Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Interview with me on Rediff.com, October 7 2008

The Naxal problem is not just a security issue'
October 7, 2008

Nandini Sundar, professor of sociology, Delhi School of Economics, and historian and writer Ramchandra Guha have filed a petition to stop the Chhattisgarh government from supporting and encouraging the Salwa Judum, a people's movement to counter the Naxalites. The state government has denied that the Salwa Judum was a state-sponsored movement. The Supreme Court has disapproved arming the Salwa Judum, and the case continues.

Sundar spoke to Rujuta Paradkar about the policy and politics adopted by the government of Chhattisgarh, the Salwa Judum and "the way in which people fall through the cracks of the democratic process".

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, caught in a deadly tug-of-war between an armed Maoist movement on one side, and the government security forces plus a vigilante group called Salwa Judum on the other, civilians have suffered a host of human rights abuses, including killings, torture, and forced displacement. The violence has destroyed hundreds of villages and uprooted tens of thousands of people from their homes.
The armed movement by Maoist groups spans four decades and 13 states across India. They purport to defend the rights of the poor, especially the landless, Dalits and tribal communities.
Sundar's book Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar traces the expansion of the colonial and the post-colonial state in Bastar, central India, between 1854 and 2006. The author's account of the region is at once the outcome of an intellectual as well as personal encounters with the region and its politics.

Chhattisgarh is a war zone'
October 7, 2008

What's the present situation in Chhattisgarh?
The situation is very tense. For one, the overarching fear of Maoism has led to the enactment of the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act.
The second thing is what is happening in Dantewada in particular, where they have the Salwa Judum for three years... It's still very tenuous. Salwa Judum is not at its peak anymore.
Many people have gone back from the villages to the camps. It's a war zone still.
The urgent thing to do is bring about immediate normalcy. There needs to be a genuine, large-scale inquiry into the matter. Three years of violence at this pitch is completely inhuman. People are desperate for peace.
How many police forces and how many Special Police Officers are there in Chhattisgarh?
The government has given different figures each time on how many SPOs there are. The collector's memo of 2007 said there were 4,048. The DGP has put out a different set of figures. The government has given different figures to the National Human Rights Commission. So we really don't know what the actual figures are.
We don't know how many people are killed. We get a whole range of conflicting figures from the government. So, one of the problems is getting information.
There is a huge contingent of security forces. There are 13 battalions in the area. That is roughly one paramilitary person to every 46 people. The population is only seven lakhs.
As a result of Salwa Judum, the Maoist strength has also gone up. More and more Maoists have joined in and they have created Maoist battalions. So the place has become much more militarized.
Tell us about the SPOs.
Many of them are unemployed youth who joined to get Rs 1,500 per month. So this is policing on the cheap. They don't get same the compensation as the police get. Nor the same training, same discipline, the same arms. Forms were distributed and they just joined up to get jobs. Many are minors, some are criminal elements, who were active in Salwa Judum and some were surrendered sangam (Maoist group) members.
Police tell us some of them are people from the families killed by Naxalites. They are particularly vengeful. So is a revenge force the best way of policing?
How many have villagers have fled?
It's hard to estimate how many have fled. Out of 1,200 villages, according to official estimates, 644 villages are affected. Which means out of a population of seven lakhs, around three lakhs are affected. So our estimate is anywhere from 40,000 to 1 lakh have gone to Andhra Pradesh running away from the Salwa Judum and from the Naxalites in some cases.
Women and children suffer the most'

What about violence against women in the region?
If you take any village, women's lives are difficult because of poverty. There are issues like bigamy and forced marriage.
Sexual violence is one of the most terrible things to talk about. In Chhattisgarh, there have been a number of cases where girls have been raped both inside Salwa Judum camps and have also been kept as sex slaves by some of the Salwa Judum leaders.
What about the women who have joined the Naxalites?
Almost 50 percent of the Naxal fighting force are women, from what I have heard. That's a large number. Again, this needs greater investigation as to why so many women are joining the Naxalites. But right now there is no way to investigate because the situation is so bad.
Police officials have denied the rape cases. DGP Vishwa Rajan told rediff.com that the tribal people don't see rape as a form of punishment.
This is a strange romanticisation of Adivasi society, simply in order to deny that there are rape cases.
What about the condition of children?
The schooling system has collapsed. A large number of schools have closed in the area. The security forces use these schools as camps. Plus the Maoists have blasted some schools, in anticipation of the security forces coming. So there has been large-scale destruction.
The administration has shut down almost all schools. And in all the schools, teachers have been regrouped into camps. The education is in Hindi. This means the huge Telugu-speaking refugee population has no access to education.
How many child soldiers does Chhattisgarh have?
In 2006, as part of Independent Citizen's Iinitiative, we wrote open letters in the Economic and Political Weekly to both the Maoists and the government criticising their use of child soldiers. Sadly, they both are doing it.
The Maoists responded by saying, yes we are doing it, but we don't recruit people below the age of 16. They gave some stupid justification about how childhood has no meaning in Chhattisgarh.
But the Chhattisgarh government and the Government of India just denied it. Their blatant denial is tragic.
We don't know how many child soldiers are there in the region. The police has not provided any information on underage SPOs. But every observer who has gone there, has said that SPOs look underage. I have come across many SPOs who are underage. In fact, the brother of an SPO told me that almost 75 percent of SPOs are between the ages of 16 and 22.

Image: Most Special Police Officers are aged between 16 and 22, says Nandini Sundar, quoting her sources
The Salwa Judum is vigilantism and this is wrong'
October 7, 2008

Tell us about the Salwa Judum camps.
Most of the people who had originally come to the camp were forced to do so by the Salwa Judum. Now the situation is that many of them have gone back.
In the first phase, the conditions in the camp were appalling. There was no sanitation. Food was minimal. People lived in knee-high slush. Eventually semi-permanent house were provided. But there is no provision for employment. There were food-for-work programmes.
The government literature refers to them as 'Salwa Judum base camps'. This is military language, which means you go out from the base camps to conquer the surrounding population.
As more villages were burnt, more camps came up and now you have smaller camps coming up.
Any village which is not in the camp is declared Maoist. They are denied food and health services.
The police say they are merely protecting the Salwa Judum. But you along with several other activists have claimed that the police mobilised the Salwa Judum.
There are several different indications as to how the group is formed. There is a police video which talks about 'operation Salwa Judum'. It talks about how the police mobilised villagers in January 2005 itself. There is a collector's work report which talks about how the Salwa Judum should be conducted.
There is also a local spark which was provided by some incident in Kothru. There are many versions. It's not clear. But it's not important how Salwa Judum was formed.
The point is not how it originated. The fact is that it is supported by the government, justified by the government and it has engaged in atrocities.
Even if it was a spontaneous movement, the minute it degenerated into violence, the government should have said, 'stop it'. This is vigilantism and this is wrong. But they continued to justify it.
The police say there are no registered complains against the Salwa Judum, although HRW has recorded 50 eyewitness accounts.
We have been facing this problem in Chhattisgarh. The police say there is no violence committed by Salwa Judum. And we see with our own eyes, the violence committed by the Salwa Judum. Villages are burnt and people are killed. People are giving us testimonies and telling us their family members are killed. A woman showed me the bones of her husband and son.
What the government is saying is that because people have not filed FIRs nothing has happened. But people can't file FIRs in such a situation. When the police itself are attacking you, you are not going to go to the police station the next day to file complaints.
The NHRC team went there this summer and they say when they saw a couple of such incidents, the villagers fled after seeing the security forces. So in such situations how will people file FIRs? And if that's going to be the only proof of the violence taking place, then you are never going to get the proof.
The police attribute the violence to the Naxalites. So how do we know if it's the security forces, the Salwa Judum or the Naxalites? Even the HRW report speaks of violence from both sides.
Both sides are doing the killing. You will never know the complete truth. There will be many cases where it's murky. But by and large people tell you about the killings. And when they say Salwa Judum, there is no reason to disbelieve them on such a large scale.
The police say from village to village it's a different story in Chhattisgarh. It's a large region. Let's not look at its people as a monolithic group. Within the region there are disparities, can you talk about that?
Official figures say 644 villages out of 1,220 have been affected. Within that you can have affected in various degrees. There are some villages entirely burnt, people have fled to Andhra Pradesh. Those villages are still uninhabited.
There are some villages where the sangam members or those who were active among the Naxalites. They are not armed; they don't have uniforms. But say the Naxalites wanted food; they would arrange it for them. So they would be the helpers. And they are in large numbers across the district because the Naxalites have been very well entrenched. The Naxals have been in the region for the past 20 years and they have lot of popular support. So practically every village has a sangam.
So in some villages the sangam member's houses are burnt, and rest of the village has gone to live in the camps. In some other villages nothing was burnt, because people shifted to camps before anything could happen to them.
In some cases the Naxalites burnt the houses of Salwa Judum leaders. But by and large the violence has been due to the Salwa Judum. So it's different from village to village.
The Salwa Judum should be disbanded immediately'
October 7, 2008

It's not just village to village. If we look at the Naxal movement in different regions, we get a different story. So there are different policies to combat the Naxalites. For example, Andhra Pradesh had the Greyhound strategy. Can you talk about the policies adopted in Chhattisgarh?
Greyhounds are a trained police force, trained to take on the Naxalites. But in Chhattisgarh, they have set up this vigilante group, which has minors and SPOs to fight the Naxalites. This is objectionable. These are people who are the most vulnerable. They don't have training. There is this one case where the SPO killed his own brother. So they are dividing families. And that is what we are objecting to.
If it was a regular police force trained to deal with the situation, it's a different matter.
But SPOs get only one to three months training. That entails nothing. It entails that they can be indisciplined and they can harass people. They are scared of retaliation, so they are more and more regressive. But having said that, this whole security-centric approach to Naxalism is not working. We need to look at it as a political and socio-economic problem. You actually need to look at the root cause.
Violence has dramatically escalated and the situation, as you mentioned, is dire. But what is the way forward? How do you plan to combat the situation?
We are combating the situation through the courts. We filed a case in the Supreme Court against the Salwa Judum and against the government support to an illegal vigilante organisation, arming of minors and asking for compensation to victims. That case is going on in the Supreme Court.
What is your recommendation?
Our recommendation is that Salwa Judum and the SPOs be disbanded immediately. Those who want to stay in camps should be entitled to stay, but the vast majority who want to go back should be allowed to go. Normal policing should be strengthened, not the kind of policing that's happening in Chhattisgarh.
People should be rehabilitated and compensated. All manner of people picked up under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act should be released.
In recent years, a lot of activists have started to re-examine the notion of violence. For example, writer Arundhati Roy in a recent interview said when people decide to take up violence because every other option has ended in despair, should we condemn them? What is your view?
One needs to understand this issue beyond just a security-centric issue. Like any social movement, whether it is the Shiv Sena or the Naxalites. I am a sociologist not a police person. I don’t think of it in terms of criminals. I am interested in knowing why people join such movements.
I don't think it is a question about defending the Naxalite violence or condemning it. We need to stop looking at Naxalism as a security-centric issue.
I have criticised the violence committed by the Naxals as well as the Salwa Judum. But, I think, one needs to study this issue further. It is not a black and white issue.