A State at War With its People
Anything goes against the Maoist insurgency in Central India
Rivers like the Godavri and Mahanadi sing folk songs for the beautiful hilly forests of Dantewada district of Chhatisgarh in central India. Numerous rivulets add their charming music to them. People there have precious tribal narratives and culture enriched with the folklore of Birsa Munda, a young tribal revolutionary who achieved martyrdom struggling against British colonial rule.
Dantewada district is sparsely populated with Gond tribes. People there are completely dependent on agriculture and forestry. They are the original inhabitants of the region. But on a big chunk of their land they have no land rights, as forest officials lord it over two-thirds of the district.
Ninety-five per cent of the villages in the district have no basic medical facilities. Only 23 villages have government-sponsored ration shops. Malaria and starvation deaths are common.
In the early 1980s, Maoists first exposed the abuses in this region with the slogan "Jal Jangal Jameen Hamara Hai" (the water, land, and forests belong to us). They organized people against corrupt government functionaries, exploitative traders, and moneylenders. They took the initiative in various public welfare schemes, from fishing and modernizing agriculture to providing medical facilities and education. As a result, a big chunk of central India is completely under their control.
Some reports claim about 92,000 sq km (35,521 sq miles) as Maoist-controlled. According to official estimates, as far as their strength on the ground is concerned, Maoists have about 10,000 armed cadres and over 45,000 workers, but security experts estimate these numbers are much higher.
These armed Maoist revolutionaries of the Communist Party of India (CPIM), also known as Naxalites, come out of the peasant uprising of June 1967 in sleepy village Naxalbari in West Bengal.
In April, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admitted that 160 districts across the country are slipping out of government control. He reiterated that the Maoist problem has assumed proportions bigger than the militancy in Kashmir and the insurgency in the northeast.
Therefore, to forcefully wipe out the Maoists from central India, the Chhattisgarh government started a "movement" called Salwa Judum(State sponsered white terrorism) in June 2005. As many as 3,200 tribals, many of them of minor tribes, were recruited as "Special Police Officers" and provided rifles and ammunition by the state. But they had not gone through any military training. The mastermind of Salwa Judum was Mahendra Karma, himself a tribal and the leader of the opposition in the state assembly.
Initially, the government and mainstream media portrayed Salwa Judum as a spontaneous uprising of tribals against the Maoists, hailing it as a turning point in the fight against the Maoist insurgency. At the same time, a few reports indicated that thousands of people had been displaced and were living in miserable conditions in dusty Salwa Judum camps.
Going through such news items, some concerned citizens and a 14-member team of five democratic rights and civil liberties organizations visited the affected areas and, after the investigation, they revealed some astonishing truths in their fact-finding report, "When a State Makes war on its own People," about the ongoing "peace hunt."
In the report, these organizations stated that Salwa Judum is far from the spontaneous uprising of tribals against the Maoists that it is claimed to be. It is an organized, state- managed enterprise. The district collector himself has been a kind of participant of the Salwa Judum meetings, and security forces have been stacking Judum meetings.
"The Salwa Judum has led to the forcible displacement of people throughout the district under police and administrative supervision," the team stated, adding that, according to official estimates, approximately 15,000 people from 420 villages are living as refugees in temporary camps. People have left behind their cattle and most of their household goods. The region is being turned into one large cantonment. In many places regular economic activities have stopped.
"We observed a pattern in the dislocation," the team asserts. "When Salwa Judum meetings are called, people from neighboring villages are asked to be present. Villages that refuse to participate face repeated attacks by the combined forces of Salwa Judum, the district force, and the paramilitary Naga Battalion (paramilitaries in Colombia use chainsaws-ed.). In addition, there are separate raids by the Naga Battalion. These raids result in looting, arson, and killings in many instances. Once in the camps, people have no choice but to support the Salwa Judum. Some of them are forced to work as informers against members of their own and neighboring villages and participate in attacks against them, leading to permanent divisions within villages."
"The heavy presence of the paramilitary forces creates a situation where forces from other states behave like an occupation army. We ourselves saw a number of cattle and people being herded by the paramilitary forces after a raid. In addition, people are being encouraged to carry arms. Chhattisgarh claims to be a tribal state, but culture is being actively destroyed. People, for whom the earth of their village is sacred, are being forcibly removed from it, and the whole social fabric is being torn," the team added.
The entire tribal belt of Bastar has turned into a war zone. Over 250 deaths have been reported since Salwa Judum was initiated last year. There is widespread discontent among the tribals, who feel that the government is using their blood for its own war against the Maoists. The Salwa Judum activists treat all tribals who do not join their camps as Maoists. Unfortunately, the Maoists, too, consider those not with them as being supporters of the Salwa Judum and punish them in their own ways.
Even freedom of speech has not been spared. Kamlesh Paikra, the Bijapur correspondent of a Jagdalpur-based daily, was hounded out of town for writing about the atrocities committed by Salwa Judum. Eventually, he relocated to Dantewada but lost his job.
The recently enacted draconian Chhattisgarh Public Security Act has provided a fertile ground for large-scale human rights violations by the state.
It is believed that tribals are used as ammunition in this war to serve the private interests of a few. Moreover, the second-rung leadership of this campaign is largely in the hands of non-tribals. "It is possible that some of them were lawbreakers and were perhaps now trying to atone for past offenses.
Many of them function outside the framework of the law and are thus not accountable to any institution," a cross-section of prominent scholars, artists, retired civil servants, and journalists stated in a separate report after the investigation. They added that "the government must ensure that the killing and looting be stopped immediately and people enabled to return to their villages."
In concluding the fact-finding report, the team demanded that the government stop using people as a shield and creating armed vigilante groups in villages as a part of its anti-Maoist operation. "All killings of civilians and non-combatants by the state as well as by Maoists must be stopped forthwith. Paramilitary forces must be withdrawn from the area, the authority of the civil administration restored, and dialogue with CPIM be initiated.
A judicial enquiry should be held into all killings committed by the Salwa Judum/security forces that have gone unrecorded. The camps should be dismantled and the government should assist people in regaining their livelihood in their villages. Both the government and the CPIM must ensure that people return to their homes in peace and security."
The Chhattisgarh government campaign to wipe out the Maoists can be concluded in the words of E.A.S. Sarma (former Secretary, Department of Economic Affairs, Government of India) written in his recent article in a national daily, "The counter-insurgency strategy of the Chhattisgarh Government, with Salwa Judum at its core, has unleashed civil strife in Dantewada.
It has already pitted brother against brother and village against village. Unless the tribals are brought to center-stage politically and their well being perceived as the primary requirement, any strategy to deal with the Maoist problem is bound to fail. Violence cannot be the answer to violence. Socio-economic and political issues are at the root of the Maoist problem. They need to be addressed first. Otherwise, Salwa Judum will soon spin out of government control."