Dancing Around the Flame

Binayaksenlarge Madhusree Mukerjee in Dissent:

ON CHRISTMAS Eve, 2010, an Indian court sentenced Binayak Sen, a doctor who has for decades given medical care to indigenous people in forests of central India, to life imprisonment for sedition and conspiracy. Sen’s real crime was to have investigated and publicized the forced expulsion, accompanied by killing, rape, torture, and house-burning, of about 350,000 aboriginal villagers in a state-sponsored campaign against Maoist guerillas. Months earlier, policemen had shot dead Maiost leader Cherukuri “Azad” Rajkumar, who had emerged from his jungle hideout to engage in peace talks with the Indian government; a journalist accompanying him was also killed. The close range from which the shots were fired point to murders in custody. (According the Asian Centre for Human Rights, the Indian administration reports the deaths, in police and judicial custody, of more than 1,500 prisoners each year, and the number has increased steeply in recent years.) In October 2009, when security forces razed the village of eighteen-month-old Katam Suresh, they chopped off three of his fingers and killed his mother, grandmother, grandfather, and eight-year-old aunt. His twenty-year-old father was saved by being away. But this January, possibly because their names had featured in a court petition filed by human rights workers, the boy and his father were taken away by the police. Both remain missing.

Why is the world’s largest democracy “killing its own children,” as a judge on India’s Supreme Court recently remarked? There are several answers, but when it comes to the jungles of central India, most observers point to a 2009 statement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: “if [Maoist] extremism continues to flourish in important parts of our country which have tremendous natural resources of minerals and other precious things, that will certainly affect the climate for investment.” Almost all of India’s Maoist guerillas are indigenous people who shelter in rugged terrain that is rich in minerals and water. As the state fights them back, it appears to be clearing the land of residents in order to access these resources—and motivating ever more of the dispossessed to join the insurgency in the process. The real reason behind India’s worsening human rights record could be the investment boom and resource rush that underpin its explosive economic growth.