Mainstream, VOL LIV No 51 New Delhi December 10, 2016
Maoist Killings in Malkangiri
Sunday 11 December 2016
by Suranjita Ray
For the last few decades now, Malkangiri district1 of Western Odisha has remained a concern of the governments both at the Centre as well as in the State. It not only ranks last in the indices of development and figures at the top for acute malnutrition, but more recently it has also seen horrors such as that of a father forced to walk six kilometres with the body of his 10-year-old daughter after the ambulance left them midway. Moreover, Malkangiri has seen an increasing number of deaths of children caused by Japanese Encephalitis (JE).2 Most importantly, the Naxal-hit district has made news headlines for the highest number of successful killings of the Maoists.
In the past two decades the Naxal movement has strengthened itself in almost fifty per cent of the districts of Odisha. Besides Malkangiri, the Naxalites have spread in several districts such as Koraput, Nabarangapur, Rayagada, Gajapati, Ganjam, Sundargarh, Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, Sambalpur, Kandhamal, Deogarh, Jharsuguda, and Jajpur. Ever since Sabyasachi Panda, the undis-puted leader of the Naxal movement, declared ‘gun fight and guerrilla war as an important strategy to attain revolutionary goals’, the Maoists, despite the organisational differences between the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist Liberation (CPI-ML Libration) and People’s War Group (PWG), have resorted to a more militarised approach. The Chashi Mulia Samiti, a frontal organisation of the CPI (Maoist), has led several land capture programmes in the tribal villages of the south-western districts which experienced illegal transfers of land from the tribal people in particular. The Maoist-backed Chashi Mulia Adivashi Sangh (CMAS) in Koraput has also occupied large acres of non-tribal land claiming it to be their own. Though the emergence of the non-tribals as the landowning class and the tribals as landless are mutually constituted, it is significant to understand that increasing landlessness of the tribal people and the process of alienation of tribal land not only accelerated due to land transfers to the non-tribals, but also due to the dismantling of the community ownership of land, and control over the common land and forests.
Since the state in alliance with the corporate sector plays a vital role in acquiring common land in the name of development projects, despite resulting in alienation of livelihood resources, displacement, deprivation, disentitle-ment, and impoverishment for the large majority who remain disadvantaged and disempowered, the Maoists have waged a war against the development policies of the state. More than 40 per cent of the displaced families in Odisha who have lost control over the sources of livelihood due to the big development projects, are the tribal people. Though successive regimes in Odisha have acknowledged Naxalism as a socio-economic problem, there has been no clear policy to resolve the problem. Rather an important strategy to counter the rising influence of Naxalites has seen increasing killings of several Maoist cadres.
Feat of the State
Malkangiri, which was a part of the undivided Koraput district, saw the emergence of the Naxalite movement as a peasant movement in the early 1960s. The Naxal movement had a cumulative influence in Malkangiri due to the land transfers from the tribals to the non-tribals alongside the land disputes between tribals and Bangladeshi refugees. Surrounded by hills on three sides and Balimela reservoir on the fourth, Ramgarh village remains a safe place for the Maoists. Though there have been mass surrenders and killing of several Maoist cadres during the past encounters, the shooting and chasing by a joint team of Greyhounds Commandos and Odisha Police in the early hours of October 24, 2016, that killed twenty-four Maoists on the outskirts of Malkangiri along the Andhra-Odisha border, have exceeded the earlier killings. The death toll rose to thirty Maoists the next day. For the villagers, who are yet to recover from the rifle’s sounds, the mud walls struck by bullets remind one of the fear and insecurity that have become a regular living experience for the villagers in Ramgarh. The whereabouts of thirteen villagers out of the seventeen who were taken by the Maoists is not known. One of them has been shot. This recapitulates the killings of the villagers in the adjacent districts in the recent past. The police claimed that the villagers—five tribals, including a two-year-old—were killed on July 26, 2015 as the autorikshaw in which they were travelling came in the line of firing between the police and Maoists at Pongalpadar in Kandhamal district. Three villagers from Nisanguda and Panchkul, including two tribals and a Dalit, who were looking for the missing goats of a panchayat ward member, were shot dead in a reserve forest of Kalahandi in the combing operations on November 15, 2015. (Mohanty, 2016: 8)
The killings of the Maoists, who had gathered on October 24 in a ‘cut-off area’ of Malkangiri to re-strengthen their base, was ‘the biggest loss’ suffered by the party in the last forty years of its revolutionary struggle. A press note, issued in the name of ‘Pratap’, accused the police of ‘capturing its 11 comrades in injured condition and killing them after torture’. He claimed that ‘the killing of common people in fake encounters has become a routine and the October 24 encounter was a part of this series’. The Maoists called for a bandh in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana on November 3 in the light of the encounter with the security forces.
The anti-Maoist operation is a major success for the security forces as Malkangiri happens to be a major transit zone of the Maoists. The encounter has been understood as a befitting response to the earlier failed attempt by the Greyhounds when thirtytwo of them were killed on June 29, 2008 while returning in boats from a combing operation in a cut-off area of Malkangiri. Since this was understood as a victory for the Maoists, eight years later the killings of the Maoists is approved as a tactical response that is proportional to the killing of the Greyhounds and thus is counted as a bigger success for the state. (Ibid.: 12) It is a defeat of the Maoists across States as in the recent past several Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans in Dantewada and Sukma have been killed by skillfully concealed Impoverised Explosive Devices (IEDs) by the Maoists.
While the attack on the Maoists might have led to a brief period of peace, it is unwise for the government to assume that the former will not retaliate. Though the strength of the Maoists and their support-base has declined in the last one year as hundreds of Maoist supporters, including militias, have surrendered,3 it is important to comprehend that violence against the Maoists as a strategy in the past had failed to curtail violence by the Maoists. Increased killings in the past either of the Maoists, the police or the villagers have only aggravated fear and insecurity in these regions and normalcy remains a far dream. The harrowing histories of human tragedy unfold the failure of the state to resolve the conflicts that have grown over the years between the state and the people.
Since the Naxal insurgency is seen as abhorrent due to the growing violent nature of the movement, the mainstream security narratives most of the times concur with the increasing violence and coercion that people in the interiors of the rural areas have been experiencing in their everyday life. The Centre’s recent warning to the Chief Ministers of the worst Naxal-affected States of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha ‘to head unified commands to deal with the problem of the Left-wing extremism threat more effectively’ can only increase the conflicts and result in more violence. The more the state undermines the Maoist struggles, the more aggressive they would become giving rise to more and more repressive measures by the state.
While the intrinsic right of a nation to protect itself legitimises several such anti-Maoist operations, uncertainty about the official version of the alleged encounter has raised many doubts. The Left-wing poet and civil rights campaigner, P. Varavara Rao, calls the gun-fight in Malkangiri a fake encounter. He has demanded an inquiry by a sitting High Court judge. ‘The police surrounded a Maoist meeting and shot them in cold blood and claimed it as an exchange of fire between them and the rebels.... Post-bifurcation, the influence of the Maoists has come down and they have not launched any major attacks.’ Since fake encounters are not allowed by law, it has raised many questions. Chiluka Chandrasekhar, the petitioner, alleged that the Greyhounds had gone ten kilometres beyond their perimeter to kill the Maoists who had only gathered there for a meeting. They should have been arrested instead of being killed.
Though the security forces alongside certain sections in the media justify such extra-judicial killings as significant to end the Naxalite movement, it is important to understand that resorting to violence to deal with the Maoists should not be the only necessary strategy. Several scholars alongside the human rights activists argue that despite the growing hostility, negotiation should always be given priority as a strategy to resolve conflicts in a democracy. Therefore the reasons for resorting to inhuman harsh laws against the Maoists remain disputed. While the Opposition and the ruling parties miss no opportunity to accuse each other of politicising the issue, what is even more troubling is that the utter turmoil around the killings has shifted the focus from the real issues that concern both the deprived tribal people and the Maoist protests. The Maoists allege that the leaders of the Odisha Government are siding with the mining barons conducting ‘aggressive mining’ that has alienated the local tribal people from access to and control over their livelihood resources. However, the political class has not only consistently supported the development policies that have ignored the basic rights to means of livelihood of the tribal people, particularly in the south-western regions of the State, but has also made all possible efforts to convince the tribals that growing conflicts and insecurity in these region can only be resolved by killing the Maoists. Such a strategy reflects the political class’ perception of the role of a coercive and repressive state that will only perpetuate violence.
Though the last decade has seen Odisha as an emerging economy, the new symbols of prosperity and growth have remained confined to the urban cities of the coastal region and its benefits have been cornered by the dominant class. The increase in the average growth rate of Odisha is because of the higher growth rate in the coastal and northern regions. The growth rate in the southern regions continues to remain low. The western region of Odisha, in particular the KBK districts, continue to remain the poorest, backward and underdeveloped for certain communities and groups—the underprivileged. Though increasing investment in employment expansion alongside the social sector, such as health, education, water, sanitation, child nutrition and targeted poverty reduction programmes, has provided some benefits to the tribal people, the experiences at the grassroots reveal that they remain largely relief measures. Despite a host of poverty alleviation programmes that provide immediate relief to the poor, the wide array of development programmes and huge grants that poured into this area have failed to change the growing dispossession at the local level. There has been no radical change in the systemic deprivation and extreme distress on the ground. Special attention to the KBK region has brought development in the already better-off blocks, further widening the regional disparities within the district. There is enough evidence that the state’s policies on development are flawed.
The irony is that none of the political parties addresses the underlying causes of the extreme need, distress and famine conditions that persist in Malkangiri as major issues even in the election campaigns. The least they have done is to ameliorate such conditions. The processes of systemic and cumulative deprivations are embedded in the social, economic, cultural, and political structures of society. The prolonged phase of stagnation with continuing dominance of the big landowners in the western region, its economic backwardness and tribal composition alongside the eastern-based character of the political parties, and its factional and personality-oriented politics, left the KBK districts in a state of uncertainty, instability, poverty and inequality as compared to the districts of coastal Odisha.
Though huge grants poured to develop the backward KBK region, there has been no intervention to alter the disadvantaged situation in which the tribal people are placed. The history of Malkangiri had seen the subjugation of the tribal people economically, socially, politically and culturally. Despite special packages for the district, the governments have failed to provide socio-economic opportunities to the people for realising their rights to livelihood. Malkangiri remains backward not only in terms of the Composite Development Index (CDI) but also in terms of economic development as little occupational diversification has taken place. Huge acres of land, rich with mineral resources across the regions inhabited by the tribal population of the State, have been converted for the benefits of the industrialists, building and mine-owners. Displace-ment of the tribal population has increased in recent times as 80 per cent of the ongoing projects in mining or industrial sectors are located in these regions. This has deprived the tribal people of the access to land, water and forests. Despite a series of socio-economic and political reforms and policies based on ‘protective discrimination’ against injustice and inequality, and implementation of the ‘Rehabilitation and Resettlement (R&R)’ policy, dismantling of the traditional production systems has resulted in disintegration of the livelihood system, alienation, deprivation and landlessness. The R&R measures are more technical and economic in nature and ignore the cultural, social, and ecological aspects of rehabilitation. This has caused increasing unrest across the State bringing the majority of the landless tribal people/adivasis and Dalits directly into confrontation with the state. The prolonged confrontation has raised serious questions about the very nature of the state.
While it was important to reconstitute the decolonialised state on a genuinely popular basis and representative democracy was subject to several revisions in the past, the dialectical relations between the state and its people explain the process of democratic transition that has failed to change the class character of the state. The conscious decision of the state not to control the acquisitiveness of the economically dominant class has curtailed its ability to intervene to redistribute the basic productive resources. While policy reforms have evolved substantially, they have not contributed to the strengthening of mainstream policy-making for such redistributions. Rather, they have reinforced the marginalisation of the landless and the displaced. Despite the fact that ownership and control over land has major implications for the living conditions in an agrarian economy, land rights continue to remain neglected in the policy reforms. A growth-centric approach to development has contributed to an economy which is extractive in terms of resources and labour power. Lack of education and health-care, widespread unemployment, and the growing alienation amongst the poor, landless tribals have provided enough reasons for increasing the hostility between the people and the state.
Over the years, the State governments have accused the Central governments of the neglect of western Odisha. The lack of cooperation between the two governments enhanced the distress contributing to the development of apathy amongst the people towards the political parties. The general response of the villagers is that the politicians only make false promises in the pre-election campaigns as nothing has changed during the past and the disparities have become more conspicuous. Persistence of poverty, underdevelopment and distress in the KBK region despite being rich in natural resources is one of the major reasons for demanding ‘Kosala Rajya’ as a ‘separate State’.
Increasing inequalities, deprivations and disparities have made the interiors of the rural areas more vulnerable to the forces of the Maoist movement. Violations of the people’s rights have seen the escalation in Maoist activity in vast areas of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh (southern), Odisha (western), and Jharkhand. Parts of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala have shown signs of a Naxalite revival. One of the reasons why the Maoists have been able to sustain themselves and even revive in certain areas is because of their contestation against the state’s big development projects which have resulted in increasing deprivation of certain sections of society that is inextricably and structurally entwined with the power relations at the local level. Therefore the intervention of the state to alter the structures of domination and control is important.
The Maoist insurgency in large parts of the country in response to the development policies of the state, based on the neoliberal ideology that privileges the capitalist class, and the state’s counter-insurgency strategies and use of violence against the Maoists and common people illustrates the para-military nature of the state structure resulting in violence, aggression, insurgency and counter-insurgency operations. Killing the Maoists, adivasis, and police in Malkangiri and elsewhere has become more frequent than in the past, which illustrates the declining space to engage with the state. Custodial deaths and encounter killings are no longer exceptional cases. The human rights and civil liberties activists and participants of protest movements, who challenge the state’s policies and development projects, are accused of supporting the Maoists.
It is important for the government to acknowledge that the Maoist movement cannot be simply understood as a violent movement that needs to be crushed from the legal stance. (See also Narayanan, 2016: 12) While the present Odisha Government expects the Naxalites to come to the negotiating table without any preconditions, the irony is that the response of the government has been primarily to address the movement as a major law and order problem. Unless Left-wing extremism in Odisha is addressed with strategies beyond the legal standpoint, it is unlikely that Maoists will give up their hostile approach towards the state. If the trend in violence and resorting to killings continues to be a necessary strategy of the government as well as the Maoists, it will foster revival of violence and insecurity, which has become the new normal to an extent that one fears to live without fear. This fear is not simply because of the increasing violence both by the state and the Maoists. It is also the fear of growing suppression of their values and subordination in their everyday living due to the state policies.
It is important that the government addresses the root causes of the increasing inequalities and deprivations to win the trust of the people, rather than seeking their support by convincing them that the Maoists are the common enemies of the state and the tribal people. It is high time the state rethinks its strategies to negotiate conflicts and initiate peace talks. The practice of democracy will remain incomplete without such pursuits.
[These understandings are based on insights I have drawn from working with the tribal people in the KBK region.—S.R.]
Mohanty, Debabrata (2016), ‘Killed in Anti-Maoist Ops: Elderly Couple Calling Son, Villagers Looking for Goats’ in The Indian Express, July 12, page 8.
..................... (2016), ‘For Greyhounds, Comeback After Setback of 2008’ in The Indian Express, October 26, page 12.
Narayanan, M.K. (2016), ‘The Forgotten War’ in The Hindu, November 11, page 12.
1. Malkangiri in western Odisha is one of the eight districts of the KBK region that also include Kalahandi, Bolangir, Koraput, Nuapada, Nabarangpur, Rayagada, and Sonepur.
2. Though deaths have occurred in the past due to JE in Malkangiri, this year the State Government has totally failed to reach the children in the affected villages with the vaccine. The Zilla Adivasi Samaj Mahasangh has challenged the medical reports which find that consumption of beans of Cassia occidentalis, locally known as Bada Chakunda, is a major cause of death among children apart from JE. The Mahasangh argues that the tribals have been eating these beans for generations as a remedy against stomach ailments, skin diseases and worms and such consumption cannot become the cause of death among children.
3. As many as 222 Maoist sympathisers, that included 19 militia and 72 women, surrendered before the Malkangiri Police on November 22, 2016.
Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science in Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at suranjitaray_66[at]yahoo.co.in