many years of Independence. The people here have been denied food, education, electricity, health facilities and other basic amenities.

Yes, the middle class has appropriated these benefits, but not those who fall below the middle class.

The condition of the tribal communities is the worst despite the fact that it is they who have saved the forests from destruction. The jungle is their ‘presiding deity.’ At a time when the Indian government has launched the terrible Operation Green Hunt, a concerted public opinion should be made to stop the move.