Saturday, April 17, 2010

Is Red brigade a reality in vibrant Gujarat?

Jumana Shah / DNASunday, April 18, 2010 8:32 IST

Ahmedabad: If the Naxal attack killing 75 CRPF personnel in the Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh makes your heart bleed, the news closer home may bring some more worry. For, in the first three months of this year, at least nine suspected Naxals have been arrested by police from the tribal districts of Dangs and Tapi.

At the outset, the reason for this is believed to be the Forest Rights Act (FRA), which gives the tribals the right to tribal land for cultivation. To cut a very long story short, in essence, this Act takes away the ownership of the land from forest department and gives it to people - the tribals. This is believed to be at the core of the sudden spurt in friction between the tribals and officials.

The nine arrests have created a sense of fear amongst the populace in the tribal belt. What actually raised many eyebrows is the arrest of suave tribal activist, Avinash Kulkarni, in the third week of March. Two days after he was picked up by the cops, his 'arrest' was announced.

The next day, the opposition Congress walked out of the Assembly blaming the BJP of incorrectly arresting activists "who are aiding tribals in the implementation of the FRA".

The Adivasi Mahasabha cried injustice, but Kulkarni was remanded in police custody. He continues to be custody. Since then the Congress has been rather silent. Others arrested include Bharat Powar. Powar had contested elections on a JD (U) banner.

On the Congress stand on the issue, party MP from Bardoli and Union minister of state for tribal affairs, Tushar Chaudhary, reluctantly says: "No local tribal leaders have been named. All those arrested are from out of the state. We know of their work here, but not of their links outside of the state."

A senior activist working in the area says people are now scared of gathering in groups and making demonstrations against the forest or police department for their issues, be it the land or any other amenities. "Moreover, the buzz is that those arrested have identified a few others and at least 21 other arrests are expected soon. Activists are mainly being targeted," he said, citing the 'fear' factor.

In fact, he adds that the past week has been eventful in the jungles. Forest, police and local intelligence personnel have been holding extensive meetings with the tribals in wake of the Dantewada blast. In some places, they are grilling people to learn whether similar blasts are being planned here, and in other meetings covert warnings are let out. Yet others claim that these arrests have, in fact, averted any major strike.

Land: The ultimate premium
Move to 2006. Parliament cleared the Forest Rights Act, which enables a tribal to reclaim his land (if it was incorrectly acquired by the government), provided he can prove it. The process is long and winding, but this is ostensibly the reason behind the simmering discontent.

One of the reasons cited by activists, decrying the arrests as stifling of democracy, is the unwillingness of the forest department (read state government) to give the land to the tribals under the FRA. Former Congress MP and tribal leader from Sabarkantha, Madhusudan Mistry, categorically states that to retain the control of land, the government wants to declare as 'sanctuary' or 'protected area' of as much forest land as they can. "So that later it can be diverted or denotified," he says.

Activists inform the tribals that they will now finally get their land if they can prove through village elders that their ancestors cultivated it. The point of friction here is that the forest department does not take the elders' word as final and uses the satellite data as proof of their claims. The illiterate Adivasis do not understand this, leading to anxiety and distrust among them.

"When tribals produce the proof, forest officials refute it. This infuriates them, leaving them extremely vulnerable," says an observer who does not wish to be identified.

Mistry agrees that this is a standard modus operandi, which he witnessed in Antarsuba, Sabarkantha, in 2008 where a tribal was killed in police encounter. "When anxious, tribals will be ready to do anything at the slightest instigation. Though they care for the forest and trees immensely, in a fit of rage they may chop a few. This gives the forest and police the perfect excuse to book them with criminal charges, which sometimes result in inhuman excesses and fake encounters. In fact, I am scared that Kulkarni will be eliminated," the former parliamentarian voices his concern.

The turnout in a recent rally organised by Mistry demanding action by the government under FRA in Ahmedabad was phenomenal. About 800 people turned up from various villages. Union minister Chaudhary said, "I am shocked the Gujarat government has released only 7% of the total land entitled to the tribals."

Since its inception half a century ago, Gujarat is being touted as a peaceful state of entrepreneurs. Therefore, the emergence of a violent rebellion could be a shocker. The initial question being thrown up is: Are those arrested really propagating a rebellion through violence, thereby qualifying them to be labeled as Naxals?

Or are they tribal activists, instigating the tribals to demand their land rights from the establishment? More importantly, why now?

A hard look at the events preceding the arrests, and police interrogation since then, give an impression that some 'Naxal' activity might indeed have been going on in the deep forests of central and south Gujarat.Then the logical question would be: Why? What is the discontent in a prosperous state like Gujarat? With a government aggressively talking and acting for inclusive development by implementing welfare schemes like Garib Kalyan Mela, why is there a rebellion against the establishment?

"At the outset, it is important to point out that there is deep discontent and disconnect amongst the tribals here, not roaring antagonism. Basic amenities like roads, electricity, water, health and education available here are relatively better than that in other 'Naxal affected areas', but certainly far poorer than what is projected for 'Vibrant Gujarat'. It will be ten years before real development is felt here. Because of this, there is some restlessness, which makes these communities vulnerable," says Amrit Patel, director, legal aid and human rights of Songadh-based NGO, Shakti.

A Koli Patel, the activist claims he was in touch with Kulkarni and Powar, but was totally shocked when their 'network' links were revealed. "Police say they went to Kerala and Ghadchiroli for arms training. We were aghast. But even if they were trying to influence people here, their success will be limited. The discontent is not so high for the people to turn self-destructive," he asserts.

The proximity of the areas to Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra and presence of migrant labour from Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh in the areas add to the conundrum. Some ad hoc Naxal movements have been felt in Hazira and Jamnagar.

Bhilistan: The demand continues

An understated current that is found in case of almost all tribal unrest is the demand of Bhilistan - an independent state for the tribals of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Though sporadic since the Independence, this movement continues to romanticise tribal leaders, who resist the establishment's initiatives to reach out to them.

The Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad that keeps the movement on is led by former Dahod MP Somji Damor. He lost the 2009 Lok Sabha elections as BJP candidate to Dr Prabha Taviyad of the Congress. Politicians have made a career out of this agenda, but the issue continues to burn. This seven-time MP in 1984 had carved out a detailed blueprint for Bhilistan, including a map of the new state.

Though the movement is mostly flaccid, residents of Dangs confide some 'calendars' and pamphlets were distributed earlier this year calling for reviving the 'Bhilistan' movement. "They don't know if anything came out of it. Perhaps pamphlets were amongst the triggers for the spate of arrests," a source said.

One of the several reasons cited for the wave of arrests, being attributed to Naxal activity, is perhaps the politics of converting the tribal votebank towards the BJP.

Currently, the area is a definitive Congress electorate. In 2002, post the Hindutva wave, the tribals turned against the Congress, but in 2007 assembly elections and 2009 general elections, the Congress retained its dominance in the tribal belt, except for some specific seats,. Three of the four reserved Lok Sabha seats for Schedule Tribes (ST) - Dahod, Bardoli and Valsad are represented by Congress MPs.

One tribal researcher with an Ahmedabad-based institution points out that Modi wants to come out as a hero in the tribal populace ahead of the panchayat elections. "Instilling a fear factor, he wants to show that he is in charge there," the source says.Politically, the Congress is passive in these areas. Though their cadres exist, the attention given by the state leadership is far from enough. When asked if the arrests are politically motivated, Chaudhary hesitantly conceded, but refused to comment further.

Avinash Kulkarni: The suave activist

The suave activist was a popular face in the south Gujarat forests. He came to Dangs two years after the Irfan Engineer episode. Kulkarni comes from a very well-educated family, with an MPhil up his sleeve. He speaks chaste English and his presence was a sore thumb for authorities there. Kulkarni, who is in his early 50s, is rather frail and suffers from several chronic ailments.

Intelligence sleuths tracking these movements claim he was on their radar for 15 years, but they were waiting for concrete evidence to pin him. Refusing to specify, a source indicated that another Naxal arrest somewhere in the country led to Kulkarni and Powar's arrests. "We are hoping to arrest many people, we do not even know from which part of the country, through his confessions," the source said.