Anasuya Ray is a researcher for an NGO based in Pune, India. She writes about her recent fieldwork in India’s tribal belt, where grinding poverty and malnutrition are driving villagers to support the Naxalites — a rebel group seeking to overthrow the government. She studied social work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai and is originally from Calcutta.
The Naxalites are an assortment of violent Maoist rebel groups who stage internecine attacks on Indian government targets to bring attention to region’s blight. With about 20,000 fighters, the Naxal-Maoist Insurgency rages in 40 percent of India’s territory. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the Naxalites India’s biggest threat to national security, and they continue to attract support from a wide array of castes and tribal groups.
While conducting malnutrition research in the heavily tribal state of Jharkhand — one of India’s most impoverished states — one woman told me this story:
My one-year-old son fell sick one day. The nearest health center is 20 miles away. Going there would mean losing a day’s wage. The whole family would have to go without food that day. I had other children to feed, it was not possible. My son slowly got too weak to play, to stand up and one day he died.
Villagers with stories like this strengthen the Naxal insurgency in the region. Data shows that India’s child malnutrition rate is 47 percent (as compared to 30 percent in sub-Saharan Africa). India also ranks 66th among the 88 countries in the 2008 Global Hunger Index.
In 1967, the Naxalites started their revolutionary movement in a small West Bengal village called Naxalbari. With huge support from highly-marginalized tribal communities, the Naxalite-controlled “Red Corridor” starts in Andhra Pradesh and runs through eastern Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar.
Labeling this highly complex issue a matter of law and order, the West Bengal state government sent in police and paramilitary forces and recently banned the Maoist party after recent violence in Lalgarh, West Bengal. And by pigeonholing the Naxalites as “terrorists,” the government has further isolated Naxalite supporters.
But government forces have been accused of gross human rights violations. For each alleged government abuse, the Naxalites have responded with double the level of violence. Large-scale killings increase during elections when Naxalites take passenger trains hostage and launch attacks on police. The Naxalite ideology has led both sides onto a path of increasing bloodshed in a “brutal low-level war.”
Naxalism is a complex social issue with roots in the tremendous deprivation of millions of rural Indians. Negating the politics of development could help turn Naxalism into a true mass movement. Time will tell whether this will create a much larger civil war or be crushed by the state.
More likely than not, Bastar in Chattisgarh, Palamau in Jharkhand and the thousands of other forgotten Indian hinterlands will continue to bleed.
In the Naxal belt and beyond, millions of Indians — just like the woman who lost her son — will continue to starve.
– Anasuya Ray