Demolishing the myth that Maoists are tribals.
The debate about Maoists in the public space is shrill and noisy and those opposing Government of India’s security offensive against the Maoists resort to subterfuge in their arguments. They interchangeably use the words Maoists and Tribals in their language. This is how it usually works. A question about the brutality of the Maoists is often retorted with a counter-question about the brutality of the State towards the tribals [and not Maoists, please note]. Or the state is demonised for its failure to do anything substantive for the tribals in the last sixty years, thereby suggesting that the tribals [are they Maoists?] have been eventually forced to take up arms against the State.
This conflation of Maoists with tribals in a cacophonous public conversation tends to confuse and even sway the populace, which is usually not aware of the intricacies of the problem. The not-so-perceptive observer then assumes one or all three of these myths to be true:
- All Maoists are tribals
- All tribals are Maoists
- And at best, the Maoists are evangelists fighting on behalf of the tribals, to avenge the injustices meted out to the tribals by the State
Nothing could be farther from the truth. All three of them are blatant falsehoods. The Maoist leadership is completely non-tribal while a fair share of foot-soldiers in the movement are tribals. This piece at Outlook Web explains the short-term overlap of interests between the tribals and the Maoist leadership.
For the leaders, it is true, protracted war was the strategy all along, it was not a matter of self-defence. But for the bulk of the tribal cadre that joined it, taking up guns was a response to experiences of horrific state violence, and motivated by self-defence and/or revenge. There is a short-term overlap between their aim of fighting against state oppression and the leadership’s aim of overthrowing the state, but the longer-term goals diverge sharply.[Outlook Web]
This divide was brought out in the open during the fight between the tribals and non-tribals among the Maoists in West Bengal earlier this year. Moreover, reports of tribals being killed by the Maoists are fairly regular now. But this difference between the tribals and the non-tribals is best understood by reading these two interviews [here and here] of an ex-Maoist leader of tribal origin, Gurucharan Kisku aka Marshal. Here are the relevant extracts.
Do you think Maoists are saviours of tribals in Bengal, Jharkhand?
This impression about the Maoists was painted by some city-bred intellectuals like Arundhati Roy. Media-savvy that he is, Kishenji has instantly taken the cue and uses every opportunity to say that he is leading a just war on behalf of “poor and deprived tribals” and that he is the Messiah.
Maoists have summed up their outlook on tribal issues in their document “Strategy and Tactics of CPI (Maoist)”. Para 3 of this document begins with a general statement that tribals are being exploited by various agencies. The impression given is that Maoists would save them from such exploitation. But I want to ask Kishenji a simple question. Why do his men collect a levy of Rs 20 and 3 kg rice from every such poor and deprived tribal household at gun point in that case ? I know thousands of poor tribal families who are not in a position to meet Kishenji’s demands, but have to cough up the money out of sheer fright.
How do you plan to combat Maoists and Kishenji in particular ?
I will try to convince my tribal brothers and sisters about what I now believe. I will mobilise them in West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa and form an organisation to fight their cause. I have been with Kishenji for long and I know Maoists as few do. They are not real friends of tribals. They do not respect our culture or heritage. They are just the same as any other political party and they have chosen us to strengthen their organisation which is committed to fighting the state.
Just like CPM, Maoists too have attempted to divide tribals. The Maoist rule book says that in some areas a tiny section of adivasis has become rich and are behaving like oppressors. How true is this? I have no idea, but I know for sure that Maoists have killed more than 200 tribals who where neither rich, nor oppressor. They were just as poor as the rest of them. Take Salku Soren, Sarna Buru Besra or Dhani Ram Mandi — tribals all, at the bottom of the heap and yet killed to suit some interest. For Kishenji, it’s easy. He comes from Andhra, and I will not allow him to exploit tribals anymore.[ET]
Also this one about how the Maoists have changed their agenda about the tribals.
Why did you quit the party again?
When the MCC and PWG united to form CPI(Maoist), the party produced an 18-page, 24-point agenda for the upliftment of Adivasis, dealing with the preservation and enhancement of our language, culture and education. There was no mention of class struggle. Since 2003, I started realising that we were moving away from the agenda, and told the party to stick to the original charter. When I kept insisting, the party began avoiding and sidelining me. They said that they would not go back to a communitarian line. In 2005, the party officially disowned its original Adivasi agenda.
On the ground, how are the Maoists acting against the Adivasi agenda?
Instead of the existing gram samitis (village councils), the party started creating alternative committees within the village consisting of people who were either close to or members of the party. The party’s declared objective was that all activity — social, cultural and economic — would be controlled by these committees. However, the leadership is non-tribal, and does not understand what it means to be Adivasi. The Adivasi identity is based on our village life, language and customs. I felt that this way, our culture was being destroyed.
As long as the Maoists are here, the oppression of Adivasis will continue, because the State is going to bring down more brutality on us. The Maoists are making things worse for us. This area will explode and ultimately we, the tribals, will be displaced from our land. Whatever links we have to our culture will then be lost forever. We don’t want a revolution that will make us refugees. A small Adivasi group like ours cannot survive the onslaught of the State; we need other ways of improving our lot.[Tehelka]
In an interview to The Hindu, Azad, the spokesperson of the Central Committee of CPI (Maoist) further expounded on their ultimate goal, which has little to do with the betterment of the tribals.
…we want to achieve whatever is possible for the betterment of people’s lives without compromising on our political programme of new democratic revolution and strategy of protracted people’s war.
Revolutionaries never mince words. There is no need to. We believe that ultimately people have to take up armed struggle to seize power.[Hindu]
Now this is not to suggest in any manner that the tribals do not have genuine grievances against the state. In fact, government officials including the Union Home Secretary and senior police officers openly acknowledge that historically mistakes have been made in dealing with the tribals. It is now the bounden duty of the state to undo those wrongs and support the tribals in the best manner possible, by ensuring land rights and a development model that takes care of the tribal interests.
However our sympathy for the tribals should not, at any point in time, allow us to conflate them with the Maoists. Maoists are bloody, ruthless killers who are neither tribals, nor supporters of tribals. Maoists are an anti-national violent political force that needs to be exterminated ruthlessly by the state. Adequate care must be taken though by the state that the tribals are not made to unduly suffer in this war against the Maoists.
The challenge for all of us in the civil society is to get the distinction between Maoists and tribals right. Creating public awareness by demolishing these myths of “Maoists are tribals” or “Maoists are fighting for the tribals” is the first step towards generating favourable public opinion which will press the government to act against the Maoists with all its might. And force it to simultaneously take care of the tribals.