This was published in the handbook of the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs in 2006
Salwa Judum in Dantewada district
The people of Dantewada district in Chhattisgarh state in India, most of whom are scheduled tribes, have had their lives completely transformed in the last one year. Today, they are living in the midst of an undeclared war between the government and the Maoist guerillas. The administration, however, prefers to describe its war as a ‘people’s movement’ (locally known as the Salwa Judum), blaming any violence entirely on the Maoists. The truth is far from this.
The Maoists (previously the People’s War Group, now expanded and renamed the Communist Party of India (Maoist) have been active in Dantewada since the 1980s. Their literature claims that this is one of their ‘liberated zones’ where they have their own parallel administrative structure – through village level bodies called sangams. The Maoists in this region have taken up struggles against exactions by police and forest officials, demanded higher wages for non-timber forest produce and also carried out some land redistribution. Their literature says that they have also undertaken some irrigation works, seed banks and other developmental activities in their strongholds.
It is clear that the administration hardly has any presence here, especially in the interior villages. Development services like schools and hospitals are minimal – the overall literacy rate is 21%, and only 26 villages out of 1220 villages have a primary health center. What is amply in evidence, however, is the presence of the paramilitary. As of now, there are five CRPF battalions, one Naga India Reserve Battallion and at least one battalion of the Gujarat Armed police, and the administration has requested more Naga battalions. There are approximately 7000 paramilitary forces deployed in the region. Although the region is located in the heart of India, roads are now being broadened by the Border Roads Organisation, the road construction wing of the army. A proposal prepared by the Dantewara Collector notes that this is to facilitate the movement of troops.
The region has very rich mineral resources and forests, and the Government of Chhattisgarh has major plans for industrialization here. As it is, the non-tribal population in the area has expanded so dramatically in less than a decade (1991-2001) that moves are on to de-reserve two constituencies. There are three steel plants in the offing, owned by Tata, Essar and NMDC, and two large dams, the Bodhghat Hydroelectric Project and the Polavaram dam, all of which will cause major displacement. Previous industrialization in the area, in the form of the iron ore mines at Kirandul has not benefited the indigenous people at all – all it has brought them is pollution, and sexual exploitation.
The immediate origins of the Salwa Judum in 2005 are unclear. According to a video clearly made at the government’s behest, ‘Operation Salwa Judum’ was initiated in January 2005 when the police launched “overt and covert” operations to mobilise villagers against Maoists. In an audio recording released by the Maoists to the Raipur press, the SP of Bijapur is heard promising Rs 2 lakhs to every village that joins the Judum, and boasting of how the police had killed people and burnt villages which were supporting the Maoists. The official story being put out, however, is of a spontaneous people’s reaction to years of Naxalite oppression. According to one typical report that began circulating from about June 2005: “From a handful number to thousands. This is how the anti-Naxal movement is gaining grounds in the main heartland of Naxalites in Bastar... After keeping their mouths shut for decades, the tribal people are getting united to battle against the People's War.”
The administration glosses Salwa Judum to mean ‘peace campaign’. Its literal Gondi meaning, ‘purification/pacification hunt’, describes what it is far more accurately - a government run ‘sanitisation’ campaign to exterminate Naxalites and their supporters. Both the Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party in Chhattisgarh and the opposition Congress are supporting the Judum.
The leadership of the Salwa Judum consists mainly of urban non-tribal youth, from a strata of petty officials and traders, and some tribal politicians and their supporters. This is the section which is directly threatened by the Maoists, and has the most to gain from unchecked industrialization. The Salwa Judum has taken the form of processions to villages, accompanied by politicians, members of the civil administration and paramilitary. Villages which support the Maoists are repeatedly attacked - their houses are burnt, grain and cattle looted - and forced to surrender to the Judum and come and live in roadside camps. Some of these villagers have been forcibly brought in by the paramilitary after combing operations in their villages, while others have come to pre-empt attacks. There are also some people who are there because of the threat, real or amplified, of Maoist retaliation for joining the Salwa Judum. People have little choice - camp dwellers are made to participate in Judum meetings, and captured sangham members are forced to work as informers. Villages, and even families have been divided, with people sometimes unaware of the whereabouts of others. According to the government’s own estimates given in December 2005, some 15-30,000 people in Bijapur tahsil (West Bastar) from approximately 400 villages had been displaced. As of February 2006, the Judum has extended its operations to South Dantewada (Konta tahsil) and reportedly 40,000 people there have fled from their villages, either to the homes of relatives or across state borders.
Villages off the main road are silent and deserted – in Gorna village near Bijapur, the houses had been burnt a while ago by the Salwa Judum, with creepers growing in the ashes, and the paddy was lying fallen in the fields. On the other side, the primary school had been blasted by the Maoists on the grounds that schools were being used as paramilitary camps. This is to be condemned but one also wonders why schools should be used as camps in the first place. In any case, what is clear is that no teaching is going on in large parts of the block, since everyone has fled, either to the jungles or to camps.
The camps are in terrible condition, and a report by Medicin Sans Frontiers indicates that health problems are at crises levels. People have fled with whatever little they had, usually without anything at all - the open tarpaulin shelters often contain nothing beyond a fireplace and some vessels. The government has plans to convert the camps into long term strategic settlements, attached to police stations, with a permanent base of informers, chillingly reminiscent of Nagaland in the 1950s or Vietnam. Rations were stopped a long time ago and people are now engaged in food for work schemes.
The Salwa Judum youth have also taken over the local administration. They man checkpoints along the road, stopping and searching vehicles, and preventing people they think might be associated with the Maoists from proceeding. Many of them have now been trained and armed - the training camps where they do drill are visible along the road - and given the status of special police officers. Every hundred metres along the highway, printed posters denouncing the Maoists are pinned to trees.
Thanks to the Salwa Judum, deaths have expanded exponentially. According to the government, the Maoists have killed over a hundred people in the Bijapur region since the Judum began, on the grounds that they were informers or had joined the Judum. The Maoists have also been killing the paramilitary and blasting government installations. The Maoist death toll of civilians rose dramatically on February 28, when they blasted a truck carrying villagers back from a Judum meeting in Konta tahsil. Some 26 people were killed instantly, and others seriously injured. Several people are reportedly kidnapped in the same incident.
The government also has a mounting death toll to its credit, but this list is entirely unrecognized. According to some estimates, these have crossed a hundred. An all–India team from different human rights organisations, which visited Dantewada in December, found that in village Mankeli, five people had been killed and their bodies left around for the villagers to dispose off. No police reports were registered. Mankeli, which had already been attacked thrice by the Salwa Judum and forces, ‘surrendered’ the next day. At least in other states, these are recorded as ‘encounters’ – here the bodies are just left to decompose, in the confident knowledge that the state has complete impunity. And when the aim is to terrorise people into joining a ‘people’s movement’, killings – which are officially undocumented but locally widely known – are very effective.
At the time of writing, it is not clear where all this will end. What is clear, however, is that Dantewada has become a military zone, and its people have little chance of ever returning to normal lives in their villages.