As she dove headfirst into the stressful last months before college finals, Kruti Jethwa (Year 16-18) was also caught up in a correspondence of great significance. With the Central Government of India no less.
The Naxalite Movement originated in the north-eastern state of West Bengal as an offshoot of the rampant social and economic oppression of tribal farmers at the hands of land-owners. In the late 1960s, altercations between villagers and local law enforcement authorities resulted in a violent fallout that sparked the birth of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Currently designated as a terrorist organisation in India, The CPI(M) mobilizes marginalized communities from various eastern, central and southern states (collectively known as the Red Corridor) to take up arms. It was cited as “the single biggest internal security challenge” in 2006 by then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. Orissa, being one of the most economically backward states in the country, is particularly vulnerable to this conflict.
As the daughter of an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer growing up in Orissa, Kruti witnessed up close the ripple effects of such strife. Having moved extensively within the state due to the nature of her father’s job, she has vivid memories of territories once deemed safe and peaceful making headlines as sites for landmine blasts that claimed innocent lives. Lives of people that were acquaintances at times.
“During our EE orientation, when we were urged to pick a topic that held a significance in our personal lives, I instinctively gravitated towards terrorism and conflict,” says Kruti. “My advisors for the EE, Pelham and Arvin initially raised some concerns about my safety. But once they were onboard, they had my back through what would be an extremely demanding project.”
To address the Naxalite conflict in a humane manner, every state formulates its own surrender and rehabilitation policies for naxalites who wish to re-enter the mainstream. Kruti started an investigation into the needs this policy wasn’t addressing by interviewing surrendered naxalites. During the course of these interviews, Kruti was able to draw some acute insights crucial for her EE. She explains, “The national rehabilitation policy drafted by the Home Ministry, Govt of India for surrendering naxal terrorists had made a provision of a handsome stipend of INR 6,000 per month to the surrendered Naxals for a maximum period of 3 years, provided they enrolled in any government vocational training centers and undertook training. However, the government managed Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) required a minimum qualification of education upto Class 8 for eligibility of enrollment. Most surrendered naxals, having left their homes and joined the naxal terrorist groups at an early age, did not possess the requisite qualification for enrollment. As a result they could not get the vocational training as well as the stipend which was crucial for their transition into the mainstream. I realized that this policy limitation was impeding the skill development and effective rehabilitation of the surrendered Naxalites. Besides wanting to address this problem at a policy level, I had always questioned what makes people take up this path, and what makes them leave.” The answers she would discover, were heartbreaking and unfortunately, all too common.
“One of the women I interviewed was being sexually abused by several members of her family. So when the naxals showed up at her village to recruit people, she fled. A life in the forests living alongside terrorists seemed like a safer one than the one she had at home. When people share these stories, they’re being brave and vulnerable. And the faith they placed on me felt like a responsibility I couldn’t shirk.” Deeply shaken by these stories, Kruti decided to bring this issue to the authorities for redressal.
“I think in this final stage I had to really humble myself. I was very mindful of not approaching it with an anti-government sentiment, because it does creep in when you work on something in such an immersive manner and through the conversations you have with other students. This process really made me appreciate the policy that existed in the first place and the policymakers working at higher levels who are constantly trying to perfect it.”
Armed with grit and great patience (helpful when going up against Indian bureaucracy), Kruti approached the Koraput District Administration and Odisha State Government authorities. They acknowledged the issue but expressed inability to address it as it was a policy matter within the purview of the National Government. Undeterred, during her Christmas break, Kruti approached the authorities in the National Government at New Delhi and submitted written petitions, urging them to review their policy to address the issues affecting implementation at the ground level.
Based on her advocacy, the GOI amended their policy to allow enrollment of all surrendered naxal terrorists in the vocational training programmes irrespective of educational qualification. Those not having the required qualification would first undergo a one year foundation course, on successful completion of which they would further undergo a two year vocational training of their choice. They would also get the stipend of INR 6,000 for all 3 years. Kriti concludes,
“When you’re surrounded by changemakers, it rubs off on you. That’s certainly what happened to me,”