‘Jangal and Zameen’

Jangal (Forest) and Zameen (Land) were the issues behind (Maoist) terror’. That was union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh.
And he thinks the new land bill—the amended land acquisition bill which is going to be notified early next year, will solve these ‘problems’. It’s one way to admit the hard reality that the Maoist question in Indian polity is essentially a land question, rather a peasant question. It was so at the time of Naxalbari uprising. And their response was bhoodan movement by Binoba Bhave. But that movement fizzled out even before it could attain some momentum. Those were the days when corporate expansion was not that all pervasive. People were talking about predominant feudal remnants. Things have changed radically in every sphere of economic life over the years.

But whether the Bill when becomes Act will be a real game changer for the aggrieved is open to question. In all fairness the much publicised Law will enhance compensation amount for land-losers. But law seldom guarantees fair deal unless the losers are in a position of strength to bargain. In other words they are going to acquire land legally on a large scale when the Act becomes operative. As forcible land grabbing is aggravating law and order situation even in areas of relative tranquillity, they now depend on hard cash. In any way peasants are going to lose land and their collective identity as well to make way for industrial ventures with dubious distinction. Mr Ramesh, however, didn’t explain why tribals were losing their traditional rights over forests, notwithstanding the existence of a nice Forest Act that sounds democratic even by Indian standards.

Not that Maoists are behind every anti-land acquisition agitation. In recent years the Maoists were not in the forefront of land struggles. They were mainly in the jungles resisting the encroachment of mining giants. In most cases land struggles developed spontaneously at the local initiatives while the Maoists entered the scenario later, and that too not everywhere, without making any lasting impact. There is a grand conspiracy taken at a higher level, not known to the public, to make agriculture unviable, and forcing the small and middle peasants without showing the stick, to leave agriculture—once and for all. And now lure of ‘better’ compensation money will talk.

While Jairam Ramesh was elaborating the aspects of new bill, which they call ‘historic’ and Sonia Gandhi thinks Congress will win elections because of this ‘historic law’, the security forces killed 13 activists of CPI (Maoist) in the Malkangiri jungle of Odisha, adjoining Chattisgarh. To tackle the ‘menace of Maoism’ they depend on guns, not laws. And in future the Rameshs will continue to depend on bullets despite the existence of a ‘better’ law replacing the age-old colonial Land Acquisition Act. Law is meant to legalise their illegal deeds. The sons and daughters of the ‘jangal and zameen’ will continue to be dispossessed from their habitats to enrich the country’s elite, all in the name of development.

The convergence of multiple global crises—financial, energy and environment—in recent years has triggered a rush of corporate investments in land-based resources such as food, feed, seed, agro-fuels, timber, oil and minerals. Ramesh’s historic law is not against alienation of land. In reality it will hasten the process of land alienation.

For one thing when anti-land grab agitation touches the middle-class segment, it gains some extra strength and the persons in power react as the Rameshs are reacting. But middle-class rage is yet to hit the streets of Indian cities the way it is hitting Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere. They are yet to realise it is worth going into streets to make a common cause with the dispossessed. Maybe the pent-up rage that is troubling the youth in this country is yet to reach the critical mass.

Globally the 1960s were about breaking cultural norms and protesting wars, the 1990s about taking to the streets against globalisation and its associated evils, and now the 2010s seem to be about a clamour for responsive government as well as social and economic freedom. For the rising middle-class in most third world countries the definition of success is not mere survival or hand-to-mouth existence anymore, it is about quality of life, about future and right to dissent, but for the vast peasant masses it is still the question of sheer survival. And the new law is aimed at pacifying their anger by way of offering some sops. But in any case the authorities will take their land and they will take it legally. That the maoists stand in their way in some parts of the country is a fact of life. But the maoist armed resistance is so localised and terrain-specific that it is unlikely to influence other segments of the society, particularly in urban areas and without which it is next to impossible to reverse the prevailing trend of land and forest grabbing under one pretext or another. It is meaningless, if not counter-productive, to be cynical about middle-class protest movements. They too are struggling against uncertain future and defending rights.

The tragedy is that people continue to believe that democracy is just about having periodic elections. They don’t think it’s about real freedom and disobeying the will of the elite. The situation is too supercharged these days that even a minor incident may be morphed into mass demonstrations against ingrained corruption, high taxes, rising prices, mounting inflation and unemployment. What is needed is mass rallies over a range of social issues, not a spark or two in the jungles. The issue of ‘jangal and zameen’ is paramount in Indian life today as it affects indigenous peoples directly and non-indigenous peoples indirectly.

Vol. 46, No. 12, Sep 29 -Oct 5, 2013

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