Class Warfare In the Heart of India

Adivasi tribals who live in Maoist contested India. Marcus Leatherdale

New Delhi is India's political capital; Bangalore the center of its showpiece software industry. If you travel from New Delhi to Bangalore and back, you fly over the poorest districts of the country, where, for the past decade, a bloody war has raged between Maoist revolutionaries and the Indian state. The conflict is invisible to the business traveler, and to the rising Indian middle class. Beneficiaries of an economic boom that is concentrated in the south and the west of India, this middle class has no reason to take notice of a conflict in districts they never visit and to which they have no necessary connection.

Every so often, though, the war in the heart of India forces itself on the national consciousness. In April 2010 the Maoists ambushed a platoon of the Central Reserve police, killing 75. The jihadis in Kashmir occasionally shot dead one or two policemen, but never before, in the history of independent India, had so many men in uniform died simultaneously at the hands of insurgents. TV anchors in Delhi called upon the government to order airstrikes in retaliation.

A year later, the civil war is in the news again, owing to the journeys in and out of jail of a doctor named Binayak Sen. A gold medalist from the prestigious Christian Medical College in Vellore, Sen has been working for the past two decades among tribals in the state of Chhattisgarh. In May 2007 Sen was arrested on the charge of aiding the Maoists. The evidence against him was scandalously flimsy. It consisted of some pamphlets the police found in his house and of visits he had made, in his twin capacity as a doctor and human-rights activist, to Maoists in jail. Sen's incarceration provoked widespread protests in India and abroad. Amnesty International adopted him as a "prisoner of conscience"; 22 Nobel laureates signed a letter demanding his release.

Two years later, when Sen's case had not yet come to trial, the Supreme Court finally granted him bail. In December 2010 a court in Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh, found Sen guilty of "sedition" and sentenced him to life imprisonment. The severity of the judgment—and the scantiness of the evidence presented by the prosecutor—prompted a fresh wave of protests by intellectuals and human-rights organizations. On April 15 this year, the Supreme Court granted Sen bail again, noting that the mere possession of Maoist literature did not make one a Maoist. The judges added that possession of a copy of The Story of My Experiments With Truth did not necessarily make one a follower or admirer of Mahatma Gandhi.

The case of Sen provides a window into India's most ferocious fault lines. These run across various axes: economic, social, political, and institutional. In 1991 the Indian economy, previously under strict state control, was opened up to market competition. The dismantling of what was called the "license-permit-quota raj" was overdue. It unleashed the shackled spirits of the Indian entrepreneur; generated wealth, employment, foreign exchange; and spawned a new wave of philanthropy.

The software industry represents the best, and most benign, side to globalization. Here, a skilled, English-speaking labor force has taken advantage of the integration with the world economy and of the accident of India's being five hours ahead of Europe and 10 hours ahead of North America. But there is also a darker side to globalization, as manifested in a growing demand for iron, bauxite, and other minerals, to meet which tens of thousands of villagers have been pushed off their land by private companies acting in collusion with the state.

The surge in mining has chiefly taken place in the tribal districts of central and eastern India. The tribals constitute 8 percent of India's population, and are even worse off than the Dalits (as the former Untouchable castes are known), who make up 15 percent. In a recent book, demographer Arun Maharatna compared the quality of life of an average Dalit with that of an average tribal. On all counts the tribals are more disadvantaged. Some 30.1 percent of Dalits are literate, but only 23.8 percent of tribals are. As many as 41.5 percent of Dalits live below the official poverty line; however, the proportion of poor tribal households is even higher, at 49.5 percent. One in six Dalits has no access to doctors or health clinics; as many as one in four tribals suffers from the same disability; and 63.6 percent of Dalits have access to safe drinking water, but only 43.2 percent of tribals do.

Although they are often poor and oppressed, the Dalits do have a visible stake in Indian democracy. The drafting of the Indian Constitution was conducted under the close supervision of the great Dalit lawyer B. R. Ambedkar. Dalits have their own political parties and their own, very influential political leaders: a Dalit woman, Mayawati, is currently chief minister of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh.

On the other hand, the tribals have been neglected by the state and the political class. Moreover, they have in recent years been dispossessed of their means of livelihood, and have faced a triple resource curse. Living among some of India's finest forests, alongside its fastest-flowing rivers, and atop its richest veins of mineral ore, they have had to make way for commercial logging, hydroelectric projects, and mines. Their discontent has been exploited by the Maoists, who are now deeply entrenched in the tribal districts of central and eastern India. The insurgents are very focused. They have a full-time cadre of 20,000 activists, with a comparable number of AK-47s at their command. They are also adept at the use of land mines.

In the summer of 2006, I traveled through the district of Dantewada, in Chhattisgarh, where a state-supported vigilante group had been set up to combat the Maoists. The conflict had divided families, homes, and clans, and claimed hundreds of lives and rendered 100,000 tribals homeless. The refugees lived in tents along the main road with no hope of going back to their villages and no prospect of jobs elsewhere in India.

Sen had been to Dantewada, too, and published a sharp indictment of the vigilantism, which may be one reason why he has since been persecuted by the government of Chhattisgarh. For criticizing an admittedly totalitarian regime, Liu Xiaobo (winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize) got 10 years in jail; for more or less the same offense, albeit in a county that claims to be the world's largest democracy, Sen has been sentenced to jail for the rest of his life. The judicial system in India is painfully slow, so, while it is likely the Supreme Court will eventually acquit him of the charges, this may take several years.

Sen has suffered greatly, as have very many others, whose cases have unfortunately not been picked up by Amnesty International or even the Indian media. On that trip to Dantewada we also visited the local jail, where we interviewed several tribals who had been locked up because they refused the invitation to join the vigilantes. These "undertrials" (as people awaiting trial are described in India) had no knowledge of the law, no access to lawyers: for all I know they are in jail still.

The Indian judicial system is tardy in its upper reaches and corrupt in its lower reaches. The police are always inefficient and often malevolent. Their treatment of undertrials is brutal. On our trip, we collected testimonies of villagers who had their homes burned and their women violated by the police. In every case, they were too terrified to file a formal complaint.

The Maoists are lawless in their violence; so too, in these districts, is the state. The trial of Binayak Sen, one hopes, will bring wider attention to these deep deficiencies in Indian democracy. By the same token, the spread of Maoism could perhaps make economic policies more sensitive to tribal rights and needs. Perhaps if they are given a substantial stake in mining and forestry projects, they may yet benefit from the boom.

These hopes are probably illusory. Judicial reform may be beyond the present institutional capacities of the Indian state. To make tribals stakeholders may be beyond the moral compass of politicians and mining companies. It is striking that despite the persistence of the Maoist insurgency, no major leader has yet thought it fit to visit these troubled parts of India. Not the prime minister, Manmohan Singh; not the head of the ruling alliance, Sonia Gandhi; not her son and heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi. Like the traveler between Bangalore and Delhi, but with far less excuse, they act as if the conflict did not exist.

Guha's most recent book is Makers of Modern India (Harvard).