India’s Adivasi Communities Are Facing Brutal Repression

Narendra Modi’s government has launched a brutal crackdown on the Adivasi communities of India’s tribal belt in defiance of the constitution. Its goal is to clear the way for exploiting lucrative mineral resources by trampling on Adivasi rights.

A protest rally demanding the government to recognize the rights of Adivasis over forest land and stop all projects that harm their forests on March 10, 2023 in Mumbai, India. (Bhushan Koyande / Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

In the mineral-rich heartland of India’s Bastar region in the state of Chhattisgarh, a severe onslaught against indigenous communities, known as Adivasis, is currently unfolding. The Indian government officially recognizes the major Adivasi community in the region, the Madia, as a “particularly vulnerable tribal group.” Despite this recognition, the ongoing state-led aggression against them poses a grave threat to their existence, putting thousands of lives at stake.

At the heart of this unfolding tragedy lies the Indian government’s steadfast commitment, echoed by the declarations of Home Minister Amit Shah, to eradicate Maoist revolutionaries by the end of 2024. In their pursuit of a “Maoist-free India,” state forces have intensified their operations in 2024. Over the past four months, they have killed ninety-two Adivasis and Maoists. On April 16 alone, security forces killed twenty-nine Adivasis and Maoists, fifteen of whom were women.

To carry out this bloodshed, the Indian state has deployed not only thousands of local police operatives but also more than ten thousand troops from border security and paramilitary forces as well as special counterinsurgent units. They have established hundreds of military camps across Adivasi terrain to terrorize and eliminate them.

Military and police camps have been strategically established at intervals of three to five kilometers to saturate Bastar. In Chhattisgarh, there are nearly three hundred such camps, with Bastar alone hosting about a hundred. Each camp accommodates between five hundred and two thousand personnel, armed with heavy weaponry, and supported by drones of various sizes. Additionally, every camp is equipped with two mine-proof vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, and war tanks.

Furthermore, the state is resorting to the use of drones to drop bombs in Adivasi areas. This aggression illustrates how the Indian state is endangering its indigenous people. The question remains: Why?

Minerals and Maoism

For over five decades, the Maoists, also known as Naxalites, have been waging a relentless struggle against the state, advocating for socioeconomic justice and people’s rights over water, forest, land, and self-respect. However, the Indian government views this revolutionary movement as a major “internal security threat” and labels it a “menace” to the nation. In response, it has embarked on a mission to “sanitize” regions under Maoist influence.

In the context of Bastar, renowned writer Arundhati Roy has offered valuable insights into the complex dynamics of the conflict by looking at it in terms of three main factors: mineral resources, the Adivasi communities, and the Maoists. At the core of this issue lies the abundant reserves of minerals.

The state of Chhattisgarh accounts for a large proportion of India’s mineral reserves, including 38 percent of its tin ore, 20 percent of its bauxite, 18 percent of its iron ore, 17 percent of its coal, and 4 percent of its diamonds. Mineral extraction in the state contributes almost 13 percent of India’s total mineral production value.

The Bastar region alone possesses several minerals that are essential for various industries, including coal, iron ore, bauxite, dolomite, limestone, diamonds, and manganese. It also contains rare-metal and rare-earth (RMRE) pegmatites such as niobium, cerium, yttrium, lithium, and tantalum. The estimated value of these mineral resources is staggering.

The Indian state’s strategy revolves around privatizing existing public sector mining operations and providing licenses for new mines to corporations. This initiative aims to create designated zones for the extraction of minerals. To achieve this objective, the state has undertaken three major steps.

Firstly, it has created a conducive policy environment for privatizing mining operations, paving the way for increased corporate involvement in the sector. Secondly, extensive infrastructure has been constructed to facilitate corporate operations, including the extraction and transportation of minerals. This infrastructure development includes roads, railways, airports, and other logistical support systems.

Thirdly, the entire region has been militarized through the establishment of numerous police camps, aimed at providing security to corporate interests and suppressing dissent. Adivasis perceive this ruthless encroachment through privatization, corporatization, and militarization as a direct threat to their existence and cultural heritage.

Denying Constitutional Rights

For centuries, Adivasis have relied on the land for their sustenance and identity, with their way of life intricately tied to nature. However, the aggressive push for mineral extraction not only displaces Adivasis from their ancestral lands but also disrupts their way of life and social fabric.

The deployment of armed forces within Adivasi territories not only stokes up fear but also perpetuates human rights abuses. These actions directly contravene constitutional provisions stipulated in the Fifth Schedule under Article 244 of the Indian Constitution. The Fifth Schedule mandates that any developmental initiatives within Adivasi areas must proceed only with their free, prior, and informed consent.

Scheduled Areas, as defined by the Fifth Schedule, encompass regions with a substantial indigenous population and are present in ten states: Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Telangana.

The Fifth Schedule safeguards the Adivasis by granting special provisions for their governance, protecting their land and resources, and prohibiting the transfer of tribal land without consent.

The Fifth Schedule also facilitates the establishment of autonomous district councils and regional councils within Scheduled Areas. These entities are tasked with fostering self-governance and promoting socioeconomic development among Adivasi communities.

However, despite the presence of these constitutional guarantees, Adivasis have remained consistent targets of exploitation and oppression, indicating a wide gap between constitutional principles and their practical enforcement.

From 2003 to 2018, the Chhattisgarh government signed 272 Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs), entailing an investment of approximately $16.5 billion. However, 158 MoUs were terminated in 2021 as they did not materialize. Between 2019 and 2021, the government agreed a new set of 104 MoUs totaling $6 billion.

To execute these MoUs and extract resources, the state has been attempting to displace the Adivasis from their land. Yet the Adivasis are not alone, since the Maoists stand in solidarity with them. Together, they are combating what Roy has dubbed the cohort of “MoUists.”

The Indian state views the Adivasis and the Maoists as obstacles to its primary objective: exploiting the mineral wealth situated beneath the Adivasi lands. To assert its dominance over these resources, the state has employed a range of illicit and unconstitutional tactics, including aerial bombings using drones, ostensibly to combat the Maoist revolutionaries. This brutal strategy not only disregards the rights and dignity of the Adivasi communities but also highlights the state’s readiness to prioritize corporate interests above the welfare of its people.

State Repression

The heavy-handed approach of the Indian government, characterized by widespread human rights abuses such as extrajudicial killings, forced displacement, and violations of civil liberties, has been ongoing for years. The state has been implementing various notorious counterrevolutionary strategies, reminiscent of tactics previously used in Malaysia and Vietnam, such as the establishment of “New Villages” and “Strategic Hamlets,” aimed at eradicating communist movements.

The underlying principle of these strategies is to displace individuals from their land and disrupt their social networks, relocating them to unfamiliar areas. Through this process of alienation, the state aims to exert control over the populace and weaken their support for revolutionary causes.

During 1990–91, the state put into effect a strategic approach through the formation of a vigilante group named Jan Jagran Abhiyan (JJA, or “Public Awakening Campaign”). While the name of this group suggested an intention to raise awareness among the populace, its actions belied this purported purpose. Instead of fostering enlightenment, the JJA employed coercive methods to compel individuals to denounce the Maoist movement.

Methods of coercion included the targeted killing of suspected Maoist sympathizers, acts of sexual violence against women, and the deliberate destruction of homes through arson. Such tactics were intended to instill fear and suppress support for the Maoist cause within the affected communities.

In 2005, the JJA rebranded itself as the Salwa Judum, which translates to “Purification Hunt” in the Gondi language. The primary objective of this rebranded entity was to dismantle the support base of the Maoists. Employing coercive tactics, the Salwa Judum compelled Adivasis to join its ranks and ruthlessly targeted those who resisted its authority, resorting to violence and killings.

The Salwa Judum’s campaign of terror extended to looting Adivasi homes, incinerating entire villages, and subjecting women to rape and sexual violence. In contrast to the JJA, which selectively targeted individual houses, the Salwa Judum adopted a more indiscriminate approach, destroying whole communities in its pursuit of its objectives.

Operation Green Hunt

As well as endorsing the Salwa Judum, the state established an auxiliary unit known as the Special Police Officers (SPO), which enlisted local Adivasi and non-Adivasi youths, along with former Maoists, into its ranks. The recruitment process had no defined criteria, such as minimum age, educational qualifications, or training prerequisites. Instead, individuals were selected based solely on their willingness to support paramilitary forces and the Salwa Judum in their counterrevolutionary operations.

In 2007, in response to this unconstitutional system, civil rights activists and scholars petitioned the Supreme Court. A 2011 ruling from the Supreme Court ordered the government of Chhattisgarh to disband the SPO force and halt all support for anti-constitutional activities such as the Salwa Judum aimed at suppressing the Maoist movement.

However, within a month, instead of complying with the court order, the government enacted the Chhattisgarh Auxiliary Armed Police Force Ordinance. This move effectively legitimized the SPO by altering their designation and status. In addition, the government provided them with more advanced weaponry and increased their salaries.

Subsequently, in 2013, the government renamed the force as the District Reserve Guard. Despite these changes in nomenclature, the underlying actions remained unchanged, reflecting the continuation of the same oppressive practices. These persistent criminal activities underscore the absence of a constitutional punitive mechanism. The state’s endorsement of terror has firmly established its dominance over Chhattisgarh.

In 2009, the Indian state launched a nationwide coordinated offensive against the Maoists known as “Operation Green Hunt.” This operation involved the deployment of various security forces, including the Central Reserve Police Force, the Border Security Forces, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, as well as specialized police units like the Greyhounds, alongside local police. The primary objective of this operation was to eliminate the Maoists.

Modi’s Strategy

Since 2014, the Modi administration has significantly intensified its oppressive strategies to unprecedented levels. It strengthened the Green Hunt Operation until 2017 and introduced another potent yet brutal strategy with the acronym SAMADHAN: Smart leadership — Aggressive strategy — Motivation and training — Actionable intelligence — Dashboard-based key performance indicators — Harnessing technology — Action plan for each theater — No access to financing.

None of these operations succeeded in eliminating the Maoists or implementing all the MoUs to access and exploit mineral resources. In response to this failure, a new war strategy was devised. Home Minister Amit Shah proclaimed this strategy during a meeting held in Surajkand, Haryana, in October 2022.

In this meeting, Shah stated that his government would not spare any “anti-national” forces, whether they were pen holders (referring to public intellectuals and civil rights activists) or gun holders (the Maoists). He reiterated the same goal of ending Maoism in the country by 2024 during a meeting held on December 11, 2022, in New Delhi.

As part of the Surajkand strategy, the Modi administration is systematically eliminating all forms of opposition, including political parties that could impede its goal of transforming India into a Hindu state. In pursuit of this objective, the government has implicated hundreds of public intellectuals, writers, artists, and rights activists in sedition cases and incarcerated them. While stifling the voice of civil society, the Modi administration has escalated its campaign at the same time against Adivasis by militarizing Adivasi areas.

Military camps are imposing severe restrictions on the movement of Adivasis, instilling terror day and night. Particularly alarming is the fact that military forces have been launching rockets from these camps in recent months, targeting surrounding villages and forests. This has forced people to flee in panic, desperately seeking safety.

The shells from these rockets can travel up to five kilometers from the camp, exploding within a dangerous ten-meter radius of residential areas. Terrified residents have fled to the forests, carrying their children and elderly family members.

Even more concerning is the government’s use of drones to drop bombs and indiscriminate fire from helicopters since April 2021. These incidents have occurred five times since then, evidently aimed at terrorizing the populace and potentially serving as a prelude to more extensive aerial assaults on Adivasi communities in the future.

Breaking the Silence

Since January of this year, the Modi government has escalated its military operations under “Operation Kagar,” declaring it to be a decisive step to “liberate” Bastar from the Maoists, with a notable focus on the Abhuj Maad area, where approximately thirty-five thousand Madia Adivasis live. During these operations, ninety-two Maoists and Adivasis were killed.

On January 1, police forces indiscriminately fired upon the hut of an innocent six-month-old girl named Mangli Sodi. Her mother was feeding her when the bullets struck, resulting in Mangli’s tragic death and severe injuries to her parents. In another appalling incident on April 2, the police took away a twelve-year-old girl called Kamli, who had been deaf and dumb since birth, and shot her multiple times, later falsely claiming that she was killed in an exchange of fire with the Maoists. The mother could hardly recognize Kamli’s lifeless body, marred by bullet wounds.

These heinous acts epitomize the devastating consequences of the Indian state’s warfare against its own people. Even though the humanitarian crisis in Bastar has reached alarming levels, the mainstream media has remained conspicuously silent. Local media outlets are terrorized and restrained from disseminating information about the situation to other areas. Media personnel, under the control of police officials, are coerced into propagating only the statements provided by the police themselves.

As Adivasis endeavor to safeguard their constitutionally guaranteed rights and preserve their ancestral lands, the Modi government persists as an aggressive enabler for corporate and Hindutva agendas. Yet it is the Adivasis who embody the authentic custodians of nature.

It is imperative for global civil society to vociferously advocate for an end to the Indian state’s all-out war. Only through concerted international pressure can justice and peace prevail for the Adivasis and their land.