Friday 12 October 2018

Lessons From the Peace March

[Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary started on 2nd October 2018. On that day, a historic peace march started from the old Gandhi Ashram in Chatti, a little village located in the remote forested area at the border of three states Chattisgarh, Telengana and Andhra. 

This is also the principal habitat of the indigenous Gond and Muria people. The region has been the site of a prolonged conflict between the Indian state and armed Maoists for nearly four decades. The conflict resulted in nearly 20,000 killings, tens of thousands of innocent civilians in prison, almost perennial famine, forests laced with explosive devices, hundreds of thousands homeless. Needless to say, most of the victims are tribals. For the history and review of the conflict, see my book Maiosts in India: Tribals under Siege

After much consultation and preparations, some courageous tribal leaders from different regions have organised a peace march from Chatti to Jagdalpur through the heart of maoist territory, covering nearly 200 kilometers through dense forests filled with thousands of maoist and state militias armed with sophisticated weapons. 

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The march started on 2nd October and is scheduled to reach its destination on 12th October. For a day by day account of the march, accompanied by pictures and videos, see my Facebook page. Now that the march has crossed the halfway mark after a week, I will write short reviews of the march everyday to lend a fuller perspective to this historic event. Please support the march and donate here.

The Background

As the daring, innovative Shanti Padayatra completes a week of gruelling march through a dangerously beautiful territory, it is time to assess its historical significance. I will keep doing this in short spells until the march reaches its destination, and the so-called Bastar dialogue takes place in Jagdalpur on 13 October.

This has been a march by adivasis themselves, accompanied by a few, very few, well-meaning non-adivasi activists. And the Maoists have condemned the effort. Even before the march started, they ordered the local adivasis to boycott the yatra; they also targeted the principal organiser Shubhranshu Choudhary as a corporate agent etc. No doubt, the Maoist diktat has reduced interaction between the local population and the yatris, but the yatra continued effectively in defiance of the diktat. Recall that the Maoists have always ordered boycott of the electoral process, threatening people with physical harm if they disobeyed. These orders prove conclusively that Maoists are threatened by any democratic action by the adivasis.

After some initial support 30 years ago, Maoists have controlled the habitat and the economic life of the adivasis directly with guns so that only their fatwahs are the rule. If the Maoists enjoyed popular, voluntary support, there would have been no need to do so. Contrary to armchair, elite maoist propagandists such as Gautam Navlakha, Arundhati Roy, Varavar Rao, Sumanta Bannerji, Nandini Sundar etc.—who view the Maoist movement as a genuine uprising of people—Maoists have degenerated into an anti-democratic mafia, as fully documented in my book.

For the first time in recent history, the march of the adivasis has directly challenged the hegemony of the Maoists. The fact that adivasis of different regions can unite and organise a bold peace march on the highway basically means that the adivasis have regained part of their habitat simply by demanding peace. That is the power of non-violence. No wonder neither the Maoists nor their ‘revolutionary’ elite sympathisers are pleased with it. 


As the wonderful Shanti Padayatra reaches its destination today (12 October 2018), it is time to draw lessons from this unique event. I wanted to give a day by day analysis of the political aspects of the yatra for coming to terms with maoist insurgency in east-central India. Since I could not find the time in the last few days, I have just jotted down some of what I think to be the real lessons of the yatra. I hope the organisers will find some way of discussing them to plan for the future.

1. The ground situation has changed drastically from 2004 and 2010. Maoists are now significantly less in number, cornered in progressively smaller areas, recruitment and securing of arms rapidly falling. They are beginning to lose the conflict and will be mostly eliminated in 5 years. In these circumstances, the proportion of rebel killings always increases vis-a-vis killing of govt. forces. Militias and guerrillas killed are and will be mostly adivasis.

2. The state clearly knows the situation. Hence, (a) they will not sit down for any talks unless Maoists put down arms and surrender, (b) they will not discuss any post-conflict policies unless Maoists surrender, (c) the state will want the armed conflict to continue at progressively lower levels because not only is the conflict big business, they want to totally close any further possibility of mobilisation, (d) the state also wants to continue because it gives them propaganda advantage in terms of 'urban naxals' etc. (e) There is also the issue of revenge by CRPF and police commanders.

3. Maoists are also aware both about their falling resources and options before the state. They know very well that once they give up arms, they will be left with no option at all. Hence they declare they will fight to the last adivasi.

4. In this context, any policy discussion, demands for new statutes, laws, demarcations etc. are totally meaningless. These can only be empty intellectual exercises suited to the elite intelligentsia, but have no value for the adivasis. Similarly, all models from Rajiv-Longowal, Colombia (FARC), Nepal, IRA etc. are equally meaningless. None of these models apply because Maoists cover very little ground after 40 years of armed struggle. The state is not going to listen because Maoists are encircled.

5. Since the state and the Maoists are not open to peace, the only victims are the adivasis, both inside and outside Maoist forces. In that sense, the adivasis and really grounded civil society activists like Manish Kunjam and the Gandhians at the Chatti Ashram are the only forces capable of enforcing peace. To repeat, issues of policy, justice, etc. can be deferred until killing of adivasis stops. Saving adivasis lives IS the absolute priority.

6. Amidst all this negativity, the only positive aspect is that since maoists consist of adivasis operating in adivasi habitat, adivasis have demographic superiority. The task is to turn this advantage to real active expression independently of Maoist leadership and the state.

7. This is what the padayatra has achieved in impressive scale and duration. In a very strong sense, adivasis have reclaimed their voice and their habitat.

8. It is imperative therefore that instead of engaging in intellectual bickering about 'models' etc., the peace process already accomplished should be expanded. There ought to be many more marches in the coming dry season across Dandakaranya from every nook and corner. These could be shorter marches of 20-50 kilometers, on foot, on cycle, covering every village. There should be attempts to form village level peace committees that will co-ordinate with nearby villages to construct a variety of peace programs. Once adivasis get the courage and the organisational energy to fill their land with the mantra of peace, it will (i) certainly discourage young people from joining maoists, and (b)  encourage people inside to come out and join the mainstream. From Shanti Padayatra to Shanti Andolan.

9. Throughout, with whatever civil society support is available, there ought to be pressure on security forces to protect adivasi peace-moves, and keep track of every returning male and female for proper rehabilitation. Needless to say, ONLY adivasi leaders and non-adivasi activists in the ground, as mentioned, can play this role effectively. We from the outside can keep the process alive by spreading the news, raising money, etc. BUT THE BASIC PROCESS MUST BE DESIGNED, LED AND IMPLEMENTED BY ADIVASIS THEMSELVES. Both the Maoists and state forces will be compelled to listen to them, as borne out already with just one peace march.

10. I am sure once the process grows significantly, Maoists, who must already be watching with concern, will begin to see both the danger and the promise: the danger of losing the war and the promise of continuing the resistance peacefully overground. Once the rug of adivasis is pulled from below their armed feet, they will be compelled to find new ground without arms.

We can then take care of the rogue state together.

1 comment:

  1. We can then take care of the rogue state together. I liked the last sentence. Inevitably stating any opinion will be against the laws of the state, thus for the moment i will reserve my comments there. Regarding the march, i sincerely appreciate the efforts and co-ordination. My only concern lies with the Tribals, both with arms and without, they remain our very own people. We have the choice to see them as our own and work accordingly.