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Commentary: Pain, protest and the Naxalite label

Posted by Indian Vanguard on November 21, 2007

MAJUWARA, India, Nov. 20 BIJO FRANCIS Column: Incredible India Majuwara village, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is known for its forest-dwelling community, the Vanvasi. It is also infamous as a base for Naxalite insurgent activities within Uttar Pradesh and the neighboring state of Bihar.

The Naxalites, broadly, are the Indian version of Maoist rebels. If by chance anyone from Majuwara is questioned by law enforcement agencies anywhere in the state or in neighboring states, and if the person divulges that he is from Majuwara, he is immediately arrested and detained. It doesn’t matter whether the person has committed a crime or not. The villagers in Majuwara do not appear to be Naxalites. If one takes time to talk to them, they do not sound like insurgents either. If one asks about their concerns in life, they will say they would like to escape their tainted image and stop being branded as criminals.

If one persists and manages to establish rapport with these villagers, they will slowly divulge their side of the story, which explains why the entire village has been branded as Naxalite and anti-state. In Majuwara the government is represented by the local forest office and the police. Most of the villagers come from the low Vanvasi caste, which literally translated means “forest dweller.” The members of this community once depended upon the pristine forest that existed in the region.

There are huge buildings in Naugarh town, close to Majuwara, where the state government once planned such institutions as a forest research institute, a cattle research station and even a seed farm. These buildings were never occupied, however, since by the time the buildings were constructed, the forest had disappeared. The State Forest Department, charged with administering the forest, has “protected” and “preserved” the forest to such an extent that there is hardly any forest left in the region. Once the forest was gone, the fertile land opened up new opportunities for the once nomadic tribe to settle down and cultivate the cleared land. Poverty, malnourishment and deaths from starvation among the Vanvasi community came down considerably. But the one and only landlord in the village was opposed to this.

If the Vanvasis were allowed to have their own cultivable land, the landlord would lose the free labor which he and his forefathers had long enjoyed at the expense of the Vanvasis. The landlord, who had contacts within the Forest Department, sought assistance from the department to evict the “illegal occupants.” Department officials readily agreed and came down with full force upon the Vanvasis and their families. Huts were destroyed and the occupants chased away. The patches of land cultivated by the Vanvasis were eventually handed over to the landlord, not officially but by illegal means. Left with no forest, land or homes, the Vanvasis were pressed to accept forced labor on the landlord’s farms. Poverty, malnourishment and deaths from starvation returned in full force. All of this happened some three decades ago.

Since then two generations of Vanvasis have lived and died in Majuwara. In the meantime, a human rights group known as Gramya intervened in the village and started organizing the villagers to protest against the unfair practices forced upon them. The villagers managed to reclaim small patches of land to cultivate. The son of the earlier landlord, like his father, was furious and again sought assistance from the Forest Department, which was readily provided. Once again, homes were destroyed and people were thrown off the land. However, this time there was resistance. The human rights group, mustering support from similar groups in the state, organized a protest march, which later led to the Forest Department returning some land to the Vanvasis. Still, many of them lost their property and livelihoods. During the span of these years, the Naxalite movement began spreading in the region.

This had nothing to do with the Vanvasis in Majuwara. It had much to do with the lack of government attention to the region. For example, although concrete buildings were constructed for a public health center, the center is not functional as there is no staff. Virtually no government services are provided in Majuwara. The spillover of Maoists from neighboring Nepal, whenever there was trouble in that country, resulted in a number of Maoist cadres settling in and around Chandauli district near Majuwara. The remote area was an ideal location for the rebels due to its proximity to the completely lawless state of Bihar and the poor quality of local policing. Meanwhile governments changed, and local issues started getting attention beyond the borders of Majuwara village. Many more human rights groups joined the struggle. Some participated only on paper; some made money by selling projects that were supposed to benefit the people. Some joined hands with Gramya to fight for the rights of the Vanvasi.

The government also came under pressure and implemented the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 in the district. The implementation of the rural employment act has not been much of a success, however. The third generation of the landlord’s family still commands considerable authority in Majuwara. The act in theory is supposed to ensure a minimum of 100 days of work per year to unskilled adults in the rural community. With this intention, job cards are issued to those who qualify. However, the cards are not handed over to the applicants, the Vanvasis. Instead the landlord, who now also happens to be the village head, collects the cards from the government, keeps them in his custody and also collects the minimum wage that is due to the laborers. The minimum wage in Uttar Pradesh now is 100 rupees (US$2.50) per day. The landlord however only pays 50 rupees for the men and 35 for the women. Gramya came to know about this and asked the villagers to ask the landlord for their cards and demand proper payment. The landlord obviously refused. This time too, learning from his ancestors, the landlord sought help from the Forest Department and also the local police.

The landlord and government officers warned the Vanvasis that if they protested against the practices of the landlord they would be branded as Naxalites and arrested. The result is that anyone challenging the established feudal practices in the village is by default branded a Naxalite. Gramya has taken up this issue and is attempting to pursue it further with local authorities. Branding a person a Naxalite and detaining him makes things easier for the administration in Majuwara. No one dares to challenge the authorities about the detention since the moment one expresses concern, that person too could be branded a Naxalite and taken into custody. This is in fact what the landlord has done. Additionally, the landlord and his private mafia make use of the Naxalite image of the village to engage in illegal activities like the smuggling of whatever timber is left in the region. The Naxalite tag attached to the village has served the landlord’s interests very well, and also those of other criminals in the locality.

The losers in this game are the Vanvasis in Majuwara. They are pressed into bonded labor by a powerful landlord, backed up by the Forest Department and the local police. Yet for the malnourished Vanvasi men, women and children, even if they cry aloud when they are assaulted by the landlord or his men, it is enough to send them to jail. Crying aloud is not a crime in India. But as a form of expressing pain and protest, it is good enough reason to be sent to jail in Majuwara. Those who protest are Naxalites, and Naxalites go to jail. — (Bijo Francis is a human rights lawyer currently working with the Asian Legal Resource Center in Hong Kong. He is responsible for the South Asia desk at the center. Mr. Francis has practiced law for more than a decade and holds an advanced master’s degree in human rights law.)

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Traders rampage mars Reliance retail opening in UP

Posted by Indian Vanguard on August 24, 2007

Lucknow, August 22: About a hundred small businessmen, led by the president of Uttar Pradesh Udyog Vyapar Mandal and Samajwadi Party Rajya Sabha member Banwari Lal Kanchal, went on a rampage at two Reliance Fresh retail outlets of the city on Wednesday, damaging property and items kept for sale. The police used lathis to disperse the mob at the Jankipuram store and arrested Kanchal and three of his supporters.

Reliance Fresh launched its operations in the city on Wednesday, with the opening of nine outlets. Trouble started around 11 am in Alambagh when the mob, led by Kanchal, reached the outlet and started throwing around products. The staff pulled down shutters, but the mob kept pelting stones and damaged a few shopping trolleys.

The police reached the spot after a while and dispersed the mob. But Kanchal and his supporters were unfazed. From there, they marched to the Jankipuram outlet around 5 pm where another bout of hooliganism followed. They broke window panes and furniture, and smashed items kept in the store. However, the police was quick to respond this time and resorted to lathi charge to disperse the crowd. “We also arrested Kanchal and three of his supporters and an FIR was lodged”, said Rajeshwar Singh, Circle Officer, Maha Nagar. One more case was lodged against Kanchal at the Gudumba police station.

A senior Reliance official said the attacks were pre-planned. “They don’t want is to provide better and cheaper products to the residents of Lucknow. We are also paying better prices to farmers. The mob not only destroyed property but also misbehaved with women, journalists and the police,” he said. Incidents of rowdiness were also reported at a couple of RPG retail outlets and in an outlet of Spencers Daily. A mob raised slogans against “mall culture” outside a retail outlet in Rajendra Nagar. On its way to Jankipuram, the mob also stopped at the Spencer’s Badshah Nagar outlet.

FB supporters ransack Reliance outlet In Kolkata

Kolkata, August 18: Forward Bloc supporters today ransacked one of the Reliance Retail outlets coming up in the city. The incident took place around 4.30 pm at an outlet situated at the Nanda Mullick Lane in Girish Park Police Station area. Preparations were on at the store for the inauguration.

The agitators themselves intimated the police about their protest at the store.

“Around 60 FB supporters ransacked the store. Initially, they were shouting slogans but suddenly started pelting stones and bricks. They also attacked some parked cars near the store. We have booked a case,” said Ajay Ranade, Deputy Commissioner of Police (Central). However, no arrests had been made till last reports came in.

“We are opposed to the state government’s decision allowing big companies like Reliance to enter the retail sector. This is just a small instance of our protest. If the government does not stop, we will organise mass agitations. If the retail outlets come up, hundreds of small traders and businessmen will lose their livelihood,” said FB leader Hafiz Alam Sairani.

According to police, FB supporters gathered for a rally around 4.30 pm chanting anti-government and anti-Reliance slogans.

Around 40 employees were inside the store at the time. In the agitation, the showroom glass was shattered and windowpanes were damaged. The supporters also tried to enter the building but employees called the police. The agitators fled when a huge contingent of policemen rushed to the spot.

Meanwhile, the CPI(M) lambasted its Front partner, raising questions regarding the motive behind organising agitations only against Reliance stores.

“I do not understand what they are trying to do and why? Why they are not protesting against Pantaloons, or other companies who have already set up outlets in the city. They are only targeting Reliance. Do they have a problem with the name ‘Reliance’ or with the subject of retail stores,” said Benoy Konar, CPI(M) State Secretariat member.

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Roma’s Arrest, Land Mafias and the Indian Police State

Posted by Indian Vanguard on August 18, 2007

Even as semi-literate journalists and supposed pundits in the Capital celebrated the 60 years of the “world’s largest democracy”(incidentally the greatest and most grotesque cliché of our times), away from the “watchful eyes” of the media, other less savoury stories have been playing themselves out. Brave and self-effacing women activists like Roma, have been arrested under the National Security Act and have now been labeled as ‘Maoist’, according to a report in the Jansatta (Ambarish Kumar, 17 August, “Manavidhikar Karyakarta to Ab Naxali Banane ki Muhim”). This is no small and isolated happening. It is, in a microcosm, the story of what this ‘largest democracy’ is all about. The ultimate weapon of a desperate police force (widely used all across the length and breath of the country) of ‘labeling a dog mad before killing it’ is being brought into play to deal with peaceful struggles of ordinary people.

For those who have any idea of the activities of activists like Roma, this is a lie of the most blatant sort. Roma has been long active in organizing the tribals and landless Dalits, and especially, of late, landless women to fight for their property rights. Roma’s struggle has been fought under the banner of Dr Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule, Savitri Bai Phule, Birsa Munda and Rani Lakshmibai and has never resorted to any kind of violent means. Nonetheless, her arrest, along with Shanta Bhattacharya and Malati, in Sonbhadra district of UP, shows that even such non-violent and constitutional struggle is becoming impossible in large parts of the country today. It is the state and the police that are producing Maoists by the hour. It is not without reason that former Prime Minister VP Singh had to proclaim in utter exasperation that he too wants to become a Maoist. It is the utter cynical contempt with which the state, the judiciary and the media have treated a long and peaceful struggle against land acquisition – the Narmada Bachao Andolan – that sends out the signal, loud and clear that the only language that the state and the cohorts of corporate capital understand is that of the gun.

If there is any doubt about the impunity with which the police operates when dealing with even the most legitimate dissent and opposition, then witness this statement made before the media by a police official of Sonbhadra district, in the context of Roma’s arrest. This official, Ajay Shankar by name, tells the press: “Us aurat ko to jail mein hi theek kar diya jaayega. Vaheen phaad diyaa jaayega” [That woman will be set right in jail. We shall tear her apart, right there]. The reporter goes on to say that these were the most ‘civilized’ of the statements made by them; the rest are unprintable.

Anybody who has the slightest idea of how the police works even in big cities like Delhi, with complete impunity, framing people for any ‘crime’ – especially where they are themselves involved and thus need protect the real offenders and yet, to show that they have ‘caught’ the offenders – will know that ninety percent of the crime flourishes because of the police. It is they who produce criminals. The story of the rural areas of Uttar Pradesh, where this drama is being enacted, is really no different. The struggle for rights over land, water and forest (jal, jangal aur zameen) is of course what is creating the real problem here. Organizations like Kaimur Khsetra Mahila Kisan Sangharsha Samiti (Sonbhadra), Bhu Adhikar Manch (Jaunpur), Patha Dalit Adivasi Adhikar Manch (Manikpur) have been involved in the struggle for land rights in these areas. In districts like Sonbhadra, Mirzapur and Chandoli, the land mafia has control over large tracts forest land, according to the organizers of the struggle. In their view, this mafia has a section of the local police at its service – for reasons that are not difficult to seek.

This is not an isolated case. The story of the state-sponsored counter-insurgency operation Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, as it now plays itself out, turns out to be more and more deeply implicated in the dangerous and violent game of corporate land acquisition and dispossession of the tribals. Salwa Judum and counter-insurgency in Chhattisgarh is the smokescreen behind which the farce of local, gram sabha consent for land acquisition is being enacted.

In this situation, an ‘isolated’ Roma or a Binayak Sen is hardly what interests the corporate media. In the cacophony produced by its self-righteous media figures, its comic heroes and heroines, people like Roma or Binayak Sen, who have chosen the difficult and unglamorous work of organizing the poorest of the rural people for their rights (or treating them as doctor), appear, if at all, under derogatory labels such as ‘jholawalas’. And yet, let it be stated that the world does not end with the media…a single Roma is worth much more than the Barkha Dutts, Shekhar Guptas, Sardesais, Tavleen Singhs – all put together.

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