Naxalism In Dantewada: Is Salwa Judum, The Only Answer?

Posted on February 23, 2012 in Politics at Play

By Ashish Kumar:

Dantewada, southern-most district of Chattisgarh, carved out of erstwhile Bastar kingdom of pre-independence, has become synonymous with Maoists in recent years. The print and electronic media goes gaga over frequent encounters between Maoists and hordes of paramilitary forces stationed in the villages of the district. This exchange of bullets and traditional warfare like arrows between Maoists and police has given rise to a civil-war like situation. The situation had worsened due to emergence of Salwa Judum, a state-supported militarization of villagers to counter the violence of Maoists, claimed by the state government to be panacea for the menace of insurgency. This situation had for one thing caused the polarization of masses between those with a soft-corner for Maoists and those joining Salwa Judum, not to talk of complete breakdown of civil administration and development initiatives in the district.

Introduction:

The population of Dantewada mostly consists of tribes like Maria Gonds and Daria with 82% of rural population being tribal. The tribe-inhabited villages are small and large in numbers while non-tribal villages are large and few in numbers. Many tribal villages are situated near National parks and Wildlife sanctuaries like Indravati and Bhairamgarh. The tribes of these villages have a history of oppression. In pre-independence Zamindari-era, their lands were snatched from them which they came back to claim after the abolition of Zamindari only to find their land registered as forests. The average land-holding of 2.5 acres with only a semblance of irrigation facilities renders most of the land single-crop. Shifting cultivation which could have been a possible alternative is banned. The tribes earn their living mostly working as labourers in the fields of non-tribal or rich tribal people.

Other source of income is the collection and sale of various forest products. The patel or the priest is the head of village authority while ‘parganamanjhi’ is the head of a cluster of villages. These selections are made primarily on the basis of seniority of inhabitance- the oldest families are generally given the responsibility. The early-settlers have some kind of say over the late-entrants and an economical and cultural divide has emerged between the two. Literacy rate, at 21% is one of the lowest in the country. Out of around 1200 villages, 200 don’t have even a primary school. The medical and health facilities are equally dismal. It is startling that only 26 villages (out of 1220) have primary health care centers. Most of the villages don’t have access to potable water.

On the other hand, Dantewada’s land impregnates precious minerals inside and holds invaluable forest. Bailladila mines store some of the finest iron-ore in the world. This mine is connected to Vishakahapatnam port and harvests are exclusively for export. There are also substantial deposits of tin, corundum, granite, lapidolite (lithium ore), marble and siliminite. The forests are reserves of important products like Tendu leaves, lac and medicinal raw materials.

Reasons and origin of insurgency:

Since independence, the administration has played a cruel joke in the name of development and the only development of this backward district has been in terms of reckless mining and tree-poaching which has helped mighty non-tribals and influential tribals to earn fortunes. All the development projects have, without exception, ripped tribal people of their natural resources providing them nothing in return-not money, not job, not self-respect.

The abundance of minerals has attracted private players like Tata and Essar in collaboration with public companies like National Mining Development Corporation. All the benefits of these projects are concentrated among a handful of people. At many places, land has been acquired without the consent of or any compensation for tribals. The approval to Bodhghat Hydroelectric project and Polavaram dam is set to cause diversion of swathes of forest as well as displacement of enormous human population. In addition to causing Kafkaesque depletion of forest cover, these developments have caused pollution of air and river-water. The armed forces also make hay while the sun shines.

They demand their share from the exploits of forest products and agricultural yields. The workers in the mines are financially and sexually exploited and treated inhumanly. Enormous scams like Malik Makbuja scams infringing upon the tribal rights to cut tree on their own land happened adding to the fury of these people while the administrators made fortunes. The tribals were thrown into abject poverty with no government-aid and at the mercy of blood-sapping money-lenders who would trap them in vicious circles of debts and loans.

The continued oppression and step-brotherly behaviour has been at the heart of Naxal insurgency in Dantewada which seeped here in 1970s from adjacent Telangana region. Earlier mass movements were led by Communist Party of India with demands of more access and control of mineral and forest resources for tribals with work opportunities. The other issues taken up by them were lack of basic amenities and autonomous council for Bastar (of which Dantewada was part then) for a greater say in policy making. In 1980, the peasant-struggle group from Telangana called PWG (People’s War Group) established Dandakaranya Adivasi Kisan Mazdur Sanghathan (DAKMS) for pressing upon the issues of oppression and extortion by outsiders, police-officers, forest and revenue officials and inequalities in land distribution. The other demands included induction of tribals in the village administration and fixing raised prices of forest products especially Tendu leaves.

The discontentment and anger couldn’t be concealed for long. DAKMS and AKMS started indulging in activities like chasing out forest and revenue officials out of the villages when they came to extort. The large patta (chunks) of land held by rich administrators were snatched and distributed among landless Adivasis. They also created organisations like Sangham in the village aimed at wiping out the traditional administration structure in the village, which would later provide the strongest support base for these organisations. Gradually, the line of demarcation between different organisations faded and these organisations are now collectively referred as Maoists.

The Sangham membership bought, for the Maoists, people’s faith besides providing shelter and hideouts. After 1990, the Maoists took initiatives like prevention of appropriation and mishandling of government-funds by Sarpanchs and Mukhiyas, mobilisation of labour for developing irrigational facilities, creation of seed-banks to tackle the issue of paucity of seeds in the harvest seasons, maintenance of records of all the cultivable land when the government refused to do so and rejuvenation of forests. These acts made Maoists quiet popular among the villagers and at the same time brought them at loggerheads with police. The police resorted to violence to curb the popularity and Maoists gave an eye for an eye.

These Maoist insurgent groups adopted Guerrilla warfare to counter police forces and also to impose their views to masses whose flow of thought was not in unison with them. Similar organisations in neighbouring areas in the north budded: Abhujmarhand, other areas in Bastar district and parts of Kanker district. By 2000, when the state of Chhattisgarh was created, the CPI-ML (PW) had created substantial bases in the forest areas of Bastar, Kanker, and Dantewada. They declared forest tribal area in Bastar as Guerrilla zone and their violence as People’s war.

Salwa Judum:

The acquiring of land from big landlords, abandonment of priests and patels and their indulgence in violence had created a group of villagers unhappy with the Maoists. The Maoists ways of not capitulating to government orders and draconian laws and instead replying with fire reeked of insurgency and separatism to the olfactory lobes of government-both state and central. The critical issues pertaining to pathetic condition of tribals, raised by the Maoists took a backseat and focus shifted to countering the fire from Maoists. Armed forces, CRPF and IRB were stationed in infiltrated areas.

The villagers consisting of victims of Maoist violence and land-losers, buoyed by the armed forces planned a backlash on the Maoists. This movement came to be known as Salwa Judum or purification hunt (purification from menace of Naxalism). Sadly, the government instead of choosing the path of reconciliation and talks to address the issues chose the course of war on its people. It backed Salwa Judum, gave them impunity to kill Maoists and trained and supported local youth to fight for Salwa Judum with an honorarium of Rs.1500 a month.

These local youths were called Special Police Officers. These SPOs and other members of Salwa Judum were ordered to empty out all the villages touted to be the Maoist’s stronghold and shift the villagers to temporary camps on the hills. All this to zero-in on Maoists and silent their AK47, bows and epiglottis. Those retorting were tortured to join the camps or marked as Maoists or their loyal. The power and impunity provided to insufficiently trained youth ramified in innumerable murders and rapes of those who protested to leave their cottage to join the camps in the name of purification.

The loyalities of families were torn among Salwa Judum, Maoists and those who sided with no one and wanted their normal life in their cottages. Due to shifting to camps situated on hills, agriculture was no more feasible. By arming the local youths, government created a civil war like situation. There were several clashes between Maoists and Salwa Judum. The events of massacre in each other’s loyal villages became a commonplace.

The government often claims that the Salwa Judum was an outcome of public outrage against the Maoists and has not given any patronage to it. But, acts like refusal to register FIR for crimes committed by SPOs and continuous supply of weaponry to SPOs spill the beans. These SPOs indulged in mass violation of Human Rights and there was growing demand from Human Right activists to stop state’s patronage to such separatist move. The government claimed that SPOs were its most potent tool of Anti-Naxal operations: that these youths were the source of important intelligence about insurgents and they needed arms for self-defence. Finally, a petition against appointment of SPOs was filed in the court.

In mid-July of 2011, Supreme court declared the appointment of SPOs unconstitutional and banned it. It argued that youngsters, with poor training, were being recruited by the State to engage in dangerous and deadly operations. They lacked both the legal and professional education necessary for their tasks. This amounted to bestowing undue responsibility and power on the youth both of which didn’t augur well for those SPOs and the society. The court order said that murder-for-murder can’t be the way out of the problem of insurgency. The apex court accused State’s ‘amoral’ economic policies and the “culture of unrestrained selfishness and greed spawned by modern neo-liberal economic ideology ”guilty for the scourge of Naxalism.

Conclusion:

Intense negotiation with the aid of mediators is the need of the hour. Incentives for Maoists to give-up the radical path and join the mainstream needs to be doled out. An honest effort for real development targeted at improving the situation of tribals should be made. Tons of cash being squandered in deploying and maintaining Armed forces and IRBs (Indian Reserved Battalions) should be used for developing the basic infrastructure like schools, hospitasl and irrigation facilities. There should be no tolerance for the step-brotherly behaviour to Adivasi brothers and sisters. When family revolts and becomes an outlier, you don’t exile them, don’t shun them, don’t kill them to shut their voices, you reconcile and solve their problems to induct them back to the family.

Image courtesy: http://ghalibsultan.wordpress.com/2010/04/06/naxals-ambush-crpf-team-73-killed/

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