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Green Hunt: Silencing tribal voices

Posted by Admin on January 7, 2010

Operation Green Hunt is finally put into full gear; the Union home minister is asked to stay away from its area of operation; and a Gandhian begins a hunger strike at its centre. What do these recent developments imply?

First, the harsh truth — the Centre’s, and consequently the media’s, near-silence all through the last month on its heavily tom-tommed proposed armed offensive against the Maoists, was no rethink. The war cries had boomeranged; it made more sense to keep quiet, let the protests fizzle out, and go ahead with it. It was foolish anyway, to have thought that the outrage of intellectuals (and a few retired security men) could outweigh the exciting prospect of big business finally moving in on all those riches buried under the Dandakaranya forests. As planned, the moment the Jharkhand elections got over, the offensive began. But why is the Union home minister, the man behind it, being asked to stay away? That too by the governor of the State at its epicentre?

Governor E S L Narasimhan, former IB chief, knows what he is doing. Last month, the home minister met the man instrumental in raising awareness across the country about the situation in Bastar, the heart of the Maoist stronghold. Inspired by Vinoba Bhave, Himanshu Kumar started his Vanwasi Chetna Ashram in Dantewada 17 years ago to work among the adivasis and thereby curb the influence of the Naxalites there. But his mentor’s teachings would not allow him to keep quiet while the adivasis were hunted out of their homes, raped and brutalised by the police in the name of fighting Maoists and paving the way for ‘development’.

In our democracy, the powers-that-be do sometimes talk to troublemakers. So P Chidambaram talked to Himanshu Kumar, and when invited to come to Dantewada and hear what the adivasis had to say in a jan sunwai (public hearing), agreed. On what grounds could he have refused?

But for Himanshu Kumar, this was no formal invitation. Everywhere he spoke, he had pointed out that for the last five years, no minister had come to see the condition of the adivasis. Now that the ruler was coming, he had to make the jan sunwai a success.

That meant persuading the jan to come for it. But they had already started fleeing — the exodus sparked off not just by rumours of a massive influx of armed forces into their region, but also by what they had seen in the first phase of Operation Green Hunt. In that three-day exercise in September, six COBRA jawans had died, but said the forces, so had 50 Maoists. Strangely, only nine bodies were found. The Maoists took away the rest, said the officers.

The adivasis knew who those nine were — no armed radicals, but people like them, attacked while tending to their fields or at home. A 70-year-old’s breasts were cut off; a 25-year-old was tied to a tree and beheaded. This was no exaggeration by human rights activists; the victims’ relatives have petitioned the Supreme Court; the court has sent notice to the Chhattisgarh government.

But for the adivasis, this is old hat. The Supreme Court last year passed many orders — that adivasis dislocated by the government’s anti-Maoist campaign Salwa Judum be rehabilitated and compensated; their FIRs against the police be filed. Their government had ignored these and been voted back to power. It made sense for the adivasis to flee, rather than wait for the next bunch of COBRAs and other poisonous creatures to enter their homes.

But Gandhians don’t give up, obstacles only spur them on. Himanshu Kumar decided on a padyatra through the affected villages. Activists from around the country would tell the adivasis they weren’t alone, record their stories and encourage them to come for the jan sunwai.

Nothing of the sort happened. Talking to a troublemaker was one thing; allowing him to embolden the people quite another. The state made its own preparations. Four days before the padyatra, a newly formed tribal outfit took out a rally calling for Himanshu’s expulsion from the region. But non-tribal leaders addressed it. That day, Himanshu’s right-hand man, Kopa Kunjam, an adivasi in the forefront of rehabilitating his dislocated people, was picked up, charged with a six-month-old murder of a Salwa Judum leader, and sent to jail. Four tribal girls set to depose in court against their alleged rape by Salwa Judum SPOs, were made to sign on blank papers by the accused. Accommodation booked by Himanshu for the padyatris was cancelled, reportedly on the orders of the district collector.

On the day of the padyatra, Himanshu Kumar could not step out. Policemen guarded his home as a morcha led by Z P president Chhabindra Karma (son of Mahindra Karma, the founder of Salwa Judum), marched to his doorstep. At the same time, 39 activists, headed from Raipur to join Kumar, were made to return halfway, their jeeps seized by police and drivers of public buses warned not to carry them. This was for their own security, the police said, for thousands of tribals had gathered to oppose them. ‘We tribals don’t want outsiders poking their nose in Bastar’, said Chhabindra Karma. A strange objection, given the fact that the people behind his father’s Salwa Judum are ‘traders, contractors and miners’, and its first financiers were the Tatas and Essar — outsiders all. These are not allegations made by ‘Naxal supporters’, but by a government committee on ‘agrarian relations and land reforms’. Its report describes the bid to acquire tribal land for mining as the ‘biggest land grab since Columbus… Villages sitting on tons of iron ore are effectively de-peopled (by Salwa Judum) and available for the highest bidder’.

So there are outsiders and outsiders. As long as Himanshu Kumar remained in Bastar, outsiders of one kind would keep getting drawn there. With Operation Green Hunt fully operational, there could be no question of the Gandhian or others like him being allowed inside the forests. So the next development was Himanshu being asked by his landlord, a Z P employee, to vacate his house. And finally, to foreclose all possibilities, Chidambaram was told by the governor to stay away from the ‘jan sunwai’.

Chidambaram got his face-saver. Had Himanshu been a Gandhian of the new school, he would have used it to save face too, knowing all options had closed for him. But he decided to start a hunger strike, to introspect on where he had gone wrong. Perhaps it would inspire the government, the Maoists and the corporates to introspect too, he said. Governments aren’t given to introspection, so events will reach their logical conclusion. The adivasis will see all those legally fighting for them silenced or prevented from meeting them — the latest being Delhi School of Economics professor Nandini Sundar, a petitioner against Salwa Judum. This is exactly what the Maoists have been waiting for.IE

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