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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 1, December 25, 2010 (Annual 2010)

Militant Left Radicalism, State and Civil Society with Special Focus on Land Rights

Friday 31 December 2010, by B K Roy Burman

First phase of militant Left radicalism and state response

The first manifestation of militant Left radicalism was in the Naxalbari area of West Bengal. Though ideological issues were also involved, the then United Front Government considered the discontent of the peasantry as providing political space for the militant radicals to operate. The government adopted a massive programme of vesting one million acres of ceiling surplus land of the big zamindars, Jotedars and land owners for distribution among the landless and marginal farmers all over the State. This strategy won back the peasantry to the normal political process. When militancy spread to North Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, the Government of India issued a series of guidelines all over the country to implement land reform laws.1 Besides, to create an environment, a series of seminars involving intellectuals and activists were organised at the national and State levels, where ideological issues were also discussed.

Coincidence of policy shift and reappearance of militant radicalism2

From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s the Central Government and the Plan documents used to reiterate commitment to the reduction of inequality of income and wealth among and within different sections of the community. With the paradigm shift of economic policy from 1991, all these values of egalitarianism, equity, control of exploitation and political justice lost priority. It may not be fortuitous that the emergence of Left radicalism from apparent hibernation, coincided with this period of policy shift.

Civil Society Initiative

While the Government of India and the State governments perceive the activities of the different militant Left radical groups (popularly called Naxalite groups) as a law and order problem and as the greatest threat to India’s internal security, in 1997 a Committee of Concerned Citizens (CCC), characterising the upsurge as basically struggles of the rural poor, especially the tribals, and recognising that these struggles were political in nature, took the initiative to bring the people’s aspirations and right to live with dignity on to the agenda of the Naxalite movements and the government. Reporting on the outcome of the initiative, the CCC observed: “Rule of law should have a right perspective and social transformation should work towards an egalitarian society. The Committee feels that in this regard, the state has failed in its obligation.” The CCC, however, did not spare the Naxalites. In several instances the Committee noticed a high degree of brutality in the way the Naxalite parties dealt with the people.3

Political credo of the Naxalites

There are several militant Left radical parties. In 2004 two most influential among them, namely, the CPI-ML (People’s War Group) and Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), merged to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist).4

As mentioned by Nandini Sundar in her paper contributed to this seminar, Article 4 of the CPI (Maoist) constitution describes the party’s goals in terms of long-term state capture.

The immediate aim of the party is to accomplish the New Democratic Revolution in India by overthrowing imperialism, feudalism and comprador bureaucratic capitalism only through protracted people’s war and establishing people’s democratic dictatorship under the leadership of the proletariat.

There are certainly vestiges of colonial rule and some emerging features of neocolonialism and bureaucratic capitalism in India. Besides, feudal values inform the functioning of many institutions in the country. But the acts of violence indulged in by the Maoists and particularly their complete disregard of international humanitarian laws cannot but alienate them even from those who are sympathetic to their immediate political goal. Besides, the Maoists seem not to have awakened to the fact that under the threat of eco-catastrophe, the Westphalian nation-state system is undergoing radical transformation and old thinkings about the dynamics of revolution have become outdated.

Rapid spread of the area of influence of militant Left radicalism

After the formation of the CPI (Maoist) in 2004, there has been a rapid spread of the influence of militant radicalism. The Standing Committee on Intersectoral Issues, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, (SCII-MOTA), reported in 2005 that 153 districts in 13 States had come under the influence of the militant radicals, out of which 75 had tribal presence.5 In 2006, the Planning Commission had constituted an Expert Group (EG-PC) to examine the “Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas”. The EG-PC in its report (2008) mentioned that the Naxal movement was active in 125 districts spread over 12 States.6 In the Frontline of May 7, 2010, Ramakrishnan observed that the overall Maoist influence has spread from 56 districts in 2001 to 223 in 2009, of which 70 were most affected.7

Contextualisation of the militant Left radicalism: a closer look

The EG-PC rightly observes that while public policy perspective concedes that the areas where militant radicalism is active, suffer from deficient development and unaddressed grievances of the people,8 the causes of discontent, unrest and extremism are varied.9 It is to be noted that while inadequacy of development or inefficiency of ameliorative measures may cause resentment and may even account for Left radicalism, these by themselves cannot account for the militant turn of the same. Primarily based on the Government of India’s Committee on Land Holding Systems in Tribal Areas, in an article published in the weekly Mainstream on October 17, 2009, I held predatory actions of around a dozen types perpetrated by the apparatuses of the state responsible for the drift of the tribal people to militancy.10 Some of the more important types of predatory actions, dispossessing the tribal people of lands under their occupation since time immemorial, are as follows:

(I) Whereas in many tribal areas individual rights are embedded in community rights, non-recogniton of Community as land and land based resource owning legal person,.

(II) Continuation of the Roman legal concept of res nullius (that which has not been assigned by the sovereign belongs to the sovereign) introduced in the country by the colonial rulers.

(III) Promotion of the neo-feudalisation process by illegally recognising the headman as the owner of the entire land of the particular tribal community and subsequent appropriation of the same by conferring privileges and paltry financial benefits as compensation.

(IV) Confiscation of ownership/occupancy right of the tribal peoples on lands above 10 degrees slope in hilly tracts by using the environmental concern as alibi, as a result of which in some areas hardly one per cent of the land under actual occupation of the tribals has been recorded in their favour.

(V) Massive displacement of population for implementation of industrial, power and other projects without proper economic, socal and psychological rehabilitation.
For constraints of time I shall deal with only the issue of non-recognition of the communal land rights of the tribal peoples as on this issue the government had made some commitment when the report of the Land Holding System Committee was presented to the Lok Sabha (USQ 675 dt 15.4.1987).

Government Commitment in the Lok Sabha

In response to the observation of the Study Group that Community as such was not recorded during land survey and settlement operations, the Government of India in a written statement submitted to the Lok Sabha observed:
It has been rightly recommended by the Study Group that the Survey and Settlement Acts and manuals of different States should be studied to ensure that the rights relevant for the tribals are recorded. It is recognised that this is particularly important in a traditional society where separation of individual from community in matters of property relations concerning land does not exit. The Department of Rural Develop-ment agrees with the recommendation about the need for an intensive study of Communal land systems. It is also recognised that where individual rights are embedded in Communal rights, removal of the community removes the necessary condition for the concerned individuals to enjoy their rights, and therefore this aspect will need to be kept in view while framing land reform policies.

Obstacle within

Three decades ago, the Planning Commission’s Committee on Development of Backward Areas, in its report on Development of the North-Eastern Region, recommended that for the sake of progress community land right should be privatised.11 It seems that it was in line with the then dominant authoritarian thinking among the environmentalists represented by Hardin’s postulate “Tragedy of the Commons”. Even now, though the participatory democratic approach is advocated by many, the earlier approach, characterised by disdain for the people and the poor, continues to hold the ground. This is reflected in the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Godavarman case which requires that any land mentioned as forest in any official document cannot be denotified without approval of the Supreme Court. There are empirical evidences that this has disastrous effects on the life and livelihood of the tribals. This raises a more fundamental question in the realm of legal epistemology.

Aberration as a result of failure to honour the Commitment

The Expert Group on Prevention of Alienation of Tribal Land and its Restoration, constituted by the Ministry of Rural Development (EG-MORD), in its report submitted in 2004 (reprinted 2006), observes that while community ownership of land continues to be the dominant mode in tribal societies and takes precedence over that of individual ownership, it is a matter of concern that land reforms, following the abolition of intermediaries, treated the Community and wastelands as government lands and were assigned to other purposes. “This,” in the words of the EG-MORD, “constitutes a violation of the land rights of the tribals and hence an alienation.”12

Another type of serious aberration has been reported by a researcher.12(a) Though as a sequel to a series of tribal revolts, particularly the one led by Birsa Munda, the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act 1908 recognises community land and though thereafter in the land survey and settlement operations during the colonial regime it used to be recorded, during the revisional survey, which commenced in 1978, it mostly disappeared. Nandini Sundar has recorded another development. The government claimed that the tribals were enjoying land in Santal Paraganas at its pleasure; they have no customary right in respect of such land; and hence the government can allot the same land to a mining enterprise for greater public good, without paying any compensation to the concerned tribals. To this preposterous claim the High Court agreed.12(b) This raises several questions on what evidence the High Court has taken decision in this matter. Available case records for several African countries show that in such matters the courts extensively depend on the findings of anthropologists, historians and other researchers. It seems that in India Austin’s command law orientation has predominantly created problems in protecting the land rights of the tribal peoples. There should be intensive examination of alternative legal epistemologies. Second, the court decision in the Jharkhand case will affect not only the land rights of the tribals but also their water right. To put the matter in perspective, a brief mention would be made of an observation of the Human Rights Commissioner of the UN: “Access to safe drinking water by an indigenous people is closely linked to their control over their ancestral lands, territories and resources. Lack of legal recognition or protection of these can therefore have far-reaching implications for their enjoyment of rights.” This is exactly what seems to have happened in India. In a published article in August 2009, a researcher of the Law University, Bangalore has expressed apprehension that development of mines already on the agenda in Dantewada and the adjoining region of Chhattisgarh will cause serious drinking water problem for millions of persons.12(c) This requires to be checked.

An illustration of Community land right13

The EG-MORD has recommended that members of the Scheduled Tribes living together in a traditional geographical habitation should be recognised as constituting a tribal community and such community should be deemed to be a land holding legal person. Proceeding further, the EG-MORD recommends “where such Community is practising shifting cultivation, the land should be recorded in the name of the Community”.

This is just an illustration. As a part of civil society intiative, academic activism required to be mobilised to prepare an inventory of different types of use of communal land and land based resources of different types of management of the same. Here it is to be noted that apart from inextricable interest for the tribal peoples, recognition of community land and land based resource right has wider implication for humanity as a whole. There are studies at the international level which suggest that community resource management system provides the best mechanism to cope with the challenge of the gathering environmental crisis.12(d)

Quantum of Communal land in India

According to Chopra et al.,13 of the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, 7.4 per cent of the total geographical area of the country, that is, around 2.3 lakh sq. km, is under a pattern of land management which from its description appears to be communal land. Out of this 2.3 lakh sq. km of land, an estimated one lakh sq. km is situated in North-East India, and the rest is outside North-East India. There are indications that the bulk of the rest is located in Central India. It does not require much imagination to appreciate that denial of the traditional right of the people of the vast tract of land is untenable in pragmatic politics, if not in terms of ethics and democratic norms.

Civil Society intervention is indispensable to maintain democratic character of the state

Media reports14 indicate that some of policy-makers are advocating direct involvement of the Army and Air Force to contain the Naxalite upsurge. For protecting the democratic character of the Indian state, civil society should decisively intervene so that (a) the Army and Air Force are not involved in any manner, (b) while on the one hand the apparatuses of the state must refrain from all forms of predatory action, including appropriation of Community land as state land, on the other requisite assistance should be extended to the Communities to conserve and develop their Communal resources for optimisation of production and satisfaction of diverse social needs.

Follow-up action after Community is recognized as land and land-based resource holding legal person

(I) Amendment of banking law to enable banks extend institutional finance to the Community as land holding legal person.

(II) Examination of the Mutually Aided Cooperative Act of Andhra as well as cooperative laws and functional norms in different countries so that the cooperative sector can supplement the banking sector in providing institutional finance.

(III) As bio-diversity along with conservation function satisfies various social needs, participatory research is to be stepped up manifold.

(IV) As along with biodiversity conservation and its social use, forestry and agriculture are expected to be the main land use of Community land, the feasibility of adopting two new trends in these sectors is to be examined. With this end the following are to be noted.

(a) In 2000 AD along with 161 countries, India adopted a protocol in the forestry sector called the Criteria and Indicator approach. It provides for preparation of a series of local unit forest working plan through synthesis of people’s knowledge and interest on the one hand and research based technical skill on the other. The Indian Government had issued a circular in 2000 AD advising the State governments to adopt the approach. But it seems that there is no enthusiasm in any quarter to adopt it. However, in 2008 a frame for synthesis of people’s knowledge and research insight was developed in Sikkim and on February 5, 2009 the Chief Minister made a public statement that the main function of the Forest Guards would be extension work rather than policing work. With this end, the Forest Guards would be designated as Van Sevaks. As the C and I approach and the Sikkim initiative seem to have the potential of radicalising the forest management, these may be examined in depth for furtherance of civil society initiative.
(b) Several States have adopted the agenda of universalising organic farming in the agricultural sector. But there is reason to believe that research support in specific agro-climatic context is inadequate. For sustainable development of the communal land holding system, the programme of promotion of organic farming also requires a close look.

Delivery Mechanism

For formulation and coordinated implementation of programmes there must be efficient and effective governance. But in this matter the situation is far from satisfactory. The SCII-MOTA observes that the Tribal Sub-Plan (TSP) has been existing on paper. It is based on a D.O. letter written by the Prime Minister to the Chief Ministers in 1980. But as required by administrative norms, it should have been followed by the issuance of an official order by the Cabinet Secretariat, but this was not done. Besides, as funds are allocated only notionally towards the TSP, over a period it has lost its vigour and vitality and as a result become a mere ritual. Mostly Ministries merely make some notional allocations towards the TSP, but these are not pursued seriously. The role of the MOTA is largely of advocacy without being really empowered to have any meaningful say. Besides, the Integrated Tribal Development Projects/Agencies (ITDPs ITDAs) have by and large become defunct.15

What has been stated by the SCII-MOTA has been confirmed by the Draft National Tribal Policy 2006:16 “The TSP mechanism has become routine and humdrum, in most States it has become a loose agglomeration of schemes prepared by line departments and driven more by departmental priorities than by thrust on development of tribals and tribal areas.” The norms of different schemes are not adjusted to the demographic, ecological and socio-economic specificities of tribal people and tribal areas.

Four years have elapsed since the sorry state of affairs were revealed by the Draft National Policy but there is hardly any indication that the situation has improved. There are 12 State Tribal Research Institutes. The nation would not have been in the dark had they been functioning according to the accepted norms of research. But as noted in the Draft Policy, “the functioning of the TRIs over the years has become routine and has been constrained by financial and adminis-trative shortages”. It is not known what type of administrative shortages the TRIs have; but severe financial shortage has not stopped senior bureaucrats (IAS and State Service Officers) being appointed as Research Commissioners and Directors.

At the grassroot level, the delivery mechanism has another facet. The EG-PC has suggested that the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 may serve as an effective delivery mechanism. But as in 2001, in India as a whole the Fifth Schedule covers 18 full districts and 51 part districts.17 From available information it seems that out of the 125 districts under the influence of militant radicalism, only 13 full districts and 19 part districts are covered by the Fifth Schedule. The EG-PC has suggested that all tribal predominant areas may be covered by the Fifth Schedule. But many of these areas are village clusters,18 and the Draft National Tribal Policy has observed that future scheduling can be done only at the gram panchayat level, not even at the block level. Besides, the EG-PC has mentioned that there is resistance from the States against the adoption of the PESA definition of a village. While the cause of resistance has not been adequately explained, the EG-PC has suggested that it should be ensured that the State Legislatures adopt the PESA definition of a village.19 Such authoritarian approach is undesirable. Furthermore, it should be noted that the Committee of MPs and Experts has characterised the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution as having the grains of autonomy and the Fifth Schedule as paternalistic in its thrust. Obviously the tribals today cannot be expected to be satisfied with paternalistic protection. It may be considered whether all tribal predominant areas should be covered by a modified Sixth Schedule and whether the positive uncontroversial provisions of the PESA can be incorporated in the same.

As reported by the media on November 26, 2010, the Government of India has19(a) adopted an Integrated Action Plan (IAP) for 60 Naxal hit areas—most of which are tribal predominant and/or backward areas. The IAP would be an additional Central grant of Rs 25 crores for each district during 2010-11 and Rs 30 crores during 2011-12. This Central Assistance Scheme would be on a 100 per cent grant basis for quick solution of problems concerning health care, drinking water, eduation and roads. It is significant that at the district level the schemes would be decided by a Committee consisting of the Collector, Superintendent of Police and the District Forest Officer. At the decision-making level the Panchayati Raj Institutions and even the officers of the concerned line departments and Tribal Affairs Department will not have any direct role. Here it is to be noted that in 2004 an Expert Group set up by the Ministry of Rural Development observed that the Forest Department has no knowledge, skill and sympathy to manage the forest for conservation.20 Has the situation changed? Civil society will have to carefully watch the implications of this strange arrangement, for preparing and overseeing the implementation of the “integrated” action plan.

Civil Society reconceptualised

In this write-up while many action-items have been mentioned, the specificities of the same, some of which are of technical nature, will have to be determined. For instance, as already mentioned, though the TSP strategy is in existence for decades, the norms of most of the schemes have not been laid down. From the information available about the coordination of the delivery mechanism, it is obvious that the norms cannot be determined and enforced by the same. If the civil society is to take the initiative, the technical part of the job will have to be taken up by insti-tutions like the University Grants Commission and Indian Council of Social Science Research. The technical assistance rendered by them should be considered as part of the civil society initiative.

Scope of proactive action

For constraints of time I have confined the scope of proactive action to the civil society initiative on pressurising the state to honour its commitment to the Lok Sabha on recognition of the Community as land holding legal person and related matters. But in real life situation such matters are interrelated with a host of other matters including ameliorative measures, delivery mechanism, political economy, cultural superstructure. The EG-PC has suggested a large number of ameliorative measures; my article on the agenda of proactive action, published in the weekly Mainstream of April 17, 2010, fairly comprehensively covers other linked matters.21 While these may be brought to the notice of the participants in this seminar, it will be unrealistic to discuss them in a seminar of two days duration. In 1970 the then tribal situation was covered in a ten-day-long seminar organised by the Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla. The participants in the present seminar may like to pass a resolution requesting the ICSSR to sponsor a similar seminar of ten days duration.

[Text of the Keynote Address delivered by the author at a seminar on “Militant Left Redicalism, State and Civil Society: the Centrality of Tribal Land Rights”, organised by the Council for Social Development, New Delhi, December 10-11, 2010]


1. Planning Commission, 2008, Development Challenge in Extremist Affected Areas, paras 4.1, 4.2, 4.3.

2. Ibid., para 4.4.

3. Committee of Concerned Citizens, Hyderabad, 1998, In Search of Democratic Space

4. Op. cit. 1, para 3.12.

5. Standing Committee on Intersectoral Issues relating to Tribal Development, Ministry of Tribal Affairs (SCII-MOTA), para 5.1.

6. Op. cit. 1, para 1.1.1.

7. V. Ramakrishnan, 2010, ‘Flawed Operation’, Frontline, May 7, 2010.

8. Op. cit. 1, para 5.71.

9. Op. cit. 1, para 3.1.1.

10. Roy Burman, B.K., 2009, ‘What has driven the tribals of Central India to Political Extremism’, Mainstream, October 17, 2009.

11. Planning Commission, National Committee on Development of Backward Areas, 1980, Report on North-East India.

12. Expert Group on Prevention of Alienation of Tribal Land and its Restoration, 2004/2006, paras III, V, VI and X.

12(a) Upadhyay, Carol, 2005, ‘Community rights in land in Jharkhand’, EPW, October 8, 2005.

12(b) Sunder, Nandini, 2009, ‘Framing the political imagination, custom, democracy and citizenship’, Legal Ground: Natural Resource, Identity and the Law, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

12(c) Ray, Protuti, 2003, ‘Economic Reforms in India’, Mainstream, August 29, 2009.

12(d) Hay, Peter, 2002/2009, A Companion of Environmental Thought (Indian edition), Rawal Publication, New Delhi, 2009.

13. Kanchan Chopra et al. (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Environ-mental Economy, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, p. 32.

14. The Hindu, June 11, 2010.

15. Op. cit. 5, Executive Summary, paras 5, 12.1, 6, 8, 10.

16. Draft National Tribal Policy, 2006, Website http.//

17. Roy Burman, B.K., 2006, ‘Fifth Schedule of the Constitution and Tribals Self-rulers’, Indian Journal of Social Work, vol. 67, Issue 3, July 2006, Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai.

18. Op.cit., paras 2.8.2, 2.11.1.

19. Op.cit., para 5.6.4.

19(a). ‘Action Plan for 60 Naxal Hit Districts’, The Hindu, November 27, 2010.

20. Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, 2004/2006, Report of the Expert Group on Prevention of Alienation of Tribal Land and its Resources, Ch V, para 20.

21. Roy Burman, B.K., 2010, ‘In Quest for a Proactive Approach’, Mainstream, April 17, 2010.

Prof B.K. Roy Burman was a member of the Scheduled Tribes Advisory Council (1968-70) (now defunct) and happened to be the Chairman of the Tribal Studies Panel, Indian Council of Social Science Research (1999-2000). He can be contacted by e-mail at