Searching for Jake Sully in India’s Heartland

by Harsha Walia

Building traditional irrigation systems, practicing forest conservation and cooperative farming, and providing educational and medical facilities in the isolated rural forests of India. This could apply to any NGO or charity, but is actually the work of armed Naxalite Maoists. In addition to community development, Naxalites have organized politically to self-govern and have claimed responsibility for numerous killings of government officials, security personnel, and alleged informers. Today, many of the Naxal cadres are Adivasis (tribal indigenous) and 40% are women. Naxalites have been operating since the 1970s in 20 states around the jungles of Central and Eastern India.

Naxalites recently made headlines as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared them “the most serious internal threat to India’s national security” and unleashed Operation Green Hunt. Under Green Hunt 250,000 police, armed forces, and counter-insurgency teams have been deployed, while the US provides military intelligence and tactical guidance. The jungles are under a heavy siege: checkpoints, army patrols, helicopter missions, gunfire battles that kill 40 civilians per week. Based on the counterinsurgency model of soft power alongside military might (charity from the barrel of a gun), government-sponsored agencies are setting up rehabilitation camps for the 200,000 already-displaced villagers.

It is easier to fixate on the real and perceived violence inflicted by armed insurgents. As political groups in the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are presumed to all be “Islamic jihadis”, the caricature of Naxals as fanatic ideologues is compelling. It behooves us, however, to ask why the Maoist insurgency persists, why Adivasis would choose a life that inevitably leads to confrontation with the world’s third largest military, why the depths of the jungles holds a greater promise than the heavenly slogan of economic development.

The neo-liberal model that led to the 9% “India Shining” growth rate could more accurately be described as India’s Doom. The statistics are chilling: although only 9% of the country’s population, more than 40% of usurped land for development is Adivasi land; over 60 million displaced from 25 million hectares of land between 1947 and 2004 including by burning of villages, rape, illegal detention, mass murder, and vigilante raids; approximately 200,000 farmer suicides in the past decade. Home to 52 billionaires and a millionaire population that has grown by 20% in the past five years, India also boasts 230 million people living in hunger, overwhelmingly Adivasis.

The most convenient distraction of India’s Red Scare has been that the beneficiaries of the military occupation of the forests and attendant terra nullius are corporations. The Maoist heartland coincides with the mining heartland. In the words of the Prime Minister: “If left-wing extremism continues to flourish in parts which have natural resources, the climate for investment would certainly be affected.”

The area has been slated for more than 300 tax-and-labour law free Special Economic Zones. Corporations have signed 650 billion rupees worth of Memorandums of Understanding for resource extraction (imagine this: the value of bauxite ore, just one of the 28 precious minerals, is valued at almost $6 trillion), and infrastructure development such as dams and power plants.  A Ministry of Rural Development report has termed it “the biggest grab of tribal lands after Columbus”.

In her most recent essay Arundhati Roy writes “The Maoists are not the only ones who seek to depose the Indian State. It’s already been deposed several times by Hindu fundamentalism and economic totalitarianism…Almost from the moment India became a sovereign nation, it turned into a colonial power, annexing territory, waging war.”

There is now a complaint against Roy under the Chattisgarh Special Public Security Act. Outrageous but not as gruesome as the arrests, police shootings, and in-custody torture of non-Naxal activists including doctors and journalists. Yet another purpose of Greenhunt emerges: quelling any dissent by brandishing the conveniently exaggerated “Maoist sympathizer” catch-phrase. Like in the other democratic oases US and Israel, Enemies are necessary (and easily drummed-up post 9/11) to justify military crackdowns, corporate looting, and human rights violations.

Still, rural resistance is declaring Jaan denge par jameen nahin denge (We’ll give our lives, but never our land) and mobilizations across the country are reaffirming the demand jal, jangal, jameen (water, land, livelihood). A communique from the Kenddungri Panchyat in West Bengal reads: “You distribute a few crumbs amongst us, the poor, and then hang the label “development”. Every 300 out of 1000 adivasi children die before the age of 5. If we call this your silent terrorism would that be wrong? We regard as a new independence our power to stand up united and resist.”

The human rights network Sanhati has drafted a proposal calling for negotiations upon the cessation of police-paramilitary actions and cancellation of development projects. A recently concluded Independent People’s Tribunal on Land Acquisition, Resource Grab, and Operation Green Hunt released comprehensive recommendations including: immediate termination of Green Hunt; ending all compulsory acquisition of land and forced displacement; publically releasing details of all memorandums of understanding; and transforming to a sustainable model based on local agrarian economies instead of extractive industries.

This epic battle of a fattened corporate capitalism versus a dying land and its inhabitants, of blood-thirsty robotic paramilitaries versus a contradictory and living rebel force is fit for an Avatar remake. Except Sully may want to add his name to the struggle by staying home and dismantling North American mining and investment interests that are colonizing India’s (heart)land and most of the planet.

Harsha Walia is a Vancouver-based activist and writer active in anti-imperialist, migrant justice, feminist struggles. She has been named one of British Columbia’s most influential Indo-Canadians by the corporate daily Vancouver Sun. This article was submitted to PULSE by the author and originally appeared in the Georgia Straight Newspaper.

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