Searching for Justice and Peace in Eastern Central India – by Felix Padel

© copyright, Robert Wallis 2010

People outside India as well as inside it are becoming aware that there are thousands of local movements of people trying to save their land from being invaded and taken over by big corporations, and the contractors, subcontractors, NGOs, media firms, biofuel and seed companies, banks, hedge fund/private equity fund investors and others who serve and finance the mining companies. Living in India, Anthony Sampson’s title comes to mind from his Anatomy of Britain series: Who runs this place? The Governments or the Companies and Banks?

Village people (tribals and non-tribals alike) are trying not just to hold onto their land and homes, communities and age-old systems of cultivation, but also, as part of the same thing, to prevent ecocide: the long-term destruction of every aspect of the land and environment where they have lived for centuries (http://www.thisisecocide.com/hotspots/). If they accept displacement, even World Bank statistics show that displaced villagers’ standard of living drops drastically (in India, and as a worldwide pattern), and that they hardly ever regain their standard of living, let alone improve it (which by the Bank’s own standards, is meant to be a key requirement of any project). These movements are aimed at saving the people and their environment – “for what future will our grandchildren have if our mountains and streams are destroyed?” This is the land of their ancestors over thousands of years.

It is also the heartland of tigers, leopards, bears and elephants – the whole cast of Kipling’s Jungle Book. But the hunting mafia has taken a massive toll on all the cast, and these animals survive as best as they can, as far as they can get from Man. Even wildlife sanctuaries cause conflict, displacing yet more tribal villages from their forest. Tribal people and their forest are one: damage that bond and the culture and environment are slowly but surely killed, together: cultural genocide and ecocide.

British geologists in the 1900s named the base rock of south Orissa’s bauxite-capped mountains ‘Khondalite’, after “those fine Hill men the Khonds”. These mountains are classed as one of the world’s best deposits for making aluminium – prime strategic metal for the arms industry (‘Mining as a Fuel for War‘ at War Resisters International.

Preventing a whole series of mining projects are the movements. The war against the Maoists, ‘Operation Green Hunt’, acts as a filter that often draws attention and support away from these movements, as the situation escalates towards a classic resource war.

2,270 years ago, the “first recorded event of Indian history” was Ashoka’s massive attack on the Kalinga people in Orissa. By his own admission – was he really repentant, or was he just doing his own PR for history ? – he killed 100,000, and enslaved 150,000, while many more died of disease and hunger. The Kalinga did not have kings and they put up a terrible fight to try and keep their freedom. Ashoka’s two inscriptions in Orissa threaten the ‘forest tribes’: the Kalinga who could retreat to the mountains and forests to preserve their independence as best they could, and have lived there till today. The Konds’ name for themselves is Kuwinga, and there is no doubt they are essentially the same people. So the ongoing takeover of tribal land now conjures a structural memory of Ashoka’s terrible violence.

The PR now is gross. ‘Kalinganagar’ is the name of the steel complex with a dozen new plants in various stages of planning and operation, that has already displaced thousands of Adivasis of the Ho and Munda tribes (whose heartland is in Jharkhand), just beside the Sukinda chromite mines in Jajpur district of Orissa, characterised as “one of the ten most polluted places in the world” (by the Blacksmith Institute, USA).

Kalinganagar is where Adivasis who refuse to shift to make way for a huge new Tata steel plant have got together as the People’s Platform Against Displacement. They were fired on and 14 killed on 2nd January 2006, when police and contractors tried to start construction of the plant. Last November, Orissa’s Chief Minister conveyed his public thanks to the steel companies for constructing a new hi-tech Kalinganagar police station (making clear a collusion that was already clear, though rarely spelt out).

Police with goondas started an attack on the 20 or so protesting villages on 30th March, breaking houses, stealing possessions, wounding many with a new type of rubber bullet, and taking over people’s land and villages in the guise of building a big road across the area. The People’s Platform Against Displacement has made it clear throughout that they are not Maoists, and have kept their movement non-violent (e.g. http://orissamatters.com/2010/04/11/foul-play-exposed/) The events unfolding now in Kalinganagar and the lack of cover in the media is a national disgrace and a severe blot on Tata’s name.

Who made proper mention at the Copenhagen summit on Climate Change about Orissa’s 40 new steel plants and the carbon emissions from making 60 million tonnes of steel per year – Orissa’s stated target ? Or are these essential for ‘India’s development’? How can it be ‘development’ to destroy ecosystems and communities of people whose lives are based on long-term sustainability – who have sustained in the face of assaults from Ashoka to the EIC to now, and who are fighting these projects with everything they gave?

Knowing one’s Indian history, what we witness is a return of the East Indian Company. It took power here on the east side of India in Bengal and Madras in the 18th century, taking over Orissa from 1803 onwards. And the subsidiary company it formed was called the Government of India, based around collecting tribute, and implementing the laws being made to facilitate this all over the country. The senior administrator of a District in India is still called the Collector or District Magistrate.

Analysing the causes of the current conflict, and the reasons why many tribal people join the Maoists, the following are some of the main ones:

1. The system of endemic exploitation of tribal people, coupled with ingrained disrespect for tribal culture.

2. The escalating dispossession of tribal people from their land and resources – by numerous industrial projects but also by the war itself. No one disputes the figures of 644 tribal villages burnt by Salwa Judum and an estimated 200,000 tribal refugees from these burnt villages.

3. The atrocities perpetrated on tribal villages by the Salwa Judum (a tribal militia created by a section of the government) and security forces, and the impossibility of getting justice through the courts. The case of Sodhi (she was one of a dozen villagers lined up and shot by the police – she survived, but as witness to the case at India’s Supreme Court, has been kept under ‘police protection’) and the villagers killed at Gompad has highlighted this impossibility of bringing security men responsible for atrocities to account, and the appeal of Maoists arises directly out of this impunity to prosecution. Numerous human rights reports and courageous journalism have highlighted a definite pattern of attacks on tribal villages, in which most of the village flees, and the women, old and young who don’t get away are raped, killed, tortured or taken away. The best aspect of Arundhati Roy’s recent article Walking with the Comrades is that she brings out the voices of young Maoist women and men. These voices need to be heard. All of them witnessed close friends and family raped and killed, and were motivated to join the Maoists by these atrocities. Having suffered such loss and witnessed such horror, if there is no chance of bringing the perpetrators to account, and the Maoists are there, offering comradeship and guns – who wouldn’t go with them?

4. However, the Maoist ideology and leadership believes in war, exactly as many do in the mainstream and military. War has an attraction, and we all need to fight internal as well as external battles to resist this attraction. What is happening is a polarisation into two sides who both believe in war, leaving no space for neutrality, truth and peace. The recent attack is a deliberate escalation of war. We should not blame the individual Maoist fighters, any more than the individual CRPF men: both are pawns in a game where leaders actually believe in sacrificing people’s lives, on a huge scale. Mao himself was one of the worst tyrants: during his rise to power as well as his ‘great leap forward’ (upping steel production, causing a massive famine) and cultural revolution, he was responsible for millions of deaths of innocent people and even loyal party supporters. He was a superb propagandist though, and in that, very similar to mining companies’ PR machine, turning truth on its head. The ideology he created promotes war, and promotes an escalation of war. We must not let this happen. Maoist attacks instigate huge-scale counterinsurgency attacks on villages. This pattern must stop.

5. In other words, the attack on tribal communities as a strategy to wipe out Maoists is paradoxically a principal cause of the growing strength of the Maoists. This mirrors the worldwide ‘war on terror’ (in Afghanistan, Iraq etc), where everyone can see that attacks on ‘terrorists’– and the ‘collateral damage’ on countless civilians whose outrage has no outlet through judicial process – have increased the number of ‘terrorists’ exponentially. In Dantewara, the systematic attacks on tribal villages are a campaign of terror. In other words, the primary perpetrators of terror are the security forces rather than the Maoists. In the recent attack, the Central Reserve Police Force people killed are human beings too and their death is very sad. Police in the area live in fear of attack. The difference is – armed policemen have signed up for a job that involves high risk of killing or being killed. Tribal villagers have signed up for no such thing. Current news portrays this Maoist attack as an outrage, and the CRPF armed policemen killed by the Maoists as ‘martyrs’. What of the countless villagers who have been killed and terrorised by the CRPF and other ‘security forces’? The tribal villagers living in the eye of the conflict are essentially innocent. If they often support the Maoists, they do so because they experience an invasion and atrocities in which they lose their land, food, families, culture – everything. We get to hear of only a tiny percentage of the atrocities committed by security forces in villages, while every killing by Maoists gets high publicity. (See some excellent examples of such journalism published in the New Indian Express, at http//:moonchasing.files.wordpress.com – e.g. ‘Operation Tribal Hunt?’ 11 November 2009)

Arundhati Roy’s writings have come under fierce criticism, but she is not uncritical of the Maoists. While contrasting democratic features about how Maoists operate in terms of people’s councils and meetings where anyone can and does speak, she also comments that the present phase may well be a honeymoon period in which Maoists are wooing the people, and history shows this honeymoon doesn’t last. The voices of tribal Maoists and accounts of atrocities need to be heard a lot more widely if a Sri Lanka situation of all-out war and genocide is to be avoided, and Roy’s article has done an excellent job of bringing them out.

If there is a genuine move for peace, one essential step will be repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – this has often been called for, especially from the Northeast and Kashmir. This has become essential for the war in Dantewara. If it can be seen that security personnel who commit atrocities are punished this will automatically take wind out of the Maoist sails.

Human rights work is a prerequisite for peace. Tribal culture places a high value on Justice and Truth. Some kind of Truth and Reconciliation process will have to take place if the escalation towards war is to be halted. Responsibility lies on both sides. Where it does not lie is with the tribal communities, and when they know they can get Justice, Peace will prevail.

Dr Felix Padel is an anthropologist who has lived in India for 30 years. His latest book ‘Out of This Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel’ by Felix Padel and Samarendra Das has just been published by Orient Black Swan. ISBN: 9788125038672

Inter-Religious Approach to Communal Harmony – by M.R. Rajagopalan

While there are many causes of violence, religious differences have been historically one of them, in spite of their teachings of love, compassion and service to humanity.

As empires arose in different parts of the world, the kings claimed divinity and the priest class facilitated the process. Thus the link between religion and polities has continued all through history and religion has been in part an integrating or stabilising factor.

In India from the days of Ramayana (probably around ioth century BCE) kings claimed divine origin — either Surya (sun) or Chandra (moon) Vamsa — both sun and moon are gods in Hindu mythology. As the Pallava and Chola empires arose in south India around 7th century CE, the Bhakti cult also emerged and huge temples were constructed. The emperors often assumed the name of the presiding deity of the greatest temples. For the masses the king was indistinguishable from God.

At least in India the kings and society at large showed tolerance towards different faiths. Perhaps this was inherent in the ‘tenets’ of Hinduism itself. Though one of the oldest religions in the world, it does not have a single god head or a gospel or a single institution. Atheism was also born in India – the Charvaks who were atheists posed a challenge to the priestly class. They were tolerated. The word ‘Hinduism’ was born around 8-9th century and was used by the Arabs and Persians for those living beyond the river Indus. Prior to this, expressions like Sanatana Dharma, Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shakti cult and so on were used.

Buddhism was just 2-3 centuries old during the reign of Asoka. After his victory in the Kalinga war in the 3rd century BCE he gave up violence and embraced Buddhism. His edicts enjoin that other sects deserve reverence. It is important to note that although Asoka became a Buddhist he did not announce Buddhism as the state religion. Hinduism and Jainism, which also arose around the time of Buddhism, flourished in Asoka’s empire.

In the south both under Pallavas and Cholas, Buddhist viharas and Jam temples were part of the town’s landscape along with the Hindu temples. There was freedom to choose one’s religion. The Bhakti cult that arose with the Nayanmars and Aiwars around the 7th century CE became over whelmingly popular in Tamilnadu, and Buddhism and Jainism started to decline. Perhaps these religions could not match the sagacity and popularity of the wandering minstrels singing the praises of the Hindu gods!

Akbar’s Divine Faith

An attempt was made by the great i6th century mogul emperor Akbar to integrate the different religions. Though he was not a man of letters – in fact he was illiterate — he established a library in his capital Agra and arranged for works like Ramayana and Maha Bharatha to be translated from Sanskrit into Persian. He acquired a deep and thorough knowledge of the religions of his time — Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Jainism by arranging recurring dialogues with scholars of these faiths. Akbar liked to reason about particular components of each multi-faceted religion. He was sceptical of the rituals of Jainism but he liked and opted for vegetarianism from that religion. Taking the essential elements from different faiths, Akbar founded a new religion — Din-e-ilahi, meaning ‘Divine Faith’ or ‘Religion of God’. He did not manage to popularise it among the masses; it remained academic. Yet its importance should not be underestimated. That the greatest emperor of his times devoted his time and energy to the study of religion and came up with the idea of a common religion is a landmark in human history. No king either before or after Akbar showed this constructive attitude towards religions.

Tolerance by other Muslim rulers

There is a popular belief that under Muslim rule conversions to Islam took place at the point of the sword. Since Hindus continued to be the majority population in the mogul capital Delhi and all over the empire even after five centuries of Muslim rule this cannot be true. In truth millions of Hindus especially Dalits and some classes of artisans who were denied entry to Hindu temples, embraced Islam since it offered brotherhood and inside the mosque all are equal before Allah.

Spain came under Muslim rule in the 1oth century and ruled the country for five centuries without forcible conversion. Today Muslims number less than five percent of the population of Spain.

The same religious tolerance was prevalent under the Ottoman empire which flourished from the 13th till early 20th century. Especially between 1500 and 1920 the Turks ruled over not only Arabia, central Asia and Greece but also the Slavic nations, and in Turkey, Syria, Egypt and so on a Christian population lived in peace.

Gandhiji’s views on Religion

In January 1935 Dr S Radhakrishnan asked Gandhiji three questions:

  1. What is your religion?
  2. How are you led to it?
  3. What is its bearing on social life?

Gandhiji’s reply was:

“My religion is Hinduism which, for me, is religion of humanity and includes the best of all the religions known to me. I take it that the present tense in the second question has been purposely used instead of the past. I am being led to my religion through Truth and Nonviolence, ie love in the broadest sense. I often describe my religion as religion of Truth, Of late, instead of saying God is Truth, I have being saying Truth is God, in order more fully to define my religion. I used at one time to know by heart the thousand names of God which a booklet in Hinduism gives in verse form and which perhaps tens of thousands recite every morning. But nowadays nothing so completely describes my God as Truth. Denial of God we have known. Denial of Truth we have not known. The most ignorant among mankind have some truth in them.

The bearing of this religion on social life is, or has to be, seen in one’s daily social contact. To be true to such religion one has to lose oneself in continuous and continuing service of all life. Realisation of Truth is impossible without a complete merging of oneself in and identification with this limitless ocean of life. Hence, for me, there is no escape from social service; there is no happiness on earth beyond or apart from it. Social service here must be taken to include every department of life. In this scheme there is nothing low, nothing high. For, all is one, though we seem to be many.”

In his famous constructive programme, communal unity occupies the first place. In Gandhiji’s words: “Unity does not mean political unity which may be imposed. It means an unbreakable heart unity. The first thing essential for achieving such a unity is for every person, whatever his religion may be, to represent in his own person Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian, Jew, etc In order to realise this, every person will cultivate personal friendship with persons representing faiths other than his own. He should have the same regard for the other faiths as he has for his own.”

The situation in the 21st century

Gandhiji would have derived great comfort and happiness about one significant aspect of the Indian situation today. With more than 8o% of the population being Hindu, India has a Prime Minister (Man Mohan Singh) from the Sikh religion, a President (Abdul Kalam) who is a Muslim, and the ruling party, Congress, being presided over by a woman from a Christian background (Sofia Gandhi). I wonder whether such a situation has ever existed in any other country with a democratic form of government?

A real danger in the world today is the tendency to segregate and identify people on the basis of religion. Almost every country in the world has become multi-ethnic and is home to people from different faiths. To segregate them as Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists etc could create complications. We have to understand the reality that we have multiple identities based on language, religion, nation, gender, profession etc. The use of religious identity alone as a rubber stamp is improper and dangerous.

Nevertheless, we have to face the reality that after 11th September 2001 Muslims have to some extent become suspect. How do we overcome this situation? The word Jihad in the literal sense means effort, or a striving. Islamic scholars say that the Quran and Hadith ascribe two meanings to the term: ‘al-Jihad al Akhbar’ and ‘al-Jihad al Asghar’.

The former means the ‘greater warfare’, which is against one’s inner demon, while the latter means the ‘lesser warfare’ against infidels. The perception of jihad in the former sense is subjective and has moral implications. It involves a way of life in which fleeting temptations have no place. Individuals become discerning subjects who comprehend that worldly temptations are ephemeral and have to be fought. It is also the ability to suffer virtuously the afflictions caused by the foe by following the commandment of Allah and to preach, through education, art and literature, the precepts of Islam.

The second meaning of jihad is the religious war against ‘oppressive occupiers’ of the homeland of Islam, Dar-al-Islam. The jihad is a defensive act: it is a war of last resort dictated by circumstances and compulsions confronting Muslims. Yet unfortunately some Maulvis and Maulanas are obsessed with the politics of communal power and preach false interpretations of jihad as the fight against non-believers.

An agenda for peace and harmony

How do we ensure communal harmony and peace in this strife-torn world? The ball is in the court of the Gandhians and all social groups which stand for peace and harmony and above all — responsible leaders of different religions. Religious leaders have a tremendous responsibility. There is no religion in the world that does not speak about love, compassion and service to society. We have to go back to the days of Akbar and draw inspiration from his wisdom of bringing out the Religion of God. We cannot create a new religion and unify the population. But we can learn to tolerate and respect other religions. We have to sit together and draw up an agenda for peace and communal harmony. This agenda should take its cue from Gandhiji’s doctrines of Truth and Nonviolence.

M R Rajagopalan is Secretary of the Gandhigram Trust in Tamil Nadu.

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