Chattisgarh's purification hunt

Chhattisgarh’s purification hunt
Shubhranshu Choudhary

The state’s Adivasis are being treated like marionettes, as political, corporate and state-security interests seek to gain access to their land.

In early 2005, on a visit to Chhattisgarh, people kept telling me, “Tata is coming, something strange is going to happen.” It was not clear what exactly this obtuse prediction meant. But those vague murmurs turned to rumbles within just a few months. By June 2005, there was talk of a “spontaneous uprising” taking place against the Maoists. We were told that because the state’s Maoists had banned the collection of tendu leaves, used in bidi production, the people were in the process of “revolting”. It might have been an odd coincidence, but it was during that same month that two private companies, Tata and Essar, each signed memorandums of understanding with the Chhattisgarh government to set up massive steel projects in the state’s iron-rich Bastar District.

According to newspaper reports, people were gathering and marching from village to village, in an attempt to garner support against the Maoists. Local media accounts called it the start of another jan jagran abhiyan, a people’s-awakening movement. Despite the evidence of armed people taking part in these gatherings, newspapers were continuing to refer to what was taking place as a “peace movement”. Chief Minister Raman Singh and ‘supercop’ K P S Gill, Chhattisgarh’s former security adviser and the man who suppressed the Punjab insurgency, even went so far as to call the whole ordeal a Gandhian experiment.

Within days, the tone of the headlines had changed. While hearing about Maoist attacks on the Jan Jagran Ab
hiyan meetings, we suddenly also heard about villagers pouring into roadside camps that had been set up by the state – purportedly due to “fear of Maoist attacks”. By December, more than 15,000 people were living in those camps. By that time, the ‘movement’ had also been rechristened salwa judum, and local Congress party leader Mahendra Karma had taken up its leadership. Karma claimed that Salwa Judum meant ‘Peace March’ in the dialect of the Gond Adivasis, though some academics have said that a more accurate translation would be ‘Purification Hunt’.

That December, a report by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties included a damning accusation: that the Salwa Judum was not a spontaneous movement at all, but rather a government-sponsored programme. A report by the Communist Party of India (CPI) also stated that the Salwa Judum had been torching houses and killing people who refused to join them. Nonetheless, the local newspapers continued to describe what was going on as a spontaneous, peaceful people’s movement. Sitting in Delhi, it was certainly difficult to discern what was actually taking place.

Scorched-earth policy
Maoists, also called Nax
alites, have been working to create a parallel power system in the Adivasi villages of the Bastar area for the past three decades. Starting very recently, however, a new phenomenon has been becoming increasingly clear. The traditional Adivasi leadership, whose authority was threatened by the new Maoist-created leadership (called sanghams), was making up the backbone of the Salwa Judum. Mahendra Karma himself came from an elite Adivasi family.

While visiting Dantewada District, also known as South Bastar, in February 2006, it became amply clear that it was in fact Salwa Judum members who were forcing people to move to the refugee camps – quite the opposite of what was being reported in the papers. In the camps I spoke with terrified people, many of whom backed up the findings of the CPI report: Salwa Judum members were going from village to village, forcing people to join with them. If the villagers refused to do so, they burnt their houses, even killing many who resisted. Nearly everyone in the camps told me that they wanted to go back home, but were too afraid of retaliation by the Salwa Judum. The state administration, meanwhile, was maintaining a familiar line: the people were remaining in the camps due to fear of the Maoists, and that they would go back once the Maoists were eliminated.

During a subsequent trip to Dantewada, the District Collector of Dantewada provided an official document called “Work Plan for People’s Jan Jagran Abhiyan 2005”. The pamphlet included a large number of details about the government’s support and plan to take the movement to new areas, but the mere presence of this literature led to a still more puzzling question: How could the government make a work plan for a ‘spontaneous’ people’s movement?

The ‘payback’ from the authorities for trying to do independent journalism seemed to be encapsulated in the experience of Kamlesh Painkra, an Adivasi journalist who had written in a local newspaper about the arson and killings by the Salwa Judum. Since doing so, he had lost his job; his brother, a teacher, had been thrown in jail on charges of being a Maoist supporter; and the rest of his family was living as refugees. Was what Kamlesh wrote true? Unfortunately, there was no time to investigate.

The strategy of systematically driving people into roadside camps actually has a name in English – “strategic hamleting. Evidently, the same tactic had been tried in many other parts of the world during attempts to cut off guerrilla links to the populace. The same strategy had apparently been tried in Mizoram and Nagaland during the 1960s, but was a dismal failure. Instead of isolating the rebels, the killing of innocent villagers in aerial bombings and the forced eviction from their traditional villages engendered hostility towards the state, and generated more support for the rebel cause. Meanwhile, all of the police officers who were challenged denied that they were engaged in any ‘strategic hamleting’ whatsoever.

I tried to visit some of the villages that were said to have been razed by the Salwa Judum. But the roads to these villages were being blocked by the police and ‘Special Police Officers’, or SPOs, a shadowy group of civilians that the government had started recruiting for the Salwa Judum. Each member received a regular ‘salary’ of INR 1500. As such, no local would agree to accompany reporters to any burned-down village.

Eventually, however, two students from an Adivasi hostel in the state capital of Raipur, 500 km away, agreed to take me to their own village. They knew of an alternate route, where neither the police nor the SPOs would be waiting. After a long trek, we reached their village and witnessed the mayhem. People told us of repeated attacks by the Salwa Judum: They want us to leave the village and come to the camps. We ran away as soon as we saw them, but some of us were caught. By now, they have either been killed or been taken to the camps. These people were almost completely cut off from the outside world, and we saw sick patients who were unable to seek medical care for fear of the Salwa Judum. “We travel 80 km to get salt and oil,” said one elder. “We send old women and children to shops. We are frightened of the Salwa Judum: if they see us in the market, they will kill us.”

It was at this exact time that the Maoists publicly released a recording of an alleged conversation between the police chief of Bijapur, formerly part of Dantewada, and his subordinate. The police chief was reportedly heard saying, “Tell people that the state is giving three lakh rupees to those villages that join Salwa Judum. And if they do not do so, their villages will be burnt.” Later on in the same tape, the police chief orders, “And if you see any journalists, just kill them.” The government dismissed the tape as bogus, but some senior police officers later confirmed its authenticity, though off the record. Certainly, the government did not order any enquiry.

Tendu cover-up
During another visit to Dantewada, I came upon a group of fleeing villagers from Santoshpur, in neighbouring Bijapur District. They told us that members of both the Salwa Judum and the police had killed 12 people in their village. “Other than one, the other 11 had no connection whatsoever with the Maoists,” said one angrily. Families were also getting divided in this dirty war. One mother said, “My older son, who is now an SPO, came to kill my younger son, who is with the Maoists.” After our news reports become public, the state government ordered an enquiry into several of these and related events. But that probe merely found the culprits to be “unidentified people in uniform” –nothing but a veiled reference to Naxalites.

Still, a picture of what was actually happening was slowly emerging. We met a remarkable policeman who had been appointed to protect one of the camps. He claimed that his unit had killed 65 people during the previous three months, and his revelations were stark: “We do not know the language of the Adivasis. We accompany Salwa Judum to the villages. As soon as villagers see us, they run away. We kill whoever we get hold of. We are killing them like goats, like chickens, like ants, on orders from higher ups.” Here was a man clearly in turmoil amidst the state-mandated violence. “Please write about it,” he said. “I know I will be called for an enquiry, but I will tell my senior officers, ‘This is wrong, please stop it’.”

Running away has indeed become a widespread phenomenon in these affected areas of Chhattisgarh. We heard about terrified people leaving their villages in hordes, heading to neighbouring states. Though Chhattisgarh officials deny any such migration, the forest department of Andhra Pradesh has started burning the temporary houses of the displaced Adivasi camps. The High Court of Andhra Pradesh has recently ordered a stay on these forced evictions.

Sunil Kumar, a newspaper editor in Raipur, implies that there was much more to the current phase of anti-Maoist fighting than met the eye. “If you look at the timing of the start of Salwa Judum, it is not only the time of the MOUs with Tata and Essar, but it is also the time when an Adivasi was appointed the home minister of Chhattisgarh,” Kumar noted. “Salwa Judum is conceived and executed in the police headquarters. They knew it would result in bloodshed, and that is the reason they got an Adivasi appointed as home minister.” Following this intriguing correlation, there were other journalists who confirmed that they had received their initial tips on the start of the ‘spontaneous’ people’s movement from police sources. Thereafter, press notes continued to emanate from the fax numbers of police stations.

Few journalists seem to have managed, or bothered, to get to the bottom of the story. N R K Pillay is a veteran journalist based in Bastar who has tried. He says: “The so-called revolt against the Maoists in June 2005 was a combination of drought, a systematic siphoning of subsidised grain, and the rumour spread by a close associate of Mahendra Karma that Maoists have banned tendu-leaf collection. But the Maoists were merely demanding a better rate for the tendu leaf, and had never banned the collection.”

Qualms about tendu leaves notwithstanding, the industrialisation of Chhattisgarh continues apace. Chitranjan Bakshi, of the CPI, who led the first fact-finding team to investigate the Salwa Judum in September 2005, recalls intimations of a larger process afoot from the very beginning. “We wrote a letter to the prime minister but got no reply. Our national leaders raised it with Sonia Gandhi, but she remains unmoved. I wonder if it is the pressure of the companies who are going to gain at the end, when these Adivasis are pushed out of their lands.” Some CPI members have now gone to court with a list of 548 murders, 99 rapes and more than 3000 burnt houses, which they say were all perpetrated by the Salwa Judum. No police complaint was registered regarding a single one of these incidents.

Meanwhile, the work plan for 2006 handed out by the Dantewada District Collector said that Essar had been helping the state government to put up the roadside camps. The head of the state Planning Commission has announced that the government is now planning to turn these ‘temporary’ camps into permanent villages. Today, 59,000 people are said to be living in these camps. The government has now halted all provision for health, education and subsidised foodgrain in the original villages, on the deceptively simple explanation that all of the people are now living in the camps.

But even greater injustice lies in the fuzzy math behind these camps. The total population of this area was estimated at around 350,000. If 59,000 people are now living in the camps, then what has happened to the additional three lakh? Many may have fled outright, while many others are remaining in their villages – but both of these groups are currently almost entirely outside of the purview of the government.

Chhattisgarh is unique for the raising of the Salwa Judum as a vigilante force by the state to counter the rise of the Maoists – an attempt to pit locals against locals, and to absolve the authorities of the responsibilities of law and order. But if that much is clear, much else is not. Is this, after all is said and done, an attempt to get large companies access to mineral-rich areas that inconveniently happen to be inhabited by Adivasis? Is the Salwa Judum merely a strategy to fight Maoists, or it is it in truth the phenomenon that everyone was warning about three years ago, when they wondered, Tata is coming, what strange things are going to happen?

Published in: Himal South Asian

Photo credits:
Dr Haneef, Shubhranshu Chaudhary