Chhattisgarh: Do Congress, BJP have a plan beyond Salwa Judum?

By Parivesh Mishra

Raipur: The Maoist attack on Congress leaders in Bastar last month has led to a shift in the public debate in Chhattisgarh from the issues of governance in the tribal region and intelligence and security failure to the lack of focus, clarity and policy in both the BJP and the Congress on issues directly linked to the region and tribals. The most important talking points, however, have been Salwa Judum and autonomy to the tribal region provided for in the Fifth and the Sixth schedules of the constitution.

Salwa Judum—meaning ‘Peace March’ in the local language—was a movement that started in 2005 under the auspices of the BJP-led state government and the ground leadership of the Congress leader Mahendra Karma. It was essentially a civilian militia mobilized and deployed as part of anti-insurgency operations aimed at countering the Naxal in the region. The militia consisting of local tribal youth received support—including money and arms—and training from the state government.

 Chhattisgarh: Do Congress, BJP have a plan beyond Salwa Judum?

Slain Congress leader Mahendra Karma. AFP

The proclaimed objectives apart, the Salwa Judum movement soon lost its way and started damaging and harassing (and killing and raping too) the ordinary tribals more than the Maoists. Thousands of villagers were rounded up, uprooted from their villages and shifted to the camps set up by the state government and financed lavishly by the central government.

No political party saw anything wrong in the state sponsored violence and atrocity then. Some leaders of the Congress like Ajit Jogi and Digvijaya Singh did make periodic noises of opposition to it but were not forceful or effective enough to get a diktat to Mahendra Karma issued from the party to disassociate from it. Karma incidentally was a Digvijaya camp follower.

If there was confusion about the party’s stand on Salwa Judum then, it has only confounded now after the killing of Mahendra Karma. Digvijaya Singh and the working president of the party Mahant have stood solidly behind the family of Karma. The sons have been giving brave statements of their intentions of carrying Salwa Judum forward. The Supreme Court has ordered disbanding of the militia and no explanation so far has been forwarded by the party on how it proposes to see it happening.

The issue of autonomy in the tribal region is another fault line for both the parties. There has been a section of leadership consisting of individuals like the former union minister Arvind Netam and the left parties which have been the advocates of autonomy. They want to see Bastar under effective administration of the Schedule V of the constitution. A letter from the Union Minister of Tribal Affairs Kishore Chandra Deo (4 Apr 2013) to all Governors of schedule V area including Chhattisgarh exhorting implementation of the Schedule has added weight to their pleas. Now the demand to move into the Sixth Schedule is growing by the day.

These schedules were devised as ways to constitutionally address the specific needs and problems of the 100 million strong tribals of India. The Fifth Schedule applies to an overwhelming majority of India’s tribes in nine States, while the Sixth Schedule covers select parts of Assam, Tripura and Mizoram which are autonomous regions.

The 1996 PESA or Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act could have been a landmark for the tribal communities. It mandates the state to devolve certain political, administrative and financial powers to local governments elected by the communities. This became exclusive to the Fifth Schedule areas, to promote tribal self-government. PESA was meant to benefit not only the majority of tribals but also extended to cover minority non-tribal communities.

PESA was considered the most logical step in the Fifth Schedule areas to ensure tribal welfare and accountability. But, alas, it has not been properly implemented. Tribal communities have progressively been denied self-government and rights to their communities’ natural resources that should have been provided under the legislation.

The Sixth Schedule gives tribal communities considerable autonomy and the region should be covered under it, says CR Bakshi, the secretary of the state unit of the CPI. Under this the role of the Governor and the State are subject to significant limitations, with greater powers devolved locally. The Sixth Schedule provides for the District Council and the Regional Council which have real power to make laws and receive grants-in-aids from the Consolidated Fund of India to meet the costs of schemes for development, health care, education, roads. The mandate towards devolution and divestment in favour of the tribal determines the protection of their customs, better economic development and most importantly ethnic security.
Then there is the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Rights Act of December 2006, which ostensibly recognizes the right of communities to protect and manage their forests (as does PESA), but only if the state decides whether a certain region is denoted as Village Forest or Reserved Forest, says Gautam Bandopadhyay of the NGO Nadi-Ghati Morcha. And the State has not been helpful. In this process, large section of communities is evicted without a proper channel of rehabilitation.

The erstwhile Bastar state and the district by the same name after the independence is an area bigger in size than the Kerala state. Covered with very thick and valuable Sal forests—it is home to two of the three national parks of the state and four wildlife sanctuaries—the sparsely populated region sits on an abundant mineral deposit that includes diamond in Pailikhand and high quality iron ore in the Bailadila hills. Dantewada is the only tin-ore producing region in the country. It is rich in dolomite, bauxite, limestone, corundum and other minerals.

The issues of ownership and the rights to exploit (or conserve) the natural reserves and resources are at the core of the problem. The fight is on in Bastar. No one is sure who the enemy is and what the fight is for.

The political parties, especially the major ones, are certainly failing to provide a direction by keeping cards close to their chests.

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Updated Date: Jun 24, 2013 16:27:51 IST