A War in the Heart of India | The Nation


A War in the Heart of India

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In the history of independent India, the most bloody conflicts have taken place in the most beautiful locations. Consider Kashmir, whose enchantments have been celebrated by countless poets down the ages, as well as by rulers from the Mughal Emperor Jahangir to the first prime minister of free India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Or Nagaland and Manipur, whose mist-filled hills and valleys have been rocked again and again by the sound of gunfire.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that two Muslims have held the positions of chief justice and president of India. In fact, there have been three Muslims in each of these posts, which actually strengthens the author's point: M. Hidayatullah, M.H. Beg and A.M. Ahmadi in the former and Zakir Hussain, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in the latter.

About the Author

Ramachandra Guha
Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi Before India has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Also by the Author

His first mention in the US media occurred well before he became a leader of the Indian national movement—in The Nation magazine, in 1897.

Inside the great social historian Eric Hobsbawm there was an aesthete waiting to come out.

To this melancholy list of lovely places wracked by civil war must now be added Bastar, a hilly, densely forested part of central India largely inhabited by tribal people. In British times Bastar was an autonomous princely state, overseen with a gentle hand by its ruler, the representative on earth--so his subjects believed--of the goddess Durga. After independence, it came to form part of the state of Madhya Pradesh and, when that state was bifurcated in 1998, of Chattisgarh (a name that means "thirty-six forts," presumably a reference to structures once maintained by medieval rulers).

The forts that dot Chattisgarh now take the form of police camps run by the modern, and professedly democratic, Republic of India. For the state is at the epicenter of a war being waged between the government and Maoist guerrillas. And within Chattisgarh, the battle rages most fiercely in Bastar.

The conflict in Bastar and its neighborhood get little play in the Indian press, which is both urban-centered and self-congratulatory, flying, as it were, from Delhi to Bangalore and back again--from the center of power and patronage to the center of India's booming software industry. To get to Bangalore from Delhi one must pass over Bastar, literally, for obscured from the airplane in the sky are the bloody battles taking place on the ground. Other sections of the Indian Establishment likewise ignore or underrate the Maoist challenge, although an exception must be made for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who recently identified it as the "biggest internal security threat" facing the nation.

In recent years the Maoists have mounted a series of bold attacks on symbols of the Indian state. In November 2005 they stormed the district town of Jehanabad in Bihar, firebombing offices and freeing several hundred prisoners from the jail. Then, this past March, they attacked a police camp in Chattisgarh, killing fifty-five policemen and making off with a huge cache of weapons. At other times, they have bombed and set fire to railway stations and transmission towers.

The Indian Maoists are referred to by friend and foe alike as Naxalites, after the village of Naxalbari in north Bengal, where their movement began in 1967. Through the 1970s and '80s, the Naxalites were episodically active in the Indian countryside. They were strongest in the states of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, where they organized low-caste sharecroppers and laborers to demand better terms from their upper-caste landlords. Naxalite activities were open, as when conducted through labor unions, or illegal, as when they assassinated a particularly recalcitrant landlord or made a daring seizure of arms from a police camp.

Until the 1990s the Naxalites were a marginal presence in Indian politics. But in that decade they began working more closely with the tribal communities of the Indian heartland. About 80 million Indians are officially recognized as "tribal"; of these, some 15 million live in the northeast, in regions untouched by Hindu influence. It is among the 65 million tribals of the heartland that the Maoists have found a most receptive audience.

Who, exactly, are the Indian tribals? There is a long-running dispute on this question. Some, like the great French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, merely saw them as "Hindus lost in the forest"; others, like the British ethnographer Verrier Elwin, insisted that they could not be so easily assimilated into the mainstream of the Indic civilization. While the arguments about their cultural distinctiveness (or lack thereof) continue, there is--or at any rate should be--a consensus on their economic and political status in independent India.

On the economic side, the tribals are the most deeply disadvantaged segment of Indian society. As few as 23 percent of them are literate; as many as 50 percent live under the poverty line. The state fails to provide them with adequate education, healthcare or sanitation; more actively, it works to dispossess them of their land and resources. For the tribals have the ill luck to live amid India's most verdant forests, alongside India's freest-flowing rivers and atop India's most valuable minerals. As these resources have gained in market value, the tribals have had to make way for commercial forestry, large and small dams, and mines. According to sociologist Walter Fernandes, 40 percent of those displaced by development projects are tribals, although they constitute less than 8 percent of the population. Put another way, a tribal is five times as likely as a nontribal to have his property seized by the state.

On the political side, the tribals are very poorly represented in the democratic process. In fact, compared with India's other subaltern groups, such as the Dalits (former Untouchables) and the Muslims, they are well nigh invisible. Dalits have their own, sometimes very successful, political parties; the Muslims have always constituted a crucial vote bank for the dominant Congress Party. In consequence, in every Indian Cabinet since independence, Dalits and Muslims have been assigned powerful portfolios such as Home, Education, External Affairs and Law. On the other hand, tribals are typically allotted inconsequential ministries such as Sports or Youth Affairs. Again, three Muslims and one Dalit have been chosen President of India, but no tribal. Three Muslims and one Dalit have served as Chief Justice of India, but no tribal.

This twin marginalization, economic and political, has opened a space for the Maoists to work in. Their most impressive gains have been in tribal districts, where they have shrewdly stoked discontent with the state to win people to their side. They have organized tribals to demand better wages from the forest department, killed or beaten up policemen alleged to have intimidated tribals and run law courts and irrigation schemes of their own.

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