Excerpts: The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar by Nandini Sundar

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From Mining to Militarism 

Mining and militarism have a deeply intimate history. In 2003, when India liberalized its mining policy, the de facto Maoist control over the region was seen as constituting a major obstacle to rapid industrialization and land acquisition. Industry associations like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) explicitly supported the government’s offensive against the Maoists and called for the involvement of the private sector in this effort:

The growing Maoist insurgency over large swathes of the mineral rich countryside could soon hurt some industrial investment plans. Just when India needs to ramp up its industrial machine to lock in growth and when foreign companies are joining the party – Naxalites are clashing with mining and steel companies essential to India’s long-term success.

Human rights activists argue that it is not a coincidence that Salwa Judum began just when the state government had signed a memorandum of understanding for a steel plant with the Tatas in June 2005. Around the same time, Essar was acquiring land for another steel plant in Dhurli and Bhansi villages, and both the Tatas and Essar were given captive iron ore mines on the Bailadilla hills. ‘Public hearings’ were held in Lohandiguda, Dhurli and Bhansi, in order to fulfi l the offi cial requirement under PESA of eliciting villagers’ ‘consent’:

The villagers under the leadership of Dantewada Adivasi Mahasabha and Sangharsh Samiti Dhurli, said that on 9th September the police forced them to sign No objection letters. Two constables were posted in each house. No outsider was allowed at the meeting place. People were not allowed to leave their homes or to talk to each other. According to villagers, at 9 a.m. they were forced into vehicles, and taken to the meeting location. Supporters of the opposition leader (Mahendra Karma) also helped the police in this process. The villagers related that they were taken into a room in twos, and pistols were placed at their temples to make them sign where told.

They were told to not step out of the village afterwards. Those villagers who refused to sign were arrested, and Section 144 (prohibitory orders on assembly) was imposed on the area.

In North Bastar, 22 paramilitary camps fortify the prospective Raoghat mines. Villagers near the mine told us that some 10 years ago, when the project was being proposed, the police took away all their bows and arrows, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by wild animals. Since then they have arrested several village leaders protesting against the mines and railway line. Even the prosaic words of the Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment report on the Raoghat mines reveal how incalculable the loss to both people and nature would be if the mines and the railway line linking Dalli Rajhara to Jagdalpur came up. The country would lose:

26 plant species that are included in the red list of rare and endangered species of vascular plants of India; high average growing stock and ultimately, the presence of 22 mammalian species of which 15 are in either Endangered or Vulnerable list of IUCN appendices or WPA schedules; large number of insects including a few rare ones (identification in progress), 28 species of Butterflies and 102 species of bird from 38 families.

The site proposed for the mining waste dumps, the report warned, would destroy the drainage of the entire valley; and indeed the entire culture of the people would likely become extinct.

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Excerpted with permission of Juggernaut Books from The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar by Nandini Sundar. Available in bookstores, Juggernaut app and www.juggernaut.in

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The Indian Government has repeatedly described Maoist guerrillas as ‘the biggest security threat to the county’ and Bastar in central India as their headquarters.

This book chronicles how the armed conflict between the government and the Maoists has devastated the lives of some of India’s poorest, most vulnerable citizens, starting from 2005 when a government- sponsored vigilante movement killed hundreds and drove thousands of villagers into camps to the present day when it is the most militarized region in the country. It is not a coincidence that Bastar had some of India’s biggest mineral reserves.

Based on extensive filed visits, court testimonies, government documents and an active participant role in the events she write about, Nandini Sundar also tracks the responses of political parties, the media, human rights activities and the judiciary to the ongoing crisis.

About the Author:

nandiniNandini Sundar, professor of sociology, Delhi University, and winner of the Infosys Prize for Social Sciences in 2010, has been writing about Bastar and its people for 26 years.

Her first book, Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar (1854-1996), is an authoritative account of Bastar’s colonial and post-colonial past.

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