India’s ‘hidden apartheid’

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‘Caste Based Discrimination is Racism’ – placards with that legend will be raised by hundreds of Asia-Pacific NGOs in the gallery in Durban at the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), even as governments guard their national positions while framing a global vision to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in all their manifestations. Every time the litany in the draft Durban Declaration is recited of discriminations based on ‘race, colour, sex, language, religion, culture, national or ethnic origin’, the placards will go up – ‘Caste is a distinct form of Racism’ – a constant reminder of the deliberate exclusion of caste from the official WCAR agenda.

Caste based discrimination is slated to be the dominant campaign issue of the Asia-Pacific flank for the NGO forum in Durban, 31 August-7 September 2001. Apartheid was the focus of the two previous World Conferences held in 1978 and 1983; in the third World Conference Against Racism, the Asia-Pacific NGO network for WCAR intends to put the focus on what Dalit activists describe as India’s ‘hidden apartheid’ or the severity of caste based discrimination. Its scope encompasses 240 million in South Asia and millions more in East Asia and West Africa, including the Burakumni in Japan, the Ozu in Nigeria and the Roma in Europe. It is one of the largest segments of peoples discriminated against on the basis of descent and occupation. The Kathmandu Declaration flags it as a distinct form of racism. Human rights activists and representatives from Asia-Pacific NGOs working to eliminate all forms of racism, from the Solomon Islands to Palestine, are being mobilized to turn the spotlight on caste based discrimination in the WCAR process.

The power of the NGO process to influence and prise open official international structures was dramatically demonstrated in the well orchestrated NGO driven campaign to shape the agenda of the Vienna UN Human Rights Conference in 1995. In the run up to Vienna, regional and international NGO human rights networks were forged which mobilized mass support for the recognition of the fourth generation human rights – social, economic and cultural rights. Vienna put on the agenda ‘women’s rights as human rights’, ‘development rights as human rights’ and located peace in a human rights perspective. It was a high point of global NGO networking.

Similarly, in the WCAR process, NGOs across the regions in preparatory meetings in Teheran, Delhi and Kathmandu are forging strategies and building alliances. In the Asia-Pacific Network, solidarity is being built around the campaign issues of ‘Caste as Racial Discrimination on the basis of Descent and Occupation’, ‘Engendering Racism’, ‘Globalisation and Racism’, ‘Migrants facing Racism and Xenophobia’, ‘Trafficked Persons as Victims of Racism’, ‘Racism Produces Refugees’, ‘Rights of Indigenous Peoples’, ‘Racist Treatment of Ethnic Minorities’ and ‘Religious Intolerance’. Evidently, as ‘Caste based Discrimination’ does not figure in the official WCAR agenda, unlike the other issues which have been accorded some degree of recognition by the international community, caste is being projected as a major campaign issue for Durban.

In the run up to the WCAR, satellite NGO meetings in the Asia-Pacific region have turned the spotlight on this form of discrimination. In April, the Kathmandu NGO Declaration affirmed that ‘caste as a basis for the segregation and oppression of peoples in terms of their descent and occupation is a form of apartheid and in its practical manifestations and the nature of discrimination is a distinct form of racism affecting victims equally irrespective of religion.’ In Kathmandu 200 delegates representing NGOs spanning the Asia-Pacific region endorsed ‘the apartheid nature of caste discrimination which manifests itself in segregated housing settlements and denial of access to common drinking water, restaurants, temples, tea stalls (two cup system), restrictions on marriage, and other insidious measures designed to prevent social interaction and mobility.’ Above all, in Delhi and Kathmandu, the persisting practice of ‘untouchability’ in South Asia was condemned. There are no human rights for ‘untouchables’, Dalit ideologue Sukhadeo Thorat said. He described ‘untouchability’ as a practice sanctified by religion by which the basic human rights of people labelled ‘impure’ are denied.

In the official WCAR agenda, caste does not figure. The Indian government has actively lobbied to block it arguing that caste discrimination has no relevance to race. ‘Racism should not be confused with discrimination in general,’ says the Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh. And besides, argues the government, ‘untouchability’ practices no longer exist and the government has taken adequate measures to end discrimination against Dalits. Constitutionally ‘untouchability’ has been abolished and a series of national legislations have been introduced to remove caste based discrimination. However, as Dalit activist Paul Divakar asserts, the stark reality is that the law remains unimplemented. Attempts to struggle against casteism meet with extreme violence such as the burning of homes, stripping and parading naked Dalit women, rape and murder, and social and economic boycott. In fact, discrimination has intensified in recent years as evinced by the lengthening number of caste linked atrocities and the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators. In India and in the rest of South Asia caste remains a determinative factor in the denial of economic, social, political, cultural and religious rights.

But is caste race? Is it a question only of semantics? Dalit activists argue that what is of issue is not that caste and race may be the same or different, but whether in nature or in scope of violation of human rights there is a difference between the discrimination based on race or caste? Moreover, the WCAR perspective, through continuous lobbying by NGOs has come to encompass an emphasis on structural and institutional racism. The Teheran NGO declaration defined racism as a social construct that assigns a certain social group to a position of power over others on the basis of a notion of superiority, dominance and purity and that it is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous.

Unlike the draft government declaration which opposes racism but without engaging with its historical and structural root causes, the NGO process on WCAR takes as its base a critique of the historically constructed cultural, structural and institutional aspects of global hegemony. Consequently, contemporary manifestations of racism and discrimination can be located in the legacy of colonialism and analogously other historical ideologies of superiority, purity and dominance. In Kathmandu, it was recognised that ‘casteism and racism operate at personal, social and structural levels’, and that in Asia, ‘casteism predates racism’.

UN human rights bodies have located caste based discrimination in the context of forms of discrimination based on descent and occupation and linked it with forms of slavery and racial discrimination. The 52nd session of UN Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights ‘declares discrimination based on occupation and descent is a form of discrimination prohibited by international human rights law.’

Sukhadeo Thorat accepts that caste may not be race. Thorat is sceptical of the strategy of constructing caste as race to fit into UN defined categories of relevance, arguing it is analogous to contemporary colonial agendas, that is, complex situations are appropriated or made to fit dominant knowledge categories. However, activists from the Global Campaign for Dalit Human Rights like Henri Tipghen see in the WCAR a significant opportunity to direct national and international attention to the persistence and intensification of severe caste based discrimination. The Indian government does not want to bring under an international monitoring mechanism the continuing severity of caste based discrimination in India and has been actively lobbying to this effect in official and NGO forums. In contrast, Nepal has recognised caste based discrimination as a form of racial discrimination.

To gain recognition for the severity of caste based discrimination, there were the stark testimonies of victims and survivors from India, Nepal and Japan. Sanjay (9 yrs) forgot he was an ‘untouchable’ and paid the price – he lost an eye. He was watching a movie on television in a paan kiosk. So engrossed was he that he let his impure hand rest on the shop and did not hear when the shopkeeper shouted at him. Outraged, the shopkeeper threw lime paste in the boy’s eye. ‘It was my mistake,’ he says, having internalised caste. There were others from Nepal who spoke of the struggle of a Dalit community in Terai to abandon the job of scavenging and resist the resultant social and economic boycott. There were testimonies about family and friends who had been humiliated at tea shops, of women who were stripped naked and paraded, or trafficked and forced into prostitution because of caste or ethnicity.

It was an impassioned and sophisticated picture of caste based discrimination, making visible the intersectionality of caste, gender and economic marginalization resulting from the processes of globalization. That it dominated the Kathmandu Asia-Pacific NGO networking meeting in the run up to the WCAR was to be expected. Caste based discrimination is the main campaign plank of the Asia-Pacific.

However, as the Kathmandu declaration was being endorsed line by line, a young women based in Hong Kong took the floor. She wanted the discrimination against rural migrants of China to be recognised as analogous to caste or occupation and descent based forms of discrimination. It took several minutes to explain to her that the discrimination practiced against the rural migrants in China was not the same as discrimination based on caste. Though she withdrew her motion, did she understand the difference? After two and a half days of discussing the nature of caste, obviously the caste issue was still unclear to many from outside South Asia. There was no attempt to brush her intervention under the carpet. Instead, an effort was made to accommodate her concern and to provide space for re-understanding the caste question.

It brought home to me why we were so laboriously adopting the Kathmandu declaration line by line, why the room was so full and the participants so active. It was the last day of the meeting but there was no attempt to guillotine the agenda. Because in a sense, the process was as important as the declaration. We were investing in the process of sharing and learning. Participatory consensus, as I learnt that day, was what gives the network its strength and its values.

There can be no short cuts. Coalitions and alliances are not necessarily built with like-minded people, i.e. ‘people like us’, but with people with whom there is a common interest in strengthening each other, in reconciling what may even appear competing and contradictory pulls and pressures. Should I be surprised that Dalit activists in India fighting against caste based discrimination were uneasy at the Kathmandu meet endorsing the right to self determination of the peoples in Kashmir and North East? Complementarily, I was seeing the emergence of solidarity alliances between Dalits and discriminated religious communities – Muslims and Christians. What after all were the insights about structural and institutional racism about than a growing consciousness of the common situation of discrimination against the marginalized.

We had all come with our specific and inter-related agendas to build an NGO network, to develop an NGO strategy for the WCAR. The strength and legitimacy of activists and NGO pressure comes from an implicit reference to a ‘people’s’ mandate, despite the increasing ‘professionalisation’ of the NGO sector. Transparency and democratic functioning are the defining features of these people’s oriented organisations. Consequently, alliance building or networking in NGO forums claims to distinguish itself from the hierarchical culture of official decision-making bodies, national and international, in valuing participatory democratic functioning as exemplified in the time and space given to line by line adoption of NGO declarations, the enthusiasm with which participants take the freedom to staple on agendas and name names and situations (UN declarations are notoriously general and government’s fight to keep it that way) and the serious consideration and respect shown to demands and claims made from affected interest groups.

Of course there are problems both of inclusion and exclusion. For example, when affirming people’s right to self determination, the Kathmandu declaration named the ‘peoples of Palestine, West Papua, Aceh-Sumatra, Bougainville, Nagaland, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura and other states and indigenous communities in the north-east of India, in the north-east of Sri Lanka, in Tibet, Kashmir, Bhutan, Mindanao, and elsewhere in the region.’ Is there a struggle for self-determination in Bhutan, some of us asked? And some Bhutanese activists rose to explain that there was a legitimate struggle for self-determination by some groups in Bhutan. A claim too was made on behalf of the peoples of Gorkhaland. Were we weakening the weight of the Kathmandu declaration in trying to be all encompassing, in seeking a participatory consensus? But wasn’t the process more important than the detail? And who or what decides which people’s struggle should be recognised – the number of casualties?

Exclusion is what racism is about. And coalition and alliance building is about reconciling competing interests in the interest of common strength. For example, in the case of the recent coup in Fiji, support was expressed for the rights of the historically discriminated indigenous people. The dominant nations of the Pacific were condemned for waving the ‘colonial stick’ against the indigenous peoples of Fiji and their leaders. But it was not left at that because also voiced in Kathmandu was the complementary perspective of the rights of the subjugated peoples of Indian origin who were brought to the island archipelago as indentured labour. A delicate balance was struck.

Rita Manchanda


Malthusian hangovers?

THE provisional tables from Census 2001 are out. And while there is decided excitement about the dramatic improvements on the literacy front, population hawks continue to be distressed over the slow rate of decline in the population growth rate. No wonder, the documents prepared by various state governments, in particular Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, outlining the state population policy, still continue to foreground ‘coercive’ measures as the preferred option for population stabilization.

One would have thought that with the hundreds of studies now available on Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh – the states closest to approximating replacement rates of fertility – as also the discussions at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, there would be reasonable consensus on what needs to be done. It is now commonly accepted that the demographic transition in the South is linked to increasing rates of female literacy and work participation, substantial improvements in the provision of publicly provided health services, and an overall feeling of confidence that children, once born, are likely to survive. It is this combination of awareness, empowerment and availability which did the trick.

If the northern states are nowhere close to achieving a demographic transition it is because they have failed to ensure conditions in which the poor, particularly poor women, feel confident about the survival of their children. Take Rajasthan. According to the latest Census, the decadal growth rate of population is the highest in the country. So what does the state government propose? After making the politically correct noises about female illiteracy as also the low age of marriage, it decides to go in for a regime of incentives and disincentives which will further penalise the poor women, who in any case enjoy little autonomy about family size.

The sex ratio in Rajasthan stands at an abysmal 910 women per 1000 males, considerably lower than the already low national average of 927. Nearly half the women in the 15-19 age group are effectively married. The maternal mortality rate is estimated at 677 per 100,000 live births, five times higher than Maharashtra, and two-fifths of all children are underweight or dwarfs for their age.

Evidently what is needed are programmes that reduce the powerlessness of women, that increase their access to employment, income, education and decision-making power. But no, the emphasis is on a set of disincentives – debarring candidates with more than two children from elections to posts in panchayati raj institutions/municipalities. Other suggestions go further and add cooperatives to the list. There is even a proposal to introduce it as a service condition for state employment, for accessing loans, even participating in famine relief works. What is really amazing is that the High Court has held this as lawful.

No one would seriously argue against raising the minimum age at marriage. But to make this a legal requirement in a society where verification of age is difficult, where even the compulsory registration of births and deaths remains a distant goal, is only to convert this rule into a new tool for harassing the disadvantaged and imposing an illicit tax on them.

What comes as a real shock is that such proposals, duly publicised in the ‘Population Policy for Rajasthan’ document, elicit little opprobrium and, if anything, are welcomed. Despite renaming family planning as family welfare, officially eschewing a target oriented approach, and claiming that ‘development is the best contraceptive’, our preference for population reduction through negative policies remains. But then, Rajasthan has cut back on every women oriented scheme – be it the Women’s Development Programme, Lok Jumbish or Shiksha Karmi. It also did nothing to support its own worker, Bhanwari Bai, a WDP sathin, in her struggle for justice against her rapists. The crime: attempting to stop child marriages in her area of operation.

Decision-makers could do worse than revisit Amartya Sen’s seminal essay, ‘Population Policy: Authoritarianism versus Cooperation’. Sen argues that the Malthusian hangovers and the fear of an impending crisis makes policy advocates seek forceful measures for coercing people to have fewer children, akin to the Chinese one-child policy, despite all available research showing that such policies are counter-productive, anti-women and anti-minority. Is it that in our disempowering democracy, people, particularly poor women, do not matter?

Harsh Sethi


CBI and corruption

FOR all the apparent all-pervasive corruption in society that one is accustomed to hearing about in our times, crime remains an aberration. Arguably, modern day pressures to perform, or simply the need to ‘keep up’ with societal demands, may tempt the ordinary individual to throw convention to the winds and hit out at norms established by society. Committing a crime, on the other hand, is disobedience of a statute the society has encoded for its own protection, development and growth. Often enough sheer greed – irrespective of its specific character, motivated by wealth or power or need – propels crime. At the upper echelons of moneyed society, men in positions of authority become prone to it in tune with Lord Acton’s famous aphorism, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

It would not be unfair to belabour the point that under the Indian socio-political order, politicians and civil servants are most comfortably placed to bestow unto themselves absolute power. It would again be no exaggeration to say that these two segments of society have by and large been the fountainhead of crime – be it roasting a woman in a public sector hotel kitchen or the peccadilloes of J. Jayalalitha that have made her a criminologist’s delight. And they do it all the time, afflicting both civil society and those ordained to preserve law and order alike. The Indian Police is accused of being a cesspool of corruption and among the varied and variegated groups of public servants in the subcontinent they alone enjoy the power to arrest, a privilege they have used to singular distinction in the business of abuse of power.

Paradoxically, the only group of public servants that has retained some modicum of credibility as the scimitar against corruption is a group of policemen at the CBI. That this group could give a better account of itself is not in question. It started with a lot of goodwill and good work, so much so that in the early eighties a respected High Court judge was good enough to remark at a private gathering that we respect two institutions – the Supreme Court and the CBI – but that today both are slipping. Many will say it has slipped deeper into the morass. But the point is that despite the limitations imposed on it and notwithstanding its failures, this group continues since 1 April 1963, the day it was raised, to serve as the country’s iron fist in the battle against crime and corruption.

Battling crime is hardly a novel exercise. Ever since mankind constituted itself into a social order, the criminal has been chastised. Initially, crime reared its head only occasionally. Today, crime is not only frequent, it demonstrates an infinite variety. 21st century transgressions have become bold, intellectually challenging exercises spurred by the growing use of information technology as a standard tool of trade. Thus, the population of criminals in every segment of the social order, wearing collars of different shades, has reached proportions that are forbidding and has scaled heights that are almost beyond imagination. The criminal is rapidly seeking to outnumber the law abider and, understandably, seeks increased protection for his widening tentacles. Protection not only from the leaders of society but also hapless victims driven by fear of the criminal on the one hand and the delays in criminal justice system that often times metes out little by way of justice, and when it does it is often much too late for the victim and sometimes even for the accused. The corrupt in high places manage to cocoon themselves from harm by a deft manipulation of the social order.

Where does the CBI or the police officer in the CBI find himself in this scenario? Clearly punishment is not his domain. Investigation of a crime and trial of the criminal definitely are. A CBI officer must first train himself to close his eyes to the doings of judges, their judgments and findings and focus clearly on investigating by the book. He must also tackle political interference.

Whatever the pressures on the officer – and one does not deny that they have increased over the years – investigation and trial by and large are responsibilities of the investigating officer. And how does one steer through interference? Things were certainly straight when I first joined the CBI, though matters became sticky from 1967 and certainly after 1977. Interference in the areas of investigation and trial gradually began to increase. By 1986, almost all high-profile cases, certainly cases of corruption, experienced interference.

The bottomline is that interference exists and will continue. Nevertheless, there is a role for a thorough investigation and complete monitoring of trial of cases sent up to court, which is still the responsibility of the investigating officer. This is also a responsibility that he can discharge, irrespective of interference. There really is no excuse for helplessness in these two areas of investigation and trial.

Coming back to the question of interference in the CBI which, I am sure, bothers young officers and the lay public alike: What happens when a high-profile case is under investigation? I have been asked this question so often that I feel it deserves an answer. It can be faced as long as you are on the right side of the law, always have been and are not righteous about it. The answer may not fully satisfy those asking the question, but it is the best that I can provide.

The CBI as an investigating agency is one of the finest institutions created in the post-Independence era. Even today, there is nothing structurally wrong with the institution, despite its many slippages. The truth is, whenever it has slipped it has been as a result of bad and servile leadership. A former Director of the CBI, Vijay Rama Rao, was called a poodle of Narasimha Rao in an article by Vir Sanghvi in the Hindustan Times. He repeated it over the BBC Question Time on 4 May 2001 in the presence of the recently retired CBI Director who did not demur. This is the first basic truth. It is not the CBI that should be condemned but the leadership of the organization that has often been found wanting, consequently leaving a question mark on the ability of the CBI.

There is also a fundamental appreciation of crime and punishment that the public should be equipped with. What the judiciary decides is not always based on a strict determination of issues placed before it. Often, there are extraneous factors leading to a judgment or a conclusion. Sometimes the best investigated cases are thrown out for reasons outside the pale of legal logic. The Hawala cases are a prime example of how not to proceed with an investigation, with the Supreme Court merely hammering the final nail in the coffin. Equally pathetic was the manner in which the conviction of Kalpnath Rai and Vincent George’s brother-in-law, Saboo Chackoo and the BJP Member of Parliament, Brij Bhusan Saran, were set aside by the highest court of the land, even while the nonentities sent up for trial along with them were convicted with enhanced sentences.

No less agonizing was the manner in which all three courts – the trial court, the high court and the Supreme Court – rejected the CBI’s well-investigated case recommending that Ameeta Singh and her paramour Sanjay Singh be tried for the murder of Syed Modi, while upholding the guilt of those who were alleged as killers by the CBI at the instance of these powerful masterminds. The nation has watched how the top brass in the PMO was protected and continues to be protected in the Urea scam and now in the Tehelka expose while courts, that are quick to intervene in issues of environment, remain silent spectators. The weak are good fodder for prosecution, the powerful never. This is increasingly the refrain of the Indian criminal justice system. It is within these restrictive parameters that the CBI must perform.

Then there is the question of sanctity of both the judicial process and members of the judiciary. Reports that some judges in Mumbai are suspected of having mafia connections are spine chilling. Political interference can be countered, but the court’s interference, especially under corrupt judges, will be akin to dynamite, destroying everything that is sacred in the Indian polity. This may be a simplistic comment on the judiciary in India, otherwise a respected institution. The fact remains that in high-profile cases, the judiciary often tends to procrastinate, plays to the gallery and comes up with a decision based on factors that are not within the courts’ compass. Such is life, though it is not the end of the world. A CBI officer has to accept such a situation, do his bit and continue to hope that one day the law will be the same for all in our country.

Shantonu Sen


Tribals must not organise!

IT has by now become increasingly clear that the 2 April firing at Mehndikheda village in the Bagli Tehsil of Dewas district in Madhya Pradesh, that left three tribals and one non-tribal dead, was not a spontaneous or isolated incident; it was planned and sanctioned at the highest level. In fact a month after the incident, on 3 May, another tribal of the area, Guman, was beaten, paraded around Kanad village and shot in the foot, though the administration refuses to acknowledge the action. Unless sense prevails within the state administration, the danger is that similar action may follow in future in other parts of the state. Underlying the reprehensible and barbaric action is a sordid tale of corruption, and a resolve by the state to repress, at all costs, any attempt by the adivasis to organise themselves against such corruption.

Whereas Bihar is always in the news for firings and massacres, and MP mostly for the spread of gram swaraj, it is less known that firings by state authorities on unarmed adivasis and peasants has been resorted to on as many as nine occasions in recent years in MP: Shivpuri – village Haasli, 3 February ’95; Shahdol – Jaitpur, 25 May ’96; Khandwa – Mandwa, 27 August ’97; Multai town, 12 January ’98; Hoshangabad – Nandarwada, 3 August ’97; Khandwa – Titgaon, 27 February ’99; Dewas – Katukiya, 23 February ’99; Sehore – Nimtone forest, 27 August ’00 and Dewas – Mehndikheda, 2 April ’01. In addition, workers were also fired upon and killed in Maihar in ’98. Except for the Multai firing, all others relate to forest related actions, which has included large-scale arrests of activists. These and many other continuing smaller incidents in forest areas are indicators of large-scale unrest amongst forest dwellers and their allied organisations and the state in MP.

As to the source for such unrest, the state and the people hold opposite views. The people, particularly the tribals, mostly dependent on a variety of forest produce for their subsistence needs, are denied access to such produce through a variety of legislations that gives the state control and proprietary rights to the forests – the central Forest Conservation Act of 1980 being one such major legislation. Given their level of poverty and no alternatives to fulfil their needs, most of these legislations induce a partnership in corruption at the local levels, whereby forest nakedars allow people to access their subsistence needs by paying bribes.

Given the degree of power and control vested in the petty forest guards, including being armed with guns, even entitlements like free headloads of fuelwood are a source of corruption. In Bagli tehsil, for example, the bribe for allowing a head of cattle to graze in the forest is Rs 10, and the bribe price for procuring narrow timber pillars to construct hundred square feet of space (chashma) ranges from Rs 1000 to 1500. Accompanying such economy of graft is the traditional scorn of the mostly non-tribal forest staff for the tribals which manifests in a variety of humiliations, including molestation of tribal women and girls, on an everyday basis. Consequently, in vast forest areas of MP, social oppression of tribals accompanied by an economy of graft and corruption for fulfilling their subsistence needs has induced a simmering web of tensions, of which the firings are the veritable tip of the iceberg.

As for the state, it contends that the major cause for the depletion of forests is the clandestine use of resources by the tribals, which must be controlled with a heavy hand. Even though it is an open secret that it is the contractor-politician-forest official nexus that has been denuding the forests, blaming tribals comes easily since they are mostly unorganised and marginalised. Interestingly, till the economy of graft remains unquestioned and untouched, things remain ‘normal’ and ‘peaceful’; only when the system of corruption is breached does the state seem to wake up to the problem, which is the story of Mehndikheda and other incidents.

Though most of Madhya Pradesh does not have a long history of radical people’s movements, in the last two decades, beginning with the Chhatisgarh Mukti Morcha one can discern the evolution of such movements. Along with the well-known names like the Bhopal Gas Pidit Mahila Udyog Sangathan and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, organisations like the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan, Shramik Adivasi Sangathan, Ekta Parishad, Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangathan, Kisan Sangharsh Samiti and so on have been organising the tribals and espousing their causes. Many NGOs too have been providing tacit support to these movements. Apart from such civil society organisations, MP has also seen the spill-over of militant Naxal organisations like the People’s War Group from Andhra Pradesh, operating mostly in tribal areas around Bastar. The PWG which has been squarely posing the question of forests and tribal rights, has gained support, and has gradually spread to large areas which are under the new state of Chhatisgarh, and some which are in the south-eastern part of the whittled down Madhya Pradesh.

The Naxal groups took up issues like the procurement price for tamarind in Bastar where the middlemen and contractors fleeced the tribal collectors. Issues like these, which should have independently been foreseen and resolved by the state authorities had a positive impact, the most important being the tendupatta act brought in by the Arjun Singh ministry, which eliminated all middlemen by allowing the collectors to sell directly this lucrative forest produce to bidi mandis through their own cooperatives. Instead of building on such actions, the state authorities have been increasingly rattled by the sporadic violence unleashed by the Naxals, climaxing in the daring attack on the state home minister two years ago leading to his death.

The response has been along predictable lines – to arm the state police further so as to counter violence through state violence and to bring in draconian laws to curb freedom of organisation and expression. The ‘MP Special Areas Security Act 2000’, legislated in November 2000 is intended precisely for such purposes. The act empowers the state to declare a people’s organisation unlawful and impose a ban on its activities. Of the six reasons listed for such action, only one relates to violence. The others are so general that any organisation could be brought under its ambit. The act provides that the sympathisers and supporters of a banned organisation could get the same punishment as the organisation itself. Collectors have been provided with such wide-ranging powers under the act that they could be misused more easily than the erstwhile TADA.

In the process, the state authorities seem to have completely lost track of the basic problems – of legislations that prevent an organic element of the forest ecology to help tribals exercise their traditional rights of subsistence from forest produce, of the web of corruption and fleece such legislations have brought in and of the fact that two kinds of movements are fighting for such tribal rights, the Naxals through their paradigm of violence, and the Gandhians through civil-disobedience, non-violent methods.

The incapacity of the state to make any sense of the situation is amply evident in an intelligence paper presented by the state police to the state government a year and a half back. Titled ‘Tribals in Turmoil’, the report dwells on the potential revolt among tribals and the groups that could exploit it, namely, Naxalites, NGOs and Christian outfits. It says that with Naxalite ‘infested’ areas going to Chattisgarh, the NGOs are now the major groups working with tribals in MP. Unable to distinguish between developmental NGOs and people’s mass organisations of the Gandhian kind, the paper says, ‘The NGOs work on the same principles as Naxalites. Around the seat of power like district headquarters or tehsil headquarters, development is fast and the access to authorities is also easy. These groups therefore start operating from peripheral areas much like the Naxalites.’

Curiously, the authors of the paper don’t seem to realise that tribals live in peripheral areas, that the Narmada dams are located in remote regions and not in cities, and organisations working closely with the affected population would naturally be concentrated there for obvious, not ‘naxal’ reasons – whatever that means! NGOs in tribal regions, according to such wisdom and intelligence, are ‘actually radical groups encouraging tribals towards subversion.’ The clinching evidence presented for such a conclusion is linguistic! The use of the suffix ‘mukti’ (liberation) in the names like Adivasi Mukti Sangathan and Adivasi Mukti Morcha is intended to give the same message as the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front or the Naga Liberation Front. Furthermore, slogans like ‘Jal, Jangal, Jamin Hamri Chhey Hamari Chhey’ are evidence of subversive propaganda, argues the report.

Such ‘brilliant intelligence’, illustrative of a high degree of mental retardation than any depth of analysis, which paints all civil society formations, NGO’s, Christian groups and the rest as subversive formations, has clearly provided the blueprint for state action. This is evident from the minutes of a meeting that took place on 19 February 2001 in the state capital, Bhopal, to consider the illegal felling of wood in Dewas and set in motion the events that finally led to the killings on 2 April at Mehndikheda. Presided over by the Chief Secretary, it was attended by, amongst others, the Director General Police, Principal Secretary, Forests, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, the Collector, the SP and the DFO of Dewas district.

The district officials presented their version of the illegal activities being indulged in by the members of the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan, which included illegal felling. They reported that the van-samitis formed under the World Bank funded Joint Forest Management programme were being encouraged by the officials to oppose the growing strength of the Sangathan! The SP gave details about prominent members of the organisation, like Rahul Banerjee, and suggested the need for organising the ‘willing’ locals to fight the Sangathan, and for the state government to use its force to isolate the leaders from the organisation.

Interestingly, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, in tracing the history of the conflict narrated how the political parties had for their gains exacerbated the situation of forest encroachments, which demanded a political solution, provision of livelihoods and programmes for social and economic development. He clearly suggested that standing crops on encroached land should not be destroyed since this could lead to an escalation of conflicts.

The Principal Secretary Forests admitted that since the van-samitis did not have the requisite local support, they need to be reconstituted under the gram swaraj legislation, and only honest forest officials need to be posted. He clearly advised against any use of force like firing on people. Among nine action points minuted, point six clearly mentions that ‘situations should not be created where firing would have to be resorted to,’ but ambiguously, the third point says that ‘any action that is initiated must be taken to its logical end.’

In a letter sent to all the field level forest officials on 24 March, four days before the beginning of the Dewas operations, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests had reminded them of earlier letters that clearly underline that transformed wood or bamboo does not fall within the purview of forest acts. Timber products like windows, doors, furniture, baskets, toys would be considered as finished products and not seized. Significantly, his letter clearly states that residential houses must not be damaged or destroyed, and ordinary people should not be harassed.

But yet, beginning from 28 March, the Dewas administration led by the Collector and the SP went on an indiscriminate spree destroying houses from one village to the other, claiming they were constructed with illegal wood. The selection of the destroyed houses was blatant – those belonging to the Sangathan members were clearly targeted, houses belonging to van samiti members were untouched. Finally, when the harassed population gathered to protest at Mehndikheda, they were fired upon on 2 April leaving four of them dead. Rahul Banerjee, who had shifted to Indore over two years back, and has been working on a Mcarthur Fellowship was arrested and charged under section 307 (attempt to murder), continues to languish in the Bagli jail. Five sarpanches of the area, the torchbearers of the much-publicised Digvijay Singh government’s panchayati raj system, along with other allies of the Sangathan were put in jail. An open FIR has been lodged by the administration, and as late as 4 May, people have been picked up and arrested under this FIR.

Given that the two principal representatives of the government, the Principal Secretary Forests and the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests have explicitly taken the position that a policy of consultation rather than one of confrontation should be adopted by the state administration, concerned people have been baffled by the rationale of the state action. The immediate compulsion for the action seems to have to do with upholding petty corruption. As stated earlier, the norm is for the local forest personnel to collect bribes from the tribals for accessing their needs from the forest. This has been seriously affected in recent years because of the activities of the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan. Emboldened by their organisation, Sangathan members have openly resisted the demands of the forest officials. As a result, the ‘withdrawal’ from the forest that was ‘normal’ when accompanied by graft, has now become illegal. Since the drying up of the corrupt cow has affected a wide range of government people – chiefly from forest, revenue and police departments – and consequently undermined their social authority, loss of face demands teaching the Sangathan members a lesson. In this, the ‘spread of Naxalism’ myth, concocted at the highest level has proved useful.

There is also a major political angle. Even though the tribals are a politically marginalised lot, yet they are an important pawn in the electoral calculus. With strident demands that a tribal be made the chief minister of the state, Digvijay Singh is constantly harassed by his party members with large tribal vote banks, notably Subhash Yadav and Jamuna Devi. For no other reason the two have had to be elevated to the position of deputy chief ministers of the state. Both have their vote banks in districts coinciding with the activities of the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan, who they perceive as a major threat.

The first crackdown against people’s groups came in Sendhwa just before the assembly elections in 1999 at the behest of Subhash Yadav. Jamuna Devi too has been increasingly belligerent against all people’s organisations, including the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The clout of these two politicians, and other lesser ones, and the imaginary theory of Naxals, NGOs and Christian organisations nexus constructed by the administration is dictating the dominant state policy and action, not that of the senior forest officials, as is evident in the Dewas case. The main issue seems to be to allow local level forest based corruption to flourish and to stamp out civil society groups – illegal use of forests serving as a mere pretext.

The Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh, who many expected would uphold the right of the tribals to free themselves from oppressive structures and help civil society groups to empower them, has clearly taken the politically expedient path of not confronting his party persons or the dominant administration view. No judicial inquiry has been ordered into the killings, nor have the patently guilty district officials, the Collector, the SP and the DFO been touched. This has emboldened them to continue unhindered with their oppression. While the CM and his coterie wax eloquent from Davos to Geneva about the magical people’s government and the miraculous social development of the state, the fact is that in the same state obstacles to forest related corruption must be removed, even if the administration has in the process to kill tribals in cold blood, put elected sarpanches into jail, and target civil society action groups through legislations like the Special Areas Security Act 2000.

Vinod Raina