By Graham Peebles Developing divisions
Participation is a cornerstone of the democratic ideal. It sits alongside those other marginalized tenets: social justice, freedom and equality. Forgotten principles in a world of corporate politics driven by the quest for endless economic growth and maximum market share. Hailed as the world’s largest democracy and touted as ‘an emerging economic powerhouse’, India’s economy is beginning to cough and splutter with the rupee trading at an all time low, and the ‘current account’ showing an $88 billion deficit.
A decade of 9% growth has created 55 US $ billionaires, a new and burgeoning middle class and a vast underclass of people living in extreme poverty. The middles class has doubled in since 2001, growing from 6% to 13% (amounting to around 153 million). Yet inequality stalks the land: in the cities with their sprawling, overcrowded slums alongside the new high-rise designer shoppers, between desperately poor rural communities and urban dwellers and within the countryside itself. There is inequality within inequality, as government definitions of what constitutes poverty are re-imagined to exclude great swathes of people in need.
India’s economic growth, (neatly tied together with government corruption and neglect) has been fuelled by a toxic cocktail of elements that includes: twenty years of market liberalisation, land grabbing and mineral extraction, the privatization of water supplies and extensive dam building. Millions of mainly Adivasi (indigenous), who make up 9% of the population and Dalit (so-called untouchables) people have been displaced by a range of enormous infrastructure projects, most notably the corporate takeover of the countryside, which has seen subsidies to small holder farmers scrapped, access to credit made all but impossible, the Indian market opened up to foreign multi-nationals and a plethora of state incentives provided to Indian corporations. The selection box of socially unjust, government policies have been promoted “in the name of the poor, but [are] really meant to service the rising demands of the new aristocracy”, Arundhati Royi states in Democracy’s Failing Light (DFL). They are driving a rupee rich wedge between the elite, the aspiring elite, and the millions in poverty, causing divisions to deepen, resentments to grow and tensions to strengthen. The most acute sign of the community carnage being inflicted on the poor is (perhaps) the plague of farmer suicides. Drowning in debt and despair, farmers are committing suicide at the unimaginable rate of one every 30 minutes, with around 250,000 taking their own lives between 1995 and 2009 alone.
Land, Exploitation and Resistance
“The battle for land lies at the heart of the Development’ debate” (DFL) and at the core of the Naxalite (or Maoists) armed resistant movement. As does the demand for jobs for agricultural workers and the poor, including Dalit’s and Adivasi people. It is these excluded and ignored groups who largely support the insurgency movement. The government regards the Naxalite’s as ‘terrorists’ – the ubiquitous post 9/11 term, used to define dissenting groups of government corporate policies, from the Occupy movement to students marching through Istanbul or environmental activists at Climate Change conferences. The Maoists are India’s “biggest internal security challenge” states the PM, adding it is “imperative to control Left-wing extremism for the country’s growth”. Not for the security, safety and well being of the people we note, but for economic growth.
Government ‘counter-insurgency’ forces have long been deployed in the affected areas, (or ‘infested regions’ as the Indian media puts it), the forests and mountains of central and North-Eastern India. These military and Para-military groups conducting ‘operations’ (a modern day colloquialism for war) against the ‘rebels’ have been accused by human rights groups, activists and local people of violating human rights and committing acts of state terrorism, including arbitrary arrests, murder and rape. Human Rights Watch (HRW)ii state that, “custodial killings, police abuses including torture, and failure to implement policies to protect vulnerable communities marred India’s [human rights] record. Impunity for abuses committed by security forces also continued, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir, the northeast, and areas facing Maoist insurgency”.
From 1947 and Independence, India has been beset by violent insurgencies and secessionist movements. The government’s response to the uprisings has been consistently brutal, meeting Naxalite demands with force and setting them up as the enemy within. The current, ongoing conflict is taking place over a vast area of the country, from Odisha in the North-east down to Kerala on the South West coast; a channel of armed resistance known as the Red Corridor, or, (depending on your political standpoint) the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) Corridor. MOU in there hundreds have been signed by the government with corporate India and multi-nationals, bestowing development rights for mines, dams, water irrigation, factories, roads and land rights. All have been signed away without due consultation with local people, who, like the millions living in dire poverty in the cities, are seen as an embarrassing irritation from the past, to be hidden from view save the new nation of modernism is seen with blemishes upon its shining Bollywood skin.
The corridor red and resolute holds within it many of the poorest people in the country (perhaps the world), many of who lend their support (and some their children), to the Maoists, who they see as defending their rights.
Both sides in the fighting claim to be acting on behalf of the rural poor, and both have committed appalling atrocities. Local people as well as civil society groups, are “being caught in the middle of the fighting – killed, wounded, abducted, forced to take sides, and then risk retribution”, relate Human Rights Watch (HRW)iii. Whilst this is true, to equate the resistance movement fighting deep-seated social injustice, with government forces fighting on behalf of the perpetrators of the injustice is, Arundhati Royiv rightly says “absurd”. The government, “has slammed the door in the face of every attempt at non-violent resistance”, and inevitably “when people take to arms, there is going to be all kinds of violence – revolutionary, lumpen and outright criminal”.
The government though “is responsible for the monstrous situations it creates”. (Ibid) Resulting from those ‘monstrous situations’, thousands “have been killed. Others have been tortured, raped, detained or beaten. Villages have been destroyed, homes blown up”, states Mira Kamdar in the Huffington Post (HP)v. The state has used excessive force with “an outright arrogant disregard for human rights”. And as the military moves deeper and deeper into the Naxalites forested retreats it becomes impossible to spot the school child from the child solider, with tragic consequences. The movement (estimated by the government to have a presence in almost a third of India’s 600-odd districts across 20 states) is strongest in rural districts with poor governance and public services, where the government has virtually abandoned the poor. Areas populated predominantly by Adivasi, Dalit and tribal people, like the Musahars or ‘Mouse people’ of Bihar. So-called “because they are reduced to trapping and eating mice to survive, [they] live in unimaginable conditions of penury”, reports Mira Kamdar (HP).
Such groups have been disregarded by the state and ignored by India’s ruling classes and aspiring middle who look west to import their values and would prefer not to be bothered by matters of poverty, rural rape and murder; farmers’ suicides and the environmental devastation taking place outside the Delhi/Mumbai growth capsule.