Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Get the real picture

Platform | K.S. Subramanian

December 6, 2005

The recent jailbreak in Jehanabad by a group of armed Naxalite militants does not come as a surprise to those familiar with the region and its machinery. For someone who has officially assessed, for the home ministry, the agrarian conflict situation in the central districts of Bihar, it reminds one of past experiences.

The Bihar Pradesh Kisan Sabha (including ‘Naxalites’), in the early Eighties, was implementing organised assertions for the payment of minimum wages, protection of civil rights and social dignity. Added to these were attempts at land reforms and honest implementation of rural development projects. A certain amount of militancy on such issues was understandable. The district administration was expected to be sensitive, and avoid any situation that would bring on police brutality. A responsive administration should display commitment and sincerity to social justice. This, however, did not happen and a large number of the agrarian poor were killed in police encounters as reported by the press.

The IB, reporting to the Home Ministry, and the state police asserted that only 12 people had been killed in police action — all of them Naxalites. The disparity between the figures of death-in-encounters between IB and state police reports (12 dead, all ‘Naxalites’) and press reports (very large casualties) was too striking to be missed.

A furore ensued in Parliament and Indira Gandhi, then prime minister, decided to send a central team to Bihar led by the then member-secretary, Planning Commission, Manmohan Singh, with officers (including me) from the Union Home Ministry, the Department of Rural Development and others. The DM and the SP of the then Patna district, that included Jehanabad, had assumed that the Centre’s team had come to appreciate their good work — for putting down incipient Naxalite militancy. They were taken aback to be asked tough questions and be ticked off on inadequate action on issues such as land reforms, minimum wages, civil rights and rural development projects.

In the course of a meeting later held in the Union home secretary’s office in Delhi, the chief secretary, Bihar, admitted that the number of deaths in police encounters had been 59 and not one of them had been a Naxalite.

The Naxalite movement which had started in the late Sixties in West Bengal, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh and reached Bihar later on, has been described as an ‘ontological divide’ in Indian politics by the distinguished historian, Ranajit Guha. The movement has its own significance in Indian politics and cannot be treated in a facile manner as a ‘national security’ threat, as many security analysts have been inclined to do.

The movement is really a protest against the failure of the State and allied machinery in delivering on promises made in the Indian Constitution. While police action is a necessary component in analysing the Jehanabad jailbreak, much more serious steps are needed on the social justice front to come to grips with situations — neglected so far.

A recent study by P. Sainath states that the average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of farm households across India was Rs 503 in 2003. This was just about Rs 75 above the rural poverty line. Since this is an average figure across regions and classes, it hides huge inequities. Even the statewide averages of some states such as Orissa (Rs 342), Jharkhand (Rs 353), Chhattisgarh (Rs 379) and Bihar (Rs 404) are well below the poverty line. The Union Home Ministry needs to go into such data in Bihar and other states where the Naxalite movement is rapidly growing to chalk out central strategies for poverty alleviation.

The challenge was appreciated by home secretaries in the Sixties. They were keen to institute ministerial mechanisms that would study social conflict in the country in an independent and sensitive manner. This could be used to develop appropriate strategies of intervention by the Centre. L.P. Singh, a farsighted home secretary, set up the Research and Policy Division of the ministry for this purpose. One of the earliest reports on the causes and nature of agrarian tensions, in the late Sixties, had clearly warned that the ‘green revolution’ could well turn into a ‘red revolution’ if suitable steps were not taken to correct the emerging agrarian imbalances. Unfortunately, only weak action could be taken, with results that are only too visible today. But unfortunately, the Research and Policy Division has been wound up.

The ministry today relies far too heavily on the admittedly law-and-order oriented reports churned out by the overwhelmingly IPS-dominated IB. The ministry must create its own sources of information gathering and analysis on social tensions. Collation and analysis of such data must be the task of inter-disciplinary study-cum-action groups of social scientists, civil servants and social activists. Until then, responses are bound to remain weak or confused, especially with regard to complex social movements such as the Naxals. We should not be carried away by the reports skewed to include law-and-order considerations — this will only be misleading.

The writer is a former IPS officer. He retired as DG of the State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development, Government of Tripura

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