Ground Zero and Troublesome Tribals

Published: August 6, 2012 - 15:13

As long as we act, either as legally appointed dacoits or as patrons bearing a new ‘white man’s burden’ in all the racist senses, we will remain complicit in genocide

Karen Gabriel and PK Vijayan Delhi

‘We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father’s graves behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children, and he does not care.’

– Letter of Chief Seathl, of the Suquamish tribe, to US President Franklin Pierce in response to the demand that they surrender or sell native land to the white settlers.

At about 8.00 pm on June 28, 2012, after the day’s ploughing and work, ‘tribals’ of three villages in the forests of South Chhattisgarh — Rajpenta, Kottaguda and Sarkeguda — assembled at their common earth shrine in Kottaguda to discuss the upcoming seed sowing festival, ways of helping families without cattle and widow-headed households. Sometime between 9 and 10 pm, the three parties of CRPF, SPOs and police who were on their way to Silger after receiving ‘deep intelligence’ about a proposed Naxal gathering there, surrounded the villagers and fired without warning. The firing lasted one hour. Sixteen people including six minors were killed that night: some by bullets and some by axe. Their bodies were taken away at night. The ‘Force’ camped in the grounds all night.

The next morning, they shot and then bludgeoned to death, Irpa Munna, 27, when he came out of his house. They arrested about 25 persons. Barring the body of Irpa Dinesh, father of four small children, who was alleged to be Somlu, a Naxalite commander from Korsaguda, the bodies of those killed were returned on June 29 evening. Some had been mutilated. They were cremated the next day. Villagers say that the paramilitary forces also stole approximately Rs 40,000, a mobile phone and a cycle.

Those killed from Kottaguda were Kaka Saraswati (12), Kaka Samaiyya (33), Kaka Ravul (16), Ram Vilas Madkam (16). Those killed from Rajpenta were Madkam Nagesh (35), Madkam Suresh (25), Irpa Munna (27), Irpa Dinesh (20-22), Irpa Narayan (52), Irpa Dharmaiyya (40-45), Irpa Suresh (10), Madkam Dilip (17). Those killed from Sarkeguda were Sarke Ramanna (25), Apka Mutta (16), Madvi Aitu (35-40), Kunjam Malla (12-15), Korsa Bichem (20). According to signed statements of surviving victims, at least nine were brutally assaulted and taken away by the forces; and at least six girls were molested and threatened with rape.

Since 2005, and for several years before that, unofficially, the Indian State has been undertaking a concerted armed campaign against alleged Naxalites/Maoists in Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and particularly, in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa. The police of the various states have been working with central armed forces to ‘clear and hold’ the jungles off the ‘Maoist menace’, and approximately 2.5 lakh police and paramilitary personnel have been dedicated to this operation.

MoUs to the tune of trillions of US dollars have been signed from 1997 onwards for the minerals of this tribal land, revealing the close nexus between state action and heavy corporate interests. For instance, till September ’09, a sum of Rs 6,69,388 crore — 14 per cent of the total pledged investments in the country — was  in the troubled areas. In its January 2008 report, a 15-member committee on ‘State Agrarian Relations and Unfinished Task of Land Reforms’, of the Union Rural Development Ministry, labelled the government’s own policies in the area as the ‘biggest grab of tribal lands after Columbus’.

Orissa and Chhattisgarh being hugely mineral rich states (Bastar has the best quality iron in the world), have become prime examples of “resource cursed” areas: areas where natural “wealth becomes a cause for a breakdown in social norms, leading to civil war (as in Chhattisgarh) and impoverishment (Orissa)” (Felix Padel and Samarendra Das, ‘Anthropology of a Genocide: Tribal Movements in Central India against Over-Industrialisation’). In fact, the massive displacement, loss of lives and livelihoods has led to much debate in the urban media on issues of the protective provisions of Schedule V of the Indian Constitution, national security and the Maoist agenda to overthrow the Indian State, Maoist violence and the death of security personnel, the sandwich theory (that the tribals are caught between the Indian State and Maoists) and so on. Some of these have been used to justify the ‘encounter’ or summary execution of avowed or alleged Maoists, and to stifle any interrogation of, dissent or protest against state excesses.

In fact, under the pretext of national security, the Congress-led UPA government (and the BJP-led regime in Chhattisgarh) has delegitimized and even criminalized protest and resistance to an unprecedented extent in order to facilitate an untrammelled culture of savage exploitation (of labour too). The shocking routinization of ‘encounters’ along with the official State censorship on independent reports of the ‘war’ in the ‘red corridor’ (e.g. the Chhattisgarh government’s 2005 Security Act banning independent reports on the Bastar war), are manifestations of the State’s growing fascism.

It also indexes a middle-class concurrence with highly reactionary forms of State nationalism

A consequence of all this noise and strategic silence is that some crucial questions have gone unaddressed and even overlooked, questions that came back with a vengeance after the Sarkeguda killings.


After the Sarkeguda killings, CRPF DG Vijay Kumar conceded what various commentators have stated ad nauseam: that there is no way to distinguish the tribals from the Maoists, that the vast majority of those labeled Maoist are not outsiders, as claimed by the State, but local tribals. In fact, he complained to Tehelka of being “in the dark”.

Now, the vast majority of tribals may or may not be Maoist, but the vast majority of the Maoists are tribals.

It is considerably significant that it is not possible to know immediately which tribals are Maoist and which are not, because, on the one hand, the armed agencies of the State can claim that they were killing Maoists, when, in fact, they were killing non-Maoist tribals. On the other hand, activists concerned about the violence invoke the sandwich theory, when, infact, the Maoists are themselves almost all ‘tribals’.

Such a blunt application of the term ‘tribal’ in this context has, very helpfully for the big corporations and the State, muddied the waters thoroughly. The problem is not only that there is no one tribe or one kind of ‘tribal’, nor that there are Maoist ‘tribals’, anti-Maoist ‘tribals’ and indifferent and sandwiched ‘tribals’, nor even that the regions in question also have large populations of non-tribal (especially lower caste) peoples — which therefore implies that the homogenizing term ‘tribal’ is profoundly misleading.

The problem is equally that the term ‘tribal’ carries a baggage of cultural connotations that go far beyond the ethnographic denotation of belonging to a tribe. These typically racist connotations have ascribed to these very heterogeneous people the characteristics of being, variously, poor, primitive, nomadic, needy of but resistant to ‘development’, insular, irrational, child-like, without political agency (easily influenced by ‘Maoists’), given to drinking, morally suspect, deceitful, bound by strict tribal codes, unrestrained, etc.

They are simultaneously demonized, sentimentalized and infantilized, and thereby placed at a psychological, moral and legal distance that precludes empathy, identification and scrupulousness. It also characterizes the Maoist as predating on the infantilized ‘tribal’, a move that dangerously evades the much more routine ways in which the State, corporations, local traders, contractors, landlords, etc., prey on the ‘tribal’.

The current characterization of the ‘tribal’ or ‘adivasi’ has a fine imperial pedigree. Albert Pionke in ‘Representations of the Indian Mutiny in Victorian Higher Journalism’, notes how the British Imperial State fostered the understanding that Indians were “savages, unreasonable and prone to underhand conspiracies”. It licensed the excesses committed bythe British against Indians, while tacitly justifying the economic depredations of colonialism — the natives did not deserve the wealth they weresitting on.

The  ironies of our postcolonial imperialism against the native people of the country are recognized only obtusely in the repeated protests that the war on the Maoists is actually a war on “our own people”. One such protest was made in 2011 by none other than the then Air Chief Marshall PV Naik, who said that “the military — Air Force, Army and Navy — are trained for maximum lethality… it is not fair to use the Air Force within our borders. The Naxals are basically our own people”. Perhaps, we do, given our subcontinental reverence for primogeniture, see the perversity of the upstart settler legitimizing the native tribal.

The caricaturing of the tribal endures since it has been extremely useful for various interests in the region. For instance, the State has designated the ‘tribal’ an impediment to ‘development’, who stakes a constitutionally ratified claim to mineral-rich lands, and therefore must be displaced — with or without compensation. There are plans to amend the 5th Schedule of the Constitution to permit the acquisition of ‘tribal’ lands, because the ‘tribal’ is deemed blind to and thus undeserving of the wealth s/he sits on.

Once the tribal is removed (through the genocide of ‘Operation Green Hunt’, mass displacements, or mass migration from the fear of genocide), there will be no ground resistance to the plunder, and MoUs can be quickly and rapaciously implemented. Indeed, the latest incident is profoundly symptomatic of this strategy.

Mass migration from the region has already begun, as ‘tribal’ families flee the might of the Indian State. Many of these families first fled the area in 2005-2006, to escape the vicious attacks of the Salwa Judum; they were persuaded to return only when the Supreme Court outlawed the Salwa Judum. Now, when the State is using its own forces to attack the ‘tribals’, in the name of clearing the area of Maoists, there is little that one can expect from the judicial system by way of restitution.

While every government since the 1990s has brought in multinationals, the current government, the most corrupt in post-independence history, is the first to openly enter into a criminally costly and criminal military campaign to achieve this end. It has set up a jungle warfare school, it has enlisted the army to train the police and paramilitary, to provide intelligence and logistical support and to gradually take control of the region by establishing various army stations and centres there. It has acted on US advice and involved ‘non-state actors’ as ‘force multipliers’ (Salwa Judum, Harmad Bahini/Bhairav Bahini, Santi Sena/Sangham, Sendra). The government is now in the process of setting up a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), which many states apprehend will give the central government unprecedented powers in controlling law and order, which has traditionally been a state subject.

The Indian State’s claim that it is undertaking this in the name of ‘development’, an obligation it discovered suddenly 62 years into the life of the Indian nation-state, is disingenuous, to say the least. Even if we take these claims at face value, the corporatized State is going in — quite literally with guns blazing — to implement a highly discredited model of ‘development’ which is founded on a fundamentally racist ‘evolutionist’ idea of development, which demarcates progressive stages from the “primitive” to the “modern, industrialized”. In fact, both the model of development and the State’s actions, have nothing to do with the welfare of the tribal and other local people who will be destroyed physically, economically socially and culturally. They are, in fact, solely intended to exponentially increase corporate profits.

The other side to even this problematic idea of ‘development’ — that of education, nutritional subsidies, health care, employment, promotion of agricultural programs and local industry, development of infrastructure, basic amenities like electricity and water — has not been given any serious attention since independence. And this is not because ‘tribals’ don’t want basic amenities. As Bhagwan Majhi, one of the leaders of the Kashipur (in Orissa) movement against bauxite mining, puts it, “We want permanent development. Provide us with irrigation to our lands. Give us hospitals. Give us medicines. Give us schools and teachers. Provide us with land and forests. The forests we want. We don’t need the company. Get rid of the company.”

Unfortunately, well-intentioned human rights and social activists, who have implicitly or explicitly bought a caricatured idea of the ‘tribal’ and seen them as their own ‘white man’s burden’, have urged development. This has inadvertently legitimized the Indian State’s military campaigns, all of which are being undertaken in the name of ‘development and national interest’.

It is possible to argue that the State is simply not interested in actually implementing these ‘development’ programmes, because then the ‘tribals’ would become a settled population, much less alien, ‘like’ the national mainstream that has alienated them, inviting identification, and therefore that much more difficult to displace and kill. As long as the characterizations of ‘tribal’ remains, there is little condemnation if a few ‘tribals’ are killed in the process of clearing the area of Maoists, and if many thousands more flee their homelands for fear of being labeled Maoists.

And, most significantly, as long as this tribal population is caricatured, the Corporate-State can be rest assured that there will be no genuine sense of identification or empathy with the sufferings of these people. Consider, by way of illustrative contrast, what a hue and cry would have ensued if a bunch of upper caste Hindus had gathered for a meeting, say, in South Delhi’s Kailash Colony, and the CRPF, taking them for Maoists, had opened fire and killed 17 of them. The distance from the jungles of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh is compounded by the cultural distance from the homogenized ‘tribal’, whose difference is dehumanized and enforced by a generally pliant and co-opted media.

It would not be inaccurate to argue therefore — as others have already — that, had it not been for the Maoists organizing the ‘tribals’, the story would have been long over by now, and the fat corporate enterprises and their political patrons in the Indian government would be singing even more loudly all the way to their multinational banks. We need to concede that ‘tribals’ are under assault from the Indian State for no other reason than that they are sitting on untapped gold, that they have political agency, and are easily acceptable collateral damage in the gold rush.

However discomfiting the thought, the Maoists have evidently forged a relation with them (that goes beyond caricature) and gained a degree of acceptability. Encounters must end and the ludicrous ban on the organization has to be lifted. And the essential prerequisite for these steps is the immediate end of Operation Green Hunt, in all its manifestations.

As long as we act — either as legally appointed dacoits or as patrons bearing a new ‘white man’s burden’ — as if the peoples of these regions are ‘tribals’, in all the racist senses we have already noted, we will remain, actively or passively, complicit in genocide.


As long as we act, either as legally appointed dacoits or as patrons bearing a new ‘white man’s burden’ in all the racist senses, we will remain complicit in genocide
Karen Gabriel and PK Vijayan Delhi

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