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Caught between the Maoists and the Salwa Judum

By Geetashree

In forest- and mineral-rich Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, at least 300,000 tribals have been displaced in the face-off between the Maoists and the state-sponsored Salwa Judum. Their villages have been “evacuated” and some 50,000 moved to “safe” government camps. The rest have migrated to neighbouring states. This is the first in a series researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2008

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It is extremely difficult to talk to Somdu who lives in the Matwada relief camp set up by the Chhattisgarh government in the state’s Dantewada district, located in the thickly forested southern Bastar region of central India. If you persist with your queries, Somdu looks around surreptitiously. As if death were lurking around. And then he says, “They are killing the tribals like dogs.”

They meaning, the Maoists?

“No. Not them. The camp people. The policemen. The Special Police Officers (SPOs).”

Somdu is convinced that he can be killed anytime. He was one of the four tribal men who were picked up from the camp, beaten, and then left to die. He is yet to recover from the shock.

According to Somdu, he had no hope of surviving. The assaulting policemen and the SPOs had taken him for dead like the others. He took advantage of this, dragged himself into the nearby bushes in the dark of the night and hid there.

Somdu who lives in the Matwada relief camp
Somdu’s scars may heal but he is scared Salwa Judum will kill everyone

Somdu showed us the scars all over his back and said, “I could not get up for two days. When I came to know that three of my campmates had been killed, I was very scared.”

There are so many people in the camp, then why were the four of you picked?

Somdu remains speechless for some time. Then he gathers his thoughts and says, “I don’t know. But while assaulting us they kept saying that we had killed some people in Ranibodli. Ranibodli and Matwada are miles apart…! And we are virtually prisoners here, under their noses day and night.”

The government gives compensation to those injured or killed by the Maoists. Also provides treatment for them. Has the government made any efforts to help Somdu?

Somdu says: “The policemen killed those three men and almost killed me. Why would they give us compensation?”

What now?

Somdu is quiet.

Questioned again, he replies: “The guilty should be punished. Policeman Patel, SPOs Kosa and Fotu, and the other SPO, they should all be brought to justice. If this does not happen then the SPOs will kill everyone.”

The SPOs Somdu refers to are members of an auxiliary police force belonging to the state-supported vigilante group called the Salwa Judum, meaning Peace March in the local Gondi dialect.

The Salwa Judum campaign was started in June 2005 by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Chhattisgarh to eliminate the ultra-left guerrillas, variously referred to as Naxalites or Maoists who believe in bringing about a "revolution from the barrel of a gun".

The Chhattisgarh government has to date inducted thousands of villagers as auxiliaries into this campaign by invoking the fear of the Maoists, the chief minister going to the extent of announcing: “Those who are not with the Salwa Judum are with the Maoists.”

And so began the business of evacuating entire villages in the deep jungles of this central Indian state located right in the middle of the country’s mineral-rich tribal belt. The government believed these villages were sustaining the Maoists. If they were vacated, how would the Maoists get food, water and shelter? And for whom would they run parallel governments?

The Maoists hold sway over considerable areas in the country, from Andhra Pradesh in the south to the Nepalese border in the north. India's intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), estimates that some 20,000 insurgents are currently in operation across the country. Their growing influence prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2006 to declare them the "single biggest internal security challenge ever faced" by India.

Dantewada is virtually in the heart of Maoist territory, bounded on the east by Malkangiri district of Orissa state, on the south and southwest by Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh state, and on the west by the Indravati River, which forms the boundary with Karimnagar district of Andhra Pradesh and Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra.

The district is blessed with the Bailadila range of hills that are full of saal and teak forests and also hold some of the country's richest reserves of iron ore, coal, limestone and bauxite. Here live some of India's most impoverished people: some 7.19 lakh predominantly semi-literate tribes who exist in near-destitution across 1,354 villages spread over a total area of 9,046.29 sq km.

If government figures are to be believed then some 644 villages have been evacuated by the Salwa Judum. The Dantewada district collector's memorandum of 2007 states that since June 2005 around 139 Salwa Judum rallies and 47 Salwa Judum meetings were held and 644 villages from Dantewada district "joined" Salwa Judum.

644 villages have been evacuated
Government says 644 villages have been evacuated, nobody lives there

Nobody lives in these villages; some 50,000 people from these villages now live in 20-odd government camps, also known as Salwa Judum camps. In government parlance, they are “safe”.

But news filtering out from these camps suggests that this is only half the truth. Used to living in open spaces the free-spirited tribals face many difficulties in these fenced-off coops, where scarcity of food, water, medicines and other everyday necessities is an open secret.

The tribals question the government figure of 50,000 people lodged in 20-odd relief camps. If the population of the 1,354 villages in the district is over 700,000, how can 644 villages have only 50,000 residents, they argue, revealing that many amongst them are hiding in the forests, while many have fled to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

Footage from a film made for Channel 4 of the BBC shows that people still live in some of the deserted villages, though almost all the houses have been burnt by the Salwa Judum armies. They hide in the jungles most of the day and come back now and then.

The BBC film Unreported World shows a few families taking shelter in the only surviving house in a village. One of the tribals had his back mauled by a bear. He was in pain. The villagers come and look after him in that house saying that all the other houses have been burnt. They could not go to a doctor, as they would be caught by the Salwa Judum and killed on the way.

What do people in these deserted villages eat? Do they cultivate their lands?

It is difficult to reach them due to the terror tactics of the Salwa Judum.

Social activists say the tribal area is now split into three -- 644 villages have been evacuated while the remaining 600-odd villages are being targeted for evacuation by the Salwa Judum. The third zone is the Naxal-dominated areas where, of course, no one enters.

A report by the Campaign for Peace and Justice in Chhattisgarh, a group of individuals and organisations concerned over the state-sponsored violence, says that exact figures are not known, but estimates that at least 100,000 people have been displaced and the lives of at least 300,000 people from the 644 “liberated villages” have been completely disrupted because of the Salwa Judum.

“People are forcibly picked up from their villages and are confined into ‘relief camps’, where they face acute shortage of food, water and other basic amenities. The condition of several thousands who have been forced to migrate to neighbouring states and districts is even worse. All those villages which have not come into camps are deemed ‘Maoist’ villages and denied health, education and other facilities, including access to markets,” the report adds.

Report after report from human rights groups in the past couple of years has highlighted the complete breakdown of civil administration and rule of law in Dantewada. Cases of murder, loot, arson, rape and other violence and atrocities by Salwa Judum go virtually unreported.

The National Human Rights Commission took serious note of the atrocities and in September 2008 asked the state government to ensure that innocents are not killed either by the Maoists or the SPOs.

In February 2009, the Supreme Court, while hearing a lawsuit by academicians Ramachandra Guha, Nandini Sunder and others, ticked off the Chhattisgarh government for arming civil militia Salwa Judum activists to fight the Maoists. Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan, ignoring denials by the state government counsel, reportedly observed that the state was heading to a point of no return.

The government does not accept responsibility for these acts and its only response to Maoist insurgency has been to militarise, step up police operations and pit civilians, in the name of Salwa Judum, against Maoists and against each other.

The state police officers do not wish to comment on the issue. The uniformed men have a straight and simple answer to all your queries -- the matter is sub judice.

For the victim’s families the tears have dried up.

When you talk to Ayte, whose husband Madda Madkami was killed in the incident narrated by Somdu, she only stares at the ground.

Ayte husband was killed by the police and SPO
Ayte’s husband was killed by the police and SPOs

In broken sentences she tries to narrate her tragedy: “The police and the SPO beat up and dragged my husband from home. When I tried to stop them they beat me up as well. They were hitting him on the chest with the rifle butts and their boots. Then they stabbed him to death.”

Ayte, while attending to her tiny breastfeeding baby, describes in detail the atrocities that the police and the SPO committed on her husband; she claims that it all happened in front of her eyes.

“On the evening of the incident policeman Patel, SPOs Kosa and Fotu along with about 20 armed personnel came to my house in the Matwada relief camp and without saying a word they started beating up my husband Madda Madkami. When I tried to intervene they beat me up as well. They also caught Deva Madkami, Hidma Mandavi and Somdu living in the same Matwada camp and started beating them as well with sticks and rifle butts,” she recalls.

According to Ayte they tied the hands of all the men with their own waistcloths and beat them, all the while dragging them to the road where they were mercilessly beaten to death.

Deva Madkami’s widow Ungi shows the scars on her hands and back that she got from the beating and says, “I pleaded with them to let my husband go. I told them to blind him, maim him but to let him live. But my pleas fell on deaf ears and I was beaten like Ayte.”

Bijje, the widow of Hidma Mandavi, also has a similar story to recount and remembering it, her eyes fill up.

Ayte says, “My husband was screaming but the police was hitting him with their boots as if he was some football. Everyone was present in the camp. The police post was right in front but nobody came forward to help. No one tried to stop them. They kept hitting him with the rifle butts. They held a knife to his head and hit him with stones. When we tried to go near him, to save him, the policemen cocked their rifles and threatened to shoot him, if we so much as moved near. As the night grew darker my husband’s voice grew weaker. We had no clue what was happening to him. Scared, we got back to the camp.”

The sun the next day did not bring light into the lives of Ungi, Ayte and Bijje.

When they left the camp with other people to search for their husbands they found a trail in the mud of bodies dragged away. Following the trail they reached a nearby stream where they found the bodies of Madda Madkami, Deva Madkami and Hidma Mandavi, all of them with multiple stab wounds.

Deva Madkami’s younger brother Baman Madkami says, “Before the last rites were performed for my brother on March 20, a policeman and a doctor came to me and took my signatures on some paper, but no post mortem was done on my brother or the other dead men.”

Having lost their husbands Ayte, Ungi and Bijje do not want to go back to the Salwa Judum camp. Living in the Matwada Relief Camp since 2005, the three of them say, “They scared us about the Maoists and brought us to the Salwa Judum camps. They have now left us with nothing. They have killed our husbands and will now kill us.”

Baman Madkami wants the Salwa Judum camps to be shut down and people allowed back to their villages.

But the villages face threat from the Maoists. Wouldn’t it be dangerous to go back there?

In reply, Deva says: “We haven’t ever seen the Maoists. The first we heard about them was from the Salwa Judum.”

Himanshu Kumar has been running the Tribal Awareness Camp for the last ten years. He says, “I am very disturbed with whatever is happening to the tribals after the Salwa Judum started. It really seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face. To treat a fever, the body is being whipped, that’s what it seems like. In Bastar, the cure seems to be more dangerous than the disease.”

He further says that the tribal villagers were not so troubled by the Maoists but the Salwa Judum has brought many more difficulties for them. The tribal belief in life and their confidence in humanity have been shattered.

“We will have to pay the price for what the Salwa Judum has sown for a very long time to come,” Himanshu says.

(Geetashree is a Delhi-based journalist who writes mainly on social issues and women’s rights. She is currently Features Editor of Outlook Hindi. This is the first of her series on the tribals of Chhattisgarh researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2008)

Infochange News & Features, April 2009