Salwa Judum’s rebirth will mean walking into minefields again

Salwa Judum members at Kurti, a relief camp in Dantewada, 2007. (Anand Shinde/HT Photo)

In 2009, while travelling in Chhattisgarh on an assignment, I visited a Salwa Judum camp in Maoist-hit Sukma district. The Dornapal camp — there were several across the Maoist-hit Bastar region — was set up during the heyday of Salwa Judum, the campaign that started on June 5, 2005, and used tribals as its foot soldiers (and cannon fodder) against the Red Army.

While Salwa Judum, which was the brainchild of the late Congressman Mahendra Karma, was sold to the world outside the beautiful Bastar region as a ‘spontaneous, self-initiated movement of local tribals’, having its immediate trigger in some Maoist polices such as the ban on collecting tendu leaves and participating in assembly elections, the real story was different.

Salwa Judum was led by an interest group of local elites, contractors and traders for their own gains (political and economic), with the active support of the State machinery. Karma, who became a minister in the Congress chief minister Ajit Jogi’s cabinet, was killed in a Maoist ambush in 2013.

The BJP government of Raman Singh, which took over from the Congress, also saw in Salwa Judum an opportunity to tackle the Maoists and so provided funds to set up roadside camps, like the one in Dornapal. The Salwa Judum activists then coaxed or forced tribals to leave their villages and settle in such camps.

The aim was to keep a watch on the tribals to ensure that they don’t aid the Maoists in any manner. For two years, the state government even gave those who stayed in the camps free rations and medical facilities and set up schools for children, although the quality of such facilities was pretty awful even by the standards of rural India. But after years of bloodshed and human rights violations by Salwa Judum’s special police officers (SPO), the Supreme Court banned the SPOs and Salwa Judum in 2011. It ordered the government to investigate all instances of alleged criminal activities of Salwa Judum.

According to a report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights, the tribals were — and still are — the pawns of both the parties to the conflict. They were also the perpetrators (as SPOs) as well as the victims of the undeclared civil war.

To say that the visit to the Dornapal camp, which once had over 25,000 uprooted tribals from 72 villages, was a nightmarish experience is an understatement. The camp was filthy and most of its residents seemed on the edge. Young girls and boys had arms and outsiders like me were viewed with suspicion and routinely questioned — and sometimes attacked — about their motives behind visiting the camp. All entries were monitored by gun-toting young men in military fatigues. I could sense fear — and anger — in the air.

“Salwa Judum has pitted one tribal brother against another. We don’t believe anyone anymore. It was a mistake to join this… I can’t go back to my village because the Maoists would kill me. I will never see my family again,” a young disillusioned Judum activist told me. He was almost in tears. “I know I will die in the battle … there is no escape”.

Despite the Salwa Judum experiment being a disaster, 10 years after it surfaced, attempts are being made again to start a movement that is inspired by it.

I was appalled to read recent reports that said Mahendra Karma’s son, Chhavindra, is trying to start another Salwa Judum-inspired movement and is looking for police and government support for it. He has a different name for it though: Vikash Sangharsh Samiti. Chhavindra, the reports said, is planning padayatras with former Judum supporters. In an interview to HT, however, he said he had no plans to restart Salwa Judum and that the Samiti meeting was intended to discuss ‘development’ in the region. However, in another press interview, he said that tribals in Bastar would have to fight the Maoists to bring peace and development — almost restating what his father had said in 2005.

Chhavindra then clearly pointed out what his goals are: “My aim is to take forward my father’s work. The accusations of Judum being an armed movement were created because of the Special Police Officers who walked with Judum members for protection.”

The Congress has distanced itself from this effort, though the Raman Singh-led BJP government seems interested in it. Bastar inspector general of police SR Kalluri asserted recently that Salwa Judum was not properly defended in court, and should anyone challenge the legality of the new front, he will defend it. The chief minister is also known to believe that it was a ‘people’s movement’ and there is nothing wrong in supporting it. Several locals believe that Chhavindra is trying to build a political career and re-establish the hold his family had in the region during his father’s time.

The Maoists responded to such plans with a stinging press release, accusing the Karma family of being an organised ‘killer goonda gang in the protection of the Hindutva fascist BJP’, adding that the actual motive is to open up the resource-rich areas to multinationals in the name of development (a contested term in this region) and growth.

The battle lines are clearly being drawn in Bastar once again. Instead of fanning such moves — even though they may look full of political and economic gains — the state government must stop these dodgy attempts. Violence perpetrated against tribals has not — and will not lead to — any gains. It will only push them further into the arms of the Maoists.

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