The streets of Ranchi’s city centre are almost deserted, but the capital of Jharkhand is tingling with expectation. It is the beginning of April, which means the celebration of the new year by the adivasis – as the tribal peoples prefer to refer to themselves collectively. The afternoon has nearly passed when an endless stream of discotheques on wheels, and many dancing men and women, starts to roll. It seems as if all the speakers of the entire city have been claimed in order to power up the sound of sarhul, which literally means a flower bouquet.
Both participants and onlookers are sprinkled with colourful powders, and some adivasis seem to also have sprinkled themselves with plenty of alcohol. The next day, the Times of India publishes an article in which representative Ramesh Singh Munda grumbles about the noise, the “western” music, the unnecessary chaos in the city and the fact that the entire parade is in fact an invention of the Christian missionaries, “while sarhul is in essence a pious and modest celebration”. Many thousands of merrymakers ignore his grumble. It may only be for one day, but today the city belongs to the Orao, Munda, Santal, Ho, Kuria and other adivasis, who together make up more than a quarter of Jharkhand’s population.
In this state’s parliament 28 of the 81 seats are reserved for adivasis, and fourteen of the 22 districts in Jharkhand are registered as tribal areas under the Indian constitution. Theoretically speaking, this judicial arrangement yields a range of protective and supporting measures, of which the adivasis experience very little in reality.
The Red Corridor
The Gumla District lies in a far corner of Jharkhand, bordering Chhattisgarh. Both federal states were founded in 2000. The morning has already heated up nicely when we arrive in Kheodtanr – a handful of houses, a presbytery and two schools. The cows are grazing their way through the shrubs, the last pupils of the village school have already been sent home at half past ten, and from afar one can hear the regular knocking of a farmer preparing his wooden plough for the coming rice season, along with the monsoon.
A simple meal is put on the table, and the rice wine tastes better than it smells. The fields are lined with dark green trees which turn into overgrown forest further down. That is where the revolt lives which prime minister Manmohan Singh many times described as the largest threat to Indian law and order during its sixty years of independence. Even the winding road that leads to Keondtanr from the main road, only belongs to India during the day. After sunset, these villages, fields and forests turn into Naxalite territory.
The Naxalites are Maoist insurgents who currently operate under the name and command of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The insurgents derive their name from a spontaneous revolt in 1976 against landowners in the region of Naxalbari, close to Darjeeling. An “army” of about 10,000 underground warriors, 50,000 militia and sympathisers in a number hard to estimate, are active in some fourteen federal states. The core of their activity takes place in the Red Corridor running from Bihar to Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh, to Madhya Pradesh. “In nearly 165 of the 602 Indian districts the Naxalites are active – that is nearly thirty percent of the Indian territory”, states Sudeep Chakravati in the recently published book Red Sun. Travels in Naxalite country. The Minister of Domestic Affairs Shivraj Patil replied to this with his own arithmetic. According to Patil, indeed 180 districts suffer Naxalite activity, however only 14,000 villages out of 6,500,000 see actual violence taking place.
“One cannot object much to the basic principles of the Naxalites”, says Ignatius Tirkey, a young Jesuit living in Keondtanr. “The sheer poverty and hopelessness which govern this region are begging for a fundamental solution” Tirkey does have some reservations about the concrete methods of the CPI (Maoist). “What started as the extortion and robbing of the rich has now developed into a habit that primarily serves to keep the organisation itself running. That kind of political banditism does attract a lot of young people, but it deepens the people’s problems rather than solving them”
Various people we encounter confirm that Naxalites are increasingly causing problems to, or halting altogether development projects, such as the repair of a dam that should provide irrigation to thousands of farmers -who now go without. Other examples of obstructed projects are the construction of a road, or a school, of which the Naxalites fear the army could use it.
The open veins of an Indian state
“One can summarise the people’s problems in one single word”, says the activist and documentary maker Meghnath in a small room at the outskirts of Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. That word is development. He shows me a documentary which he put together a few years ago: Development flows from the barrel of the gun, a cynical reference to the famous statement by Mao Zedong that power flows from the barrel of the gun. On the basis of five examples from various states, the film shows the violence the Indian Centre is using for the purpose of launching large-scale industrialization and energy projects by force. In addition, Manoj Prased from the local edition of the newspaper The India Express, insists on the fact that this kind of top-down-development has destructive effects. “The point is not that the tribal region was left out of the changes in India. The point is that these changes have yielded negative results here."
Jharkhand and the other states of the Red Corridor combine two crucial features. They hold a large tribal population and they hold the majority of India’s of natural resources. The underground of Jharkhand delivers more than thirty percent of the Indian production of coal, copper and iron, ninety percent of pyrite and almost sixty percent of graphite. The adivasis often live in the forest covering the areas rich in minerals. This implies that the mining industry has a major impact on the lives of thousands of adivasis. They are displaced by forced, very often without a replacement policy and frequently so without compensation.
Government estimates count around one million and half displaced people in Jharkhand due to “development projects”, and reckons that around fourty percent of the original tribal territories have been expropriated. In Bagaicha, a social action center in Ranchi, Stan Lourdesamy states that a number of people did receive a compensation for their property, at a rate of 30,000 rupees (491 euro) per acre of land (0.4 hectare). “For those who need to survive on twelve rupees a day per person, that is an irresistible amount of money. For the mining companies, this means very little, the value of one truck of coal.”
“At this moment the adivasis are not equipped to negotiate with the mining companies for a better deal, and they are insufficiently educated to profit from the employment opportunities that these companies are creating”, says Manoj Prased. That is why he thinks – and many defenders of adivasi rights think the same, including the Naxalites - that there should be a moratorium on new projects. Prased: “The minerals will be valuable to the economy for at least another thousand years, why can't we wait for five or ten years to exploit them, in order for the adivasis to prepare adequately for the changes in lifestyle and livelihood?”
But it is precisely the spectacular rise in the price of resources which has fired up the interest from Indian and foreign mining corporations. They prefer now as the moment to profit from these opportunities on the world market. They possibly even want to promise to restore the exploited areas to their original state after the mining has finished, which is aquite something since the majority of the mines are open air mines. But to their damage and disgrace, the adivasis have learned that these promises for the future are worthless. They want a voice and better terms and conditions, now.
Dignity is the answer
“If the government wants to fight the Naxalite revolt, it cannot do so by organising and arming civilian militia, as is happening in neighbouring state Chhattisgarh with the sol called Salwa Judum. Instead the governement should try out an alternative model of development. Instead of departing from the needs of some large corporations, they should listen to the needs, expectations and plans of the people themselves.” Salkhan Murmu speaks passionately about the huge challenges facing Indian politics. He lives in Jamshedpur, the largest city of Jharkhand with more than 1,2 million inhabitants. Jamshedpur grew around Tata Iron & Steel Company, the company that was founded by Jamshed Ji Tata in 1906, and which recently bought up Jaguar, Land Rover and the steelgiant Corus.
Salkhan Murmu picks me up at the bus stop and takes his white four wheel drive through the city park, a green oasis constructed by Tata. The park connects the British cleanliness to the Indian scents and colours. Murmu used to work for Tata Steel, in the department of community development, which he now describes as a fusion between cheap public relations and the need to know what is brewing among the workers in the villages. After this Murmu went into politics and was elected as a representative for the Hindu nationalist party BJP twice. After this he quit again because he found out he could not reach much for his adivasi voters working for a mainstream political party. With his new party, the Jharkhand Disom Party, he mainly wants to work on the constitutional rights of the adivasis.
As his wife offers me deliciously fresh lime juice in their shady front garden, Murmu launches a long presentation about the “disrupting development politics of the government and the growing opposition by the tribal population”. Murmu wants to organise this opposition along the path of parliamentary democracy, but he observes that the marginalisation of small farmers and forest dwellers creates a wide support basis for the Naxalites. “In Jharkhand we did not even manage to organise elections at the local governance level – panchayats – let alone that Delhi wants to take into account the economic proposals from the rural dwellers.”
The absence of the state in the villages is filled up by the Naxalites. In remote areas, the CPI (Maoist) is often the only organised external presence – together with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist mass organisation. The latter now has around 30,000 schools for adivasis in the whole of India, offering basic education in the tribal language; something the Christian schools are refusing to do. While the Naxalites are mobilising the population against what they call internal colonisation – a policy directed from Delhi and which is to the benefit of rich industrials outside of the region - , the RSS is trying to keep the adivasis away from the Christian missionaries and their anti-caste story, which they see as an attack on Hinduism itself.
Ramdayal Munda, former vice-rector of the Ranchi University and inspirer of the Indian Confederation of Indigenous Peoples, fears that the ideological motives of both Naxalites, Hindu nationalists and missionaries will only lead to more division among the adivasi communities, and all the more to the denial of the cultural and religious particularities of these indigenous peoples. To the former vice-rector, discussions about property and economy fall short of what is needed – no matter how important these things are. What is really needed, Munda feels, is a cultural renaissance. “The poor have developed a dependency complex. Indigenous people should therefore not only be educated technically and politically, but they also need to reconnect to their tribal cultures. That would in turn strongly reduce the excessive use of alcohol, the corruption and the violence.”
Dignity as an answer to poverty. According to many people in Jharkhand, this is a path Delhi should take up.