Forest war

Naxalism started as a movement against land alienation. Today it has become a popular movement against natural resource alienation, particularly forests. Large areas of densely forested regions in the country are controlled by Naxalites. In these forested areas, the state and forest administration dare not enter. Naxalites use the growing alienation of tribal people against forest laws to gain ground. They secure tribal rights over non- timber forest produce and dispense quick justice -- at gunpoint. Sadly, the victims of Naxal violence are invariably the custodians of our forests -- forest guards. What is even more unfortunate is that they lose their lives defending laws that are so anti-people. Down To Earth reporters travel to these densely forested areas to discover what the Naxal rule means for forest management

By Richard Mahapatra, Prabhanjan Verma, Binayak Das
Published: Monday 31 December 2001

Forest war

 War of the woods: there are m (Credit: Mahadeo Sen)As prime minister A B Vajpayee was reminding the nation about threats from across the border in his Independence Day speech from Delhi's Red Fort this year, a group of extreme Leftist outfits, popularly known as Naxalites, were redrawing the internal map of the country. At a secret meeting held in West Bengal's Siliguri, they declared sovereignty over India's forests. The meeting was significant as it brought the two dominant Naxalite groups -- Maoist Communist Centre (mcc) and the People's War Group (pwg) -- together for the first time to form a death ring in 10 states. A new era of terror was about to be unleashed and India's forests were to become the next battlefield for the war of hegemony.

It is showing up: 827 incidents and 423 deaths in the last nine months. In October, a little known Naxalite group abducted a relative of the Union minister of state for home affairs. Factories owned by the Union minister of state for defence and the Andhra Pradesh (ap) chief minister were blasted by pwg. In Orissa, a minister's house was burnt down. Each day in the first week of December saw police and government officials clash with Naxalites in ap, Jharkhand and Orissa. The renewed attacks have prompted the Union government to ban the pwg and the mcc under the recently-promulgated Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (poto).

Genesis of a conflict
Naxalites, the extreme leftist movement tracing their origin to a radical peasant uprising against landlords in West Bengal in 1967, today rule India's best forests. Some 40 groups control a region that stretches from the Indo-Nepal border to coastal ap -- an area two-and-half times the size of Bangladesh. And they are spreading faster than forest fires: from a small village to 10 states in just 35 years. Since then, more people have been killed by Naxalites-related violence than in the 10-year-old militancy in Kashmir. Despite the massive police operations, they have continued to spread to new areas. And there is a reason.By ensuring people's access to forest and distributing forestlands for cultivation, Naxalites have established parallel governments. Willingly or hesitantly, the people too have begun to trust them instead of the government -- more for livelihood than for Marx or Mao. The denser the forest, the more is the alienation -- tribal people are refused entry into forests; they cannot cultivate lands they believe is theirs. It is simple. People want livelihood, government wants control over forests and Naxalites want 'revolution' against this. "Naxalites have put their weapons at people's service in face of such dilemma," says K Balgopal, a civil rights activist in Hyderabad who recently wrote a book on the movement. On one side is the elected government, which with its misplaced regulations has never addressed people's needs. On the other, is a band of armed people knocking on people's doors to solve their problems instantly -- at gun point. Caught between the warring groups, the people prefer the latter. "The parallel government is fast, accessible and gives people access to their livelihood sources," admits a senior police official from Chattisgarh who did not want to be named. For example, courts in the Naxalite-affected areas of Jharkhand have witnessed a drop in the number of cases -- from 2,400 in 1996 to 1,600 in 1997.

Wrath of an 'unborn' revolution
In the Naxalite-infested areas, the government ceases to exist. An oral diktat from a Naxalite leader is enough to make government officials shiver. In ap's Telengana region, more than 50 local elected leaders of the ruling Telengu Desam Party (tdp) had to quit the party due to threats from the pwg during the last five years. And those who refuse to listen are killed. Around 2,077 people have been killed in ap by the pwg in the past decade -- politicians comprise 30 per cent of the victims. Governments too are at the mercy of the Naxalites.In Orissa, the government had to withdraw its police force in Malkangiri district when nine police officials were killed by the pwg in August this year. Ironically, over 60 per cent of the state's forces were deployed in this district alone to fight Naxalites. "It was a humiliating defeat," admits a senior state police officer involved anti-Naxal operations for the past 10 years.

In Chattisgarh's Bijapur village, one can't spot a police personnel -- they do not wear uniforms out of fear. "The police never come to our village. Naxalites solve our problems," says Sukaru Ram, an 18-year-old boy from Pengunda village, some 90 km from Bijapur.

Of Jharkhand's 18 districts, 12 are under the control of the mcc and the pwg. On November 2, the mcc gunned down 13 police personnel in Topchanchi block of Dhanbad district. Recent reports in the media suggest that Naxalites are planning to field candidates for the forthcoming panchayat elections. Out of 81 assembly constituencies in the state, the Naxalites could decide the winning candidates in 31 of them. The administration fears a 'total takeover' by the mcc.

In Bihar, the mcc and pwg are known to 'tax' even government programmes like Operation Siddharth, Jawahar Rojgar Yojna and Minimum Needs Programme. Government officials siphon off the funds as "protection money". An estimate by the Palamu Commissionary three years ago found mcc and the Party Unity (now merged with the pwg) had collected Rs 30 crore per month as levy.

Caught between the government and the Naxalites, the common people are the worst affected. Both doubt them as informers and this often results in blind deaths. For the police such deaths are the regular fake encounters and for the Naxalites 'execution of the people's enemy'.

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