STATE VS NAXALS
The response to Maharashtra’s one-year-old surrender policy for Naxals has been tepid. But after two decades of violence, people in the Naxal heartland of Gadchiroli are willing to give government development schemes a chance
Shashwat Gupta Ray
Located in a remote part of the Vidarbha region, the tribal district of Gadchiroli has the lowest Human Development Index figures in Maharashtra. It also happens to be the centre of Naxalite activity in the state. Poverty, compounded by government apathy and neglect, has fuelled Naxal violence in the region for two and a half decades.
In a belated attempt to halt the cycle of violence between Naxals and the state police force, the state government launched a Surrender Policy in August 2005. The move was prompted by the realisation that establishing peace was necessary before the government could initiate effective measures to bring about development in this poor district, which borders both Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. The government offered a “special monetary package” as an incentive to Naxal militants to surrender. They were promised a lump-sum cash amount when they surrendered along with a rehabilitation package to bring them back into the mainstream.
One year after it was announced, the policy has at best been a partial success, in part because the details of the rehabilitation package were sketchy. Shirish Jain, Superintendent of Police, Gadchiroli, says, “In the first phase of the Surrender Policy, 68 surrenders took place, out of which 90 percent were fringe elements, forced to help the Naxals. But they had useful information for us regarding their hideouts. They were duly rewarded under the rehabilitation package. Seeing this, a few hardcore Maoists did surrender.” Jain admits that the government’s surrender policy has not been a huge success. “When the government announced the surrender policy on the lines similar to that of Andhra Pradesh, there were surrenders. But there was no comprehensive rehabilitation policy. We recommended that there should be a reward system and then rehabilitation. It took some time for the people to realise the existence of such a policy.”
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Superintendent of Police, Gadchiroli, Shirish Jain admits the ‘establishment made a mess’ of the Naxal problem
In September, the state government extended the Surrender Policy by a year, claiming that it was a success and needed to be continued. As part of the extension, the government plans to have a more effective rehabilitation package for Naxal militants who are willing to surrender.
The Naxal leaders active in the region have rejected the government’s Surrender Policy outright, calling it a complete sham. According to Suresh, a senior Naxal commander who operates in the forests in north Gadchiroli, bordering Chattisgarh, the government’s offer has no substance. Speaking to Tehelka, he described the surrendered Naxals as “fringe elements”. Suresh describes himself as the “in-charge of the Kobhra Mendha squad, Uttar Gadchiroli, Regional Gondia Division.” “The government says that 90 Maoists have surrendered. However, they are not the hardcore Naxals. They are mostly porters or innocent villagers who sympathise with us. Only a couple of real Naxals have surrendered, that too because they could not bear the hardships of forest life. The police have been unable to make the top commanders surrender,” he says.
“While the government is spending millions of rupees to quell the uprising, the (police) forces are unable to locate us. Rather, they are committing atrocities on innocent cattle grazers, labelling them Naxals. Recently three women were kidnapped in Tipagrah forests in Dhanora taluka in Gadchiroli. They were later raped and shot at. While two died on the spot, one was seriously injured,” Suresh says. “We are Maoists, fighting for the right of these oppressed people. It is the politicians who are the real terrorists. Not us. We are revolutionaries. In the name of globalisation and development, companies are on a land-grabbing spree, leaving the poor farmers helpless. When they rightfully demand their rights, they are either lathicharged or shot at.”
He holds a dim view of the development initiatives by the government. “Between Kurkheda and Botekasa blocks in northern Gadchiroli, the government is spending Rs 14 crore, constructing roads up to 50 km stretch inside the forest. This is not for development but to ensure that forest-wood is smuggled out and more troops can be sent in to kill us,” he says.
Jain admits that the “establishment made a mess” of the Naxal problem. “This has been a largely neglected area. There has been large-scale exploitation of the poor tribals by politicians, police and the forest department. Innocent people, who, out of fear, may have rendered help to Naxals, were arrested in hundreds and put in jail under POTA and TADA. After languishing in jails for two years, they obviously came out with vengeance on their mind. After the enactment of the Forest Act, forest officials refused the tribals’ access to forest produce on which they have been traditionally dependent. Deprived of their dignity and land, they were simmering with anger. The Naxals took advantage of the situation.”
The government has initiated development programmes in the region and change has been visible in the last two and a half years at the ground level
An AK-47 assault-rifle in his hand, Suresh promises intensified attacks. “We left our families to fight the corrupt system. With no social justice system for the poor in this country, there is no scope for talks now. It is a war against the establishment. We are not terrorists. People should not be afraid of us. Our ideology is action against injustice. The government cannot finish us. We are surviving in the forests because we have the people’s support.”
But many who joined the movement, and managed to leave it later, have been discouraging villagers from joining the Naxals. The representatives of Naxal groups come to the villages, especially those in the Korchi block in Gadchiroli, and try to garner support through their committee meetings. Korchi encompasses 10 villages with a combined population of 10,000 and is widely considered the epicentre of the Naxal movement in Gadchiroli. But attendance at these meetings is growing thinner. Though people no longer support the Naxal movement outright, they accept that the violence has succeeded in drawing attention of authorities towards their problems.
By 2000, the police realised that it had to do something about its image among the tribal population. “Since 1982, we have lost 76 men, 241 civilians and 62 Naxals have died. These deaths are painful irrespective of who dies. It is our own countrymen dying, innocent families getting destroyed forever. Civil property worth Rs 4.2 crore and government property worth Rs 6.3 crore has been damaged. Development and not bullet is the answer to this problem,” Jain says.
Suresh paints a grim picture of the government health and education facilities: “Children are dying due to malnutrition. There is high rate of infant mortality in the region. Adults are dying of malaria. But there are hardly any well-equipped government hospitals. The schools are either running without the teachers or the teachers are coming to class inebriated. This is certainly not development.”
According to officials, government has taken measures to alleviate the situation. NK Sudhanshu, District Collector, Gadchiroli says, “We are surveying the 350 villages in this region to identify the problems faced by people. Infrastructural gaps have been identified. We are constructing check-dams and tanks for water conservation and repairing existing water tanks... Such integrated efforts will bear results and break the spine of Naxal movement. We have to create a sense of belonging amongst the people and the government officials alike. Otherwise there will always be the excuse of fear factor for not working.”
Since 2003, the government has initiated numerous development programmes in the region in association with ngos, and, according to locals, change has been visible in the last two and a half years. According to NK Sudhanshu, District Collector, Gadchiroli, the Maharashtra government has released Rs 15 lakh under the Maharashtra Human Development Mission - 2006, for the initial process of development. Two of the most backward blocks in Gadchiroli have been selected for the purpose.
Through joint forest management, the state is making the tribal population joint-owners of the forest and giving it a share of revenue
Through its Joint Forest Management (JFM), the forest department is involving the tribal population by making it the joint owner of the forest. It is supposed to give them a share in the revenue earned through the sale of tendu leaves. The forest department recently disbursed Rs 30 crore as wages to tendu collectors in Chandrapur and Gadchiroli districts. It has also declared a bonus of Rs 8 crore to the families — the first ever such initiative taken by the department.
Raju is a member of the Kobhra Mendha Local Organiser Squad, the local unit of the Naxals. He is convinced about the justness of their cause and the fact that they shall prevail in the not too distant future. “We are already present in 24 states. We are growing further by forming youth and women’s committees. We are forming special Revolutionary People’s Council which will join hands with us and fight the corrupt system.”
The government implemented the surrender policy in two phases of six-month duration each — from August 2005 to March 2006 and from April 2006 to September 2006. According to Jain, there has been no official intimation from the government yet on the extension. “We only know it from the media reports. But we have been assured that the extension is on and we will be intimated shortly,” he says.
The police changed its policy for the second phase. It became more selective in accepting surrenders — no porters this time for example, only active Maoists with a police record who had good information about the organisational set-up. “Due to this, the numbers came down drastically. But it was certainly an improvement is terms of number of hardcore Naxals surrendering,” says Jain.
Jain says that there is a big vacuum in the Naxal leadership after Vikas, alias Shiva, a “top leader” who was the Secretary, Gadchiroli Division, was killed. “Naxals are jittery. The lower and middle ranking cadres are sending feelers for surrender.”
Moving gradually towards self-sufficiency, the local people, on whose behalf the Naxals claim to be fighting, are now more inclined to participate in government development schemes. They realise that two decades of violence has not improved their lot.
Some of the measures by Naxals to help alleviate their economic situation have actually worked against them in the long run. “The increase in collection price (dictated by Naxals) from Rs 5 for a bundle of 20 bamboo sticks of six feet length to Rs 10 resulted in people rushing to cut bamboos. Now the bamboo tree is nearing extinction here. We don’t have enough bamboos in the forest to construct our huts. So now we have decided not to support them,” says Ijam Sai, a prominent social worker from Kale village in Korchi block.
“Earlier, the Naxals dictated the tendu leaves price. They hiked the wages for tendu collectors from Rs 70 to Rs 140 per bundle, saying that it was for our cause. But with the increase in tendu price, the cost of beedis also increased from Rs 2.5 per packet to Rs 5. This pinched us hard,” says Neel Kumar Madavi, a young resident of Korchi.
“Government and ngos are trying to develop the region. Two years ago, there was nothing here. But now with development work in progress, the unemployed youth have started getting work in villages. Earlier they had to go outside in search of work. They were exploited by contractors. This fuelled anger in them and they lost direction. But now both work and funds are available in the village,” says Dalsai Sattar Bota, deputy sarpanch of Navarangaon block Gram Panchayat.
“The JFM project has made us feel more reassured. When the villagers were bringing wood for personal use from the forests, they had to pay hefty bribes to the forest guards in cash or liquor. Now with development and growing awareness about JFM people are happier,” says Madavi.