By Mira Kamdar
Originally posted on the HuffingtonPost.com, December 14, 2009
India has been beset by violent insurgencies and secessionist movements practically from the very moment the independent nation was founded in 1947. The Indian state has consistently responded with brute force, unwilling to brook any breach in its authority and territorial integrity where hostile neighbors Pakistan and China threaten its periphery. More recently, the country has faced an escalating Maoist insurrection in its heartland. To this too, the response has been one of force.
The human rights of Indian citizens caught in the crossfire are among the casualties of these conflicts. Thousands have been killed. Others have been tortured, raped, detained or beaten. Villages have been destroyed, homes blown up. While rebels have perpetrated heinous crimes against civilian targets and are responsible for some of this mayhem, the state has also wielded violence with imprecision if not an outright arrogant disregard for human rights. As with all armed insurgencies, it is difficult for Indian forces to tell the enemy from the civilian population. Inevitably, everyone ends up looking like a potential suspect. Excesses, alas, occur.
Buried Evidence, a just-released report on mass graves in Kashmir documents the fate of more than 2,943 unidentified individuals killed in staged "encounters" with security forces. The full report, photographs and video clips are available at www.kashmirprocess.org. In Indian-administered Kashmir over the course of the past 20 years, over 70,000 people have died. The region is occupied by 700,000 Indian troops.
The toll on the psyche of the Kashmiri people, especially on youth who have grown up entirely under conditions of occupation or who had to flee with their families to refugee camps in Jammu is difficult to measure. Basharat Peer has written a heart-breaking memoir of his own experience, Curfewed Night: One Kashmiri Journalist's Frontline Account of Life, Love, and War in His Homeland, forthcoming from Scribner in early 2010. MTV Iggy has assembled an impressive collage of interviews, music by Kashmiri youth groups, and testimonials that convey the reality of the conflict far more eloquently than political analyses.
India's insurgency troubles are not limited to its periphery. The country is currently in the grip of a widening civil war in its heartland. A vast region covering some of the country's poorest states - Orissa, Jharkand, Chhasttisgarh, Bihar - has become the theatre of a civil war pitting determined Maoist revolutionaries against national and state para-military forces. The Maoists now control 223 districts out of the country's total of 610. They have become very bold in their attacks: holding up passenger trains, assassinating accused informants, beheading political targets, bringing mining and industrial activities to a halt, blowing up police vehicles and attacking the lone government outposts in these areas: schools.
Unfortunately, according to a just-released Human Rights Watch report paramilitary forces have used schools to base their operations, turning them into targets and making it impossible for children to continue their educations at a time when India is facing an education emergency among its poorest and most neglected citizens.
The Maoists have flourished in areas where the government of India as well as different state governments have virtually abandoned the rural poor. These populations are completely cut off from the economically vibrant, rapidly growing India of the country's major cities and more prosperous rural areas. Often, they are low-caste or so-called tribals or Adivasis, people shunned by India's upper-caste dominated elite and, though benefiting from positive discrimination in areas of government employment, marginalized from the country's increasingly private-sector driven economy.
The Maoists have been successful in areas such as Bihar where the low-caste "mouse people" or Musahars, so dubbed because they are reduced to trapping and eating mice to survive, live in unimaginable conditions of penury. As journalist Pryaag Akbar points out in a harrowing report, India's democracy has utterly failed these people. It is in this vacuum that the Maoist rebels have flourished.
The situation has intensified as India's drive to develop its natural resources and expand its industrial base has increased. It is no coincidence that the Maoists are most active in areas where the discovery of vast mineral deposits, especially iron ore and bauxite, are now being tapped by Indian and multinational mining companies including Tata, Vedanta and Jindal. The only thing many of the people in these regions have is their land. They are now being forced off their land to make way for the "development" of the resources that lie under their farms and forests. The Indian government's record on compensating citizens who are displaced by "development" - who number in the millions - is abysmal. Its record on consulting these people to find out what development might mean to them and how they would like to see their lives improved is even worse.
In his Nobel acceptance speech, President Obama cautioned that "security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive. It does not exist where children cannot aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within."
India's prime minister Manmohan Singh has admitted that the solution to India's Maoist revolt must include extending "development" to populations too long ignored, but the bald fact is that these people are in the way of the kind of development - rapid industrialization fueled by the exploitation of natural resources - his government is pursuing with gusto. They dare not be consulted about their fate. Building their own secure future on their ancestral farm and forest lands is simply not an option the government of India, nor the powerful corporate interests that stand to profit from mining and manufacturing in these areas, is ready to admit. There's the rub, and the root of revolt.
Mira Kamdar, a Senior Fellow of the World Policy Institute, is a 2008 Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society and the author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World.