Saturday, April 18, 2009

Vicious circle helps Maoists expand reach

Local journalists speak in hushed tones about the shadowy Maoist outfits that hold the state machinery to ransom in vast swathes of Orissa, striking whenever they choose.

No one goes looking for them, one said. “They come looking for you.”

That once-a-year call is expected anytime after the elections. Journalists are blindfolded and taken to meet alleged leaders of these rebel groups that operate from the deep forests in the south. “It’s difficult to be certain whether the persons who meet us are the leaders of these Naxalite outfits,” a journalist said.

Little wonder then that the state government — which has no official or unofficial channel of communication with the rebels — does not know who to have a dialogue with.

“We would like them to return to the mainstream, but they have no clear-cut leadership. There are too many such outfits. Who do we invite to talks; who do we talk to?” Narendra Swain, the spokesperson for the ruling Biju Janata Dal, shrugged. “What makes it worse is that their cadres are mostly from Andhra, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.”

Several states, therefore, must be involved in any talks initiative. “After all, the problem of Naxalites affects all states that have huge forest areas, offering safe hideouts.”

The possibility, though, seems bleak with even the Prime Minister refusing to acknowledge Maoism as a socio-economic problem and referring to it as a “virus” that must be “eliminated”.

On Monday, the Maoists attacked the Nalco mine in Koraput, killing 11 jawans. During Thursday’s vote, they burnt polling stations, vehicles and voting machines, blocked roads to the booths and engaged the security forces in a gun battle. Then they vanished into the forests covering 24 of Orissa’s 30 districts.

The forests are a problem in more ways than one, Swain said. “The tough forest laws that ban felling have tied our hands. We can’t create industry without cutting forests (and freeing land), and without industry, there are no jobs. It’s a vicious circle.”

The sitting Kandhamal MP, Sujit Padhi of the Opposition Congress, said: “The state government lacks the political will to initiate a dialogue with them. It should at least find out what the Naxalites want.”


Swain admitted that state presence was minimal in Orissa’s underdeveloped south-west. The government has in its own way tried to secure land, forest and water rights for the tribals, he claimed, adding that a lot more needed to be done.

“There is no industry worth the name and the arable land is not enough for sustenance; so the impoverished people live mostly off forest produce,” he said. When the state tries to undertake any development, it fails to take off because of the Maoist threat.

“Huge finances are needed to change things. It can’t be done overnight.”

Swain said the state government had just nationalised 68 minor items of forest produce, such as honey and lac, to protect the tribals’ interests. “But again, who will buy what they collect from the forests?”

He claimed the government had allotted land to tribals wherever ownership was clear and kept projects off small forest rivers. Padhi said half the problem would be solved if the state sorted out the tribals’ and Dalits’ land settlement rights. “No one knows which plot of land belongs to tribals and which to non-tribals. This is creating social tension, prompting some to pick up the gun.”

The rebels had called for a poll boycott, with posters warning that those with indelible-ink marks on their index fingers risked losing their hands. The Maoists say the political process does not reflect the aspirations of the weak and the oppressed.“They are not completely wrong,” Padhi said. He blamed the state government. “A decade ago (about the time the BJD came to power) the problem was restricted to nine districts; now it has spread to 24 of the 30 districts.”

All these districts are in the south-west. Except for the developed coastal belt, the rest of the state appears affected by the problem. “The Naxalites are roaming openly in these areas and the scared policemen are going around in plain clothes,” Padhi said.

The Congress has a dedicated vote bank of minorities, tribals and the lower castes; but the other parties, deterred by the Maoist threat from a proper campaign, should be more worried.

The turnout was low on Thursday, partly perhaps because of the boycott call. But Padhi suggested two more reasons. One, Dalits traditionally voted before going to work and the Adivasis (tribals) after work in the evening. “With polling time cut by an hour because of the security threat, the voter turnout was bound to be low.”

Also, delimitation ended up confusing many uneducated voters about where their polling station was.

The Maoist-hit south-west of Orissa voted on April 16 in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. The rest of the state votes on April 23

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