Sunday, October 28, 2007

urgent: what really happened in chikhadia on saturday morning?

October 28, 2007

Human dignity and the definition of terrorism

what really happened in chikhadia on saturday morning?

In the early hours of Saturday, a ground of 35-odd gunmen shot and killed 18 people attending a music festival in the village of Chikhadia, in the restive Giridh district of Jharkhand. That's about the only fact which the mainstream Indian and International media got right. That fact, however, is by itself incapable of supporting the inferences which politicians, bureaucrats and police spokesmen are drawing in one public statement after another.

Unanswered Questions

Certain questions continue to remain unanswered, a full 48 hours after the incident. How many people were attending the celebrations? Were the bulk of those in attendance allowed to disperse without being harmed? Why was the 85-strong cultural troupe from the city of Bokaro not harmed in any manner whatsoever? Who were the government officials sitting with members of the Marandi family in the front rows? Why was there no police or paramilitary presence, given the current turmoil in Giridh? Were the gunmen in uniform at the time of the shooting, or had they changed into civilian clothes, as some eye witnesses report? Finally, who else died, besides Anup Marandi?

Fact Check

Then there are some hard facts which the media appears to have ignored altogether. Firstly, Anup Marandi's father, former Jharkhand Chief Minister Babulal Marandi, has been heavily involved, directly and indirectly, in land grabbing and illegal logging in the resource-rich belt [stretching beyond Jharkhand to the states of Chattisgarh, Bihar and West Bengal] for well over a decade, well before the creation of the State of Jharkhand. Secondly, the Marandi family has been using local mafia-run militias and corrupt policemen to wage a violent struggle against those tribal elements--not just Naxalites (Maoists)—who have been struggling for many long years to block or reverse extremely dubious land transfers, to halt rampant money lending activities and the exploitation of cheap labour, to punish those engaged in the trafficking in women and children, and to bring to attention the severe repression unleashed by criminal gangs working in conjunction with both police and paramilitary personnel.

These facts have been checked independently by any number human rights activists; so have a few others. Since Indian independence in 1947, more than 2.5 million acres of Adivasi tribal lands have been expropriated to set up mines, industries, dams and highways. Another 1.2 million acres, by very conservative estimates, have been illegally or fraudulently snatched from Jharkhand's tribes by unscrupulous outsiders. According to a Ranchi-based human rights lawyer, "Babulal Marandi has played a significant role in allowed or forcing land department officials in facilitating the land transfers. Nothing has changed, despite years of court battles and public demonstrations."

A few more facts are in order. Since the mid-1950s, almost 4 million Adivasis have been displaced, resulting in large-scale migration. Thousands have found employment under slave-labour conditions in small-scale factories across North, East and Central India. Hundreds of young Adivasi women were led by agents to the red light districts of Kolkatta and Mumbai. Those Adivasis who stayed behind were quickly recruited as low-end workers in the still-flourishing underground trade in coal and timber.

Most importantly, Babulal Marandi was an integral part of the process to forcibly "Hindu-ize" the Adivasis, Moolvasis and Dalits through essentially counter-productive measures governing education and healthcare. And Mr. Marandi has been actively collaborating with other politicians in the State and in New Delhi to overturn the long-standing laws relating to domicile, reservation and local self-government.

Law and Lawlessness

By all accounts, the definition of the rule of law in Jharkhand does not conform to the dictates of the Indian Constitution. "The lawlessness in this area is a verifiable fact for many decades," a retired Jharkhand administrative official emphasized earlier today in a telephone interview. "All sides—law enforcement, mafia kingpins, land grabbers, coal miners, timber merchants, money lenders, local militias, Naxalites and tribal front organizations—follow a different set of rules than those laid out in the Constitution."

A Communist Party of India (Maoist) spokeswoman in New Delhi places the problem in a different context. "First let's look at those who have been blatantly disregarding the law for 40-plus years and who have never been punished," she said late Saturday. "Then let's try and figure out how the impoverished tribal people should or can defend themselves. The law, as people call it, has an entirely contextual meaning out there."

It is still not clear how many of those 35-odd gunmen were members of the Maoist party, and how many were armed, non-affiliated Adivasis or Dalits. In fact, the police commissioner of Jharkhand is not even sure whether the attackers were from Jharkhand or from Bihar, a few miles away from the village of Chikhadia.

But the core question begs an answer. Does the Chikhadia incident qualify as an act of terrorism?

Quite clearly, there are two related questions which need to be addressed, particularly in view of the rather thorough house-to-house, warrant-less searches being conducted by the Jharkhand police today in the villages and small towns of Giridh district.

Firstly, why does Prime Minister Manmohan Singh claim that the Naxalites represent the single biggest threat to India's security when he must know the historical and current socio-economic conditions in the tribal regions of Jharkhand, Bihar, Chattisgarh and West Bengal.?

Secondly, do the tribal people of that region have the right to defend themselves in the total absence of any rule of law?

The right to defend equals the right to attack

A prominent Congress-linked student leader in Ranchi concedes that "armed combatants on both sides of the divide are fighting each other in a vicious struggle for land and resources and, as long as they don't kill innocent civilians, the issue of terrorism does not come into play at all."

But a senior CPI (Maoist) ideologue, who preferred to remain anonymous, went one step further in a conversation yesterday. "What has happened to these tribal people for the last few decades, and what is happening to them today, is terrorism of the highest order," he reiterated. "Is the forcible expropriation of your land not terrorism? Is the selling of your women not terrorism? Is the destruction of your households by money lenders not terrorism? Is the torturing of the marginalized, in police stations and in prisons, not terrorism? Is the perpetuation of hunger and disease not terrorism? Do the people have the right to defend themselves or not, in the absence of any workable remedy?"

The CPI (Maoist) has not officially admitted to orchestrating the Chikhadia incident. But many of its cadres are demanding, in private discussion sessions with human rights groups, with left-wing workers and with student activists, that the debate over Chikhadia, and other similar instances in the past, be shaped by the definition of terrorism as such a definition can be derived and formulated from within the criminal and corruption matrix of the tribal zone. "Otherwise, we are talking ideology in a vacuum, without the proper perspective, out of the context of reality, based on what has become, for practical purposes, a mere piece of paper—the Indian Constitution."

Back to Chikhadia

Our inclination at this juncture is to keep asking who exactly is in possession of all the relevant facts.

Because two reliable eye witness accounts completely discount the claim made in the media that "Naxalites fired indiscriminately into a crowd of villagers." Because police sources are unwilling to confirm who exactly died, besides Anup Marandi. Because a certain state official disclosed that members of the Marandi family usually move around with their own armed security teams, and rarely require police protection. Because one key member of the Bokaro troupe says that the firing was indeed highly targeted, "to the front rows only." Because any number of those attending knew that the fight between militant tribal leaders on one hand and the Marandi family the other was being fought outside the confines of the Indian Constitution for more than 4 years. Because those who know the region also know that those guiding the Jharkhand mafias exert a powerful influence in the corridors of power in Ranchi and New Delhi.

At the risk of over-emphasis, no judgements can be made and no sustainable inferences can be drawn unless all the facts are on the table. We ask, why are the State and Central governments afraid to issue a single policy document which includes all the facts. This tactic of making selective and basically misleading statements to the media must be recognized for what it is: undiluted spin.

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