A member of parliament in India has resigned in protest at the government’s Operation Green Hunt against Maoist rebels, which he says amounts to a “genocide” against the tribal people.
Kabir Suman, a 61-year-old MP from Kolkata in West Bengal, announced his resignation on Tuesday and although it looks like there will be some procedural delays, it is likely that one of the few voices of anti-Green Hunt dissent in the Lok Sabha will soon be gone.
When I interviewed him the other day, the former folk singer and journalist said his main worry was in losing the protection that came with being a member of parliament, but that he could no longer stomach what he was part of (he is a member of the Trinamool Congress, allied to the ruling Congress coalition at the centre).
“What is happening in these areas is genocide. I understand the government cannot tolerate a group that wants to overthrow the state, but no one is asking what happens to the villagers and tribals in the process.
“I am a lone voice in parliament – not one person will listen to me. For my own sanity, I have to resign. But my worry is that now I will lose the protection of being an MP and they can accuse me of seditious activities. They can take me and hold me for six months under their anti-terror laws, torture me, do whatever they want. I fear that I have not much longer to live. It’s very disconcerting.”
In recent months, the government has allocated around 50,000 federal paramilitaries to bolster state forces against the Maoists, who have an estimated 40,000 armed cadres and a presence in over a third of India’s 626 districts. Both sides have been accused of widespread extrajudicial killings with the tribals caught in the middle.
Earlier this month, Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told journalists in Kolkata: “Some success has been achieved in intra-state operations after Green Hunt started. Police forces have caught some top leaders and attacked some Maoist camps. The next stage is to launch larger coordinated inter-state operations.”
But police admit they face considerable difficulties in telling innocent villagers from Maoist cadres, and says the situation bears comparison to Vietnam.
Bhupinder Singh, West Bengal’s director-general of police, said: “When we go into the jungles, they just hide their weapons and walk like normal people. It is something like the Vietcong – classic guerrilla tactics. They know where we are, we don’t know where they are. It requires a lot of specific intelligence.”
For critics of Green Hunt like Mr Suman, this has effectively turned the conflict into a war on India’s poorest citizens – one which serves the interests of corporate interests.
He cites the example of Lalgarh, an area in West Midnapore district about 100 miles west of Kolkata, where what began as peaceful tribal protests against a steel plant being built by the Jindal Iron and Steel Company has descended into a violent conflict between Maoist forces and the state.
Violence in the district began in November 2008 when Maoists detonated a roadside bomb in a failed attempt on the life of West Bengal’s chief minister as he returned from a visit to the site.
“The police retaliated by attacking the villages in Lalgarh, assuming they had aided the Maoists,” said Mr Suman. “For two days they brutalised people, raped pregnant women, hit one woman with their batons until she lost an eye.”
He says the villagers responded by setting up the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), a group that has come to symbolise the blurred line between legitimate protest and armed revolt. Supporters say it was strictly a legal, non-violent movement, while the police accuse it of being a front organisation for the Maoists.
Director-General Singh said: “The PCAPA drummed up support by cooking up stories about atrocities with the obvious backing of the Maoists. All they want is to control these areas. We have been very careful that there are no human rights violations, that they respect women and children and the elderly.”
He says that any allegations of brutality should be brought to court, but those dealing with these cases say the villagers are terrified of talking to anyone for fear of retaliation.
On 22 February 2010 the PCAPA’s president, Lalmohan Tudu, was gunned down by police. Activists say he was dragged out of his village home and shot in front of his wife and daughter as revenge for a Maoist attack on a nearby police camp on 15 February in which 24 officers died. The police claim Mr Tudu was killed in a gunfight which he initiated.
“Lalmohan Tudu and his group attacked our camp,” said Mr Singh. “They ambushed us and the officers retaliated and fired on the group. We found afterwards that he was one of the dead.”
For Mr Sumat, the killing was the last straw. He made repeated demands for Mr Tudu’s body to be returned to his family, and to have the post-mortem made public. Eventually, in early March the police produced a document signed by Mr Tudu’s wife in which she stated that the family did not want the body returned.
“They are terrified of coming forward,” said Mr Sumat. “Of course they want the body returned, but how can they stand up to the police?”
For the Maoists, such stories are powerful tools. Since re-emerging as a serious threat in 2004, they have attached themselves to as many people’s movements as possible, feeding off widespread grievances among those left behind in India’s emergence as a global economic power. That gives them a huge potential constituency in a country where around 400 million people live below the poverty line.
As with the PCAPA, an association with the Maoists can prove fatal. Even if the group did maintain a distance from the insurgents when it was initially formed, the Maoists are known to put pressure on villagers to provide them with shelter and resources. This Wednesday saw yet another body of an alleged police informant turn up in a West Midnapore village.
Mr Suman said: “It’s impossible to know what connection was there between the PCAPA and the Maoists, but I can well imagine that after it was pushed so far by the police in Operation Green Hunt that the tribals had to look for allies, for protection.
“I don’t believe violence solves anything. But if you have no allies in the democratic system, where do you turn? Don’t they have a right to survive? How can we really blame anyone who takes up the gun when they find themselves against the onslaught of the government?”