February issue 2010
Caught in the Crossfire
Sodi Sambo is a tribal woman from a hamlet named Gompar. The village is located within the confines of Dantewada district in the central Indian province of Chhattisgarh. She is expected to be in her late twenties. Allegedly, she was shot in her leg on October 1, 2009, by members of the Indian police.
From her written complaint, as lodged to the Superintendent of Police of Dantewada on October 18, it can be inferred that the shooting carried out by the security personnel lacked rationale. According to her testimony, on October 1, 2009, several police officers and other militiamen (in Chhattisgarh, the police is aided by local militiamen to curb a non-state-actor-led insurgency) abducted her along with her two infant daughters. They were then taken to a neighbour’s house. Thereafter, she was shot in the foot.
In the aftermath, she lost some two to three inches of the tibia bone in her leg. But in the process, she remained the prime witness to the homicide of nine other tribals.
On October 20 Sambo was admitted to St Stephen’s Hospital, Delhi. After undergoing preliminary test, she was operated upon. The doctors instructed her to return at the end of 2009 in order to continue her treatment.
Events that unfolded since then have been quite befuddling.
On the night of January 2, 2010, Sambo was put on a bus to Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. But police did not allow her to move to the capital. The next morning when Himanshu Kumar, a noted Gandhian from Dantewada escorted Sambo, policemen followed them and took them to custody. When activists from across the country started making protest calls to the state government, police allowed Himanshu Kumar to leave, but did not free Sambo on the pretext of recording her statement.
Five days later, on January 7, the Supreme Court of India directed the Chhattisgarh government not to obstruct Sambo’s visit to Delhi for treatment. As of late January, the most recent reports suggested that she had been admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, to receive medical treatment. But media personnel and human rights activists have been disallowed to meet her in person.
Sodi Sambo is not alone undergoing this tribulation. There have been many tribal men and women who have suffered or are still suffering at the hands of state oppression. They have been easy preys to both the security personnel as well as the leftist-ultras waging war against the Indian state.
Ali Asghar Bungalzai is a 38-year-old tailor based in Quetta, Pakistan. In October 2001, he was picked up by the military. The intelligence officials assured his family about his release. But he was not traceable. Between 2006 and 2007, his teenaged children continuously protested outside the press club in Quetta for more than a year. Furthermore, the then Governor had assured action would be taken. Still, Asghar remains in oblivion.
Another despondent story is of Zakir Majeed Baloch, who went missing on June 8, 2009. He is a leader of the Baloch Students Organisation. Allegedly, he was taken away by the state intelligence service. Majeed went missing while he was travelling by road between Mastung and Khuzdar. It was not the first time that he had been abducted. He was picked up twice before in 2007 and 2008 respectively. In fact, after his release in 2008, he said that he had been detained and tortured at the Qulli camp, a military detention centre in the Quetta Cantonment.
There are other similar tales of disappearance and state arbitrariness in Balochistan.
Be it Chattisgarh or Balochistan, the picture is not very different. Both the provinces are populated by tribal elements who either willfully or inadvertently have been marginalised in their respective socio-political architectures. Moreover, both the regions are rich in mineral resources, which are being extracted to the benefit of externals while the indigenous remain deprived. Furthermore, engulfed in a rugged topography, both the provinces lag in economic indicators. And employment remains a difficult proposition.
According to the Social Policy and Development Centre (SPDC) in Karachi, Balochistan has the highest levels of poverty in Pakistan, nearly double that of Punjab. Over half the population resides below the official poverty line and less than 50% have access to potable water. Barely 50% of children of Balochistan attend primary school. And electricity is supplied to a meagre 20% of the citizenry.
In the Indian perspective, Chattisgarh is not the only province that houses such a human clamour accompanied by rebellious subalterns. Factually speaking, 25% of the districts of the country are affected by the armed peasant-tribal uprising, famously termed as the “Naxal Uprising.”
Expectedly, Chhattisgarh also takes a cue from Balochistan in appalling socio-economic indicators. Interestingly, there is insufficient data available regarding the construction of the Human Development Index for the province. The districts that are at the rock bottom are the areas in which the insurgents are mostly active.
On a similar note, Balochistan has also been reeling under tribal dissention for decades. The citizenry has faced an iron-willed ‘state apparatus’ in several phases in the last six decades. The most deadly battle took place during 1973 – 77. The present bellicose phase commenced from 2005 and a lethal combination of the Balochistan National Party and Balochistan Liberation Army is upholding the torch of rebellion.
On the other hand, the armed rebellion that India is witnessing in its forested areas has its roots in 1967 when the “Naxal” uprising took place in the Naxalbari district of the eastern province of West Bengal (Eastern Bengal is present Bangladesh). The then “Naxals” are now being termed as “Maoists.” Only the nomenclature has changed, but the essence of the problem remains. At that juncture, the movement was temporarily curbed by the ‘state apparatus.’ What the Indian authorities and policymakers failed to address was not the law-and-order problem but the development and empowerment issues (or the lack of those) at the grassroots level, which helped form the backbone of the movement.
In 2004, the erstwhile Peoples War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) commingled to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Presently, their area of influence basically stretches from the Indo-Nepal border in the north to the southern part of the sub-continent; cutting across several provinces in its trajectory. The headquarters of the guerrillas is in the dense forests of Central India. Thus the province of Chattisgarh is at the focal point of the movement.
Both the nation-states of Pakistan and India have tried to mitigate matters by pumping in legislations. The former brought in the package called Aghaaz-e-Huqooq-e-Balochistan whereas the latter expounded the Tribal Rights Act. In a candid manner, in the preamble of the package, the Pakistani government has admitted the “deprivation” that the Baloch people have faced. And the policymakers seem to be “determined to correct the wrongs of history.” The present political dispensation has tried to usher in an era of social, economic and political autonomy for the masses in Balochistan.
On a similar note, The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, is a key piece of forest legislation passed in the Indian parliament in December 2006. It pertains to the rights of forest-dwelling communities over land and other resources, which was denied to them over decades as a result of the continuance of colonial forest laws. The law seeks to redress the “historical injustice” committed against forest dwellers.The said Act was notified into force on December 31, 2007.
Any insurgency is parasitic, as far as the politico-economic vitality of a modern nation-state is concerned. Laws are fine, as far as amelioration of the affected populace is concerned. But the point is the ‘political will’ regarding the applicability of such laws. A plethora of legislations notwithstanding, the firmness of the regime at the helm of affairs is tested to the hilt in the face of challenges such as these.
Both the governments have followed a dual policy of military containment of the rebels, complimenting it with packages embossed with a ‘human face’ to woo the subalterns. The modus operandi relies on military action supplemented by propaganda against the ‘terrorists.’
But is this the only way out? Should not the ‘wise heads’ search for a modus vivendi?
The need to avoid Chhattis-tans and Baloch-garhs is an imperative.
Transcending borders, India and Pakistan would not indulge in any scholarly pain whatsoever to discover the bitter enmity gripping their histories. Still, they would be regularly finding the ‘blind spot’ in inventing their lacunae regarding governance and more so to acknowledge the same.
The belief and furthermore the acceptance of living under the same firmament and facing the same hurdles, at least on the domestic front, can very well assuage the friction between the two countries. And hence, the mutual effrontery may be diminished.
Rather than bickering and fueling animosity, achieving a milieu of pluralism, multiculturalism and one that allows a hundred flowers to bloom should be the hymns for the elites of both the nations. One needs to appreciate that cross-border terrorism is not the only form of ‘insurgency’ that South Asia suffers from. The cobweb of bearishness in the respective domestic circuits needs to be torn apart and the prevalent skulduggery in the bilateral relation be thwarted. For that, the politicos, activists, media et al. must tie their laces; lest submergence under the deluge of tribal jacqueries be an inevitability.
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