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Reflections on Naxalism in Chhattisgarh

A visit to Chhattisgarh is an opportunity to understand the human and social reality behind the bureaucratic perceptions of the Naxalite movement and the people of Bastar.

Reflections on Naxalism in Chhattisgarh

A visit to Chhattisgarh is an opportunity to understand the human and social reality behind the bureaucratic perceptions of the Naxalite movement and the people of Bastar.


hen an opportunity occurred to visit the newly formed state of Chhattisgarh, a part of the original Madhya Pradesh state which I never visited during my bureaucratic career, I grabbed it partly out of my keenness to sense the freshness of this beautiful state, but partly also to attempt, if possible, a rapid appraisal of the Naxalite problem in the Bastar district of the state, a quite persistent issue though perhaps a less advertised one, as issues go in Indian politics. I am not without some experience in the field of analysis of communist activities in India having virtually started my IPS career in the Intelligence Bureau (IB) with a focus on the activities of the communist parties in India. This was supplemented by my subsequent experience in the research and policy division of the union home ministry in the late 1970s and early 1980s. All this has given me particular insights at least into the workings of the government machinery in relation to the Naxalite movement. The visit to Chhattisgarh was timely and successful. Cooperation from friends in bureaucracy that one has met over a long career helped me to pursue my concerns during the visit. Reliance on bureaucratic connections and sources is sometimes a constraint rather than an advantage, but I think I was prepared to adjust and to penetrate to the human and social reality behind the bureaucratic perceptions conveyed to me.

My visit took me to Raipur, the relaxed, small state capital, where I spent three days talking to informed persons from different walks of life including the members of the state bureaucracy. Later, I made a road journey to Jagdalpur, capital of the Bastar district in the south, where I spent two days talking to informed persons. I was unable to move into the interior on account of “disturbed conditions” as perceived by my bureaucratic hosts. Incidentally, the original Bastar district was made famous by distinguished civil servants such as Brahma Dev Sharma who left a mark in the district and later went on to become a joint secretary in the union home ministry in charge of tribal development and then became the even more famous commissioner for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (SCs and STs) writing a celebrated annual report on them, praised by some as next in importance only to the Constitution of India. The clout that the union home ministry then enjoyed over state governments on tribal development issues in view of its powerful regulatory role and control over police forces all over the country was not available to the latter day ministry of social justice and empowerment, which later on took over tribal development issues from the former.

Bastar: Facts and Myths

According to the Census of 2001, Chhattisgarh state has a total population about 21 million of which about 12 per cent are SCs and about 32 per cent STs. Bastar is now reportedly divided into four police districts and three revenue districts. The undivided district had a total

Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006

population of about one and a half million of which about 66 per cent were members of STs. The new revenue districts carved out of the Bastar, namely, Kanker and Dantewada, have a tribal population of about 56 per cent and about 79 per cent respectively. These are the districts predominantly affected by the so-called Naxalite trouble. The recent NSS data show that the average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of farm households across India was Rs 503 in 2003. Even the statewide averages of some states such as Orissa (Rs 342), Jharkhand (Rs 353), Chhattisgarh (Rs 379) and Bihar (Rs 404) are well below the poverty line.

It is interesting that when police and other officers in Chhattisgarh discussed the Naxalite problem in the state, the issue of rural poverty of this magnitude was never mentioned even in passing but the focus was firmly on the need to crush the Naxalites even by military means. One journalist mentioned that a civil war like situation was already present in Bastar now virtually under paramilitary occupation including an “India Reserve” battalion borrowed from Nagaland. Another journalist stated that the Naxalite movement in Bastar originated from the fact that the innocent tribal people who once owned all the land there have now become agricultural labourers in their own land currently occupied and cultivated by nontribals from outside the district. An attempt to set up an autonomous tribal district under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution was unsuccessful and the tribal people of the district do not enjoy the special protection envisaged by the Constitution of India. The tribal development policies and programmes introduced by the government of India and implemented by the state-level bureaucracy have failed to reach their benefits to the tribal people since the funds and benefits are appropriated by non-tribal interests.

The state government has recently instituted a ‘Salva Judum’ (a tribal term meaning a campaign for peace) in the interior pockets of the district, which involves massive mobilisation of the tribal people against the Naxalites. While official sources maintain that the campaign, led by a local legislator, is hugely successful with the tribal people joining it in large numbers, local enquiries revealed a different picture. In the name of Salva Judum, the tribal people are being forced to join a far from spontaneous mobilisation. Those who join Salva Judum are being targeted by the Naxalites as agents of the state and those who do not join are being targeted by the paramilitary police, including especially the Naga battalion as Naxalites. The innocents are thus caught between the Naxalites and the paramilitary forces. Hundreds have been killed on both sides. A large area of land remains uncultivated; tribal people who are meant to work on the land have deserted the villages and are living under open skies and are starving. A vast amount of corruption has crept in as a result of this misconceived campaign with the ruling party spending huge amounts on it. The development funds meant for the tribal people are being siphoned off by vested interests.

One journalist reported that the traders affiliated to the ruling BJP located in the district headquarters at Jagdalpur are giving large amounts of money to the Naxalites since they have to sell their goods to the tribals in the interior areas dominated by the Naxalites. These traders are not bothered about the Salva Judum campaign run by their own party leaders located in Raipur, the state headquarters. Another journalist complained that he was followed by policemen as soon as he tried to enter the interior areas, who told him that he would face a serious risk in going in. The journalist felt that if he went in despite the warnings of the police, he ran the risk of being shot by the police and his death conveniently blamed on the Naxalites and no possibility of an enquiry or verification. Another pointed to the impunity enjoyed by the paramilitary police in the interior areas who can easily kill innocent tribals and later call them “Naxalites” since there is no clear or precise definition of who a Naxalite is. Only journalists who report the version of the police are allowed to go into the interior and not those who want to study and report the situation objectively. Instances of killings in the interior are numerous with no means of verification of the truth behind the killings. The ambience of immunity this creates encourages further mindless killings by the security forces and equally mindless retaliation by the Naxalites. The police in the state are preoccupied with the military threat posed by the Naxalites and the “red corridor” across other states connecting them to Nepal.

Institutional Arteriosclerosis

The discourse of national security initiated recently by the union home ministry ignores the socio-economic context and contributes to the military thinking among state police agencies. Historically, the union home ministry, in charge of policy planning on social conflicts, has largely depended for information on the IB, which tends to treat the whole issue as a top secret matter. The IB is dominated entirely by the members of the IPS who do not have any special skills in social and political analysis. The cloak of top secrecy helps hide their ignorance and their incompetence in social analysis, of which they are suspicious due to the limitations arising from defective training. In the 1960, home secretary L P Singh took steps to reduce the ministry’s dependence on the IB as a source of information by setting up the research and policy (R and P) division, which was to function as an in-house research facility to conduct independent studies on social conflicts based on various reports including IB reports, but not entirely depending on them. The division functioned very well to begin with, but later fell on evil days and developed “institutional arteriosclerosis” as one of its former directors put it. It became mainly a parking lot for officers moving from one post to another and betrayed the original objective behind its formation. It resulted in accentuating the dependence of the union home ministry on the IB for information on social conflict ignoring its own internal sources of information from the state governments, which are often distrusted depending on the political colouration in the state and in the centre.

A former union home secretary used to talk of the need to set up several interdisciplinary study-cum-action groups to go into complex issues such as the Naxalite movement and the other conflicts in the north-east, J and K and so on. Reliance on paramilitary forces can be useful only up to a point; other measures have to take over sooner or later. However, the situation in the union home ministry today is far from encouraging given the dominance of the police sources of information, which appear to distort the policy process.

The debate on rural poverty and the ways and means to end it are yet to start in Chhattisgarh. It is understood that the UNDP’s Human Development Report (HDR) for Chhattisgarh is near finalisation. The report will surely reveal the dynamics of rural poverty in the state and help initiate moves to contain it. It goes without saying that unless the development challenge is met squarely, there is no easy end to the Naxalite problem in the state. Gimmicks like Salva Judum are not going to help.



Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006

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