Debating Peace in Contested Spaces: Foregrounding Adivasi Assertion in Revolutionary India

Vidushi Kaushik and Denise Ripamonti 

[This article builds on our book chapter Maoist Conflict in India, originally published in Richmond O., Visoka G. (eds) The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Peace and Conflict Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham]


 

Margins for dialogue and negotiations have always been narrow and inconsistent in the five-decade-long strife between the Maoist (Naxal) rebels and the Indian state. In a context of enduring violence and permanent repression, efforts aimed at building spaces for de-escalation and dialogue have usually proved to be short-lived, if not misused, to gain advantages in this unrelenting armed struggle which is ongoing in India since the peasant uprising of Naxalbari erupted in West Bengal in 1967.

In the last few months, two major Maoist incidents which occurred one after the other during massive counterinsurgency operations in the Bastar division of Chhattisgarh on the 23rd of March and the 3rd of April have cast a dark shadow over the ongoing debate on how conditions for peace talks could be created in the state which is the current epicentre of the Maoist conflict in the country. In Chhattisgarh, the ruling Congress government formed in 2018 under the leadership of the Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel had indicated its plan to promote peace talks with the Maoists in its electoral manifesto, suggesting the intention to mark a clear shift from the repressive security approach followed in the state by the previous BJP rule for 15 years. Civil-society initiatives like the “New Peace Process”, which was started in 2018, have been amplifying this discussion on the need for a different engagement with the Maoist rebels. Through a series of symbolic campaigns such as the recent peace march from the Maoist base of Narayanpur to the state capital of Raipur called Dandi March 2.0 (12-23 March 2021), the “New Peace Process” is trying to appeal to both the Maoists and the state to end violence and find a peaceful settlement of the problem through dialogue.

However, suspicion and lack of trust emerging from failed experiments with negotiations in the past (in 2004, 2010, and 2011) continue to limit the possibility of a meaningful engagement with conflict transformation processes in regions with Maoist presence, where peace talks have mostly remained either a rhetorical exercise or a strategic tool of counterinsurgency and military assertion (Fazal, 2015). Reasons for this failure to envision conducive spaces for peace to be built are closely interrelated with the mainstreaming of a superficial representation of the Maoist movement as a binary two-actor confrontation between the state and the armed rebels. By foregrounding the armed character of the movement, this simplified narrative denies its political complexity and obliterates the question of participation and political assertion of Adivasi (i.e. indigenous) communities, which has not yet become a central issue in discussions on peace talks between the Maoists and the state.

It is worth recalling that though usually perceived as an intractable conflict, simmering in areas historically portrayed as peripheral spaces of the Indian territory, the Maoist insurgency emanates from a broader Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutionary movement aimed at a socialist transformation of the Indian state and society. Its long course has always remained closely intertwined with the evolving dynamics of India’s democracy and socio-economic development, notwithstanding repeated cycles of fragmentation and transformation, which have characterised its evolution within the political landscape of the country over the years.

In the context of India’s globalised economy, the Maoist movement is articulating an alternative to the ideological foundations of the development model based on the neoliberal reforms that, since 1991, have been accelerating not only the liberalisation of the Indian economy, but also the processes of dispossession of land and rights of historically marginalised communities of the Indian society, i.e., Adivasis, Dalits, and lowered-castes. This is particularly evident in the mineral-rich regions of central-eastern India, which have now become strategic territories for India’s economic growth, currently driven by mining and resource-based industrialisation.

It is exactly in these areas, where there is a dense Adivasi population and considerable natural resources but a long record of low human development indicators, that the activities of the Communist Party of India (Maoist)/CPI (Maoist)the leading military and political force of the current phase of the Maoist movementare presently concentrated. 

Banner from a protest in north Bastar. The protest was against setting up a police camp at the tri-junction of three districts without the constitutional requirement of approval from villages. February/2020. Photo: Vidushi Kaushik

Adivasi Assertion and Maoists: A False Equivalence

Public discourse on Maoism in India usually conflates the conflict to be synchronous with Adivasi political assertion. This however requires closer scrutiny.  

Within Maoist literature, Dalits and Adivasis have been termed as the primary demographic focus for joining the movement for the overthrow of feudal structures. While a significant number of the guerrilla forces have Adivasi participation, radical left politics is not the only political language existing in the overall Adivasi lifeworld. Nilsen (2012) through his work on grassroots Adivasi mobilisation in ‘Bhil heartland’1The term Bhil heartland signifies the bhil Adivasi community that resides in western and central India in states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.explicitly derails the notion of Adivasi resistance as congruent with radical left politics. He empirically illustrates that subaltern politics in India “negotiates between the Scylla of anti-statism and the Charybdis of state-centrism to advance Adivasi emancipation in contemporary India,” (2012, p.254). What these contemporary studies of Adivasi mobilisation indicate is the changing nature of subaltern politics and assertion that uses both state measures and a militant form of resistance to confront the power of regional dominant elites and, in turn, expand their nature of relations with the state itself.  These recent breakthroughs in subaltern studies throw light at subaltern resistance and its modes of contention that utilize universalising categories of ‘rights’ and in turn challenge the notion of the state as a historical monolith to advance the idea of a state that is defined in relation to its citizens. 

This implies that while Maoist politics and radical left mobilisation sees significant participation from the subaltern groups (Dalits and Adivasis), that is not the only path for resisting and challenging the unequal and structurally violent state or state practices. And it is these alternate or multiple pathways to Adivasi assertion that have expanded the relation of postcolonial India with a growing assertion for self-rule. The Adivasi lifeworld, which values the forest and its importance in everyday life, comes in direct confrontation with neoliberal state-practices and industrialisation in particular. The main realm of Adivasi assertion and resistance concerns the use of–and claim over–forests. While the postcolonial state continues with the colonial system of control over land and forest-related resources, it was through the consistent engagement of grassroots mobilisations and using a rights framework that many of the developmental initiatives that amounted to dispossession and displacement of Adivasis were resisted. From the anti-dam/displacement movements in the 1980s to the present day, resistance against mining projects in Adivasi areas (specifically in central and eastern India) empirically substantiate Adivasi political agency and its use of both constitutional measures and universalising frameworks of rights to further expand their claim as citizens of India. 

In areas where the Maoist movement has been resilient, mobilisation on issues of mining, displacement and development find a coherent voice demanding claim over ‘jal, jungle, jameen’ (water, forest, land). In the forested area of Dandakaranya (comprising of Adivasi dominated districts in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh) these resistances are often delegitimised by terming these localised movements as ‘Maoist fronts’ or ‘Maoist inspired’. 

Shifting the Focus to Adivasi Voices

Any critical reflection on the possibilities for dialogue and peace in the Maoist regions of central and eastern India should engage with a more nuanced discourse on these forms of local struggles, which unfold in the everyday sites of mobilisation/contestation of Adivasi communities as well as through direct involvement in Maoist politics. This will allow a shift away from prevailing narratives that represent the Maoist movement as only predicated on violence and military assertion between two warring parties to a deeper understanding of the larger structural and political questions at stake. As Hebbar succinctly puts it, “Tribes are positioned as the ‘third person’ in this conflict, a non-participant in a dialogue between an ‘I’ and ‘You’,” (2018, pp 80).

The criminalisation of Maoist politics as terrorism under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA, 2019 [1967]) and its conflation with Adivasi mobilisation for rights and social justice delegitimises Adivasi political activism. This is exemplified by the arrest of Hidme Markam, and the recent developments in relation to protests against a police camp in Silger, Bijapur. Markam is an Adivasi rights activist who was leading the movement demanding the release of undertrial Adivasis languishing in jails across the region of Bastar.  This systemic silencing using the logic of counterinsurgency can temporarily contain dissent but such measures further exacerbate the confrontation with the state. Only through a shifting of the lens where the Adivasis are recognised as interlocutors in discussions on conflict transformation can there be a genuine engagement with the long unresolved issues of land rights, social justice, and the effective implementation of constitutional provisions.

References

  • Fazal, T. (2015). ‘Peace Talks’ as Strategic Deployment: The State, Maoists and Political Violence in India. Irish Studies in International Affairs, 26, 39-51. doi:10.3318/isia.2015.26.8.
  • Hebbar, R.  (2018). Reframing the Debate: The Tribal Question and Contemporaneity, in Savyasaachi (ed), Intractable Conflicts in Contemporary India: Narratives and Social Movements (pp 80). London & Delhi: Routledge. 
  • Nilsen, A. G. (2012). Adivasi in and Against the State. Critical Asian Studies, 44:2, 251-282. doi: 10.1080/14672715.2012.672827.

Vidushi Kaushik is a doctoral student at the Ireland India Institute, DCU. As part of the Global India project, her research investigates the surrender and rehabilitation policy of the Indian state in relation to the Maoist conflict. Vidushi’s research interests focus on exploring ideas of peace and various processes involved in moving from violent to non-violent forms of dissent.

 

Denise Ripamonti is a scholar of South Asian politics and a doctoral researcher at the IICRR, School of Law and Government, DCU. Her research work deals with state-society relations in India and in the broader context of South Asia.

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