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Empowering Power or Capturing Control-The Ways of Naxalism

By Suparna Banerjee

21 September, 2015

“If the country does not belong to everyone, it will belong to no one.”- Tupamaro Manifesto.[i]

Naxals is a loose term to define groups waging violent struggle against the landlords and other class enemies on behalf of the landless and tribals. They are far left radical communists inspired from Maoist ideology. The question that one needs to be understand is if the history of the landless and tribals really written from their perspective. Are they truly empowered by the Naxals? Is it about capturing control by the conflicting parties- government or Naxals while the interests of the marginalised conveniently lost in this clamour for power? This article makes an attempt to discuss this issue taking the Naxals approach to win over the tribal support using the tendu leaves as a symbol of support.

Indian forests have been home to its tribal population for generations. It has been their most trusted source of livelihood and shelter. The damage it caused to the forest in the name of livelihood was less so as not to have any environmental impact. “With the coming of the British, a great change was inaugurated, in which the forest and the people who lived there became managed as a resource within a wider system of production.” [ii] The forest came to be viewed as a natural resource which the government had a ‘duty’ to protect. So they found out a latent and manifest function[iii] behind the introduction of series of forest rights act that are still continuing. While the manifest function was to conserve the forest and its rich natural environment, the latent was to exploit it commercially and use it as a source of income.

Thus suddenly the original inhabitants of the forest found themselves out of their home and livelihood. They were termed as denotified tribe, meaning a criminal tribe, when they tried to enter their forests. For example among the Ho’s, it is customary to give burials in a corner of the village under the shade of trees. In 1889, when the British uprooted Ho villages from Saraikela by declaring them as reserve forests, the Ho argued that the Sasandiris (burial stones) are their land titles. Failure to convince eventually forced them to move southwards. These have hardly found mention in the official records of the colonial masters. The customs, rituals, rites, culture etc of the habitants were conveniently ignored while formulating rules.

It is the same trend that continues even to this day. In the name of development (by the state) or empowerment (by the Naxals leaders), which constitute the manifest function, the latent function of capturing control goes unabated. After Independence the scenario remained unchanged. The various policies of the ruling class –forest rights act, mining policies, environment policies, need to construct dams, industries- once again pushed these already marginalised section of the society further back. Unlike its colonial counterpart, the Indian ruling class hardly implemented the laws meant for the protection of the forest dwellers be it the latest Forest Rights Act, 2006 or the still unimplemented 5th schedules[iv] of the Indian Constitution. Thus, while the former followed the strict implementation of laws, the latter chose to ignore its implementation. However, in both the cases it was the tribals who were at the receiving end. Thus the vacuum created between the policies and its implementation was successfully exploited by the groups who chose to overthrow the ruling class by violent means at the same time ensuring steady flow of funds for their movement. On one occasion the then Home Minister, Mr. P Chidambaram clearly mentions “people have virtually distanced the government. There is a huge trust deficit between the elected government and the people of these areas. They tend to rely upon structures of power which oppose the country. It is a wake-up call for us.”[v]

Let us return to the narrative. Tendu leaf is a symbol of the tribal identity and thereby has an agency. It seeks to empower the tribals by providing them their income. Tendu leaves are used to wrap beedis (an Indian made cigarrate packed with tobacco). For the tribals who constitute the mass base of the Maoists, picking Tendu leaves is one of their sources of income. The policies of the Government did not bar the tribals from picking Tendu leaves but the wage rate of the Tendu leaf pickers was abysmally low. The Maoists have ensured higher wage rate of the pickers by intimidating the rich and exploitative Tendu leaf contractors. This is how it operates. State government’s minor forest produce federation auction each bundle of Tendu leaves. Contractors pay a sale price to the federation. A portion is sent to the federation’s field managers who are supposed to disburse it as wages to the adivasis. The chain, however, takes a reverse turn from here. The field managers hand the money back to the contractors who adding an extra amount fixed by the Maoists sent his own people to pay the wages of the tribals. Thus from being owners of the forest the adivasis have been turned into wage earners. These wage earners, in turn, contribute a day’s wage to the coffers of the Maoists which constitute a substantial amount for the continuation of the movement.

There can be two ways of looking at it. First by returning their right to pick Tendu leaves the Maoists have indeed empowered them and granted their forests rights- issue of empowerment. Second the Maoists have ensured steady flow of finance to continue their struggle and at the same time received assured support from the exploited tribals-issue of capturing control.

Now, let me return to my question, i.e. are the ways of Maoists really empowering the marginalised or are they engaged in capturing control. The maoist leaders or the dominant group needed mass support for the movement to continue. The tribals provided that base. And Tendu leaves became that instrument with whose help the leaders decided to garner support (the symbolic value of Tendu leaves have already been discussed earlier). Painting the legitimacy of the movement was only possible by presenting the rightfulness of the act committed by that dominant group. It was necessary to create a dominant ideology. Thus one has to keep in mind that no struggle can survive on utilitarian goals only. Some sense of moral superiority is required and then its act of injustice and terrorism shall seem morally right. The mass mobilization is dependent not only on material resources but moral and emotional. What is required is a common focus of attention which in this case is the issue of Tendu leaves. The group develops a strong sense of identity, be able to perceive their belief as morally right and eventually charged up with the necessary emotional energy to make sacrifices for the group and its cause.[vi] So they decided to take up an issue which could easily strike a chord among a large section of the marginalised. The tribals are made to believe that the real motif behind the unfolding of such events is actually to better their condition, “an idealist venture in which the dominant group led the people from subjugation to liberation.” [vii]However, instead of being empowered once and for all, the tribals gradually pass from one structure to the other.

It is regrettable that there is a serious dearth of academic engagements in this field of subaltern studies. The history of the indigenous groups are being re-written either by the Naxals or the government thereby once again creating a dangerous chasm between viewpoints that becomes difficult to bridge. In the name of empowerment the marginalised are stupefied to enter from one structure to the other.

Suparna Banerjee is a Senior Research Fellow, International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. Currently working on a project on Myanmar. Interned with Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. Writings come out as web articles in various think tanks' website, in magazines, as book reviews and book chapter. Associated with a number of social organisations like CRY and Rotary International. Presented papers at a number of national and international conferences.


[i] The Tupamaros were a group of urban Guerrillas who operated in Uruguay (primarily Montevideo) from the early 1960’s to the 1980’s. Although initially they saw bloodshed as the last resort to achieving their aim of improved social justice in Uruguay, their methods became increasingly violent as the military government cracked down on citizens.

[ii] David Hardiman, Power in the forest: The Dangs 1829-1920 Subaltern Studies, vol.8 (1994) pg 4.

[iii] Robert k. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure, (New York: Free Press, 1968).

[iv] Provides for administration and control of schedule areas and schedule tribes.

[v] The Indian Express, May 13, 2013.

[vi] Randall Collins, Conflict Sociology, (Massachusetts: Academic Press, 1975).

[vii] Guha. Op.cit.,p.2.


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