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#5154, 19 October 2016

Red Affairs

End Game: Fractured and Scarred Tribal Communities
Bibhu Prasad Routray
Director, Mantraya, and Visiting Fellow & Columnist, IPCS

For the left-wing extremism problem in India to be resolved, tribal population in the affected areas must be won over by the State. This truism is reflected in public statements of ministers and other politicians as well as official policy documents. Former Union Home Minister P Chidambaram had underlined the need to bridge the trust deficit between the State and the tribals. An expert group of the erstwhile Planning Commission in its report had suggested that the tribals must be at the core of any development plan in the extremist affected areas.

However, one of the fallouts of the decade-long war on the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) and the urge to bring to secure a victory over the extremists by any of the Kautilyan means is resulting in the fracturing of the tribal communities. Since the war on the Maoists began, the State may not have been able to convince the tribals of its intentions of bringing in development to the area. The security agencies, however, can claim to have nurtured sections within the tribal community who readily participate in government sponsored rallies denouncing extremism; join the state sponsored vigilante groups; swear by the oppressive regime of the extremists; share their liberating experience in areas freed from Maoist control; and so on and so forth. It is a different matter altogether that the participation of tribals in government organised programmes can hardly be taken as an expression of their conviction in the goodness of the State, but merely as a pointer at how the powerful State structures can find ways to exploit the vulnerabilities of the marginalised communities to its advantage.

On 18 September 2016, the Chhattisgarh police backed Action Group for National Integrity (AGNI) organised a Lalkar (defiance) rally in Jagdalpur. Termed as the biggest ever anti-Maoist congregation of people consisting predominantly of tribals, security force officials shared the dais with vigilante group leaders declaring a war against the extremists. Bike-borne youths led from the front in which 50,000 tribals are said to have participated. Selfie points had been erected for youths to take photographs with the placard holding population in the background. Slogans like 'Free your village from Naxals and take a selfie' summed up the instant gratification the tribals can have after the extremists are vanquished. The State, it appeared, has finally succeeded in convincing a large number of tribals to be a part of the mainstream.

In October 2016, the Chhattisgarh police for the first time inducted two tribal women into its fighting squad against the CPI-Maoist. In their first ever encounter, both police personnel were credited with killing two Maoist cadres. Subsequently it turned out that those killed were tribal youths unconnected with extremism. 

Prior to that, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) unveiled its plan to recruit tribal youths from Bastar into a fighting battalion, aptly named the Bastariya battalion. The physical attributes and other requirements of the candidates have been lowered to facilitate the diversion of 1000 young men who could have been part of the recruitment pool of the CPI-Maoist. Their first-hand knowledge of the terrain and command over the language spoken by the tribals will come in handy when they are deployed in COIN duties. The State can claim to have a genuine tribal fighting wing to take on the tribals on the side of the CPI-Maoist.

When states like Chhattisgarh have embarked upon a mission to get rid of the Maoist problem by the end of 2016, such incidents and expressions of loyalty does give the impression of the State inching towards a victory. The fact, however, remains that if vigilante programmes like the Salwa Judum and its various other subsequent avatars were the State's instrumentalities of launching a tribal versus tribal warfare in the areas controlled by the CPI-Maoist, the developments listed above have further deepened the divide to a point of no return. The Maoist affected areas today are rife with incidents of tribals killing tribals, tribal young men sexually abusing tribal women, tribals burning the huts of tribals, and various other atrocities. Most of these acts not only go unpunished, but are widely considered to be the new normal in extremist affected areas.

Among the strategic circles of the country, there is a cautious unanimity that Left Wing Extremism is in its death bed. The excitement over bringing what used to be the 'biggest internal security challenge' to an end must, however, nudge us to think as to what cost this victory will be achieved at. Will the inhabitants of the 'Maoist-free areas' be anything more than fractured communities and scarred tribals whose experience of abuse and subjugation at the hands of their own tribal brethren outweighing the feeling of liberation? Will such areas in the true sense of the term ever be integral parts of a stable nation? These questions must figure in the imaginations of the policy makers as such short-sighted tactics are persisted with.

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