Sunday, February 26, 2006
War in tribal heartland
Chhattisgarh is waging an all-out war against Naxalites — by local tribals, ‘backed’ by an unusual alliance of the BJP govt and the Opposition Congress. VIVEK DESHPANDE travels to the battlefield deep in the forests of south Bastar
Salva Judum poro poro, Naxalwad Addi Addi (Salva Judum up, Naxalism down). Dhol Ke Wende Dholakar, Pondi Ke Roma Kal (We will die, but only after we kill them)
An army of over 3,000 tribals led by a bearded man called K Madhukarrao is marching briskly towards the tribal hamlet of Farsegad in the Bijapur police district of southern Bastar.
Brandishing bows, arrows and rifles, they march as heavily armed guards of paramilitary forces provide a safety cordon. The seven-hour ‘‘victory’’ march, which began at Sapimarka village about 20 km away, comes to an end after ‘‘winning’’ a battle against an enemy they were accused of supporting till the previous day.
Sapimarka has been successfully ‘‘annexed.’’
Welcome to the land of Salva Judum in the dense forests of Bastar. The government says it’s a peace movement to free the tribals from the clutches of Naxalites. The Naxalites say Judum means hunting and Salva means group and it’s a group hunting of innocent tribals supporting the ‘‘people’s movement.’’
But what began in June, 2005 as a small protest against Naxalites at Karkeli village near Farsegad has now turned into a frenzy in South Bastar, once the ‘cherished zone of the Left-wing extremists. The government-sponsored and Opposition-supported campaign called Salva Judum has turned the entire tribal belt from Gidam to Bijapur and Bhopalpatnam in the revenue district of Dantewada into a battleground—police and paramilitary forces are swarming the region.
Boards of Salva Judum have come up all along the roads. Hundreds of villages have been vacated since June, 2005 and scores of ‘‘relief camps’’ have been set up for the tribals brought into the Salva Judum fold. Barricades have been erected at all vantage points for screening of vehicles and individuals.
But that hasn’t stopped the Naxalite attacks—in fact, they have been striking back with vengeance. Several tribals have been killed by Naxalites and thousands have deserted their villages and paddy fields fearing retaliation.
Konda Madhukarrao, a 32-year old non-tribal teacher from Kutru village, who spearheads the movement, says: ‘‘People were tired of Naxalites. For long, the Naxalites have used the poor tribals as their weapons and have prevented all kinds of developmental activities. Those opposing would get killed in the name of being police informers. We all thought enough was enough and we must end their reign of terror.’’
Led by him, the villagers approached Dantewada MLA Mahendra Karma, who had run two anti-Naxalite campaigns in the early and mid-90s. Karma, leader of the Congress and Leader of the Opposition in Chhattisgarh Assembly who has lost at least four of his relatives in the Naxalite violence, seized the chance. Taking Chief Minister Raman Singh into confidence, he took over the leadership of what he calls ‘‘aar paar ki ladaai’’ (all-out war) on Naxalites.
‘‘We have been marching to deep interior villages calling for support against Naxalites. People are voluntarily joining in huge numbers. Those not falling in line are being handed over to the police,’’ says Madhukarrao. Hundreds of tribal boys and girls are now being appointed as Special Police Officers (SPOs) at the Salva Judum camps, with the promise of Rs 1,500 per month as salary. They are being trained in gun-handling and anti-insurgency operations.
‘‘People have been mutely supporting the so-called people’s movement of Naxalites, who have entirely destroyed the traditional socio-cultural, economic and administrative fabric of the tribal society at the point of gun. We are trying to channelise that frustration through Salva Judum,’’ says Karma.
What’s happening in the camps isn’t any different, but Karma calls it ‘‘sacrifice for the people’s movement against Naxalite violence.’’ CM Raman Singh says, ‘‘People have come together against the terror of RDX and AK-47s.’’
The Leftists have accused the government of starting a civil war in Bastar. The CPI (Maoists) literature cite Salva Judum as another proof of state repression and term the relief camps as ‘‘concentration camps.’’
At a ‘‘relief camp’’ in Farsegad, 50 km from Bijapur on the Kutru-Sendra road, Pandri and Narendra Benja, siblings in their mid-teens, share a 10ft by 10ft tent with five others. They came here about four months ago along with a Salva Judum procession, leaving behind their parents. Try asking them if they are happy, they keep quiet.
At the Cherpal camp on the Bijapur-Gangalur road, Sukku Korsa Munga stares blankly as if in a state of shock. He has come from a village three km away with his family, but has nothing to eat. ‘‘We haven’t got the promised rice. I am fetching it from my village where I now fear to go,’’ he says.
‘‘He is among those who were not ready to join Judum. Some of the villages are very stubborn,’’ says Parsul Chandrayya, the local Judum president.
There are about 4,000 tribal boys and 400 girls doing the security duties as SPOs in the 16 camps in Dantewada district. Every morning and evening, they have to line up for a training drill. They are being trained in gunfight. They are taken on a foot patrol around the camps and have to retaliate in case of a Naxalite attack. They also have to go out into the jungles to protect the Salva Judum march from the Naxalites.
Apart from the regular state police, there are around 9,000 paramilitary personnel from Central and State Reserve Police, Chhattisgarh Armed battalion and Nagaland Armed Police giving them cover. The NSG too also arrived last week. But the tribals, by virtue of their knowledge of the deceptive terrain, have to be a part of most of the anti-insurgency operations undertaken by the police. So, it is not surprising they are falling to Naxalite bullets.
At Gangalur village on January 29, Naxalites posing as Judum workers first cleverly mingled with the processionists. At midnight, along with their 500-odd supporters, they laid a siege to the police station and massacred eight tribal activists of Salva Judum, four of them SPOs. No one has the count of Judum supporters killed by the Naxalites since June, but the figures run into hundreds, locals say.
‘‘The government is just pulling it on. There are not many who have joined it willingly and the police are using tribals as pawns against the Naxalites,’’ says an activist. ‘‘Of course, the Naxalites are getting paid back on the same coin but the fact is the poor tribal pays the price in both cases.’’
Salva Judum leaders, however, are emphatic in calling it a popular uprising against Naxalism. Says Karma: ‘‘Some of our people had strayed out of the mainstream. We are trying to bring them back.’’
Shankar Nag and Mohan Mandavi from Farsegad say Naxalites are the enemies of humanity. ‘‘They have made our life miserable. They must be dealt with sternly,’’ they said. Many are happy that they have got a gun and a police job for Rs 1,500 a month, but not all have yet got their money.
The biggest question is how long can the camps be sustained? ‘‘Till the battle is won,’’ says Karma. But with the paddy season just three months away, the inmates will need to go back to their villages. ‘‘Yes, they will have to, but providing them security is our top priority,’’ Singh says.
Posted by Fact at 2:05 PM