Growth data shows gaps in Maoist narrative

Last week, at the release of another book on the rise of Maoism, “Hello Bastar,” author Rahul Pandita described the terrible exploitation of tribals by petty officials and forest contractors. He condemned Salwa Judum, the anti-Maoist vigilante force, and said the tribals had little choice but to pick up the gun along with Maoists and fight for their rights.

Digvijay Singh, former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, said on the occasion that the main problems were social and governance-related. If you drew concentric circles round Jagdalpur, district headquarters of Bastar, the government’s presence faded rapidly in every circle moving outward. The government was not just callous but absent in large areas, and the Maoists had moved into a governance vacuum to provide services –and rights– that the state could not.

What light does this throw on the rise of Maoism in a quarter of India’s districts? The standard narrative views Maoists as Robin Hoods fighting an oppressive state. While it captures important truths, this narrative also has huge gaps, on which there is deathly silence.

First area of silence: the Maoist-affected areas voted solidly for the ruling BJP in the 2008 state elections and the 2009 general election. If indeed the government and Salwa Judum were so awful, why did the Maoist areas vote so solidly for the government?

Some activists claim that the BJP rigged the ballot. That’s not convincing. The BJP won not against helpless tribals but against the Congress Party, which had powerful friends like Navin Chawla in the Election Commission. It beggars belief that the Congress silently allowed the BJP to steal the elections.

Second area of silence: economic development. Chhattisgarh is usually called a backward state with little social or economic development (save for mining, which usurps tribal lands and pollutes tribal rivers). Yet recent data suggest the very opposite.

The state recorded an annual GDP growth of 6.1% in 2000-04 and an astounding 9.7% in 2004-09! This was not built mainly on mining. Steel, aluminium, power and other industries have also boomed. According to Indicus Analytics, industrial growth in recent years has averaged 15% per year in Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand, all tribal states. Raipur has become the tenth most industrialized district in India.

Ah, say critics, this makes little difference in a largely agricultural tribal state. But economist Shankar Acharya recently showed that Chhattisgarh is India’s no. 2 in agricultural growth. Between 2000-01 and 2008-09, its agricultural growth was a fabulous 9.4% per year, thrice the national average! Besides, fast industrialization has reduced the share of agriculture in state GDP to just 17% in Chhattisgarh (and to just 8.6% in Jharkhand).

Literacy in Chhattisgarh is 71%, not far below the national average (74%) and well above that of Andhra Pradesh (66.8%). Activists like Jean Dreze, despite being critical of Chhattisgarh\’s human rights record, have acknowledged its achievements in fields like child health, the public distribution system and panchayati raj institutions.

Third area of silence: Maoists have killed a NREGA worker in Jharkhand, forced another to flee, and put up posters threatening top NREGA activists. This adds to a growing list of Maoist atrocities against ordinary folk.

The ‘good-Maoist bad-state’ narrative is part of the reality, but not the whole. The electoral victory and economic achievements of the BJP in Chhattisgarh cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. No doubt the core Maoist areas have been bypassed by development, but that is partly because the Marxists are using guns to keep the state out.

Meanwhile, New Delhi is at long last enacting enlightened laws that give tribals some guaranteed land ownership, plus a royalty on minerals equal to the state’s own share. These are major victories. Maoists have contributed to these victories, by exposing the state’s terrible failings, and forcing the state to remedy old injustices (both in New Delhi and Raipur).

But in this new milieu, can Maoists still claim to be the sole protectors of tribals against a vicious state? Ironically, by succeeding in reforming the nature of the state, they have become victims of their own success. No longer can they claim that the state is unreformable and that violent Maoism alone can deliver justice. Robin Hood (Maoist) now looks more a problem than the solution.

The state is far from fully reformed, and Maoists still have a role to play in checking its excesses. This new role does not need guns (as shown by Maoist clout in the Posco land acquisition dispute). If, however, Maoists insist that the overthrow of the state is the only path to justice, they will increasingly resemble King John rather than Robin Hood.

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