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The Battle for Dandakaranya

By Nachiketa Desai

Bastar (Chhattisgarh): A fierce battle is raging along the Indrawati river in Central India. On one side of the river are deployed the para military forces of the Indian state. On the other side, in dense forest, are the Maoist guerrillas.

The Indian militia calls the battle, operation 'Green Hunt', which is aimed at flushing out the Maoists from the mineral rich forest land so that Indian and multinational corporations can fatten their bottom line by exploiting iron ore, coal and bauxite. The Maoists are fighting to protect the 40,000 square kilometers of dense forest land known as Dandakaranya from these marauding companies.

The Indian militia has deployed at the front a private army of teenaged adivasis raised under the banner of 'Salwa Judum' to provide local support to the Central Reserve Police force (CRPF). The police of Chhattisgarh operate from the safety of police stations, far away from the battle field. In the battle for the control of Dandakaranya, mostly the adivasis and the CRPF men drawn largely from the poor and socially backward class families from across the country die. Rarely do the senior officers of the police, the bureaucracy or the top executives of the MNCs get killed.

Maoists have 'liberated' the mineral-rich region where governments have existed only in the form of greedy contractors and corrupt policemen and forest officials, leaving the mass of tribals to suffer in poverty, disease and illiteracy while outsiders strip away Bastar's minerals.

"The country is on a boil. In the last 60 years, we have made the rich more rich and the poor more poor. The condition of over 60 crore people of our country is deteriorating day by day. If such a scenario continues, there would be great trouble, what kind of trouble is unpredictable," says Professor Yash Pal, leading space scientist and former chairman of University Grants commission.

"Today, millions of people, mostly tribals, are migrating from their ancestral land to far off places like Mumbai, Delhi, Punjab and Gujarat to toil as labourers. There must be something terribly wrong with our development policy which is making this happen," points out Prof. Yash Pal. "In the name of development, we are mining for minerals which we export to China, Japan and other countries. We dig land, we dig forest, we uproot people living in this land for the so-called development and progress," he adds. "Having uprooted the adivasis, we set up highly polluting industries and destroy the most-beautiful and green forest land of our country. We are destroying the soil of India, we are destroying the people of India."

Prof. Yash Pal was addressing a press conference in Raipur, the state capital of Chhattisgarh, on the eve of a peace march to Dantewada calling for talks and national debate to find an end to the civil war in the tribal-dominated mineral-rich forest-covered areas of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Prof. Yash Pal was among the group of over 50 concerned citizens who participated in the peace march from Raipur to Dantewada from May 6 to 8. Among the other participants were Swami Agnivesh of Bandhua Mazdoor Mukti Sangathan, Prof. Banwarilal Sharma of Azadi Bachao Andolan, veteran Gandhian Narayan Desai, chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, Thomas Kochery of World Fisherfolk Forum and Radha Bhatt, chairperson of Gandhi Peace Foundation.

There was a consensus among the participants of the peace march that faulty development model of the country, which marginalized the vast majority of rural poor, the indigenous dwellers of the forest, was responsible for the civil war-like situation in not just the forested areas of central India but also in the North-eastern states and Kashmir.

There was also a consensus among them over the means of restoring peace in the country. "Gun versus gun is not the solution. Violence only would breed more violence. If the government thinks that it would be able to eliminate the Maoists by bullets, it is greatly mistaken. Look, what happened in Vietnam," points out Prof Yash Pal.

"Are we going to annihilate the entire population of Adivasis, just like the Americans did with the Red Indians, to push forward development and progress?" asked Radha Bhatt of the Gandhi Peace Foundation.

"In the name of dam construction and mining, millions of people are getting displaced," points out Thomas Kochery. "They are getting displaced from their land, forest and water", he adds. This is the first kind of violence the poor people are facing, this is the first form of terrorism in the country.

"The second form of violence is by Naxalites who take up arms to retaliate the first form of violence. And the third form of violence is when the army and the para military forces use guns to put down the second form of violence," he points out. "We are here to say that peace can be achieved by removing all the three kinds of violence from the country."

"A long-lasting peace can be achieved only by holding talks amongst all concerned to find out a sustainable people-centric development paradigm," says veteran Gandhian Narayan Desai.

Despite having spelled out the objective of their peace march from Raipur to Dantewada, the marchers faced ugly demonstration from a handful of supporters of both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition Congress as well as from some representatives of trade, commerce and industry bodies.

The first to react was Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh who ridiculed the peace initiative by mocking at them and obliquely referring to them as the sympathizers of the Maoists. "Why do these intellectuals wake up only when the government starts operations against the Maoists and keep quiet when the members of our security forces get killed," he said.

Taking a cue from the chief minister's statement, a handful of workers of the BJP, the Congress and the local chamber of commerce and industry held demonstrations in Raipur, Jagdalpur and Dantewada, shouting, "Naxal supporters go back, go back."

None of these demonstrators was local adivasi and only represented the trading community of the district towns of Jagdalpur and Dantewada which has been exploiting the adivasis over the last several centuries and which thrives on the ongoing war against the Maoists. "The traders of Jagdalpur and Dantewada are the main suppliers of foodgrain, grocery and other essential commodities to the security forces. Their total turnover of supplies to the security forces is in the range of Rs2000 crore yearly," points out a resident of Jagdalpur who was a student union leader of the local college about a decade ago.

The state government and members of both the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress, with active participation of the police and local goons have been preventing independent journalists, lawyers and human rights activists from visiting Dantewada by organizing violent attacks against them.

Anyone trying to find out what is happening in Bastar on both sides of the Indrawati river is promptly branded by the Establishment as 'Supporter of Maoists'.

A Gandhian worker, Himanshu Kumar, who has been running 'Vanvasi Chetana Ashram' for the last 17 years, was dubbed as 'Maoist sympathiser' and his Ashram razed to the ground by the authorities after he raised the issue of mindless killing of innocent adivasis by the police-backed Salwa Judum private militia.

A couple of journalists have been detained by the police after they tried to cross the Indrawati river to find out what was happing in the deep forest.

11 May, 2010