A Report And An Appeal By HRF To Democratic Forces In Chattisgarh

The Human Rights Forum (HRF) of Andhra Pradesh expresses its deep anguish at the turn of events in Dantewada district of Chattisgarh. An unthinkingly callous response by the Government of Chattisgarh to the perceived ‘naxalite problem’ has set Adivasi against Adivasi and is leading to a civil war like situation.

By a rough estimate, about 500 to 600 lives have been lost in this conflict from mid-2005 to mid-2006. It is not possible to be precise because the Government of Chattisgarh has no count of how many lives of the Maoists and their sympathisers have been taken by the paramilitary and the Salwa Judum, even though it has a precise figure of the killings committed by the Maoists. After assaulting their ‘enemies’, the paramilitary and the Salwa Judum come away without waiting to see how many have been killed, whether any one is seriously injured and in need of medical treatment, etc. This is conduct that may be condemnable even in war between two nations, since such wars too know of humane norms of conduct, but such practices are unknown in police or paramilitary operations in the context of civil strife. Neither does law sanction it nor would the Constitutional guarantee of right to life condone it. Yet one strangely hears people in responsible positions speak of the Salwa Judum as a novel ‘experiment’ in tackling Maoism that can be replicated in other States.

But what is undeniable is that almost all the dead are local Adivasis. Those who are admiring the ‘strategy’ of Salwa Judum do not seem to realise this brutal fact. It is beyond comprehension how a Government committed to governance by the rule of law in the service of the fundamental rights and the social and economic welfare of the people, more particularly the weaker sections including the Adivasis can operate in terms of such brutal ‘strategies’ of counter-insurgency. One has heard of civil wars that have set citizens against citizens and ravaged societies, especially in the continent of Africa, but one has not heard of a State adopting the strategy of fomenting civil war to tackle a political problem.

A team of the HRF spent five days from May 12 to 16 this year in the district of Dantewada. We spoke to the inmates of the camps at Konta, Dornapal, Kasoli, Bangapal and Nelasnar. We visited the burnt-out village of Gaganpalli and spoke to the sole family still there. We spoke to the villagers of Dubbathota who had gone to the Dornapal camp but were back in the village at the time of our visit. We spoke to the Tahsildar of Konta, the District Collector, Dantewada and CRPF jawans guarding Gollapalli deep inside the forests. We spoke to families that had run away from the conflict-ridden forests of Dantewada into Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh. We spoke to a number of politically conscious and socially active persons in Konta, Dantewada, Sukma as well as in Chintur in Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh, which is fast becoming a refuge for those for whom life is becoming intolerable in Konta. We spoke to Mahendra Karma, the leader of Salwa Judum. We have also taken note of subsequent happenings including the Errabore massacre perpetrated by the Maoists on 16/17 July. The proximity of Konta to Chintur has enabled us to keep abreast of developments in one of the most seriously affected part of Dantewada district, namely Konta tehsil.

This was not our first visit. A team of the HRF had visited the Bijapur area of Dantewada district almost exactly one year before, in mid-July 2005. At the time Salwa Judum was not yet invented but a Jan Jagran Abhiyan was in the news, portrayed as a mass upsurge against the Maoists. Wild rumours were published in the Press about killings by the Maoists of Adivasis who had participated in the Abhiyan. It was reported that the Maoists were kidnapping people opposed to them in their dozens, and massacring them. The massacre of 13 Adivasis in a single such incident at Kotrapal was widely reported. Our team found that while violence was a reality and Adivasis were rapidly getting caught in the conflict between Maoists and those who were bent on eliminating Maoism from Dantewada by any means, the news reports were highly exaggerated and one sided. Activists of the Abhiyan themselves told us that exactly seven persons were killed by the Maoists between the beginning of June to mid-July 2005 whereas Press reports owing their origin to the news put out by the Administration had reported upwards of 50 killings by that time. The Press reports were also silent about the killings by the Jan Jagran Abhiyan. The Abhiyan would mobilise masses by the threat of force and lead them to attack villages like Kotrapal believed to be Maoist strongholds. Individuals would be forced to ‘surrender’ and publicly denounce the Maoists. The reluctant would be attacked, killed or handed over to the police, and their houses would be burnt. In this violence, the police and the paramilitary were complicit with the Abhiyan.

During our second visit to Dantewada district in June 2006 we found that this basic pattern of State-sponsored mob violence against Maoist sympathisers was continued on an extended scale in the from of Salwa Judum. Mass attacks have taken place by a combination of the Salwa Judum and the paramilitary forces in which an unknown number of persons have been killed and hundreds of houses have been consigned to fire together with all belongings. In retaliation the Maoists have also burnt the houses of Salwa Judum activists and committed mass killings as at Darbhaguda (28 Feb 2006), Manikonta (29 April), Injaram (13 May) and Yerrabore (16/17 July). Counting the numbers killed does not make much sense when only one side of the count is taken. Yet, for what it is worth, it may be stated that according to the district administration the number of persons killed by the Maoists from June 2005 to mid-July 2006 was 253, including 25 police and paramilitary personnel. Subsequently, apart from individual killings regarding which information may not be available outside the district, the Maoists killed 33 persons in the Errabore massacre of 16/17 July.  Thus, the fatalities caused by them would add up to about 290.

As said above, the administration does not count the dead on the other side, but Maoist publications have given details, which may not be comprehensive but would seem to indicate that the other side has been killing in more or less equal numbers. And excepting the handful of paramilitary personnel, all the deceased on either side are local Adivasis.  To our mind this is the most significant fact with reference to which every justification by either side of what is going on in Dantewada must be tested. While unequivocally condemning the activities of the Salwa Judum, we cannot be blind to the fact that excepting only the leadership at the top, all its participants are Adivasis, most of them as undernourished in physique and gullible in psyche as any. And it is needless to add that this description fits the Maoist followers and most of their cadre, too.

Loss of lives apart, the Adivasis have been massively displaced from their habitat. The official figure given by the District Collector, Dantewada, says that as of May 15 2006 there were 54,768 persons in the 17 camps spread over the reverse L-shaped stretch from Konta through Dantewada to Bhoopalpatnam. We visited and spent considerable time at the largest camp, Dornapal. Comparison of the camp with a cattle shed would be an insult to cattle sheds. Upwards of forty or fifty persons including children and the aged were living in space measuring 20 ft x 12 ft that would with difficulty hold a dozen. The houses are huts with no sidewalls and a roof that is liable to leak. It is true that work on the building of a regular colony was going on but even if that solves the problem of a proper roof over the head, the houses are going to be as crowded as now. Adivasis are just not accustomed to living in such cramped quarters. And how long will they live on the Government’s dole? They dare not go back because the Salwa Judum will not let them. Or, back home they may be attacked by the Maoists on the suspicion that they are with the Salwa Judum. Almost every one we spoke to in the camps said they had come because the Salwa Judum had brought them there. They were not brought by persuasion but by force. Dissidents were ‘taught a lesson’ by being attacked or having the house burnt. And the lesson taught to one was learnt by many.

But this fifty thousand and odd does not exhaust the Adivasi population of the affected area. The others have gone deeper into the forests to live under Maoist protection, or else crossed the border and gone into Andhra Pradesh. In either case they too have been displaced from their homes and lands. Unlike the inmates of the camps, they do not even have assured rations twice a day. Most of them are living by gathering edible roots, tubers and other forest produce.

One random instance would describe their plight well. At Gollaguppa in the Chintur area of Khammam district we met one such refugee, a mother of nine by name Muchika Lakshmi from Etigattu of Konta tehsil who had walked all the way to cross the border after the Salwa Judum burnt their village of sixty huts. When asked why she did not go to the Konta camp, her answer was: “what do we do there, away from our lands?” Her village she says, is a stronghold of the Maoists but for some reason that she will not spell out she does not like them much and she did not choose to live under the protection of the Maoist armed squads as some others of her village did. She chose to cross the border into Khammam district of A.P. The Salwa Judum tied up her husband’s hands and he was taken to Konta. Five of her nine children she left with relatives in various villages. And with the youngest four she has trudged across the border to live in a hamlet, which has no road connection to anywhere. Her evidently undernourished children will look worse the next time any one sees them.

It is clear that Salwa Judum is part of a counter-insurgency strategy of the Chattisgarh administration, namely to clear the forest of villages so that the Maoists will be deprived of shelter and support, and get isolated. There is nothing spontaneous about the Salwa Judum. The people are expendable pawns in this strategy. Maybe the State will succeed in getting the better of the Maoists by this strategy, and maybe it will not. In any case, this ‘experiment’ will devastate the lives of the Adivasis permanently if democratic minded persons and organisations do not intervene and put pressure upon the administration to reverse the strategy, and let the people go back to their villages and live normal lives.

We are not saying that the Maoists are blameless in the matter. Some of their decisions, which the people have no way of opposing, have harmed the people. At Maraigudem we spoke to Adka Ramu who expressed resentment that the Maoists dig up roads so that the paramilitary may not come into the forest. This, he says, causes a lot of inconvenience to the forest-dwelling Adivasis. Another act indulged in by the Maoists in the interests of their safety is the blasting of school buildings for the reason that the paramilitary forces have been taking shelter there in the course of their raids. We were also told of killing of informers without spelling out the reasons for the suspicion, and violent suppression of dissent. A government employee who has worked in Jagargonda, which is an area with considerable presence of the Maoists, said to us that such killing took place at the rate of about one or two a year in that area. This was in the pre-Salwa Judum days. After Salwa Judum, the Maoist retaliation has assumed alarming proportions, and brutal too, as the recent Errabore massacre shows.

The undeniable role played by the Maoists in putting an end to oppression of the Adivasis and other labouring people by the government officials, businessmen and contractors, and their role in improving the livelihood of those masses, must be taken together with these acts of violence and unilateral decisions to get a fuller picture.

It is this positive role of the Maoists that has impelled all thinking people to appeal to the Government not to treat Maoism as a mere law and order problem, but to see it is a political movement with a significant role in the betterment of the socio-economic conditions of the marginalised masses. In this context, the Chattisgarh Government’s strategy of dividing those masses into two and setting them at each other’s throats is highly objectionable. What however makes it even more alarming is that many persons in positions of power and influence are talking of Salwa Judum as a phenomenon that bears replication in other States where the Naxalites are active.

When the rulers start thinking and acting along such lines and the rebels believe there is nothing wrong in retaliating in kind, it is time for right-thinking people who cherish civilised political practices and have concern for the welfare of the deprived masses, especially the Adivasis, to seize the initiative. It may appear that mere advice will have no effect in the midst of clashing arms, but the experience of Andhra Pradesh shows that sustained appeal for sanity can have its effect. Six years of sustained work by a handful of well-wishers of democracy and of the masses, organised as a Committee of Concerned Citizens attained fruition in the form a six-month ceasefire and a preliminary round of talks between the Maoists and the Government of A.P. The talks broke off for various reasons but the possibility of an approach to Maoism other than suppression by brute force has been shown.

We ardently hope that democratic forces in Chattisgarh will rise to the occasion and make efforts towards putting an end to the violence the Adivasi population of Dantewada is suffering. We assure them of all help and assistance from the human rights community of Andhra Pradesh.

Dr. B Ramulu
HRF President

VS Krishna
HRF secretary

K Balagopal
HRF general secretary

A Chandrasekhar
HRF Executive Committee member

Raipur, Chattisgarh

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