War and Peace in Dandakaranya

There is a war raging in the heart of India. The Indian state will tell you it’s against the Maoists (or they will tell you there is no war, depending on how they feel about Operation Green Hunt that day), but this fight is really a corollary of the main battle. The war is on the poor.

The low, flat-topped hills of south Orissa have been home to the Dongria Kondh long before there was a country called India or a state called Orissa. The hills watched over the Kondh. The Kondh watched over the hills and worshiped them as living deities. Now these hills have been sold for the bauxite they contain. For the Kondh it’s as though god has been sold. They ask how much god would go for if the god were Ram or Allah or Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the Kondh are supposed to be grateful that their Niyamgiri hill, home to their Niyam Raja, God of Universal Law, has been sold to a company with a name like Vedanta (the branch of Hindu philosophy that teaches the Ultimate Nature of Knowledge). It’s one of the biggest mining corporations in the world and is owned by Anil Agarwal, the Indian billionaire who lives in London in a mansion that once belonged to the Shah of Iran. Vedanta is only one of the many multinational corporations closing in on Orissa.

If the flat-topped hills are destroyed, the forests that clothe them will be destroyed too. So will the rivers and streams that flow out of them and irrigate the plains below. So will the Dongria Kondh. So will the hundreds of thousands of tribal people who live in the forested heart of India, whose homeland is similarly under attack.

The Indian state, in all of its legitimacy as an institution that the wealthy endorse as “democratic,” has sold the land that these people live on, making all those who refuse to leave into illegal squatters in their own homes. This must be done because the bauxite must be mined – in an unavoidably environmentally disastrous way – because Indian capitalists want to make money. And this is the truth behind projects of “development” in general. “Development for the whole economy” – well, what are the economic relations which determine allocation? Who is getting what from these projects? Here’s Roy’s description of her visit to the iron-ore mine in Keonjhar, Orissa:

There was forest there once. And children like these. Now the land is like a raw, red wound. Red dust fills your nostrils and lungs. The water is red, the air is red, the people are red, their lungs and hair are red. All day and all night trucks rumble through their villages, bumper to bumper, thousands and thousands of trucks, taking ore to Paradip port from where it will go to China. There it will turn into cars and smoke and sudden cities that spring up overnight. Into a ‘growth rate’ that leaves economists breathless. Into weapons to make war.

Corporate moguls get mansions. Villagers get to inhale dust and debris.

Among the earlier work of the Maoists in the early 80’s (specifically the People’s War Group), they began organizing tribal people to demand higher wages for their bundles of tendu leaves. They managed to raise it from 3 paise to 6 paise a bundle. Roy says at the time of her visit (2010), the price had reached one rupee. So again, let’s look at who gets what:

The most conservative estimate puts their [contractors’] profit per standard bag at about ₹1100. (That’s after paying the Party a ‘levy’ of ₹120 per bag.) Even by that gauge, a small contractor (1500 bags) makes about ₹1.6 million a season and a big one (5000 bags) up to ₹5.5 million. A more realistic estimate would be several times this amount. Meanwhile those who do the actual work make just enough to stay alive until the next season.

No matter how many times bourgeois pundits try to reassure us all that Marxism is dead, there is no accurate understanding of the economy without the exploitation of labor and surplus value. Red lungs and a single rupee are the concrete realizations of a capitalist logic.

So the war is on people – workers, peasants, various tribal peoples, and Dalits. The women within these groups especially. But the Maoists are the enemy that gets focused on in the media. As Roy points out, the ongoing militarization of India is being carried out to enforce the socioeconomic changes the ruling interests deem necessary. They want, and are creating, a police state. And a police state needs an Enemy to justify its existence, not to mention the gross excesses which accompany that. Revolutionary communists make a great enemy in a world of capitalist hostility.

There’s no whispers about ‘talks’ or ‘negotiations.’ Odd, isn’t it, that even after the Mumbai attacks of 26/11 the government was prepared to talk with Pakistan? It’s prepared to talk to China. But when it comes to waging war against the poor, it’s playing hard-ball.

Ironically, though probably not coincidentally, one of the biggest voices in the Communist Party of India (Maoist) for peace talks – Azad – was gunned down in 2010. There’s no money in peace.

It’s not enough that Special Police – with totemic names like Greyhounds, Cobras, and Scorpions – are scouring the forests with a license to kill. It’s not enough that the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Border Security Force (BSF) and the notorious Naga Battalion have already wreaked havoc and committed unconscionable atrocities in remote forest villages. It’s not enough that the government supports and arms the Salwa Judum, the ‘people’s militia’ that has killed and raped and burned its way through the forests of Dantewada, leaving 50,000 people in roadside police camps and the rest of the population in the area (about 300,000 people) homeless, or on the run. Now the government is going to deploy the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and tens of thousands of paramilitary troops. According to one report it plans to set up a brigade headquarters in Bilaspur (which will displace nine villages) and an air base in Rajnandgaon (which will displace seven). Obviously, these decisions were taken a while ago. Surveys have been done, sites chosen. Interesting. War has been in the offing for a while. And now the helicopters of the Indian Air Force have been given the right to fire in ‘self-defence’, the very right that the government denies its poorest citizens.

And, to nobody’s surprise, it’s pretty common to hear views about these poor people getting stuck in the middle of a battle between the state and the rebels. As if they were inflicting relatively equal amounts of damage on the common people. As if a government which can (and did) displace 400,000 people in anticipation of the 2010 Commonwealth Games – while a third of the country is in poverty, no less – is the same kind of monster as a revolutionary group which needs the trust and assistance of the people to exist. State-funded groups burn down villages; communists build irrigation ponds. The state displaces hundreds of thousands of already-poor people; communists build schools. Not that the Maoists don’t shoot back. They’ve launched attacks on police camps, and been rather successful at it. Of course, having this success leads to media backlash and calls for an ‘international awareness’ which condemns such actions as unforgivable. Perhaps the next time this happens, the Indian flag will grace all of our Facebook profile pictures. But the poor don’t get remembered. They get politically ignored, and physically pushed out of the way of ‘progress’. Their existence is covered up as best as it can be – but where do you hide a hundred million people?

This forced view of things also treats Maoists and tribal peoples as two very distinct groups, with the former in no way being able to represent the interests of the latter. The truth is that it is precisely the oppressed peoples of India, who experience the brutality of capitalist development first-hand, which constitutes the revolutionary ranks in the first place. Of course, this is not to imply that there is some kind of homogeneity of Maoists and tribals. We’re not dealing with monoliths. Some tribal people are on the side of the revolutionaries, and some are not:

The Party began to turn its attention to issues of equity, class, and justice within tribal society. The big landlords sensed trouble on the horizon. As the Party’s influence expanded, theirs had begun to wane. Increasingly people were taking their problems to the Party instead of to the Mukhiyas. Old forms of exploitation began to be challenged. On the day of the first rain, people were traditionally supposed to till the Mukhiyas’ land instead of their own. That stopped. They no longer offered the first day’s picking of mahua or other forest produce. Obviously, something needed to be done.

Enter Mahendra Karma, one of the biggest landlords in the region and at the time a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI). In 1990 he rallied a group of Mukhiyas and landlords and started a campaign called the Jan Jagran Abhiyan (Public Awakening Campaign). Their way of ‘awakening’ the ‘public’ was to form a hunting party of about 300 men to comb the forest, killing people, burning houses and molesting women.

Reaction always heightens contradictions. The militaristic actions of the burgeoning police state pushes people toward the Maoists because it becomes clearer by the day – there is no non-violent victory against an enemy who is free to use violence. Here’s one more description of the police doing their part to advance antagonism:

The adivasi organization called the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) began with one simple demand – that the superintendent of police visit Lalgarh and apologize to the people for the atrocities his men had committed on villagers. That was considered preposterous. (How could half-naked savages expect a government officer to apologize to them?) So people barricaded their villages and refused to let the police in. The police stepped up the violence. People responded with fury. Now, two years down the line, and many gruesome rapes, killings, and fake encounters later, it’s all-out war. The PCAPA has been banned and dubbed a Maoist outfit. Its leaders have been jailed or shot.

It’s clear who is doing the most to furnish war. Of course, the Maoists are also militant; it’s for this reason that their opposition continues to exist. It is their understanding of the structure and functioning of Indian society which impresses upon them all the necessity for self-defense. This keeps them alive and allows them to do their mass work among the people in the forests; to become the representatives of the people.

Even as I’m writing this, the Odisha (changed from Orissa in 2014) government is fighting to overturn a legal ruling which recognized the rights of tribal village councils to determine if a Vedanta mining project would be allowed in their forests. Sometimes these rulings happen, where the laws outlining the protection of traditional tribal land are actually upheld in court. Most of the time they are not. And as one can see from this example, when it does happen, it has to be overcome.

I’m no fan of holding up the laws of an oppressive regime as any kind of neutral barometer by which to measure the morality of actions, but it’s always interesting to look at the disconnect between bourgeois law and bourgeois practice. So when you think about the chain of violence in these situations, it’s useful to recall something Che once said:

When forces of oppression come to maintain themselves in power against established law, peace is considered already broken.

The Maoists are not breaking the peace. There is no peace, with or without them. There is no peace with capitalism. There is no peace for the toiling workers and peasants, the threatened adivasis, or the ostracized Dalits. The war will be waged against the poor, the landless, the homeless – the war will create more landless and homeless. Capitalists, their politicians and pundits, and militarists will always be firing their shots. It is not the start of war when people fire back. But it might be the start of justice.


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