Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Maoist Separatists in Northern India

This is a terrific essay in VQR by Jason Motlagh, a South Asia-based freelance journalist. A few snippets from a story that is both unique to the place and common in its economic dynamics the world over:
“The Islamist is dying, the ethnic [separatist] is dying,” Sahni warned, “but they may be replaced by the Maoist.” He spoke of a rift in the Indian security establishment between those who are looking at the Maoist movement as it stands today, and those who see its potential. “The Home Minister has more transient political objectives in mind. He says the Naxal threat is fading . . . If that’s the case,” Sahni asked, “then why is the movement spreading?” Prime Minister Singh, on the other hand, is one of the few who recognizes the Maoists are “building up to a confrontation that is based on the exploitation of every single vulnerability and fault line within the Indian system, which they are already doing with great rigor and,” Sahni hesitated, “almost with genius.”...

In January, I spent a week in western Orissa state with the Dongria Kond tribespeople. Cannibals until the late nineteenth century, they live outside of Indian history—except for once a week when they travel on foot as many as ten miles to sell tendu leaves (used to roll bidi cigarettes) and palm wine at the nearest town market. For the past four years they’ve been involved in fierce legal battle with a UK-based company that wants to mine bauxite ore from sacred hills. In a scenario typical of many others playing out around India, Vedanta Resources built a refinery at the base of Niyamgiri Mountain without approval, expecting ex post facto support from the state. The Dongria, backed by a small army of activists, fought all the way to the Supreme Court in Delhi. The bench made a surprise ruling in their favor. In doing so, they also spelled out a loophole that may one day allow the company to break ground. Once again, the Dongria are bracing for a fight. “If anyone comes to take our Niyamgiri we will fight them with axes and shoot them with arrows,” tribal farmer Bari Pidikaka, told me, raising his battle-ax, “so these people can understand how the Dongria Kond are strong and love these hills.”

Lower-caste groups face the same assault. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)—which since independence has dominated West Bengal politics on a platform of social justice—decided last spring to allow an Indonesia-based company to set up a chemical hub, and that meant converting 10,000 acres of farmland into a Chinese-style Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Villagers resisted for months, until the state government dispatched 4,000 armed police and party thugs to evict them. In the ensuing violence at least 11 people were killed and 70 wounded. Nine more people died when protests flared again in November. The Marxists have accused the Maoists of stoking tensions, which still boil in the region, and elsewhere, as similar projects are imposed. Indian trade minister Kamal Nath, for his part, recently defended SEZs—now totaling 453 across 19 states—for generating billions in exports, “notwithstanding the skepticism expressed by a few persons.”

The backlash at Nandigram and Niyamgiri illustrates how development in India often favors a select few at the expense of many, widening social rifts the Maoists are keen to exploit. “We, the Maoists, are confronted with the great task of providing revolutionary leadership to over a billion people, at a time when the entire country is being transformed into a neo-colony, when the country is being sold away to the imperialists and the big business in the name of SEZs, when millions upon millions of people are being displaced by so-called development projects, when workers, peasants, employees, students, sections of the intelligentsia, [untouchables], women, [tribals], religious minorities, and others are seething with revolt,” proclaimed the Community Party of India’s general secretary, Muppala Lakshmana Rao who operates under the nom de guerre Ganapathy. “We shall be at the forefront of every people’s movement.”

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