India, the country synonymous with Gandhi and his concept of Satyagraha or non-violent resistance, is increasingly descending into a state of violent chaos. In addition to periodic cycles of sectarian violence, and armed conflict in the border states in the country’s northeast and northwest, large areas in the ‘tribal belt’ of central India have descended into an escalating civil war, with devastating attacks on villages by militias and security forces and reciprocal attacks by Maoists against agents of state power. There is an urgent need to depolarize the situation and draw back from this cycle of violence.
The cause of conflict lies in deep-rooted patterns of exploitation of India’s Adivasis (indigenous or tribal people). The signing of hundreds of new deals for mining projects around 2005 rapidly increased the exploitation as well as the process of dispossessing tribal communities of their land and resources. Some police experts admit that repeated failures to bring uniformed perpetrators of atrocities to justice are a main cause of tribal recruitment to the Maoist cause. But Maoist ideology is as ruthless in sacrificing lives to achieve set aims as state forces and mining companies are, and every killing of policemen invites mass retaliation on innocent villagers.
Everywhere, Adivasis are fighting a battle against huge odds to protect the natural environment where they have always lived, and do all they can to hang on to their homeland. Generally, their movements are characterized by meticulous non-violence. But when violent repression is unleashed to suppress these movements, a point comes when people despair of legal means, and heed the Maoists’ call to arms.
So among the first prerequisites for peace, is a far wider recognition of India’s indigenous movements, driven by the same ‘village India’ consciousness that inspired Gandhi. Alongside this is a need to recognize that the corporate takeovers, though promoted by local agents, are generally driven by foreign investment masterminded from the world’s capital cities and biggest banks. A recent example, where this consciousness caught fire worldwide and stopped a massive mining project in its tracks, is the successful resistance by Dongria Kond Adivasis against the UK-registered company Vedanta, whose plans to mine bauxite from the summit of a superbly forested sacred mountain, have been stopped after a seven year campaign. Remote Dongria villages in the Niyamgiri range were invaded, and Adivasi leaders harassed, abducted and murdered – a pattern replicated in hundreds of other areas, without the international coverage that helped save Niyamgiri.
It is often said that India has some of the best laws of any country, but that implementation is generally poor. The saving of Niyamgiri reverses this trend. But to stop the slide towards civil war, something else is needed. Villagers need to know they can get justice when atrocities are committed against them, by either side. The ideology of violence and the polarization in ideology need to be defused. This may not happen overnight. The Niyamgiri issue has brought a simmering debate to the foreground between those who believe in rapid growth based on a huge increase in mining the minerals in the mountains, and those who say that the effects of mining and metal factories are already dire on India’s environment and village communities. How can the millions of people already displaced be properly compensated? How can wealth be shared more fairly?
Moves for peace are already in place, via the widely respected grassroots campaigner Swami Agnivesh. Over a week from August to September 2010, India was gripped by a hostage crisis after a major gun battle between police and Maoists left many dead and wounded, with four policemen taken hostage. One was killed when initial demands were not met, the other three released unharmed. These events were said to be in revenge for the killing of the Maoist leader Azad on 2nd July, just as he was apparently trying to negotiate for peace through Agnivesh. Any peace process has to come to terms with this chequered history. There were indications that Azad was tortured and killed in cold blood by security forces, in a ‘false encounter’ that also killed a journalist, so Maoists and Agnivesh are calling for an enquiry into these deaths as a step towards a new peace deal.
How would the Mahatma have tackled this challenge? One answer lies in a new application of Gandhi’s philosophy developed by the Jharkhand activist Bulu Imam in his campaign to save the Karanpura Valley from opencast coal mining. This approach, known as “Intellectual Satyagraha”, aims to influence those in positions of power by appealing to their sense of reason.
The target of this new Satyagraha must now be violence itself, appealing to all sides to refrain from violence and intimidation – leaders of industry, Maoist leaders, and also those in positions of power in state and national government alike. This Satyagraha of the Mind, using modern communication tools such as email and fax that did not exist when the Mahatma was alive, will see the citizens of India and the world challenge anyone who takes up weapons in the pursuit of their aims. The combined intellectual and moral wealth of the world will be available for Intellectual Satyagraha and neither corporate leaders, political leaders, nor the leaders of protest or revolutionary movements, will be able to easily get away with murder any longer.
In this way lies the best hope for India to become the beacon of freedom, democracy and tolerance that Gandhi intended it to be. The Gandhi Foundation asks you to join this campaign. Please sign our petition aimed at Maoist, industry and government leaders. Also, help in the spread of the Intellectual Satyagraha movement by starting local campaigns against those who use violence to further their aims.