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The royal coup d’etat in Nepal at the beginning of February and the rise of rural violence in India have generated new tensions in South Asia, and isolated “tribal” societies such as the Birhor are being swept into the conflict.

On February 1, Nepal’s King Gyanendra dismissed his government and imposed a state of emergency because of his concern for the failure of his government to deal with the Maoist insurgency that now controls most of his country. His action, reported by the major international media, was heatedly condemned by countries around the world. India announced the next day that it was canceling its attendance at a South Asian summit meeting in Bangladesh due to its security concerns and the situation in Nepal.

If the press of the world is focusing on the grim communist rebellion in Nepal and India’s worries about it, the media in India is covering quite carefully the broader security concerns prompted not only by the guerilla situation in Nepal but also by their own left-wing, rural rebellion. Naxalism, a violent, rural, communist insurgency, originated in the West Bengal town of Naxalbari in 1967.

The strength of the movement has waxed and waned since then due to shifting state and national policies, rivalries between different leftist factions, and the abilities of successive leaders. Ten years after its founding, the Naxalite movement began a resurgence, but 11 years after that, in 1988, Rabindra Ray, author of a major book on the movement (The Naxalites and their Ideology. Delhi: Oxford University Press) could describe how weak they had become, “an insignificant irritant” to the established order.

Naxalism has continued to grow and spread since 1988, however, well beyond the “insignificant irritant” stage, into a threat to the stability of significant portions of rural India. The Naxalites control many rural villages in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Maharashtra, and several other Indian states, and the violence they cause appears to be growing. The death toll during the first eight months of 2003, 348 victims, climbed to 405 in the same period of 2004.

The basic Naxalite issue is a perennial problem for many parts of the world: they demand land redistribution to the rural landless peasants. Government officials respond, predictably, that there is no land available to redistribute to the poor. The Naxalites also demand that the government should institute social justice for the rural poor, that the police must stop their forceful tactics, and that their jailed members must be released. As the most forceful and violent manifestation of India’s Communist Party, they have identified at times with other leftist causes such as youth concerns, working class rights, and women’s issues. But the struggles of landless peasants have been at the heart of Naxalism from the beginning.

Increasingly, Indians are worried that the insurgency is being fed by the Maoist guerillas that have gained control in much of neighboring Nepal. One Indian columnist frets that “already there is linkage from Kathmandu through [Uttar Pradesh], Bihar, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. There is no doubt that the Indian Maoists have been providing training to the Nepal Maoists.” She describes the way the Naxalites rule rural areas of India through extortion and parallel governments. She does admit, though, that solutions to the problem will be found through land reform, jobs for young people, good governance, and protecting the rights of “tribals,” the minority societies of India.

The central government has responded by calling for the insurgents to abandon violence and to resolve rural problems through talks. The government has also suggested the formation of a coordinated strategy to tackle the problem, with representatives from the national as well as the state governments included in a designated “United Command.” It has also deployed a lot of military forces to try to stop the insurgency. The government is trying to recruit rural people from areas held by the Naxalites into the ranks of the police forces, in order to give more employment to the inhabitants of those regions.

In essence, the government of India appears to be responding with good words as well as with bullets. But a headline for a story in the Deccan Herald, “Govt Promises New Deal for Rural India” captures the essence of the problem—promises. Whether or not anything really happens to improve rural conditions in India remains to be seen.

While several of the news stories mention the tribal groups as sources of recruits for the Naxalites, it is not clear if, or how much, the Birhor of Bihar State have been involved as participants. Rural Bihar and Andhra Pradesh have been at the center of the Naxalite battleground for decades. But the Birhor are, unfortunately, caught up in this struggle nonetheless. The Telegraph from Calcutta reports that the Birhor cannot be approached safely by social activists, government agents, or anthropologists since the areas where they live are now too unsafe to visit due to the insurgency.

Ajit Sahay, a prominent anthropologist who has visited many of their villages and written a book about them, tells The Telegraph that “we used to visit the Birhors without fear. But today it is unthinkable for students and teachers to visit these places because of the Naxalites.” He goes on to claim that “the dwindling number of Birhors is a matter of great concern. But there is little that can be done because of the rebel threat.”

Prof. Sahay commends the work of some of the NGOs with the Birhors, and he advocates trying to improve their living standards. But he feels help should be provided “without disturbing their natural lifestyle.” In contrast to the attitude of the Malaysian government and its supportive newspaper reported here last week—that the Batek should accept the Malay lifestyle as quickly as possible—Prof. Sahay and The Telegraph apparently have a much more accepting approach toward the Birhor and their forest-based way of life.

Sahay relates how the government provided large community halls for the Birhor to live in back in the 1980s. When the government agent returned to the community, the official discovered that the Birhor had built their traditional kumbas (a type of hut) right inside the new hall. “This was an eye-opener. If education, or anything modern, has to be taken to them, it should not disturb their traditional ways,” he concludes. Unfortunately, one has to wonder if his attitude of respect for very poor, rural minority people will be reflected in the power centers of New Delhi or Kathmandu anytime soon.