Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In the war zone

In the war zone



The Bastar region is practically living through a war and will continue to do so until tribal issues are addressed fully.


Maoists training at a base in the forests of Chhattisgarh. A file photograph.

THE crossroads at Jagdalpur, which give it the nickname Chaurahon ka Shahar (city of squares and crossroads), perhaps best represent the political disconnect between the state and the people in the Bastar region. The town, which is the administrative headquarters of the region in south Bastar, has many intersections with roundabouts and at each stand statues of Gondi tribesmen, mostly black in colour, wearing heavy jewellery and dancing or hunting or beating a drum. These representations, which give tourists a glimpse of tribal culture, not only reinforce the colonial image of the tribal people but also alienate them from their economic roles in society.

The government is happy to have invested big on the roundabouts as the statues also declare this geographical space to be essentially “tribal”, an important means to strengthen the ruling party’s vote bank. As for the tribal people themselves, they continue to live in extreme poverty and are literally at a crossroads. Today, Bastar is known less for its tribal culture and more for the ongoing battle between the Maoists and the security forces. The districts of Dantewada, Narayanpur, Bijapur and Kanker in the region have been the battleground of the Maoists, mainly of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), and the security forces ever since the government launched Operation Green Hunt. On April 6, a naxalite ambush at Chintalnad village in Dantewada district claimed the lives of 78 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the highest toll the security forces have suffered so far in the fight against naxalites.

While some media reports said around 1,000 Maoists attacked the CRPF platoon, State Director-General of Police Vishwa Ranjan said the exact number could not be confirmed. He expected the number to be around 300. There was an accusation that the security forces did not follow jungle warfare norms, and questions were also raised about the level of coordination between the State police and the Central forces.

Responding to these charges, Vishwa Ranjan said: “All the norms were followed, but in a war like this it is possible that the platoon could have misread the situation. In every war, such incidents and casualties do happen, but it is completely wrong to say that there was no coordination. If there was no coordination, how would one fight? Say, an offensive proposal is rejected by one of the parties. In such a case, carrying on an operation is extremely difficult. We are not willing to give away our lives. What dictates movement in the jungle is manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres by the parties. The naxalites have graduated to structured military exercises and are not employing primitive guerilla tactics anymore.”

He said even in a joint operation, the State police were at the head and the Central forces only aided them.While in Dantewada it is an all-out offensive, the Centre’s security strategy of “clear, hold and build” is in operation only in northwest Kanker and south west Rajnandgaon. Under this strategy, police battalions take control of the periphery and the military the inner areas. Once an area is cleared of naxalites, the state steps in to initiate development activities. The police chief said it was too early to talk about results as the forces were deployed in Kanker and Rajnandgaon only in January.

Lack of coordination

On Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s statement that Operation Green Hunt was a media construct, he said the Home Minister was right as Green Hunt was a stand-alone, multilayered operation of Chhattisgarh State and included combat methods, identification of ambush points and training camps and the initiation of jana jagran (public awareness) programmes.

However, the sense of lack of coordination runs deep in Dantewada. Just after the April 6 incident, Deputy Inspector General of Police (Anti-Naxal Operations) S.R.P. Kalluri reportedly blamed Dantewada Superintendent of Police Amresh Mishra’s lack of planning for the death of so many CRPF men. Later, he denied making such a statement.

The differences between the two senior police officers are seemingly common knowledge, so much so that sub-inspectors at the local police stations are seen as aligned with either of them. The differences between the State police officers and the DIG of the CRPF are also common knowledge. In what was seen as a rap on the knuckles for the police, the State’s Home Minister, Nanki Ram Kanwar, agreed at a press conference that the intelligence system of the Maoists was better than that of the State security agencies.

Asked about the combative ability of the security forces, DGP Vishwa Ranjan said: “We need more policemen. But to train all of them we need enough infrastructure, such as training camps. That will take a long time and cannot happen overnight.” He said the Jungle Warfare College at Kanker had trained 12,000 men. But for 3,000 of them, who were from other States, the rest had been deployed in Chhattisgarh, he said. But he was not sure whether all of them were in high-sensitivity areas.

Since Kanker and Rajnandgaon had been swamped with more forces, along with Border Security Force personnel, as part of the “clear, hold and build” strategy, the new recruits were more likely to be stationed there. He said passing the buck happened everywhere and not just in areas with naxal presence, but in a combat operation, he added, that did not mean there was a lack of coordination.

Maoists urge halt

On their part the Maoists threatened to carry on their war against the security forces if the state did not heed their appeal for an immediate stop to Operation Green Hunt and the additional deployment of security forces.

Human rights activists have also protested against the operation, which, they say, has led to an increase in the atrocities in villages inhabited by tribal people, besides instances of indiscriminate firing and false encounters. The Maoists claim that of the 315 people killed in police encounters, only five were CPI (Maoist) cadre.


Manish Kunjam, a two-time MLA of the Communist Party of India (CPI), contexualises this violence:

“The area is mostly dominated by people of the Gondi Koya tribes, who rely on forest produce to sustain their livelihood. They sell mahua [a local fruit mostly processed to make liquor], tendu patta [a leaf from which bidis are made] and imli [tamarind] in the market. Historically, these people were exploited by Forest Department officials, forced into unpaid labour, and beaten up at the first sign of resistance. I am a witness to such kind of gruesome exploitation.

“They are very attached to their land, but because those lands came under the control of the state after Independence, the tribal people were suddenly seen as encroachers. This led to a great mess, the brunt of which the people are bearing even today. To add to this, the lands of these people were given away to private miners and local contractors. The naxalites fought against this injustice and became the leaders of the tribes here.

“In a phase where all the mainstream Left parties were concentrating only on workers’ issues and parties such as the Congress and the Jana Sangh [later on, the Bharatiya Janata Party] were party to the exploitation of tribal people in Bastar, the naxalites were the only force that spoke up for them and filled that political vacuum.”

He said even today the government did not have a plan to address the real livelihood issues of the tribal people. The implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which should have given forest-dwellers their historical right to land, was in disarray, he added. “There was a show of distribution of pattas [land ownership documents] in the beginning but even that is not happening now.”

He pointed to the two major memorandums of understanding (MoUs) that have been signed with the Tatas and Essar Steel, which will permit them to extract minerals here. He said: “The Bastar region has an abundance of minerals such as bauxite, tin and dolomite. Apart from this, it is also rich in timber. Instead of empowering the tribal people and giving them their right to these resources, the government is interested in shipping the resources out. In a place like Bastar, which has seen no development since Independence, a reaction against the state’s forces is bound to happen. The naxalites are just the one force but the problems of the tribal people are real. In this spree of violence, however, the naxalites do not realise that the jawans they killed were also poor people working for a livelihood and not class enemies as such. They only assist the class enemies bound by their duty.”

He felt that the increased deployment of security forces to counter the naxalites was a disguised attempt to enter those villages where Salwa Judum (an anti-Maoist vigilante group, meaning people’s peace movement in the local Gondi language) could not enter. “Every day, we see false encounters and physical torture by the police. In such a case, a villager has no choice but to retaliate either with the Maoists or alone.”

Salwa Judum

Salwa Judum, launched in 2005 with the support of the state and since called off, became infamous as it resulted in around 60,000 people of the area fleeing and taking shelter in 22 camps. The special police officers (SPOs) of Salwa Judum, who were recruited from among the tribal people, were accused of rape, torture and loot. More than 80 per cent of the people in the camps have returned to their villages but the impact of Salwa Judum is still being felt.

“Around 10,000 people who were proactive in the anti-naxalite operations, despite wanting to return to their villages, cannot do so because of the atrocities they committed in the past few years. They fear that the people might not forgive them. Because of this, the tribal people are divided into two distinct groups: those who were SPOs and those who support the Maoists,” said Anil Mishra, a local journalist.

The Salwa Judum case in the Supreme Court has dragged on, apparently because of the Chhattisgarh government’s procrastination. In this case (Nandini Sundar and others vs the State of Chhattisgarh; writ petition (Civil) No. 250 of 2007), as requested by the Supreme Court the petitioners submitted a rehabilitation plan for the victims. “The initiation of Salwa Judum in 2005, supported by the security forces, led to a spiral of violence. By official accounts, both naxalite violence and recruitment also increased many fold in response. Since 2009, there has been fresh escalation of violence due to Operation Green Hunt. Innocent Adivasi villagers have begun fleeing again in large numbers as killings and lootings by security forces and SPOs, who form the backbone of the Salwa Judum, as well as naxalite violence, have escalated as a result of renewed fighting…. The government of Chhattisgarh is actively keeping out independent observers from visiting, including the petitioners. Hence, an independent high level monitoring committee and free access for media, academics and others is essential to ensure that the rehabilitation is implemented,” the petition said. The State government has not responded on the feasibility of a rehabilitation plan; it sought more time whenever the case came up for hearing. The government admitted last year to the police excesses and said it was ready to rehabilitate the victims.

“Give people control”

The District Magistrate of Dantewada, Reena Kangale, agrees that the tribal people are in distress and need the active support of the state. “The tribal population has a deep and ingrained sense of injustice here. What they need is state support to their traditional livelihood and not roads and electricity or for that matter education. They ask for food, medical care and drinking water. The definition of development needs a relook in the context of Bastar. The local elites should be prevented from exploiting the tribal people. We are trying to address their untouched issues.”

But the naxalite presence has made at least 108 villages in 23 panchayats inaccessible, according to her. She explained: “No contractor is willing to take up development projects in these areas. A health worker or a teacher who is not from the area refuses to go into the jungle. We need to recruit people who are from these areas. However, we realise that indiscriminate mainstreaming of Adivasis will only result in the situation worsening. My experience shows that projects like the MGNREGS [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme] or the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana or the Sarva Sikhsha Abhiyaan are seen as alien in these parts of the country. We need to give the people here some control as we do in the Integrated Tribal Development Project under the Tribal Sub Plan where funds go through the gram sabhas.”

The Planning Commission’s expert group has made recommendations on these lines to tackle the growing naxalite problem in the region. It says the state must provide an impregnable protective shield to ensure that the civil rights of Adivasis are never violated. This requires, among other things, effective implementation of protective legislation and other laws, such as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, which secures for Adivasis their rights on forest land and forest dwelling.

It also talks of a protective market for Adivasis and updated land records. It says that indiscriminate land acquisition should be stopped. Basic social services must be provided to all – such as universal full immunisation of children, provision of anganwadis, and nutrition care for all pregnant women and nursing mothers.

In order to do all of the above, the report said in conclusion, the government must withdraw support to Salwa Judum and immediately stop herding Adivasis into makeshift camps with dismal living conditions.

However, the State government is far from implementing these recommendations. Development activities in the Adivasi areas still mean construction of roads and electrification of villages, as one finds in villages on either side of National Highway 43, which connects Bastar and Raipur, the State capital.

Critics say that the government is more than happy to concentrate on these limited activities utilising the Rs.500 crore it has got for development works and cite reasons such as naxalite opposition for not doing more, and finally siphon off the money.

Even the road-building and electrification are incomplete. “If you go just 2 km away from the highway, even such roads cannot be seen. Inaccessibility is always cited as a reason, whereas even in areas that are accessible hardly any development is happening,” Anil Mishra said.

Reena Kangale, however, said a development subgroup had been formed, headed by a Divisional Commissioner in Dantewada. This unified command will have all the five district magistrates of Bastar, who will work closely with all the nine welfare departments, including education, water, roads and food security, to carry on integrated welfare schemes. This command will be assisted by all the superintendents of police as advisers and will include the Deputy Inspector General of the CRPF as a member.

However, unless the region was cleared of naxalites it would be difficult to carry on any projects, said Reena Kangale. An administrative impediment she cited is important: she said the peculiar case of the whole of Bastar, and Dantewada in particular, was that the languages of the administrative class and the Adivasis were different (the Adivasis speak Gondi and Halbi). This made the task of administration difficult.

Chhattisgarh has started projects called Gram Suraj Yojana (GSY) and Gram Sampark Yojana, where an official team redresses the grievances of people on the spot at jan sunwais (people’s hearings). Chief Minister Raman Singh started the GSY on April 12 from Dantewada in order to emphasise its importance in the naxalite-affected regions. However, sustainability of such a project can be questioned as it does not address the structural failure of the system in this region.

Government insensitivity and the failure of the administrative mechanism since Independence have seen Maoists occupy political space over the past 20 years and gain the support of the tribal population. Today, Bastar, with the highest presence of Maoists in the country, is practically a war zone. The government is at a political crossroads as far as the Maoist problem is concerned: it sometimes speaks in terms of an all-out offensive and at other times about addressing developmental issues.

However, in this war what remain unaddressed are the real problems the tribal people face. Manish Kunjam described the situation best: “The Maoists are just cashing in on tribal grievances and giving the violence a political direction. Even if the state manages to eradicate the naxalites, the violence will not stop if tribal issues are not addressed.”

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