Naxalites catch the people's attention now and then, during their forays into towns and villages, shooting down a prominent figure, raiding police stations or issuing dire threats. They storm in and out of headlines much like their violent operations. The Naxal movement is slowly gaining in strength and has now spread to 160 districts in the country. So much so that the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, has publicly declared that "the problem is the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country."
It is the tribal areas that is the main battleground of these leftwing extremists. According to one report Naxalites control over 19 per cent of India's best forests. In many of the forest areas no government functionary has dared enter for fear of being killed or taken prisoner by the Naxalites. The result is that there is no forest supervision in such areas giving rise to exploitation by the timber mafia and poachers who pay 'protection money' to the Naxalites for carrying on their nefarious activities. According to Richard Mohapatra, whose 'Unquiet Forest' is revealing, Naxalite Violence affects close to 300 million people in India across 7,000 villages.
The VIP-Maoist has been spreading a ring of death at the rate of two districts each week and have grown from 55 districts in nine States in November 2003 to 155 districts in 15 States by February 2005. Ministry of Environment and Forests data shows that one million acres of forest land are under their encroachment. The Ministry has informed the Planning Commission that "an estimated Rs. 50,000 crores has been stolen from India's poorly protected forest areas. The real fear is not from the Naxals, who have agreed to conservation but from the smugglers and poachers, who enter these forests." While the Naxal problem is faced by several States like Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh it is Chhattisgarh which is now the centre of Naxal attention. Encounters with the police or security personnel have become almost daily occurrences.
Though the movement originated as an ideological one it has turned into something monstrous now, according to the Chhattisgarh Chief Minster, Raman Singh. "Had Mao or Charu Mazumdar been alive today, they too would have been stunned by the changing nature of the Naxal movement, which is now confined to extortion and unleashing atrocities on the poor tribals for whom the rebels claimed to be waging a war against the Government," he says.
The Chief Minister claims that the poor in the interior areas are deprived of the benefits of the public distribution system, basic health and other facilities which has propelled them to revolt against the rebels and launch a 'peaceful movement' that has become popular as Salwa Judum. But may critics tend to disagree on the creation of the Judum. When the first batch of Naxalites came to Bastar, the hotbed of the movement now, the only visible face of the State was the atrocious police and forest guards.
Health and educational standards were low. The Naxalities got popular support by their small acts, like beating up the guards or ensuring better wages for forest produce. After gaining the support of the Adivasis, they started enforcing the basic principles of their ideology. There inclused, along other things, a redistribution of ideas phase (which meant forcibly redistributing land to change the federal character that existed even among the Adivasis), says Anoop Saha who has done a detailed study of the problem. He says that it is this very class of Adivasis who lost their land and power because of Naxal presence, who now form the backbone of Salwa Judum, who angily protest against the Naxal's forcible redistribution of land. The founder of the Salwa Judum, himself a tribal, Mahendra Karma, insists that his is a people's movement.
He himself is under constant threat, after losing two of his brothers to Naxal violence. He says Naxalism is political terrorism of an international nature. What the Naxalites want is secessionism, not democracy. Karma says that the 'people's movement' (Judum) has resulted in making a big dent in the Naxal movement in the State. "If we can wipe out Naxalism from Dantewada (the centre of Naxal activity in Chhattisgarh) we will have wiped it out from the rest of the country", and there is only one thing that can defeat Naxalism-it is called Salwa Judum".
He dismissed Fact finding committee reports of Judum activities on other tribals as "some wrongs, but exceptions should not be presented as the rule. State Government data shows that as a result of Naxal activities 644 villages in Dantewada district are deserted. Because of recurrent Naxal menace, the villages are supposed to have been 'liberated' by Salwa Judum and the villagers settled in 20 relief camps. But newspaper and television reports tell a different story.
They reveal that people still live in these villages, where all houses have been burnt by Salwa Judum invading armies. The villagers hide in to nearby jungles most of the day and come back now and then. Tribals pooh-pooh government claims about rehabilitation camps providing relief to 50,000 people. If the entire population of 1,354 villages in the district is seven lakhs, how can 644 villages have only 50,000 residents, they ask. Hinanshu Kumar, activist of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, says that the tribal belt is divided into three parts.
There are 644 villages which have been 'evacuated' by the Judam, while the remaining 600-odd villages are being targeted by the Judam for evacuation. This is the enemy zone as far as they are concerned. Their goal is to capture these and burn the house. The third zone is the Naxal-dominated areas where no one dare enter. So, in all the three areas, health, education and employment is non-existent. What is worse, people cannot move in and out for fear of being killed. The State Home Minister, Ram vichar Netam clarifies: "The representatives of the Government cannot go to the villages following Naxal threats. The rebels have destroyed the schools, government buildings and are terrorizing the teachers and doctors. How can the Government provide relief when Naxal are not allowing us to enter?" Obviously, the Naxal issue cannot be treated merely as a law and order problem.
Exploitation, artificially depressed wages, iniquitous socio-political circumstances, inadequate employment opportunities, lack of access to resources under-developed agriculture, geographical isolation and lack of land reforms have all contributed to the growth of the Naxal movement particularly in the forest areas. Thus a holistic approach is the crying need.