The continuing tragedy of the adivasis
May 28, 2013 12:29 AM , By Ramachandra Guha | 61 comments
The killings of Mahendra Karma and his colleagues call not for retributive violence but for a deeper reflection on the discontent among the tribals of central India and their dispossession

In the summer of 2006, I had a long conversation with Mahendra Karma, the Chhattisgarh Congress leader who was killed in a terror attack by the Naxalites last week. I was not alone — with me were five other members of a citizens’ group studying the tragic fallout of the civil war in the State’s Dantewada district. This war pitted the Naxalites on the one side against a vigilante army promoted by Mr. Karma on the other. In a strange, not to say bizarre, example of bipartisan co-operation, the vigilantes (who went by the name of Salwa Judum) were supported by both Mr. Karma (then Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly) and the BJP Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh.

‘Liberated zone’

From the 1980s, Naxalites had been active in the region, asking for higher wages for tribals, harassing traders and forest contractors, and attacking policemen. In the first decade of this century their presence dramatically increased. Dantewada was now identified by Maoist ideologues as the most likely part of India where they could create a ‘liberated zone.’ Dozens of Telugu-speaking Naxalites crossed into Chhattisgarh, working assiduously to accomplish this aim.

The Naxalites are wedded to the cult of the gun. Their worship of violence is extreme. They are a grave threat to democracy and democratic values. How should the democratically elected State government of Chhattisgarh have tackled their challenge? It should have done so through a two-pronged strategy: (i) smart police work, identifying the areas where the Naxalites were active and isolating their leaders; (ii) sincerely implementing the constitutional provisions guaranteeing the land and tribal forest rights of the adivasis, and improving the delivery of health and education services to them.

The Chhattisgarh government did neither. On the one side, it granted a slew of leases to industrialists, over-riding the protests of gram panchayats and handing over large tracts of tribal land to mining companies. On the other side, it promoted a vigilante army, distributing guns to young men owing allegiance to Mahendra Karma or his associates. These goons then roamed the countryside, in search of Naxalites real or fictitious. In a series of shocking incidents, they burnt homes (sometimes entire villages), raped women, and looted granaries of those adivasis who refused to join them.

In response, the Naxalites escalated their activities. They killed Salwa Judum leaders, murdered real or alleged informers, and mounted a series of daring attacks on police and paramilitary units. The combined depredations of the Naxalites and Salwa Judum created a regime of terror and despair across the district. An estimated 150,000 adivasis fled their native villages. A large number sought refuge along the roads of the Dantewada district. Here they lived, in ramshackle tents, away from their lands, their cattle, their homes and their shrines. An equally large number fled into the neighbouring State of Andhra Pradesh, living likewise destitute and tragic lives.

It was to study this situation at first hand that our team visited Chhattisgarh in 2006. We travelled across the Dantewada district, speaking to vigilantes, Naxalites and, most of all, ordinary tribals. We met adivasis who had been persecuted by the Naxalites, and other adivasis who had been tormented by the Salwa Judum vigilantes. The situation of the community was poignantly captured by one tribal, who said: “Ek taraf Naxaliyon, doosri taraf Salwa Judum, aur hum beech mein, pis gayé” (placed between the Maoists and the vigilantes, we adivasis are being squeezed from both sides).

We also visited the State capital, Raipur, speaking to senior officials of the State government. They privately told us that Salwa Judum was a horrible mistake, but added that no politician was willing to admit this. Then we spent an hour in the company of the movement’s originator, Mahendra Karma. He told us that he was fighting a dharma yudh, a holy war. We asked whether the outcome of this war was worth it. We told him of what we had seen, of the homes burnt and the women abused by the men acting in his name and claiming that he was their leader. He answered that in a great movement small mistakes are sometimes made. (The exact words he used were: “Badé andolanon mein kabhi kabhi aisé choté apradh hoté hain.”)

I was immediately reminded of a politician in another country, George W. Bush. In his holy war, too, there was no thought to the collateral damage that innocent civilians would suffer. Admittedly, the jihadis that Bush was fighting were as bloodthirsty and amoral as the Naxalites. But did a democratic government have to reproduce this amorality and this bloodthirstiness? Should it not fight extremism by saner methods? The tortures, the renditions, the displacement of thousands upon thousands of civilians — in all these respects, Dantewada seemed to me to be a micro version of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Palpable indifference

From Raipur we went to Delhi, where we met the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, and the National Security Adviser. Their indifference to the unfolding tragedy was palpable. So, in 2007, we filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court asking for the disbandment of Salwa Judum. Four years later, the Court issued an order chastising the Chhattisgarh government for creating “a miasmic environment of dehumanisation of youngsters of the deprived sections of the population, in which guns are given to them rather than books, to stand as guards, for the rapine, plunder and loot in our forests.” By arming poor and largely illiterate adivasis, the State government had, said the Supreme Court, installed “a regime of gross violation of human rights in a manner, and by adopting the same modes, as [have] done Maoist/Naxalite extremists.”

The strictures of the Supreme Court were disregarded by the State government, which recast Salwa Judum under another name and form, and by the Central government, which continued to put the interest of mining magnates above those of the suffering adivasis of the land.

The killings of Mahendra Karma and his colleagues are the latest casualties in a bloody war that began a decade ago in Dantewada. What will the State and Central governments now do? The knee-jerk reaction, doubtless encouraged by editorial writers and TV anchors in Delhi, will be to call for the Army, and perhaps the Air Force too, to launch an all-out war on the Naxalites, regardless of the consequences for civilians. One hopes wiser counsels will prevail. The times call not for further retributive violence, but for a deeper reflection on the discontent among, and dispossession of, the adivasis of central India, who are in all respects the most desperately disadvantaged of the Republic’s citizens, far worse off than Dalits even.

In the winter of 2006, after my experiences in Dantewada, I gave a public lecture in Bhubaneshwar. The State’s Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik, was in the audience. I urged that the rash of mining leases being proposed by the State government on tribal land be stopped. As it happened, foreign and Indian mining companies were invited into the State, without any attempt to make adivasis stakeholders in these projects. The consequence is that Orissa, a State once completely free of Naxalites, has seen them acquiring considerable influence in several districts of the State.

The social scientist Ajay Dandekar, who has done extensive research on the subject, observes that the rise of extremist violence is a consequence of “the complete mismanagement of democracy and governance in the tribal areas.” The latest bout of violence, he says, should come as a wake-up call to those “who place still some hope in the rule of law and constitutional governance.”

I entirely concur with Dandekar when he writes that “if even now the policy makers are willing to take the issues of justice to the tribals head-on the extremists will definitely be dealt a bodyblow in the process and their own legitimacy would stand questioned.” A first step here would be for the top leadership of the present government to reach out directly to the adivasis. The Prime Minister and the Chairperson of the UPA should together tour through the strife-torn areas of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Orissa, promising the full implementation of the Forest Rights Act, a temporary ban on mining projects in Fifth Schedule Areas, and a revival of the powers of gram panchayats. That would be a far more effective strike against Naxalites than sending in fighter planes or massed battalions.

(Ramachandra Guha’s books include India after Gandhi. He can be contacted at

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Showing 10 latest comments
  • It's time that the ruling parties and governments realized that economic policies need to be favourable to the marginalized people such as tribals but not to the profiteering MNCs. On the other hand, the adoption of Gandhian or Ambedkar's path rather than violent path to bring justice to the people would benefit the country as well as tribals.
    Posted: May 29, 2013 at 22:05 IST
  • The situation of Tribals is very bad in the entire nation. It is not confined to any particular region. The main stream political parties have less concern over them for years.
    From: garlin vincent
    Posted: May 29, 2013 at 16:45 IST
  • tribals are not seen as citizens but as mere SUBJECTS. states which are so concerned about the SEVENTH SCHEDULE in the present day of neo-mansabdari polity, should turn a few pages before and introspect what they have done to implement the FIFTH,SIXTH SCHEDULES of our constitution. rape of the fifth and sixth schedule of our constitution is the main reason for alienation.
    From: srivatsan
    Posted: May 29, 2013 at 16:25 IST
  • A lot of people in the media and common man, wonder why adivasis have not used democratic means of protest. This question needs to be answered and with examples. 1) Do you remember how democratic protests against rape were crushed at India gate, now you can imagine what happens to democratic protests in Dantewada. 2) How the democratic movement for the rights of adivasis , for example Narmada Bachao Aandolan, has been ignored and mocked by the democratic governments. 3) The media and the government have a shameful track record of listening to democratic protests. The latest was Jan Lokpal. 4) The government regularly goes back on its promise to the people. For example, autonomy of CBI was promised in parliament in Aug 2011, but it is still not give. Now you can imagine how much the forest rights act have been implemented, the opinion of panchayats listened to.
    From: Abhinav
    Posted: May 29, 2013 at 14:55 IST
  • A very poignant article. The author has given a brilliant cause and effect analysis with his proposition of solution. I hope that people in power are reading this article and understanding the root cause of the problem rather than calling reckless bandh in other cities and towns.
    From: Ankita
    Posted: May 29, 2013 at 12:47 IST
  • Deprivation made them turn voilent . Our constitution provide the privilege and right for each of us ; which in thier case(In case of maoist) it is repressed or even pruned just because of insane potitics being played with them. But this(Voilence)wont make any solution rather they must come to main stream of politics and give their people a choice (to opt). At the same time they are against democracy which impends them to proceed this way but nothing is going to give solution to their problem otherwise, so as per understanding it would be better idea go get their right in the way system approves, which will be handy for either side to give your people a choice in main stream of politics.
    From: vivek bhagat
    Posted: May 29, 2013 at 11:33 IST
  • Mr Guha, an eminent historian, has rightly identified two root causes for the emergence of Naxalism and naxlite movement as taking the form of terrorism. Mr Guha has in his prestigeous book on India after Gandhi very elaborately presented the comprehensive views of the tribal representative in the constituent assambly appointed to write India's constitution.Unfortunately, exploitation of tribals continues still after 63 years of our independence and over a period of time it has taken the worst form of exploitation by the Government, corporate houses, public sector organizations and private contractors to such an extent that tribals feel they have no right to be indian citizens, by curse they are born in India. Since privatization in 1990s the Government in collusion with business houses has been formulating policy and programs that outright endanger further merciless exploitation. Only the concern of legislators accompanied by political will can solve the problem.
    From: Dr Amrit Patel
    Posted: May 29, 2013 at 8:56 IST
  • I totally agree with the writter. By depriving the basic rights to our own citizens we should expect more voilence in the country. Unfortunately in our country there are only 2 ways to fight against injustice. 1. Through judiciary only, because the state is for industrialist only and not for common people; and wait for whole life to get any justice( if at all it is delivered) or 2 Take guns in your hand and wipe out all neo capitalists, politicians who are hell bend in selling our precious natural resources to private co's causing damage to local people, envrionment. Its just like selling our own house utensils and saying we have created wealth, our GDP has grown? GDP for whom? This is all disgusting. See the geography- where there is unhindered mining, there is naxalism., and rightyly so.
    From: milind nijsure
    Posted: May 29, 2013 at 7:33 IST
  • While I agree that the Adivasis have not received adequate attention from the politicians at the Central, State an local levels, it would be naive to think the Maoists are their true friends. India is a democracy, however flawed. It gives people to make a change of leadership peacefully through the ballot box. There is no justification for the violence that the Maoists have used for decades. They are ruthless murderers who are also exploiting the adivasis for their own political gain.
    From: krishna
    Posted: May 29, 2013 at 0:13 IST
  • I also have serious reservation to the word "civil war" used in the context of Naxalism. The expression used in the article has different connotations and meaning, whereas respecting all the scholarship of writer, I would merely term it as a law & order problem - and the discontent arisen due to the wrong policies of consecutive Govt. since independence (Union as well as State), non implementation of provisions of 5th & 6th Schedule of the Constitution in true spirit. The cynic vigilantism as propounded by Late Mr. Mahendra Karma in the form of Salawa Judum (arming civilians to counter menace of Naxals) would lead to only one solution i.e. Violence.
    From: ravi prakash
    Posted: May 29, 2013 at 0:11 IST