In the last ten years, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh and his government have been at pains to claim that the 2005 Salwa Judum had nothing to do with the MOUs his government had signed with the Tatas and Essar the same year, and that it was a spontaneous people’s movement. It may have been coincidence the first time, but to proclaim Salwa Judum II just when Prime Minister Modi announced investment plans for Rs 24,000 crore in Bastar suggests that even Salwa Judum I was a made to order product, a ‘people’s movement’ purchased off some corporate shelf. At the very least, it was manufactured in Delhi, Raipur and in the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, and not in some Dantewada village.
To be sure, like last time, the Judum is ostensibly being led by a Congress politician. Last time, it was Mahendra Karma, Congress MLA from Dantewada, this time it is his son, Chavindra Karma, who contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket. Earlier this month, Karma junior announced plans to start a movement under the banner of the ‘Vikas Sangharsh Samiti’ or Salwa Judum-2 at Pharaspal on May 25, the second anniversary of his father’s death, and to ‘move through the villages of Bastar’ educating people about the Maoists. He will be joined by former Judum leaders like Sukhram Dadi, P. Vijay and Chaitram Attami, some of whom are close to the RSS.
In an interview to the Asian Age, Karma jr. parrots lines I have heard his father say. Even as he insists that Salwa Judum-2 will be ‘peaceful’ — and dismisses as mere propaganda by ‘outsiders’ the charges that it was violent the first time around — he adds: “As far as charges of excesses committed by some Judum members are concerned, I can say that there is no record of a mass struggle in [the] history of mankind that was completely non-violent. Even India’s freedom movement is replete with stories of violent incidents.”
In July 2011, whatever Karma may say, the Supreme Court, convinced by the evidence of massive human rights violations, banned the Salwa Judum. The problem was not poor lawyering, as Karma and others in Chhattisgarh claim – in fact the government spent lakhs every hearing to hire top lawyers like Mukul Rohatgi, who is now the current AG, and Harish Salve. The reason the Chhattisgarh government lost its case was because the evidence was so overwhelming.
The Supreme Court put the onus on the Chhattisgarh government to prevent any such activity in future: “The State of Chattisgarh shall take all appropriate measures to prevent the operation of any group, including but not limited to Salwa Judum and Koya Commandos, that in any manner or form seek to take law into private hands, act unconstitutionally or otherwise violate the human rights of any person. The measures to be taken by the State of Chattisgarh shall include, but not be limited to, investigation of all previously inappropriately or incompletely investigated instances of alleged criminal activities of Salwa Judum, or those popularly known as Koya Commandos, filing of appropriate FIRs and diligent prosecution.”
However, the State of Chhattisgarh is busy pretending the Supreme Court doesn’t exist. Not only has it not compensated anyone for the extensive losses caused by Salwa Judum or prosecuted a single person, but they rewarded the Koya Commandos with more money, better guns and an official title, “Armed Auxiliary Forces’. In the final, contemptuous nail on the coffin of the court’s judgment, the Chief Minister has promised all support to any such movement, including protection by the security forces. And then they talk of rule of law!
When it started in June 2005, the Salwa Judum involved holding rallies in villages considered Maoist strongholds, forcing village level sympathisers and workers of the Maoists locally known as ‘sangham members’ to ‘surrender’, and burning the houses of those who resisted or refused to participate in rallies.
Entire villages were rounded up and put into Salwa Judum camps where they lived in semi-jail like conditions for years, unable to go home to their fields and animals, a repeat of a counterinsurgency tactic called regrouping. Is it just coincidence that Ajit Doval, who cut his teeth on the Mizoram regrouping of the 1960s, was IB chief when Salwa Judum started, and is now National Security Advisor (NSA)? He has always been one of its most ardent supporters.
Some one lakh villagers fled to Andhra Pradesh, and many are still too scared to return because of the ongoing violence in Chhattisgarh. The surrendered sangham members and others who simply wanted a job were conscripted as Special Police Officers (SPOs), given guns and let loose on the villagers. They were accompanied initially by the Naga India reserve battalion, and later by the CRPF. The SPOs became a law unto themselves, and in 2012, even harassed a CBI team which had been sent to investigate their actions.Hundreds of people were killed, including small children; men were burnt alive and women brutally raped. Official records note that 644 villages were affected, which is about half the district of undivided Dantewada. When houses were burnt, people lost everything they possessed – clothes, money, grain, minor forest produce – and even though many have now rebuilt their lives, they are considerably poorer than when they began.
Quite apart from being a humanitarian disaster, Salwa Judum was a counterinsurgency catastrophe. Even the IB admitted that it had increased support for the Maoists – cadre recruitment went up by some 20%. When Sukma Collector Alex Paul Menon was kidnapped, his guards were all people affected by Salwa Judum. The Maoists stepped up their retaliation, killing off Salwa Judum leaders, culminating in the massive bloodbath at Jeeram Ghati in 2013, when Mahendra Karma and other Congress leaders were killed while returning from a political rally.
Salwa Judum was followed in 2009 by Operation Green Hunt – which was actually just a more organised version of the Judum, minus the mass rallies and the forcible regrouping. SPOs and security forces continued to attack and burn villages, like the 300 homes burnt in Tadmetla and neighbouring villages in March 2011.
Today, Bastar is the most militarised zone in the country and arrests and torture are routine. The Maoist killing of informers has also gone up, as have the frequency of encounters. In this context, to think of starting Salwa Judum-2is a clear indication that this military approach is just not working.
When will the government realise that there is simply no alternative to talks? When will the government realise there is simply no alternative to recognising people’s rights over their own resources?