On June 4, the Chhattisgarh government celebrated the first anniversary of Salwa Judum, the officially-sponsored anti-insurgency campaign against Naxalites in Dantewada district. Officially, the campaign is a spontaneous, self-initiated people’s movement for peace. But as the Independent Citizens Initiative, of which I was part, found out during an intensive fact-finding visit to the region, the truth is far more alarming.
Simply put, the district is in the vortex of an officially-sponsored civil war that has displaced nearly 50,000 people and led to the deaths of at least 350. A police video talks of ‘Operation Salwa Judum’ starting from January 2005 onwards when the police launched overt and covert operations to mobilise villagers against the Maoists, and the government appoints and pays special police officers (SPOs) Rs 1,500 a month.
A work proposal for the ‘People’s Movement against Naxalites’ drawn up by the collector of Dantewada in 2005 describes its modalities, noting, inter alia, that informers will not trust government unless their information is immediately acted upon and Naxalites are killed. Para 10 notes that if innocents die in large operations, higher-up authorities must keep quiet. The collector also advocates controls on the media.
Far from being a “peace campaign”, the Salwa Judum has led to increased violence all around. The “peace” activists go in mobs from village to village, asking people to join. If they don’t, they are warned their houses will be burnt.
As the Chhattisgarh government itself has acknowledged, Maoist violence has increased as a result. The collector’s list names 81 people killed by Naxalites in Dantewada from June to December 2005.
An additional 60 or so civilians have been killed in four major incidents in 2006, in addition to police personnel. The Maoists have also published a list of 91 villages and 1,857 houses burnt by the Salwa Judum, and at least 31 women gang-raped. Independent groups like PUCL-PUDR, have been forcibly prevented by the Salwa Judum from visiting villages where the maximum arson has been reported.
The state government claims that people have fled to camps because the Naxalites have threatened retaliation for joining the Salwa Judum, and that they are simply responding to a crisis situation. In fact, at least five different inquiries have confirmed that the majority of people have have been forcibly brought there by the Salwa Judum and security forces. Some have come to avoid their houses being burnt while others have been attracted by the payments to SPOs.
Why are the authorities wilfully displacing people and moving them into camps? According to the collector’s proposal, those in camps need to be resettled into permanent roadside settlements attached to a police station so that Naxalites cannot influence them and they can help the police in search operations. The government claims it is within its rights to appoint SPOs and to create village defence committees.
But when people are forced to serve as informers against co-villagers, it leads to a dangerous spiral of intra-village violence. Many of the SPOs look like minors, have no identification and harass ordinary commuters. The Salwa Judum mob control the thana. While no government can allow an armed group to control vast areas, outsourcing law and order to an undisciplined mob is no way to extend civil administration.
A common refrain in Salwa Judum circles is that the Naxalites have not allowed any development in the area. They do not allow schools, roads or any other development project. This problem needs to be looked at carefully. For example, school teachers often use the Naxalite excuse to shirk work. The government cannot abdicate its own responsibility for the lack of development and blame it on Naxalites.
However, there are genuine grievances against the Naxalites. People have every right to want to vote in and contest elections. The Naxalites have boycotted elections and threatened those voting. They have killed suspected informers and subordinated the interests of local people to their wider armed struggle.
Planting mines and killing people are activities that must be dealt with. But the government cannot respond by targeting suspected sympathisers and denying that such deaths have taken place. Both sides must ensure that schools, health centres and other civilian spaces are kept out of the armed conflict.
The best way to deal with the Naxalite problem is not through military action. Both sides must declare a ceasefire. The government must build confidence among the people by stopping the Salwa Judum, holding an independent enquiry, engaging in a national dialogue with the Maoists and repealing the Chhattisgarh Public Safety Act. The Maoists, too, must enter a democratic negotiation process.
(The author is professor of sociology,Delhi University)