As members of an Independent Citizens Initiative, we visited different parts of Dantewada District in Chhattisgarh from 17th to 22nd of May, 2006, and met with a cross-section of people with different perspectives on the ongoing conflict in the district. We met a large number of adivasis, in the villages, in relief camps and in jails. We feel deeply distressed at the plight of the adivasis in Dantewada and, in that context, we make this earnest appeal to you.
We believe that the well-being and all-round development of the adivasis in Dantewada and elsewhere should be the central theme of any discussion or effort that impacts their lives, either directly or indirectly. We also believe that the defence of the rights of the adivasis can be ensured more effectively through political, non-violent and open means, rather than through armed struggle.
What is happening today in Dantewada is truly traumatic for the adivasis. The majority stand deprived of their basic entitlements in terms of land and other natural resources, education, health, food security etc, either due to the apathy and insensitivity of the State, exploitation by outsiders, or because of the restrictions imposed by you.
Due to the violence unleashed by the government and government-supported Salwa Judum movement and the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty created by your violent response, the situation in Dantewada is near civil war. We condemn both kinds of violence. Adivasi society is deeply divided. This is a situation that cannot and should not be allowed to go on. We hold all concerned, namely, the government, the government-sponsored Salwa Judum movement and the Maoists responsible for this unfortunate situation. Every one of you should own up to this and come forward to resolve the crisis through discussion and dialogue.
Based on our visit, we have a number of questions we would like to pose to you:
1 Several organisations – An All India Fact Finding team (PUCL, PUDR, APDR, IAPL), Human Rights Forum, Asian Centre for Human Rights and, the Independent Citizens Initiative - have called upon you to declare a ceasefire with the government in Chhattisgarh and engage in dialogue. You have not responded to this call. On the contrary, you have escalated violence, and killed Salwa Judum members in retaliation, often very brutally. Are you prepared to engage in dialogue?
2 We are worried at your casual attitude towards taking away life. Deaths, like that of the marriage party returning from Gadchiroli or of the traders in Kanker are treated as ‘mistakes’. Unfortunately, armed struggle leads to too many ‘mistakes’. Should this not lead to a reconsideration of strategy? In any case, what does a ‘mistake’ really mean? We do not condone the killing of policemen either on moral or political grounds, especially given that many people join the police or forces only as a means of employment.
3.Regarding the “jan adalat” held in Manikonta in which 13 villagers were brutally killed – what gives the villagers or the party the right to impose death sentences? Is a death penalty the only penalty possible? Where is the evidence that due process was followed in these so-called jan adalats?
4. Why have you laid mines all over, a weapon which people throughout the world have condemned as indiscriminate and actually want banned? Mines will not prevent Salwa Judum, but will only endanger the lives of ordinary people.
5.Why do you train minors (under 18) in the use of arms? Why do you have to destroy schools, even if the CRPF uses them? Will this not affect education in the long term to the detriment of the adivasis?
6.Not all the lack of development can be blamed on the government. People have a right to vote, to work on road construction schemes, to access panchayat money, all of which your party has opposed. Even if your party builds a thousand irrigation ponds and runs schools, can you ever replace the resources that the government has, and to which people have a right?
7.While your armed squads may be ready to face military operations and death, why put people at such risk? You claim that if it were not for repression by the State, people would be fully with you. By taking up armed struggle, are you not inviting greater repression?
8.Are you not subordinating the interests of the people of Bastar and Dantewada to your wider goal of violent state capture, a goal that they may not fully share? While there may be a great deal of support for your party, how does one measure this in any independently verifiable fashion? Are you prepared to demonstrate that through impartially conducted polls?
9.All those who claim to struggle for the people must struggle responsibly and with full accountability. There must be a distinction between civilians and combatants. Today, due to both the Salwa Judum and due to your response, such a distinction does not exist.
We appeal to you to respond to our call for a national dialogue, announce a cease-fire and agree to be party to any approach that benefits the adivasis and enhances their well being.
We have appealed to the Central and the State Governments through a similar open letter to disband Salwa Judum, announce an unconditional cease-fire, come up with confidence building measures for the benefit of the adivasis and initiate a national dialogue with you.
Ramachandra Guha (historian and columnist, Bangalore)
Harivansh (editor, Prabhat Khabar, Ranchi),
Farah Naqvi (writer and social activist, New Delhi),
EAS Sarma (former Secretary, Government of India, Visakhapatnam),
Nandini Sundar (Professor of Sociology, Delhi University),
B. G. Verghese (former editor, Hindustan Times, Indian Express, New Delhi).
This letter was sent sometime in the end of July.