A Paradise Poisoned
The Times of India, 14 January 2006
Visitors to the official Bastar website (bastar.nic.in) will discover that Gonds have "a pro-fertility mentality", that "marriages between brothers and sisters are common" and that the Murias "prefer 'mahua' drinks rather than medicines for their ailments".
According to the website, the "tribals of this area are famous for their 'ghotuls' where prospective couples 'date' and also have the free sex".
Some of the tribals are "leading a savage life", the website adds, and "they do not like to come to the outer world and mingle with modern civilisation".
Unfortunately, modern civilisation is being brought to the "savages" in the form of steel plants which displace them, paramilitary forces which kill them and merchants who cheat them.
The non-tribal population of Bastar has expanded so dramatically in less than a decade (1991-2001) that moves are on to de-reserve two constituencies.
The Tata, Essar and NDMC steel plants and the now-revived Bodhghat hydroelectric project will bring in even more outsiders. The Border Roads Organisation is widening the road from Jagdalpur to Dantewada for ease of paramilitary movement and Kanker now has its own Jungle Warfare College.
In this new Bastar, anyone who mentions the rule of law is called an outsider and threatened. On December 22, Chhattisgarh home minister Ramvichar Netam told the state assembly that Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh killed 90 villagers in the Bastar region for daring to carry out a movement against them since June.
What he forgot to add is that the state in combination with its officially sponsored peoples movement has killed more than that number, but simply not bothered to record it.
As described by the administration and relayed by a quiescent local media, the Salwa Judum is a peace mission started by ordinary Adivasis sick of the Maoists.
Its literal Gondi meaning, purification hunt, describes it far more accurately — a government-run sanitisation campaign to exterminate Naxa-lites and their supporters.
Operation Salwa Judum was initiated in January 2005 when the police launched operations to mobilise villagers against Maoists.
In an audio recording released by the Maoists to the Raipur press last month, the Dantewada SP is heard promising Rs 2 lakh to every village that joins the Judum, and boasting of how nine Naxalites had been killed in Kotrapal village.
The administration has long-term plans to relocate and cluster villages in roadside settlements. An all-India team of human rights groups, which visited Dantewada in December, found that in Mankeli village five people had been killed and their bodies left to rot as a warning to others.
No FIRs were registered. Even as we were there, shots rang out. Three men who had been talking to us minutes before ran for cover while the woman beside us turned rigid with fear, before she too dropped to her knees.
Mankeli, which had already been attacked thrice by the Salwa Judum and forces, surrendered the next day. The Salwa Judum made even getting to Mankeli difficult. Youth, mostly non-tribal, man checkpoints along the road, stopping and searching vehicles.
Many of them have been armed and given the status of special police officers. They move around with complete impunity, at one point even threatening the SDM for allowing us to go.
The road from Dantewada to Bijapur is lined with tarpaulin shelters. Over 15,000 people from some 420 villages live in camps, ostensibly because of the Maoist threat.
Closer probing, however, revealed that several villages — which refused to join the Judum or hand over their sangham members (the village organisations created by the Maoists) — were brought in by the Naga battalion.
In deserted Gorna village, we saw only burnt houses. On the other side, the Maoists had blasted the primary school, because it was being used by the military as a camp.
In Jagdalpur hospital we met two young girls recovering from serious bullet injuries. One was too scared or in too much pain to speak, but the other told us that they had been taken by the dada log (Maoists) to harvest some abandoned fields, and that the police had found them and opened fire.
Emptied villages, military camps, and gangs of armed lumpen youth — a tribal paradise, as the tourism brochures say, or a tribal nightmare?
The writer is professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics.