On a hot June afternoon, the scene near Nizamuddin Railway Station outside Sarai Kale Khan in Delhi is chaotic and congested; the streets are thronged by humans, vehicles, rickshaws, cows, dogs. Even the dingy lanes present a similar scenario. One such lane leads to the ‘house’ of the former chairperson, National SC/ST Commission, the legendary bureaucrat and activist, BD Sharma interlocutor named by the Maoists. One has to negotiate an overflowing drain; it is difficult to walk through large pools of filthy, stagnant water. Sharma is helpful – step on the bricks for easy passage, he instructs. The stairs lead to a porch that has three rooms. In one room, several shelves rising till the ceiling are full of books written by Sharma. Apart from books, the small room has a table, a computer, a chair. This is his office and the books are a testimony of Sharma’s extensive work on tribals and years of dogged dedication to their cause. The first commissioner of undivided Bastar, Sharma recently negotiated the release of a District Collector and BJD MLA in the difficult terrain of Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
Championing tribal rights for decades, the stoic Sharma has been at the forefront of protracted people’s movements in Bastar, the Narmada Valley and elsewhere. He took charge as an administrator under hostile conditions as the area was ‘out of control’ after the 20th maharaja of Bastar was killed. During his tenure of three years, Sharma took bold decisions: he gave land to the landless, refused to sign mining leases, gave marching orders to foreign companies. This made him a hero in the hinterland. Later, he was made the in-charge of tribal affairs and secretary of tribal affairs in the Madhya Pradesh government.
Still later, he says, he was forced to become vice-chancellor of the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong, because his predecessor was shot dead and nodescription had the courage to take charge. He was subsequently made SC/ST Commissioner, drawing Re 1 as salary. At 87, he is still full of energy; he walked miles recently in dense forest, in his dhoti-kurta and chappals, with a jhola, in Dantewada. Hardnews caught up with the veteran bureaucrat and activist to discuss issues that plague tribal areas in India.
What is the state of human rights in Chhattisgarh, especially in Dantewada and Abhujmadh?
Rights and everything else comes later. The point that we have been raising in different movements is simple: this land belongs to whom? jal, jungle, zameen kiski hai? Does the State precede the community? We questioned Article 40 of the Constitution which says that the State shall take steps to organise village panchayats and endow them with power and authority to enable them to function as units of self-governance. Now I am asking this question: does the State come first or the community? Community was there before the State, so the whole concept of State bestowing power is anti-people.
In other areas, they have accepted slavery and the land belongs to the State. But when it comes to the tribal people they do not accept this in their day-to-day affairs. So this confrontation comes down to the question: do the natural resources belong to the community or the State?
Before Independence, these tribal areas were at the margins and no one bothered about the forests. The Indo-Gangetic plain was fertile and this was the centre of the economy. Hence, nodescription bothered about these forests.
After Independence, industry became central to economic development and we accepted industry and not agriculture. Now, everything comes from the forests. Unfortunately, special provisions made for them in the Constitution are not being honoured.
When did Maoists enter Bastar?
When I went there, the Communist Party of India (CPI) had launched a programme to burn the forest and capture the land. This all happened a year before I became Collector. What I found there were issues of command over land, forest and other resources. Whatever development was happening was not for the tribals, but for outsiders. The tribals were forced to move away from their land. Thereby, I did not allow a single mining lease and I officially noted that mining was leading to the displacement of hundreds of tribals. For the three years I was there, I did not sign any lease and it became a customary thing. Later, leases were given at will.
I assigned land to all the landless tribals as there is extensive land. Why should there be a struggle between the State and tribals? We must give them their land. I was able to satisfy this crucial need of the people. Hence, I gained the confidence of the people and there was no trouble after that. It was in this period that the Maoists started operations in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, etc. There was no Maoist presence in Bastar; they entered there in 1986.
The scene changed in the early 1990s when industrialisation required more land, minerals, natural resources. By that time I was out of the government. I had resigned. When I asked tribals about the Maoists, they would often say that because of them the police, forest officials and patwaris don’t harass them anymore. That is their assessment of Maoists.
Did you ever face threats for turning down mining projects?
I was able to successfully repulse proposals of big steel plants, especially one near Jagdalpur. The foundation stone had been laid by the then chief minister and representatives of all the political parties were there. They all said that this will be a new age for Bastar. But ‘Bailadila’ led to unrest, the foundation was demolished and people asserted their rights.
There was a meeting in a village. I had to go from Jagdalpur on a bike. I got late in the post office. This person who had stakes in mining sent a message to his contacts that Sharma is on the road from Jagdalpur. His intention was clear; he wanted to eliminate me. They sent 10 trucks and several other vehicles to this particular village; they wanted to start a fight and kill me. I was late by 15 minutes — that saved my life. They were returning when I was on my way to the village. After some vehicles had passed by, someone recognised me and they stopped. They hit us. I was lying on the road. Then somedescription said, don’t kill him. If they had killed me there, eyebrows would have been raised — they wanted to kill me in a crowded place. This was the starting point. After that, several other projects were stopped. Now they are again opening up and letting these companies mine at will.
Despite sitting on such enormous mineral wealth, why do the people in these areas continue to remain so abjectly poor?
New industries are being taken up and tribals fit nowhere in this agenda of development. In an industrial enterprise, the question is about displacement. Where do these people fit in the development model of the government? The recent Supreme Court judgments mentions that these are the resources of the communities, but the State is not ready to accept that.
Big MNCs are eyeing these natural resources and clearing up the forests. Is the Maoist struggle linked to this phenomenon?
Yes. At present, Maoists are against this. They have repeatedly stressed that this will not be tolerated. Post-independence, till the 1970s, the policy was that industrial development will be done only for self-sustainability. We threw foreign companies out. Now, everything is for sale. It is in this context that people are ready to take up arms against their own government. There should be an egalitarian model of development; the Constitution speaks about equality to all, but no one is following that. There is complete disregard of the Constitution.
What are your views on the Maoist armed struggle? Is it historically justified?
You tell me something, these boys do not care about their lives. We are talking to them because they have guns. Are we talking to Gandhians? No.
Today, people are taking lakhs or crores and nodescription has any clue. What is this chaos? You have broken the egalitarian norm and the top 10 per cent are cornering the entire resources. If you don’t change this then there will be revolution. Such is the ignorance that we call our farmers unskilled. We have eliminated constitutional values and no political party is talking about it! We can clearly see the drastic changes in the agriculture sector, but no one is willing to talk about it because they have their own interests.
So are you hopeful of a revolution?
Let’s see what happens. My time is already done.
Is Salwa Judum or its offshoots still operating in these areas?
On the pretext of following laws, they can do whatever they want.
Do you think the central or state governments have a myopic view on Maoists?
That is true because there are no takers for these issues in a proper perspective. They just want more money to be pumped into these areas. Money doesn’t matter in tribal development. When the Fifth Five Year Plan was adopted it was observed that so far as tribal development was concerned, the highest priority had to be given to the elimination of exploitation. If a pot is broken then what is the point in pouring water in it? Two points were about the excise policy and minor forest produce. Excise policy was the worst form of exploitation —no commercial licensing of liquor in tribal areas should be given. That was accepted while the debate is going on for years about the use of minor forest produce.
Do you think the Maoists will come to the negotiating table with the government?
Such exercises were there in Andhra Pradesh but it was possible because of SR Shankaran and others. There was a group in Andhra Pradesh, a strong group, which persuaded the State and Maoists to come to the table. After that they are not coming together.
Do you see any possibility of that happening?
Everydescription is trying. I should not discourage them. The trouble is that the Maoist struggle is confined to the forests. It has not spread out. The whole issue of agriculture and its conceptual framework is flawed. Agriculture needs to be given its due place. Post-Independence, the share of agriculture to GDP was 67 per cent, but now it has been reduced to only 14 per cent. By 2020, it is projected to go below 6 per cent. What do you expect from farmers and
Do you think that the farming community could be used by the Maoists to strengthen their war against the State?
Perhaps. Nodescription is prepared to talk about the real causes. According to me, the struggle has to be with the farmers, agriculturists, agricultural labourers on one side and everyone else on the other.
Will the Chhattisgarh government release the prisoners it promised to?
I am not aware of recent developments. The committee was appointed in Chhattisgarh. They have promised. Let’s see what happens.
Do you foresee any changes in the lives of tribals in the years to come?
Change should happen and will definitely happen in these states. The states are not prepared, but these issues are so big that they can’t be ignored. I am hoping that there is an understanding about the gravity of the situation. The moment farmers and agriculturists understand that they are being exploited, change will happen. For example, Dalits are considered weak, but they are very strong! Politically they are very strong because they have raised their voice against discrimination. So, if the farmer is able to understand that he’s being exploited then change will happen. How this message is to be communicated is the real question. We have been trying for a long time but our political parties are not ready to even touch these issues.
Why have Maoists not been able to establish their politics in bigger cities?
That isn’t happening because the State is very powerful. We are not in the China of Mao or in pre-revolution China. We have a strong army and police and the State has co-opted the top 10 per cent of the Indian rich.