Monday, June 03, 2013

On the war in Chattisgarh

                It was sheer coincidence that I happened to read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front in the week that went by. I happened to be at a bookshop here in Gangtok and just got this classic; had read it long ago but decided to read again. I am reading books that I had done long ago once again. I must add that it’s a wonderful experience to see the same books in another light.  Classics, after all, are meant to be read many times.

                The novel is a testament by Paul Baumer, enlisted into the German forces, when he was all but 19 years old, to fight the French in the First World War. It is the story of Remarque himself whose experience in the battle front turned him into a pacifist and who devoted the rest of his life to campaign against war. All Quiet on the Western Front, first published in 1928, became a much read novel after it was published again in 1958; when the cold war had begun to rake up passions and take its toll.

                I said it was sheer coincidence that I happened to read this in the week that went by. As I was completing one page after another, I began seeing similar episodes and experiences here in our own midst; Chattisgarh in May 2013. The media tells us of camps, with as many as 1000 armed men, in the middle of the tribals, with a brief to shoot and kill. The media also reports that the adivasis in the forests suffer at the hands of the security forces. There are reports of women being raped and men being taken to torture camps in this region.

                It is a fact that the Indian State, until recently, had engaged young men from among the adivasis to kill their brethren;  the Salwa Judum was nothing but a militia, raised by the state in blatant violation of the Constitution and even after the Supreme Court ordered that it be disbanded, journalists tell us that they are around doing all that they were doing.

It is a sad comment on our democracy that the one who founded this private militia (Mahendra Karma) was allowed to do that and even after the apex court held the judum an unconstitutional force, this man had accompanied the top leaders of the party that runs the Union Government for a public meeting.  He was killed. The point is that Karma must have been in jail for violating the Constitution and charged of many things including under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. I will argue that Mahendra Karma should have been punished by the Indian state rather than being left to be killed in an ambush.

It is not the purpose here to take sides on whether he deserved to be killed. I am among those who argue against capital punishment and I hold that none, neither the state nor any individual has the right to take away another’s life. I will, however, stick my neck out and add that while the mighty Indian state has the luxury of choice – to decide not to kill – those fighting to defend the wealth of the nation from being looted have not been as fortunate. Violence in the region was indeed a response to a situation but is certainly not a means to resolve the dispute.

The Salwa Judum was a creature that was given birth post-2005. It is not mere coincidence that it was in the same time that the Government in Chattisgarh entered into as many as 105 MoUs and all those were in the realm of license to exploit the rich ores underneath the forests where the adivasis live. The Fifth Schedule of the Constitution did not stand in the way because a set of people sitting in New Delhi, along with carpet baggers in other parts, had conspired to redefine `national interest’ and decided to permit anyone who pleased them to loot the region of its mineral wealth.

This they began doing in Orissa, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh; anywhere and everywhere there was mineral under the soil.  The difference was that some young men who believed in a revolutionary transformation had established themselves among the adivasis in the Bastar region by that time. I will recall a report by a senior IAS officer, sometimes in the 1980s, that held that the Naxalites in Bastar are successful because they ensure the democratic rights and aspirations of the people where the state (meant to do this) has failed. The birth of the Salwa Judum will have to be seen in this context.

Now, let me come back to Remarque’s classic. The novel tells us about how the soldiers on both sides (during World War I) were poor men who were pushed to suffer the war and ended up killing each other just because someone whom they did not know but wielding power decided to go to war. Remarque tells us how the poor suffer without food, adequate facilities to relieve themselves and end up getting killed and killing other poor people on the other side of the fence and they end up doing all that because someone whom they did not know decided to go for war.

It is no different here. We are told that among the 1000 or more men deployed in Chattisgarh, many are from faraway places and are unfamiliar with the forests and the treacherous terrain there. And some die of snake bites and others have bullets pumped into their spleen and some end up being tossed and killed by a landmine that is set off to avenge the neta under their protection.

I was struck by one of the blurbs in the August 1982 edition of this book. It is from the French Newspaper, Le Monde: “It should be distributed by the millions and read in every school.” I wish someone there in NCERT or any such other bodies pushes this idea and then we can hope for a day when the nation will abhor such violence, whether by the rebels or the state.