Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A daily drip of deaths and lives ravaged

A daily drip of deaths and lives ravaged
by Nandini Sundar
Mail Today, February 2009

EVEN its most ardent supporters must be embarrassed by the doublespeak of the Chhattisgarh government. On February 5, the government told the Supreme Court that the Salwa Judum was dead days after chief minister Raman Singh had reaffirmed his government’s continuing support to the movement.

Even the furore caused by the killing of 19 villagers in Singaram by Salwa Judum special police officers (SPOs) and police on January 8 made no difference. Singaram has simply joined the list of magisterial inquiries in the action taken report (ATR) before the Supreme Court. In all of them, including those initiated in 2006, “report (is) awaited from investigating officer”.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) investigations — to which the ATR is meant to respond — covered only a fraction of the charges before the court: 145 out of 537 reported cases of murder by the Salwa Judum, SPOs and security forces; 16 out of 103 villages in which arson and lootings were reported, five as against 99 complaints of rape. And these too, were only a sample of the unchecked violence of the last four years. In the ‘daily drip of casualties’, accuracy is a tortuous achievement.

With independent investigation in the villages made difficult thanks to the Salwa Judum, security forces and the Maoists, the lists of dead submitted to the court were based on villagers’ testimonies given to the Adivasi Mahasabha leader Manish Kunjam in mid-2007 as well as fact-finding reports.

On recent attempts to double check, I found that the Salwa Judum had killed many more than was recorded. It was only later once the initial terror passed, refugee networks strengthened or people began to return to villages, that a more accurate reckoning of losses was possible.

Even with an inquiry aimed more at discrediting the petitioners than uncovering the truth, in nearly 80 per cent of the cases taken up by the NHRC, further investigation is indicated. Our assumption that at least the government roll of people killed by Naxalites would be accurate was also proved wrong.

The testimonies submitted to the NHRC are terrifying. A woman, whose husband and son were killed along with two others by SPOs in Errabor camp, testified: “We saw them being taken a short distance and attacked with knives. A fortnight later, near the Errabor nala (drain), we saw their clothes and skeletons. They had been half-eaten and decomposed.”

Despite the photographic evidence, the NHRC investigation team chose to believe the statement of the Errabor SPOs that these men had gone off with the Naxalites. A sixteen-year-old reported that in June 2007, SPOs and Salwa Judum leaders came to her village, beat up her parents and dragged her out of the house. Along with another young girl she was taken to a nearby camp. “We were not allowed out and raped repeatedly every night by SPOs.” The girls are scarred for life. They don’t want compensation, they want justice. Left to the Chhattisgarh government, they would get neither. In October, the Chhattisgarh home secretary wrote to the district collectors of Dantewada and Bijapur, calling for an action plan to compensate victims of violence. But this too seems only for the court’s consumption.

In December, the district collector of Dantewada told us he had not seen any such letter. Government amenities to camps mainly help the Salwa Judum supporters and SPOs who now constitute the camp majority. Thousands of refugees in Andhra Pradesh don’t even cross the line of government vision. How much longer can this continue? I wish I had an answer.

DU professor Nandini Sundar is a petitioner in the Salwa Judum case being heard by the Supreme Court