The addiction of the Narendra Modi government — and its thuggish sympathisers amongst lawyers and police — to vilifying, beating and labelling their opponents as “seditionists” is nakedly on display i
The addiction of the Narendra Modi government — and its thuggish sympathisers amongst lawyers and police — to vilifying, beating and labelling their opponents as “seditionists” is nakedly on display in New Delhi these days. But to understand the true extent of the Sangh Parivar’s use of such malevolent politics, one has to look a thousand kilometres south, to central India, from Bastar to Bellary, where a hundred million adivasis are being speedily robbed of their land and forests while those who dare protest are beaten, raped, jailed or killed with impunity, having been cast as Naxalites, seditionists, conspirators against the state. Our outrage about the injustice exposed by the treatment meted out to Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar should push us to question and confront this mammoth injustice — one of the most systematic abuses of human rights in Independent India.
In 1989, when I first went to Bastar, the adivasis there rarely had to fear anything worse than bullying by forest guards, tendu contractors or the local police — or outsiders leering at the women’s uncovered breasts when they went to town. The danger signs were apparent, of course: the gleaming mines of the finest iron ore in Bailadilla, the bossy government functionaries and the influx of abusive outsiders. And because my research took me immediately to Ranchi, then part of Bihar, where adivasis had been steadily dispossessed since the colonial era, the bleakness of what could potentially happen across the adivasi heartland was painfully clear.
But there was ample hope still. The handful of adivasi leaders in the districts with huge adivasi populations — criss-crossing Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Karnataka, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra — were pushing to protect the best interests of their people, suggesting that outside settlers be barred through “Inner Line Regulations” and the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, that adivasi states be created, that adivasis be educated and quickly made aware of their rights.
All those plans, dreams and hopes had been extinguished by the time I went back to Bastar in the spring of 2013. There were men with guns everywhere, all outsiders. There were lumbering military trucks, ominous police vans, and SUVs with the cacophonic sirens of our VVIPs. Tarmac roads coursed everywhere to facilitate their movement. There were mines everywhere. The rivers were poisonous with mining runoff. The only wild animal I spotted was a lone hyena; even the gaurs, synonymous with the Madhia Gonds, are nowhere to be seen.
And Bastar’s adivasis, whom I had known to be free and self-sustaining, now, a mere quarter century later, were an oppressed and robbed people. Everything they had once enjoyed was taken by cheating, force, imprisonment, rape or massacres, such as Kottaguda in Bijapur, 2012, or Gompad village in 2013, made possible by the security forces.
Nothing had been given in return; not schools, not healthcare, not homes, not decent jobs, not even a functioning Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). They now worked as labourers on the roads and mines, or on the patches of dry fields left to them.
They spoke with fear and suspicion. Resentment bubbled everywhere, even in the signs painted on the outside walls of their huts — “Kab tak dhoka hum khayenge (How long will we accept getting betrayed )”
All this devastation — from the dispossession of forests to the rape of women, from the imprisonment of thousands to the killing of thousands of others — had befallen their fellow adivasis everywhere else too, from Jharkhand to Orissa, from Maharashtra to Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in these decades.
Virtually every political party in the region has been complicit in this bloody plunder, as there were billions to be made from this mineral-suffused earth, far from prying journalists and activists. (With our economy in overdrive, every critic, from Arundhati Roy to Swami Agnivesh, could be dismissed as socialist throwback or diabolic Christian plotters.) The Congress, most certainly, has adivasi blood on its hands, not just its local leaders like Mahendra Karma who founded the murderous Salwa Judum militia, but also top brass like former home minister P. Chidambaram, who defended Salwa Judum, fought any investigation of human rights abuses by police and “counter-insurgency” personnel, and stonewalled demands for fair trial for the thousands of adivasi under-trials endlessly imprisoned in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa on specious national security charges. Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal is no less bloodstained.
But the Bharatiya Janata Party ratcheted up the brutality in its fight for dominance in the region. As evident in Chhattisgarh, there is seemingly nothing that the BJP will stop at, whether directed at the adivasis or at the few outsiders who still dare to attempt to defend them. Human rights defenders like Binayak Sen was imprisoned on sedition charges, and the most discredited policemen protected.
In the last month alone, the Raman Singh government has illegally overridden tribal rights to forests in Surguja, harassed journalists and legal-aid groups in Bastar, and stood by as the adivasi Aam Aadmi Party leader Soni Sori was attacked.
It may be that such brutality is part of the Sangh Parivar’s DNA, or it may be that the stakes in the region are even higher for them than for the other parties, this being a battle not just for lucre but for religion too, with millions of impoverished adivasis waiting to be bullied into becoming Hindus.
The adivasi heartland can never again be the peaceful, promising place it was even in living memory. But it is not too late to hold the region’s politicians, administrators and security bosses to account, so as to bring to an end the dispossession, the brutality and the denial of justice. Kanhaiya Kumar has woken many of us in the cities to an understanding of just how debased our politics has become, particularly with the ascendancy of the Sangh Parivar. It is time we refused to accept such abuse anywhere in India, whether at Jawaharlal Nehru University or miles away in Bastar.
Siddharth Dube is the author of several non-fiction books, including No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex. He is also a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.