Sunday, April 25, 2010

Salwa Judum’s reverse march

Vivek Deshpande Posted online: Sunday , Apr 25, 2010 at 2240 hrs

The relief camp for Salwa Judum members in Gangalur village is the last spot the civic administration dares to enter in Bijapur, the last major town tucked deep in the densely-forested junction of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. Beyond that lies the Naxal stronghold.

Inside the camp, a group of tribal women sits huddled under a thatched roof, in a neatly built mud house, while some people’s representatives hear them talk about their problems. Uncomfortable in the presence of a camera, the women look the other way and gradually start filing out.

Till a year ago, they lived here. “They have all come from neighbouring villages. They lived here earlier but have since returned to their villages. They come to the camp only to collect subsidised grain at Re 1per kg now,” says Sandip Durgan, secretary of the Gongla village panchayat.

And that pretty much sums up the Salwa Judum story as it has played out in the last five years.

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SALWA Judum, which means purification hunt in Bastar’s tribal dialect, started as a spontaneous uprising against Naxals in Ambeli village in Kutru block of Bijapur district on June 4, 2005. Tired of constant harassment by the police who came looking for Naxals, people from Ambeli and a few neighbouring villages decided to hunt them out themselves.

K. Madhukar Rao, a teacher from Kutru, led the movement, taking those opposed to Naxals under his wings. The Salwa Judum, which even garnered political support, would march from village to village, with security personnel throwing a cordon around them, asking people to join them—even the unwilling ones, allegedly—so they could add to the numbers. Those who refused to be uprooted from their ancestral homes and farms—not because they wanted to support Naxals—were threatened with action.

Thousands left their villages to join the Judum and began living in the camps set up for them as a shelter from Naxal ire. The Gangalur camp was one of the 23 set up in the state—14 were located in Bijapur district and nine in Dandewada. In the heady days of the Judum, the Gangalur camp had about 600 residents—now only half of them remain; the rest have returned to their villages.

It’s no different in the other camps of Bijapur. The zealous slogans that once defined the movement have gone missing. Once, signboards that read “Salwa Judum Zindabad—Naxali bhagao Bastar bachao (oust Naxals to save Bastar)” were a common sight, but now the war cry has gone missing from the Judum battleground.

Many villagers who had joined the campaign voluntarily when it was launched grew disillusioned over the years. For many, staying in camps, away from their homes and farms, proved emotionally taxing and they chose to return home. And those who have stayed put in the camps have primarily done so fearing the Naxals won’t spare them if they returned.

The reverse flux reflects the Judum leaders’ failure to take their so-called fight-to-finish to the end they desired—neutralising the Naxal power. “Some of the leaders defrauded the public distribution system. Instead of helping the camp residents, they were busy making money,” says a young teacher from a neighbouring camp who is a committed Judum activist. “Had they remained devoted to the Judum goal, there would have been no need of paramilitary forces,” he adds. The Salwa Judum has, in the past, been accused of committing human rights violations and other crimes.

Today, the residents at the camps speak out openly about their predicament—something they wouldn’t have dared to do four years ago—marking the end of the sway Judum leaders once held over them.

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AT another camp, in Cherpal, a few kilometres away, Vijay and Rampal (names changed) talk about how they feel trapped. “We joined the Judum because we thought it would set us free. We never anticipated that it will lead us nowhere,” they say. They want to go back to their villages, but the Judum label has made that near-impossible.

A sense of despondency hangs over the camp where once there was enthusiasm. In the Judum’s initial years, when processionists marched in thousands, “annexing” village after village, young tribal boys and girls, many of whom wanted to avenge the death of their kin, were inspired to take on the Naxals. Appointed Special Police Officers (SPOs) to assist the regular state police, they were trained in arms use and combat. When police forces would go on an area domination exercise, these SPOs would lead the march since they knew the local terrain well. But they were also the ones who bore the brunt of Naxal wrath. Naxals struck in Gangalur village in 2006, killing seven SPOs in the night. With the Judum now petering out, the SPOs feel orphaned. “We didn’t understand the long-term effects of what we had undertaken. We got caught in a vortex. We are neither here nor there,” says an SPO from the Cherpal camp.

SPOs get Rs 2,100 per month in salary, which has recently been hiked to Rs 3,000. “Often, these SPOs were responsible for inflicting reverses on Naxals, but were never rewarded. The reward has gone to others,” says another camp resident. Some of the SPOs now want to be absorbed in the regular district police force, even though the government has no such plans. Says 21-year old Ranju Pawar from Matwada village, posted at a roadside checkpost in the Jangla village camp, “I am not happy being an SPO now. I want to join the district police. I can’t return to my village for fear of the Naxals.”

The killing of a few top Salwa Judum leaders and of Judum members when they went to visit their villages have scared off the residents of Cherpal. “We are afraid we could also be targets,” says a young volunteer at the camp.

The camp, at least, offers them some security and comfort. Residents get grain at Re 1 per kg, NREGA work on demand, Rs 35,000 to build a house, and health and educational facilities. The colonies are planned in gridlock fashion, with all-weather roads separating the lines of hutments. But it’s not the same as living in their family home in the village.

Years of forced separation has not severed the tribals’ ties with their land. In fact, it has only strengthened them. “Apna gaon akhir apna gaon hota hai (there is nothing like one’s own village). The tribals haven’t been able to do forest-related activities like mahua and tendu collection for the past three years,” says Durgan. Vijay and Rampal agree.

“They are not as interested in NREGA work as they are in their traditional forest-related occupation,” says local journalist Mohammad Yakub.

Bijapur Collector R Prasanna admits that life at relief camps is very different from the tribals’ traditional way of life. “They don’t like to live close to one another like they have to in the camps,” says Prasanna, who has been in Bijapur for a year and a half. But he says the Judum shouldn’t be written off.

“Salwa Judum has become inactive; it hasn’t failed,” he says. “It has brought many positive changes. The Judum has helped the police by providing them solid intelligence. Earlier, the district administration could reach only about 70 of the total 157 gram panchayats. Now we can reach over 100. We have been able to build roads in many villages. Strategic villages like Basaguda, where we couldn’t reach earlier, now have a strong presence of administration, with facilities like a fair price shop, bus services, etc. We have also gone further to reach the Lingagiri village, which is a known Naxal bastion. The Naxals had closed the tribal temples and markets—we have opened them again. The weekly Basaguda market now bustles with activity and commerce is growing fast,” he says.

But the Judum members are growing increasingly unhappy. And the strategic advantage of dominating the area retrieved from Naxals, one of the important Judum fallouts, is also on the wane.

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AT A time when state and paramilitary forces have launched a massive anti-Naxal operation, the return of Judum members to their villages has added confusion to the already tricky situation in Bastar’s hinterlands—several villages vacated in the wake of the Judum campaign now have at least half their population back, many of them suspected to be Naxal sympathisers or workers.

Superintendent of Police Avinash Mohonty, however, feels the Judum’s return to the villages is a sign that they feel more secure now. “I don’t think those returning to villages are Naxal supporters. They have returned because we have established new police camps near their villages and they feel safe,” he says.

A teacher from Kutru village, however, says there aren’t enough police posts. “For 56 villages near Kutru, there are only two police stations. How will the villagers feel secure from Naxals? The Naxals also unleashed a false propaganda that we have alienated the tribals from their villages and the jungle. We never forced anyone to join the Judum. People joined voluntarily,” he says.

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