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Maoist violence and the government's response

The constitutional obligation to take special care of the protection and development of adivasis and dalits was diluted when the Union home ministry transferred this role to a new ministry of social justice, writes K S Subramanian, former director of the home ministry’s Research and Policy Division, which studied emerging Naxalite violence in the context of increasing atrocities against adivasis

In the late-1970s, EMS Namboodiripad had perceptively observed that India has “democracy at the top and bureaucracy at the bottom”. It is a little noticed fact that the basic criminal laws of the land -- the Indian Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Police Act -- that were prepared under colonial rule, prioritise state security, maintenance of public order and intelligence collection as the main functions of the police.

The Union home ministry’s information on conflict situations stems mainly from the IPS-controlled Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the state police forces, which prioritise state security and maintenance of public order. These two agencies are not equipped to study the multiple complexities of developmental conflicts but tend to view all conflicts through the lens of their basic state security preoccupations. Further, the basic criminal law governing the working of the police, as distinct from the Constitution, stresses state security and maintenance of order at the cost of service to the people.  

These police agencies are the major information and intelligence providers to the government, a fact that necessarily distorts the nature and quality of the information provided.  

Given the limitations of police agencies in reporting developmental conflicts objectively, the ministry set up its own agency, the Research and Policy Division, in 1967, to study and report on such conflicts independently. The Division worked very well but was soon converted into a convenient parking lot for officers moving from one job to another in government. IB reportage on conflicts and the reports produced by the R&P Division often differed on facts and interpretations. The Division was mysteriously wound up sometime in the 1990s.  

Further, according to the Government of India Allocation of Business Rules, 1961, the Union home ministry was in charge of the development and protection of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, a major area of concern in the Constitution. Two separate divisions of the ministry dealt respectively with the SCs and STs.  

Steps were taken in the 1980s to develop and implement special measures for the development of these communities, including the Tribal Sub Plan for the adivasis (STs) and the Special Component Plan for the dalits (SCs). Two joint secretaries were in charge. Special arrangements were in place to study and deal with ‘atrocities’ against SCs and STs. Increasing ‘atrocities’ were seen as a contributory cause of the emergence of Naxalite violence. 

The two phenomena were studied in juxtaposition, and guidelines were issued to state governments on dealing with them. The SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act was passed in 1989 to deal with ‘atrocities’ and its implementation was supervised by the ministry. In the name of reorganisation, however, the divisions dealing with SCs and STs were transferred in the 1990s to a newly set up social justice ministry. Separate National Commissions came up for the SCs and STs. This arrangement has not worked well. From a nodal agency for the development and protection of dalits and adivasis, the Union home ministry gradually became just a law and order ministry. The constitutional obligation on the part of the state to take special care, protection and development of the dalits and adivasis was given reduced importance with the transfer of the subject to the ministry of social justice and empowerment. The Union home ministry with its command over police forces across the country could have been a powerful agency for the delivery of social justice, but it was not to be.  

This had a particular impact on the management of ‘atrocities’. In the early years of this century, atrocities increased sharply in the Central Tribal Belt which was seeing sudden development. This was followed by increasing Maoist/Naxalite violence.         

Using violence to quell violence: A flawed response 

Maoist violence, which originated in a single police station area in a single district in West Bengal, is now reported to have spread to over 2,000 police stations, in 223 districts across 20 states, as admitted by the Union home minister himself. And the police budgets of the Union and state governments have reportedly gone up over a thousand-fold from 1967 to 2007. The lesson seems to be that a mere police response is far from adequate in dealing with Maoist violence. The annual reports of the Union home ministry show that its budget has gone up from over Rs 23,000 crore to over Rs 38,000 crore today. Though state violence tends to aggravate the cult of violence, the colonial precedent of using violence to quell violence appears to have become customised with our post-colonial rulers.   

The prime minister stated at a chief ministers’ conference in April 2006 (the statement has been repeated frequently) that Maoist violence is India’s biggest internal security threat. This was probably based on the IB analysis of the subject. Communism, based on the philosophy of violence and under the tutelage of foreign interests, has for long been perceived by the IB as a major security threat. The then Union home minister sent a large CRPF force to the Naxalite/Maoist-affected states. He asked states not to enter into dialogue with the Maoists unless they gave up arms. ‘Local resistance’ by vigilante groups (the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh) was to be ‘upscaled’. Though the 2004 National Common Minimum Programme had said that extremist violence was not just a law and order problem but had deeper socio-economic roots, the state police agencies thought otherwise and acted on the suggestions contained in documents on ‘left-wing extremism’ produced by the IB.  

The ministry of home affairs, influenced by IB reports, further geared up to deploy central paramilitary forces on a massive scale. The ministry’s annual report for 2008-9 states that the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Orissa together accounted for about 86% of all incidents of Maoist violence in 2008. Though the Constitution imposes a special responsibility on the Indian state for the welfare, development and protection of dalits and adivasis with special provisions in law and procedure for the purpose, the home ministry is no longer in charge of the subject.   

The prime minister’s statement on Maoism in 2006 did not make even a passing reference to the growing violence against dalits and adivasis. Interestingly, neither the newly created ministry of social justice and empowerment (now responsible for dalits and adivasis), nor the National Commissions for the SCs and STs, were invited to attend the 2006 and 2009 meetings of state chief ministers though this was required under the Constitution. Speakers came out strongly against Maoist violence but no one referred to the vexed issue of the increasing violence against dalits and adivasis, especially in the Central Tribal Belt (CTB), as reported by official agencies.          

A seminal 1969 home ministry report, the first major report of its kind prepared by the Research and Policy (R&P) Division, titled ‘The Causes and Nature of Agrarian Tensions’ had warned that the Green Revolution could turn into a ‘red revolution’ in the absence of agrarian reforms. The report pointed to the administrative obstacles in the implementation of agrarian reforms including the lack of qualifications and integrity necessary for the administration of tenancy reforms on the part of civil servants who were overburdened with other responsibilities; insufficient coordination between the state agency for land reforms and the agriculture and cooperative departments; lack of correct and updated land records; weak budgetary support; illiteracy and ignorance on the part of tenants, and so on. 

In the early-1980s the ministry attempted to set up interdisciplinary study-cum-action groups on conflict situations but was discomfited by the obsession with secrecy on the part of the defence ministry whose agencies were deployed in the Northeast. The winding up of the R&P Division in the 1990s, too, proved costly for the home affairs ministry.   

Ironically, though the ministry was aware of the deficiencies in its information base on conflict resolution, as seen in its setting up of the R&P Division, it did not take the additional step to institutionalise policymaking. There was, and still is, no such mechanism at the top in the ministry. As such, traditional reliance on police reports continued. As stated by the then home secretary (Srinivasavaradan, 1992), the “available expertise at the bureaucratic level to understand, anticipate and evaluate an intricate problem was inadequate and amateurish. The situation in some cases was salvaged in the past because of the flexibility of the system, the sagacity of the political leadership and its openness to information from all quarters”.  

Srinivasavaradan further noted that while the political response to Naxalite/Maoist violence was based on the perception of the objective socio-economic conditions in breeding and sustaining it, once the intensity of violence abated, the political response took the standard administrative shape of deployment of central paramilitary forces in the affected areas.   

Allegations of fake encounters, illegal arrests and other misdeeds tended to be swept under the carpet. He wrote: “In dealing with problems of societal transition, excessive preoccupation with peace and order, ignoring issues of law and justice, can prove expensive in the long run. Lack of steadfastness of purpose is not desirable in dealing with basic nation-building tasks.” He added that when issues with long-term implications came up, the traditional responses were found deficient. The ad-hocism and amateurishness in the field could be remedied only by “additional inputs of knowledge, skill and vision through multidisciplinary research and policy analysis”.  

The setting up of the Research and Policy (R&P) Division did prove useful to some extent but the innovation did not last long. The Maoist armed struggle reached an advanced stage after the Naxalbari phase (EPW, 2006). It spread over a larger area and has survived for over two decades since the 1980s. The strongest guerrilla zone remains the Dandakaranya forest region in central India. Even though more widespread than before, the Maoists today have not been able to build powerful countrywide political movements. A relatively strong militant outfit with popular support in its areas of influence in the south, central and eastern regions, it is weak outside its core areas of influence.   

The commercialisation and corporatisation of forest resources has reduced the access of indigenous communities to them. Alienation of tribal land and control of it by richer non-tribal elements from outside is a significant factor in tribal unrest. Displacement due to the construction of large dams and other industries has impoverished these communities and strengthened their demand for tribal self-governance.  

Ineffective government policies for tribal areas  

Government programmes for tribal development have had adverse consequences for tribal communities as well documented in studies.

The extension of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) to tribal areas can become an instrument of empowerment only after steps are taken to restore indigenous rights over land and forest. The setting up of the new states to enable tribal participation in decentralised governance and decision-making has been ineffective because the character and mindset of the administrative and police organisations has not changed.  

B Mungekar, member, Planning Commission, is reported to have prepared a report showing that between 1951 and 1990, 40 million people were displaced as a result of development projects. Of these, 40% were tribal people. Only 25% of the displaced have so far been ‘rehabilitated’. The adequacy and quality of the rehabilitation has come into serious question especially in the context of the controversy over the Sardar Sarovar Project. In the light of this, it is not surprising that the Maoist movement has found support among those sections of scheduled tribes who became victims rather than beneficiaries of development.  

In this connection, the 28th report of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Tribes to the President of India in 1986 becomes relevant. It referred to the “backlash of modernization” in the tribal areas. Its assessment was that the outcome of the developmental measures taken plus the adverse forces already at work was a negative one and marked a “slide back” in the fortunes of the dalits and adivasis notwithstanding some achievements in the sphere of reservations in government jobs. The report decried the “omissions, distortions, subterfuges and the studied silence on vital issues” in government policies which protected vested interests. The concern expressed in the Constitution’s Fifth Schedule that the laws of the land should be suitably adapted in their application to Scheduled areas was violated. The effect of non-recognition of the rights of the local community’s command over resources had resulted in “disorganisation, displacement and destitution” of the adivasis. There could be no peace in the Scheduled Areas so long as the confrontation between the people and the state continued on the issue of self-governance, particularly with regard to the question of the command over resources.   

In much the same vein, the 2008 Experts’ Group report to the Planning Commission, ‘Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas’, makes a profound analysis of the socio-economic situation in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand and suggests that the problem of violence and terrorism should be understood in the proper development perspective and handled politically and administratively rather than by using brute police force.  

Apart from the CPI (Maoist), which is the focus of official attention, there are a very large number of other groups whose methods of functioning differ on the extent of mobilisation of the people, role of the armed underground cadre etc, though they all agree on the need for revolutionary change. Some of them are represented in elected bodies such as panchayats and legislative assemblies. Mass unrest is not reducible to dramatic incidents of terrorism. Mass participation in militant protests has always been a feature of Maoist mobilisation. The ban on the Maoist party and its mass organisations and the informal prohibition of such activities by the police in the case of other groups often rendered such mass activity impossible. 

On the role of the police, the Expert’s Group report states that the “methods chosen by the government to deal with the Maoist phenomenon (have) increased the people’s distrust of the police and consequent unrest. Protest against police harassment is itself a major instance of unrest frequently leading to further violence by the police in the areas under Maoist influence. The response of the Maoists has been to target the police and subject them to violence, which in effect triggers a second round of the spiral. The rights and entitlements of the people which give rise to the Maoist movement find expression in the Constitution, the laws enacted by various governments and the policy declarations. The administration should not have waited for the Maoist movement to remind it of its obligations towards the people in these matters.” 

The report adds that the weaker sections do not have much faith in the police. They have no faith that justice will be done to them against the powerful.  

The Expert’s Group added that “what is surprising is not the fact of unrest but the failure of the state to draw the right conclusions from it”.       

The separation from the Union home ministry of the two divisions dealing with the SCs and STs, deprived the ministry of its developmental character and reduced it to a purely law and order ministry. The winding up of the Research and Policy Division did not help matters. A ‘deliberative democracy’ such as India cannot afford to have a home ministry so uniquely deprived of insights arising from developmental analysis relating to conflict-affected areas.

Many of the issues in this regard are brought out clearly though briefly in the recent letter to the President of India written by Dr B D Sharma, former Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Sharma, 2010). The letter notes the following points forcefully:  

i) The virtual collapse of the constitutional regime with regard to the tribal people of India, who are now being attacked and suppressed in a war-like situation;

ii) The Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, regarded as ‘the Constitution within the Constitution’, provides for the governors of states to write an annual report to the President on the administration of the tribal areas and the giving of directions by the President but no such directions have been issued in the last 60 years;

iii) The Constitutional machinery of the Tribal Advisory Council has become extinct;

iv) State power extends to the tribal areas subject to the provisions of the Fifth Schedule;

v) PESA, 1996, which extends a ‘Village Republic’ frame has remained virtually unimplemented in most states and so is the case with the Forest Rights Act, 2006;

vi) The history of broken promises, predatory administration, co-option through faulty development programmes and unconcern at the top has led to massive displacement and multiplication of revolts.  

Dr Sharma has requested the President to visit the tribal areas and rectify the defects in administration.      

Healing process 

Even if the conflict is eventually resolved, the consequences of the violence and the wounds inflicted on the human survivors and the national psyche need to be healed and a reasonable degree of closure achieved so that the patterns of political violence and terrorism do not re-appear (Wallace, 2007).  

The need for institutionalising efforts to attempt a healing process for societies such as India is important. ‘Closure’ should be clearly identified as a core element during periods of political violence with the focus on institutionalising human rights, especially for the state, but also for the anti-state political movement. Reconciliation is an obvious element of ‘closure’. So are transparency and justice. ‘Closure’ should include judicial measures ranging from war crime tribunals to informal village-level trials. The major achievement of ‘closure’ would be transparency. Setting out the facts, opening whatever records are available and attempting honestly to answer the questions of victims provides a major impetus to healing. It promotes understanding as a first step to some degree of justice and the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation. Transparency may be the most lasting result, a willingness to live with the truth. In political violence, excessive means -- sometimes clandestine -- are used. Similarly, because of security concerns the state often becomes a mirror image of the terrorist movement, holding it necessary to use means that are illegal according to the Geneva Convention.  

Recent developments in Sri Lanka are a good example (Wallace, 2007).

However, studies do exist, which document reconciliation at the grassroots level involving civil society participation following the violence, such as in Gujarat 2002 (Oommen, 2007).     

(K S Subramanian was Director of the Research and Policy Division of the Union Home Ministry (1980-85) and retired as Director General of the Tripura State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development. He is the author of Political Violence and the Police in India, Sage, 2007; and Understanding the Police in India, Lexis-Nexis, 2009) 


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Infochange News & Features, August 2010