Sunday, March 28, 2010

Young tribal villagers are being recruited by both maoists and police

Jaideep Hardikar / DNASunday, March 28, 2010 0:25 IST

If things weren’t what they are today, Bhunesh Sodi would aspire to be a teacher. “Or, a farmer!” But all that this tribal teenager who’s yet to develop a moustache can think of is to get a Jaipur foot so that he can be rid of his crutches and get back to work as a police scout. “I am getting bored,” he says with some discomfort on his face, in a police camp at Dornapal in Dantewada district, about 450km south of Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. “How long will I walk with these sticks?”

Two months ago, the eighth-class dropout from Dantewada’s Bodigoda village found his lower limb hanging from his knee after a crude pressure bomb ripped through the police party he was part of, in the Kolampalli forest on the sensitive Pinjram-Bijji road. Recruited only last October as a Special Police Officer (SPO) after a brief period of training, he was guiding the troops through the dense teak and bamboo jungle he grew up in. They wanted to set up a base camp at the edge of a Maoist-dominated area, to serve as a launch pad for the forces as part of the ongoing Operation Green Hunt.

“I got no time to react when I stepped on the mine,” says Bhunesh, his eyes lowered at the amputated left leg that he’s wrapped with a cloth. But his face wore no sign of resignation. If needed, he says, he would fight again. He has training on an SLR and a .303 rifle.

Fighting back

Pinjram, about 100km south of Dantewada town, is an area where development is just an idea and democracy, a farce. “It’s better to die fighting than live in fear of the Naxalites,” says Bajaar Mandavi, another SPO at Dornapal, one of the biggest relief camps in south Dantewada.

Bajaar, who is only a little older than Bhunesh, says the youth in Salwa Judum camps have no regrets about helping the police, because otherwise they would be at the mercy of the Maoists. “Ab yeh toh war hai (this is now a war),” adds Bhunesh. Many of his friends, he says, have died or lost their limbs in the last few years.
It was when a section of his tribe took on the Maoists that
Bhunesh decided to join the police camp, without his parents’ knowledge. One attraction, he says with a chuckle, was to flaunt a rifle. But, quickly turning serious, he explains that those like him who refused to accept the Maoist writ had little choice except to leave their villages and join the fight to free the region.

He admits that the local villagers are divided, with one section being on the Maoist side. “We try and send them messages to give up,” he says.

Local knowledge
The local intelligence provided by Bhunesh, Bajaar and hundreds of SPOs — tribal youth who had earlier joined Salwa Judum, the state-backed people’s resistance movement against the Maoists — are crucial to the security forces as they scale up their campaign against armed rebels across a 4000 square kilometre terrain where the civil administration can barely venture. “They know the terrain and the local Maoist cadres,” says SRP Kalluri, IG, Anti-Naxal Operations, Bastar.

Battalions of paramilitary forces have taken up positions in north-west Kanker and south-east Rajnandgaon, which open into Abujh Marh, a largely uncharted forest said to be the main Maoist base where they have their training camps and ammunition depots.

Bhunesh’s village, Bodigoda, with a population of about 300, is among the many tribal villages of the region which are under Maoist rule. His relatives, neighbours and childhood friends are on the other side. “We have our home and land in the village,” he says. “I have no idea what is happening there. But sometimes in the market I meet a friend or a relative. They are scared of the Naxalites.”

Some of the recently surrendered cadres, he says, are locals whom he and his family members knew in their neighbouring villages.

Life in camp
Bhunesh had shifted to his maternal uncle’s home in Dornapal for his schooling. Last year, prompted by his SPO friends, he went to the police authorities and expressed his desire to join the ranks. He was quickly taken in after a physical checkup and some enquiries about his family.

After being incapacitated, Bhunesh — the eldest of five siblings — now lives with his maternal uncle Ghasiram, a tractor driver with a civil works body. Bhunesh’s parents, who live in the relief camp right opposite the police station, are daily-wage labourers and can’t take care of him.

He will now be shifted to a desk job in the police station, overseeing the relief camp where 10,000 people from 12 villages live in mud huts. These small huts huddled close together are a contrast to the traditional open tribal houses in the villages of Bastar. Like most of the Judum members who crave for their land, Bhunesh says everyday he longs to go back to his village.

Judum to SPO
It was in 2005 that the Raman Singh-government began arming tribal youths who were either surrendered Maoists or part of Salwa Judum. But after the Supreme Court raised questions on the legality of arming local people, the government absorbed them as SPOs, giving them a salary of Rs2,000-5,000 a month.
More than 10,000 such youth work as SPOs in Bastar.

A physically fit youth, usually recommended by a working SPO, easily gets recruited as an SPO. Once taken in, he or she is sent for a short stint in a police training school before being deployed on the field for operations: from patrolling to protecting the Judum relief camps.

In most relief camps where the tribals have no sustainable source of livelihood, the job of SPO is worth the risk for many.
About 45,000 tribals who joined Salwa Judum now subsist on government doles in 23 relief camps across Dantewada and Bijapur, a senior police officer in Dantewada says. They can’t return to their villages, given the fear of retribution from the Maoists.

Tribal divide
The relief camps have sharpened the divide between Bastar’s tribals, between the ‘outsiders’ in the camps and the ‘Maoist sympathisers’ inside the forest. What makes them resolute, the SPOs say, is a history of oppression unknown to the external world. “The Naxalites beat me with an iron rod, my hands tied behind, like I was a hen,” says Sukhram Abka, a village sarpanch now living in the Bhairamgarh relief camp. “They still continue to harass the villagers.”

The SPOs, says Bajaar, are the number one enemy of the Maoists. “We are on their hit-list.”

“Their stakes are very high in this war — it’s after all their land,” says Kalluri. “They run through the shower of enemy bullets. They have no fear.”

Civil society organisations view this as an extremely dangerous proposition. “Under what law is the police arming them? Who will check their atrocities?”

The police say they monitor the SPOs, and the recent successes and arrests were largely due to the intelligence from SPOs.
But the tribals also feel helpless. “Our lives have changed forever,” says Abka. “We are not in control of our lives.”
Abka’s sentiment is shared by most in Judum camps. What was purported to be a tribal uprising against the Maoists was deflated when questions were raised about its legality. “Intellectuals crushed the Judum,” says Mahesh Gagda, the BJP MLA from Bijapur.

Mahua season
The Salwa Judum leaders are disillusioned with the government. “We are left nowhere,” says Ajay Singh Thakur, a Judum leader at Bhairamgarh, at whose small house a couple of armed police guards are posted. “I lost a close friend in the Salwa Judum’s battle,” he says. “I have myself been attacked several times. What have we got for taking such risks?”

Many Salwa Judum members have begun deserting the camps. Some are going in search of work in other states, while others take a chance and head back to their native villages.

This is mahua season in Bastar, and the Judum members living in the Dornapal relief camp go to their villages to collect flowers in the daytime, with the young SPOs protecting them. At dusk, they return to the camp, with the forest produce with which they can make a little money. (A local brew from mahua flowers.)

“There’s no way we can return permanently,” says Sonuram Korsa, 33, at Chitalanka relief camp in Dantewada. Korsa, also an SPO, shows the deep wound scars on his legs, which keep his anger simmering against the Maoists.

As the deeply polarised region gears up for its next battle amid heavy deployment of central forces, the local tribals on either side brace themselves for more bullets with no end in sight to their suffering. As Karma puts it, “This land is haunted.”

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