Courtesy of the government of India, I reluctantly have to expand my list of genocides to include the war on indigenous and peasant peoples currently underway in the forests of Central India. This description draws on the extraordinary account published by novelist and activist Arundhati Roy, in Outlook India as Walking with the Comrades and in the The Guardian as Gandhi, but with guns, describing her several weeks earlier this year spent amongst the Maoist/Naxalite resistance.
Who is this war against?
Well, it’s against the tribal peoples – “the Ho, the Oraon, the Kols, the Santhals, the Mundas and the Gonds” – of the forests of central India, across the states of “Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal”.
Why? Roy answers:
Over the past five years or so, the governments of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal have signed hundreds of MoUs with corporate houses, worth several billion dollars, all of them secret, for steel plants, sponge-iron factories, power plants, aluminium refineries, dams and mines. In order for the MoUs to translate into real money, tribal people must be moved.
Therefore, this war.
Later, she describes the reason more vividly:
Why must they die? What for? To turn all of this into a mine? I remember my visit to the opencast iron-ore mines in Keonjhar, Orissa. There was forest there once. And children like these. Now the land is like a raw, red wound. Red dust fills your nostrils and lungs. The water is red, the air is red, the people are red, their lungs and hair are red. All day and all night trucks rumble through their villages, bumper to bumper, thousands and thousands of trucks, taking ore to Paradip port from where it will go to China. There it will turn into cars and smoke and sudden cities that spring up overnight. Into a “growth rate” that leaves economists breathless. Into weapons to make war.
In a sense, the answer that modern India, like other post-colonial countries, is a brave and enthusiastic heir to the colonialism practised on it by the British. Modern India has turned colonialism against its own people – just as many Africans have turned Western tools of war and exploitative capitalism against their own people. Colonialism did not end with the formal retreat of the imperial powers, it simply continued by native proxy. Outsourcing, y’know:
The Indian Constitution, the moral underpinning of Indian democracy, was adopted by Parliament in 1950. It was a tragic day for tribal people. The Constitution ratified colonial policy and made the State custodian of tribal homelands. Overnight, it turned the entire tribal population into squatters on their own land. It denied them their traditional rights to forest produce, it criminalised a whole way of life.
So what’s the reluctant liberal line on the whole thing? Roy writes:
It’s easier on the liberal conscience to believe that the war in the forests is a war between the Government of India and the Maoists, who call elections a sham, Parliament a pigsty and have openly declared their intention to overthrow the Indian State. It’s convenient to forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that predates Mao by centuries.
But is it genocide?
What is the case for calling this genocide? Well, remember that genocide doesn’t just cover outright murder. The UN convention on genocide also includes in the definition “acts calculated to bring about [the group's] physical destruction in whole or part”.
You see, genocide, like everything we humans engage in, has been modernised and updated. Outright murder tends to get outright bad press. So more sophisticated techniques of destroying people or peoples, have evolved. You don’t have to kill them, you can move them ‘for their own good’, or destroy their means of earning a living, or
The drive from Raipur to Dantewada takes about 10 hours through areas known to be ‘Maoist-infested’. These are not careless words. ‘Infest/infestation’ implies disease/pests. Diseases must be cured. Pests must be exterminated. Maoists must be wiped out. In these creeping, innocuous ways, the language of genocide has entered our vocabulary.
There’s one extraordinary quote in this article, from a policeman, that could be the start of a whole book: ‘The problem with these tribals is they don’t understand greed. Unless they become greedy, there’s no hope for us.’