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Fire in the forest

By Geetashree

As many as 3,800 civilians in Dantewada and Bijapur districts – tribals and non-tribals – have joined the Salwa Judum as special police officers. Most of them are young men, but there are plenty of children too. This part of our ongoing series from Chhattisgarh describes how ordinary villagers have been drawn into the pitched battle between Salwa Judum and the Maoists

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Read Part 4 of this series click here
Read Part 5 of this series click here

What is paradise for you?
The Mahua tree spread out miles
What is hell for you?
The Mahua tree spread out miles
And a forest guard posted within.
--A folk song from Bastar

Bastar, where the mere presence of a forest guard is considered hell, is today teeming with uniformed men. In the name of combating the Maoist menace, the deep forests of sal and teak have been virtually taken over by the security forces.

Chhattisgarh police officials confirm the presence of some 10,000 security personnel in Dantewada and Bijapur districts. Thirteen battalions of central paramilitary forces have been deployed across the state, according to the 2007 annual report of the Union ministry of home affairs.

The Naga and Mizo battalions were specially brought in along with a huge contingent of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), purportedly to restore peace in the area.

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) has described this as “militarisation” saying: “…There is a heavy presence of the paramilitary like the CRPF and the Naga

battalion. This creates a situation where forces from other states are behaving like an occupation army…In addition, people are being encouraged to carry arms…, and the entire society is becoming more militaristic”.

Such a clampdown is not new for the tribals of Chhattisgarh, as their folk songs reveal.

Still, what is happening today in the forests of southern Bastar is not only unprecedented but an extreme instance of State excesses in the tribal hinterland of this country.

Unemployed tribal youth are lured and designated special police officers to fight the Maoist
Unemployed tribal youth are lured and designated special police officers to fight the Maoist

Thousands of unemployed tribal youth, familiar with the jungle trails in the interior forested areas, have been lured by a monthly pay packet of Rs 1,500 and designated special police officers (SPOs) to fight the Maoist rebels. The state government has raised this auxiliary police force under the Police Act 1861, which empowers a local magistrate to temporarily appoint civilians as SPOs.

Since the escalation of the conflict in June 2005 until mid-2007, these SPOs – some 5,000 in all – have implemented the Salwa Judum campaign on the ground with the support of government security forces.

While there is evidence that joint raids by government security forces and Salwa Judum members have been on the decline since mid-2007, the reprisals against villagers suspected to be Maoist sympathisers have by no means ceased.

The government may have started Salwa Judum in the name of containing the Maoist menace, but in reality it has ended up intensifying violence in the state. In 2003, the Maoists claimed 74 lives in 256 violent incidents across Chhattisgarh, whereas in 2007, they had killed 369 people in 582 incidents, according to the government’s own figures.

In comparison, the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh, considered a Maoist stronghold, has recorded a considerable fall in violence, from 140 deaths in 577 incidents in 2003 to 45 deaths in 138 incidents in 2007.

Giving the latest figures, Chhattisgarh home minister Nanki Ram Kanwar said that between April 2007 and January 2009, armed leftwing guerrillas have been involved in 1,190 terror incidents across the state and have claimed 480 lives including 277 civilians, 154 police officers and 49 SPOs.

Police estimates put the strength of the Maoist guerrillas in Chhattisgarh at 4,500 and Kanwar claimed security personnel had gunned down 82 of them in the last one year. But rights groups have been alleging that this list prepared by the police includes a large number of civilian victims.

Human rights groups say Naxalites are equally responsible for serious abuses. They claim to be leading a popular "people's war", seeking equity and justice for the poor, especially tribal communities. Nevertheless, their methods include intimidation, harassment, threats, beatings, looting, summary executions, and other punishment of villagers who either refuse to cooperate with them or are suspected of being police informers.

Referring to the “official” figure of 277 civilian deaths, and claiming nearly a third of the 82 killed by security personnel as civilians, the rights groups have been demanding justice for the innocent tribals.

On April 15, 2008, the Supreme Court of India, in response to a petition, ordered the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to "examine/verify" allegations of human rights abuses and submit a report. The court further ordered the Centre and the Chhattisgarh government to cooperate during the inquiry.

Subash Mohapatra of Forum for Fact Finding Documentation and Advocacy expresses grave concern over the “mass killings” of tribals. “In Bastar, the tribals have become their own enemy. They are killing each other.”

According to Mohapatra, the government provided arms and training to many young tribals in relief camps before designating them as SPOs. “Some of them may have suffered at the hands of the Maoists, others in the hope of getting employment from the government. These SPOs became pawns in the hands of government for a meagre amount (Rs 1,500 per month) that was much less than what an unskilled labourer earned.”

There are some 3,800 SPOs in Dantewada and Bijapur districts, most of them young men, including come children. While the majority of the SPOs are ordinary tribal and non-tribal civilians, the leaders of Salwa Judum mostly consist of influential people aggrieved by Naxalite activities – contractors or middlemen, members of non-tribal and landed tribal communities, sarpanches (village officials), patels (village headmen), and even priests.

The Salwa Judum members have carried out their leaders' instructions and conducted operations including traveling from village to village, particularly those believed to be Maoist strongholds; evacuating villagers to government-run camps and in some cases, beating, raping, and killing suspected Maoist sympathisers amongst them; and conducting raids and combing Maoist hideouts.

The Naxalites have retaliated violently against the operation of Salwa Judum. They have attacked Salwa Judum camps, killing many civilians. Individuals who participate in Salwa Judum, particularly Salwa Judum leaders and camp residents appointed as SPOs, are also vulnerable to Naxalite reprisals.

Naxalite retribution against SPOs is particularly vicious. In some cases, Naxalites have reportedly mutilated the eyes and genitals of SPOs killed during their attacks.

The most frequent complaint against Naxalites is their extortion of food and money. Some villagers reported that Naxalites forced them to donate foodgrain even when it left them unable to feed their own families. In other cases, Naxalites have threatened to kill villagers who refused demands for money. They also collect "fines" from villagers who refuse to attend their meetings.

Naxalites have deliberately destroyed dozens of schools, ostensibly to prevent their use for police operations. International watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) has gathered information about 20 schools that Naxalites destroyed, most of them after Salwa Judum started.

HRW in its July 2008 report Being Neutral is Our Biggest Crime has been particularly concerned over the recruitment of underage SPOs by the Chhattisgarh police. It has expressed the fear that “the underage SPOs are exposed to life-threatening dangers, including armed attacks by Naxalites, explosions due to landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and Naxalite reprisal killings”.

The Salwa Judum, Chhattisgarh police and Naxalites, have recruited and used children, exposing them to the risk of injury and death. Salwa Judum does not have any official policy for the recruitment of children, but children have actively participated in Salwa Judum meetings and raids along with government security forces.

The HRW report cites many eyewitnesses or victims of Salwa Judum raids who claim to have seen children, some as young as 12, among the armed raiding parties. One woman, who was beaten by Salwa Judum members, claimed that children also mercilessly beat her without showing any respect for her age. Vasanti Kumar, an 18-year-old former resident of Konta camp, stated that she saw SPOs younger than herself. “I have seen SPOs younger than me in the camp. I cannot tell you the exact number because they are on duty in different places at different times but there will easily be at least 10 such SPOs (in the camp)”.

A teacher from Bhairamgarh claimed that he recognised school dropouts from his area who were serving as SPOs in December 2007.

The state government has maintained that it has removed all children from its ranks. Some officials say the recruitment occurred because many villagers did not have proper age records. But rights groups maintain there is no procedure or scheme for systematically identifying and removing underage SPOs.

The Naxalites do not deny the recruitment and use of children in hostilities -- it is part of their policy and practice. Naxalites recruit and use children in military operations. Children between six and 12 are enlisted into balsangams (children's associations), trained in Maoist ideology, used as informers, trained in the use of non-lethal weapons like sticks, and gradually "promoted" to other Naxalite wings, the able-bodied directly participating in armed exchanges with government security forces.

Children, some as young as 12, are recruited in Salwa Judum
Children, some as young as 12, are recruited in Salwa Judum but there are no clear estimates

There are no clear estimates of the number of children used by these different factions.

Chhattisgarh’s former chief minister Ajit Jogi feels the life of innocent tribals in the Bastar region has been seriously endangered by the Salwa Judum. “In this senseless battle involving the government security forces led by the police, SPOs and Maoists, it is the tribal who is getting killed,” he observed.

Jogi alleged “fake encounters” in places like Singavaran: “The SPOs and police combined and forced the villagers to walk deep into the forests where they shot them. The government should take such incidents very seriously and call off the Salwa Judum with immediate effect.”

But home minister Nanki Ram Kanwar says: “This (calling off of the Salwa Judum) will demoralise the police. This is being done to defame the Salwa Judum. Those who are Maoist supporters are the ones opposing the Salwa Judum.”

But Subash Mohapatra of Forum for Fact Finding Documentation and Advocacy who believes that Salwa Judum is a pointless exercise raises a pertinent query – “Has the Chhattisgarh government been able to curb the Maoist violence for which it started Salwa Judum?”

The obvious answer to Subash’s question is ‘No’.

Official statistics show very clearly that in the past three years this civil war in the Bastar forests has claimed more lives than violence in any other part of the country.

Nanki Ram Kanwar says bluntly: "Salwa Judum is a self-initiated war of common people against the Maoists, and the state government has only worked towards providing security to common people fighting this menace. We have neither started this battle nor can we end this. The people will decide what they want to do.”

The minister says that normal life in Bastar had been disturbed by a fear of the Maoists.

But people say the Maoists have been active in Bastar since the 1980s. And never before had the tribals felt the need to leave their lands fearing for their lives.

The tribals of Bastar themselves feel it was their destiny to be caught in the crossfire between the Salwa Judum and the Maoist. To have the forests of sal and teak, which once reverberated to the sound of tribal music, now reverberating with the sound of bullets.

(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 third in her series on the tribals of Chhattisgarh researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2008)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009