Adivasi Rebels


In April I wrote about the growing Maoist movement in India, and how the Maoists are increasingly getting support from rural peasants and Adivasis (India’s indigenous population). I later added a link to a story about how the Maoism, in its most violent form, is growing as a global movement. Only recently has the press in the United States seemed to notice this important story, but coverage is growing, and now the Washington Post’s John Lancaster has actually gone to meet some of India’s rebel leaders. He starts by providing some context concerning how serious the situation has become:

Following a long period of relative quiet, the Naxalites in the past several years have expanded their presence to 13 of India’s 28 states, according to official estimates, spurring talk of a red corridor” extending from Nepal, which is battling a Maoist insurgency of its own, down through the wooded heartland of central and southern India. The Maoist rebels in India and Nepal have acknowledged ideological ties, and security officials suspect logistical collaboration as well.

Equipped with homemade bombs and rifles looted from police stations, the Indian rebels have staged increasingly bold attacks, such as seizing a passenger train for 12 hours in the eastern state of Jharkhand in March. They function in some remote districts as a parallel government, complete with makeshift courts and police. Their violent tactics have turned parts of Chhattisgarh, among other states, into virtual no-go areas for the government, thwarting plans for corporate mining operations in forests that many adivasis regard as their own.

Last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Naxalite movement as the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country” — no small claim in a nation with many insurgencies, including the long-running Islamic rebellion in Kashmir.

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While it seems clear that incidents of violence are growing, I worry about such alarmist rhetoric by state officials. When we were in India Adivasis activists told us that the state was trying to paint all activists as Maoists (even in areas far removed from Maoist activities) in order to justify using violent means to suppress their movement. At the same time, there seems to be no doubt that the Maoists embrace the use of violence, thus making it easier for the government to justify harsh security measures:

Against that backdrop, the death toll from Naxalite violence has jumped from 483 in 2002 to 669 last year, according to the Home Affairs Ministry.

In Chhattisgarh, the Naxalite movement has found abundant recruits among adivasis angered by police harassment, dismal or nonexistent government services and collusion between corrupt officials and criminals engaged in illegal logging. According to government data, 165 people died in Naxalite-related violence last year, and the bloodletting has continued: Last month, Naxalite rebels abducted 50 members of a pro-government militia called the Salwa Judum, then murdered 13 of them by slitting their throats, police said.

They’re absolutely ruthless killers,” a senior Chhattisgarh security official, B.K.S. Roy, said by telephone from the state capital, Raipur. I’ve never seen this kind of brutality in my life before, the way they strike and kill Salwa Judum members. They’re hacked to death, heads severed from bodies.”

Maoists in the Philippines have similarly been criticized for their violent tactics.

To his credit, John Lancaster also explores the social conditions that have caused the Maoist movement in India to swell in recent years:

The rank and file was made up mostly of adivasis, several of whom said they joined the movement out of anger toward local authorities.

I’ve never seen a hospital in any of these villages,” said Nirmala, a slender, short-haired woman in her twenties who joined the movement four years ago and now serves as one of Kosa’s bodyguards. There are schools, but there are no teachers. The government says the adivasis, my people, have no rights over the forests.”

Another adivasi rebel, Neela, said she was radicalized at the age of 12, when police arrested her father for illegally clearing a small patch of land and imprisoned him for three years.

It seems clear that if India wants to stem the rising tide of Maoism it needs to acknowledge the tremendous injustices faced by the Adivsasi population, and not simply use Maoism as an excuse to further restrict their rights. At the same time the Maoists might want to take a page from the Zapatistas and give nonviolent resistance a try…