Members of so-called “Primitive Tribal Groups” (PTVs) in Bihar State are increasingly shifting their support to the violent Naxalites, according to a recent survey. The study, completed by Prof. S. Narayan, an anthropologist, was described by a story in the Times of India on May 9. Titled “Status of Primitive Tribal Groups of Bihar,” the survey covered the Birhor and several other societies scattered across 34 out of the 38 districts in the state.
Apparently Prof. Narayan blames the changing loyalties of the tribal people on the inefficiencies of the state government. “Deprived of benefit of any welfare schemes of the government, entire tribes have shifted their loyalty to Maoists and can be seen reading Red literature,” he wrote.
He points as evidence for their shifting loyalties to the movement of tribal people from relatively safe locations into areas that are controlled by the violent rebels. Narayan found that a major reason some tribal groups had shifted their allegiance over to the Naxalites is that they had been completely ignored by government agencies.
The report condemns the state government for the deplorable conditions in which the tribals live. In one community, children have been dying due to eating soil as food while their parents were away. The report indicates that 46 percent of the tribals in Bihar state still go to the forest for food; 25 percent sell forest products in the markets.
The report also indicates that 60 percent of the tribals still live in thatch houses, and “incredibly,” according to the news story, over 7 percent still live in palm thatch dwellings “which are not strong enough to give them security from wind, storm and heavy rain.”
The report also found that the tribals surveyed had an 81 percent illiteracy rate, and most of the remainder, 14.5 percent, had only completed a primary education. Only 2 percent of the people had graduated from school.
Further, it reported that they had poor health and no access to government medical facilities. Child mortality rate, for children younger than the age of 2, appeared to be 25 percent. The study charged that government agents in Bihar are “less concerned, ignorant and reluctant” about helping the tribal people. Narayan concludes that state government ineptitude prompts them to shift their support to the murderous Maoist group.
Coincidentally, the Business Week issue of May 19 carried a thorough survey of the Naxalite movement (dated May 7 on their website). The article points out that the Naxalites now operate in 30 percent of India, up from 9 percent in 2002. About 1,400 people were killed in Naxalite related violence in 2007 alone.
As might be expected from the nature of the magazine, the primary focus of the article is on the challenges the Naxalites pose for Indian business. The violence is especially disrupting the mining being developed in eastern India and the related heavy industries on which the economic growth of the nation depends. But the article does make it clear that the tribal people are the ones who are particularly suffering. The Naxalites have been recruiting adherents from the ranks of the tribal groups for decades. They have been displaced by mining and other types of developments and they normally have not been compensated for the losses of their lands.
The director of police in Maharashtra state told the magazine that when the tribals feel they have been treated unfairly, the Naxalites will come in and say, “we will fight for your behalf.” Of course when the Naxalites discover that villagers are not supporting their demands, they quickly kill off people to terrorize the population. They have also attempted some spectacular assassinations of major government officials.
Some of the tribal villagers accept the Naxalite arguments that they can offer important benefits to people who join their cause. One young woman explained how she joined the Naxalites because they promised to teach her to read and write. She subsequently was able to obtain police protection and dropped out of their ranks when she became disgusted by the levels of violence they were responsible for.
While the report described by the Times of India story blames the growing Naxalite violence primarily on state government ineptitude (at least in Bihar), the Business Week article focuses on the national government’s weaknesses. “ New Delhi still treats the insurgency largely as a law-and-order problem,” it concludes, instead of a problem caused by the extreme poverty that is ignored by government agencies at all levels. Business Week includes a very useful map of the Naxalite-infested areas of India.