Manish Kunjam, a two-time MLA of the Communist Party of India (CPI), contexualises [the Bastar] violence:
“The area is mostly dominated by people of the Gondi Koya tribes, who rely on forest produce to sustain their livelihood. They sell mahua [a local fruit mostly processed to make liquor], tendu patta [a leaf from which bidis are made] and imli [tamarind] in the market. Historically, these people were exploited by Forest Department officials, forced into unpaid labour, and beaten up at the first sign of resistance. I am a witness to such kind of gruesome exploitation.
“They are very attached to their land, but because those lands came under the control of the state after Independence, the tribal people were suddenly seen as encroachers. This led to a great mess, the brunt of which the people are bearing even today. To add to this, the lands of these people were given away to private miners and local contractors. The naxalites fought against this injustice and became the leaders of the tribes here.
“In a phase where all the mainstream Left parties were concentrating only on workers’ issues and parties such as the Congress and the Jana Sangh [later on, the Bharatiya Janata Party] were party to the exploitation of tribal people in Bastar, the naxalites were the only force that spoke up for them and filled that political vacuum.”
He said even today the government did not have a plan to address the real livelihood issues of the tribal people. The implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which should have given forest-dwellers their historical right to land, was in disarray, he added. “There was a show of distribution of pattas [land ownership documents] in the beginning but even that is not happening now.”
He pointed to the two major memorandums of understanding (MoUs) that have been signed with the Tatas and Essar Steel, which will permit them to extract minerals here. He said: “The Bastar region has an abundance of minerals such as bauxite, tin and dolomite. Apart from this, it is also rich in timber. Instead of empowering the tribal people and giving them their right to these resources, the government is interested in shipping the resources out. In a place like Bastar, which has seen no development since Independence, a reaction against the state’s forces is bound to happen. The naxalites are just the one force but the problems of the tribal people are real. In this spree of violence, however, the naxalites do not realise that the jawans they killed were also poor people working for a livelihood and not class enemies as such. They only assist the class enemies bound by their duty.”
He felt that the increased deployment of security forces to counter the naxalites was a disguised attempt to enter those villages where Salwa Judum (an anti-Maoist vigilante group, meaning people’s peace movement in the local Gondi language) could not enter. “Every day, we see false encounters and physical torture by the police. In such a case, a villager has no choice but to retaliate either with the Maoists or alone.”
Excerpted from Frontline’s report, “In the war zone” by AJOY ASHIRWAD MAHAPRASHASTA (Volume 27 – Issue 09 : Apr. 24-May. 07, 2010)