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Losing the fight against extremism

Monday 1 October 2007, by Praful BIDWAI

Is India losing the fight against extremism, specifically Naxalism, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently described as "the greatest internal security threat"? Despite spending a huge Rs 30,000 million on anti-Naxalite operations, this seems to be the case. Since 2005, more people have been killed in Naxal-related violence than in Kashmir or the northeast.

Naxalism has spread to more than 150 of India’s 600 districts. Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have replaced Andhra Pradesh and Bihar as the states most affected by it. Between January 2006 and June 2007, Chhattisgarh recorded 529 deaths in Naxal-related violence. Yet, Chhattisgarh provides terrifying lessons on how Naxalism should not be fought by unleashing repression against unarmed civilians, by instigating bandits to target Naxalites, and by violating the citizen’s civil liberties, even while perpetuating gruesome injustices, especially against the disadvantaged Adivasis (tribals) who form a majority of the population of the worst-affected districts.

This conclusion — drawn by social scientists, jurists and civil liberties activists — was reinforced during a visit I made to Chhattisgarh last fortnight with Mukul Sharma, director of Amnesty International-India. We went there to express solidarity with Dr Binayak Sen, a noted health activist, and general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties-Chhattisgarh, detained since May 14 under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 2004, and Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (PSA). We also wanted to investigate whether Sen’s work warrants such harsh measures.

Besides capital Raipur, we toured parts of the Dhamtari district, where Sen’s organisation, Rupantar, has run a clinic for 10 years. Upon talking to more than 20 people in villages, we failed to find any evidence of Sen’s culpability in inciting the public to extremism. Sen has been doing exemplary voluntary work in the Gandhian mould in providing primary and preventive healthcare for people long deprived of access to health facilities. There are no medical personnel in the area, often not even a chemist within a 30-kilometre distance. The public is forced to depend on quacks and corrupt, apathetic, incompetent and usually missing government employees.

Rupantar’s clinic in Bagrumnala village offers an extraordinary range of services at nominal cost, including rapid testing for the deadly falciparum strain of the malaria parasite, which has saved scores of lives. The clinic largely depends on “barefoot doctors”, who give the public invaluable advice on nutrition and preventive medicine too. The clinic caters to villages in a 40 square kilometres radius. Its work is irreplaceable. Its closure is bound to cause preventable loss of life among some of the poorest tribals of Chhattisgarh.

Everyone we talked to expressed gratitude towards Sen for his role in empowering disadvantaged people and his efforts to make them aware of their rights — for instance, to water, housing and healthcare. All of them see Sen as noble and selfless. No one spoke of even the remotest sign of his instigating people to extremism. However, it’s not an aberration that Sen was detained under the nasty PSA, which criminalises even peaceful activity by declaring it "a danger or menace to public order Š and tranquillity", because it might interfere with or "tends to interfere with the maintenance of public orderŠ“and encourages”disobedience to established law and its institutions."

This extremely harsh preventive detention law makes nonsense even of civil disobedience, a cornerstone of India’s Freedom Struggle. It should have no place in a democracy. Yet, the state government has filed a 750-page charge-sheet against Sen, liberally including offences like sedition and "waging war against the state". There’s a clear purpose behind this monstrosity — to intimidate all civil rights defenders through a horrible example. This isn’t the first time in India that trumped-up charges have been brought against innocents. But it’s probably the first occasion when a civil liberties defender has been explicitly targeted, and that too, from a broad-church, inclusive and politically unaffiliated organisation like the PUCL, which has defended people of all persuasions against state excesses.

Sen was victimised precisely because he formed a bridge between the human rights movement and other civil society organisations, and tried to empower disadvantaged people. The state government, whose very existence is premised upon the rapacious exploitation of Adivasis and the staggering natural wealth of Chhattisgarh — whose primary function is to subserve the ’big business’, forest contractors and traders — cannot tolerate such individuals. If this sounds like an exaggeration, consider this:

* One of India’s most creative trade unionists, Shankar Guha Niyogi, who ignited a mass awakening on social, cultural and economic issues in Chhattisgarh, was brutally assassinated at the behest of powerful and politically well-connected industrialists in 1991. Those who planned and financed the murder roam scot-free.

* Chhattisgarh has among India’s worst indices of wealth misdistribution and income inequality. Many of its cities, including Raipur, are booming with ostentatious affluence, spanking new hotels and glittering shopping malls.

* At the other extreme are predominantly tribal districts like Dantewada, which are marked by malnutrition, starvation deaths, and severe scarcity of health facilities and of safe drinking water. The tribal literacy rate here is less than one-third the national average — 30 per cent for men and 13 per cent for women. Of its 1,220 villages, 214 lack a primary school.

* Worse, 1,161 villages have no medical facility. Primary health centres exist in only 34 villages. At the worst is Bijapur, the district’s most violent tehsil, where Naxalites gunned down 55 policemen in March.

* The difference in life-expectancy between Kerala and tribal Chhattisgarh is a shocking 18 years. The two regions could well belong to different continents.

* Chhattisgarh is extraordinarily rich in mineral wealth, including iron ore, bauxite, dolomite, quartzite, granite, precious stones, gold and tin ore, besides limestone and coal. Its iron ore is among the best in the world. This wealth has been voraciously extracted. But it has produced no gains for local people. The only railway line in the state’s tribal south runs straight to Visakhapatnam and carries ore for export to Japan. Less than one-hundredth of the value of the mineral returns to the state.

Naxalism has thrived in Chhattisgarh as a response, albeit an irrational one, to this system of exploitation, dispossession and outright loot, along with the complete collapse of the state as a provider of public services and a relatively impartial guardian of the law. Yet, to defend the system of exploitation, the state is waging war against its own people through the sponsorship of Salwa Judum (Peace Campaign), a militia trained to kill and incite violence against the Naxals. This is an extraordinarily predatory organisation. Its violence has rendered homeless almost 100,000 people, who now live in appalling conditions in temporary camps. Salwa Judum represents an unholy nexus between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, buttressed by powerful entrenched economic interests. Its atrocities only ensure that the Naxalite problem will never be settled.

Chhattisgarh is getting polarised between “Red” (Naxals) and “Saffron” (BJP). It’s also divided between what Niyogi called mankhe gotiyar (the human species) and baghwa gotiyar (the bloodsucking clan), or the forces of human compassion, and the forces of destruction. If the Chhattisgarh government has proved bankrupt in dealing with Naxalism, the centre fares no better. By relying solely on brute force to fight Naxalism, it is inviting disaster.


* From The News International, September 29, 2007. Circulated by South Asia Citizens Wire | September 29-30, 2007 | Dispatch No. 2455 - Year 10 running.