The purification hunt

The Salwa Judum, a counterinsurgency drive in Chhattisgarh leaves tribals stupefied

By Nandini Sundar
Published: Tuesday 31 January 2006

The purification hunt

-- For about seven months now, Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district (formerly in Bastar district) is said to be in the grip of Salwa Judum, a spontaneous tribal uprising against the Maoists. According to one report: "From a handful number to thousands. This is how the anti-Naxal movement is gaining ground in the main heartland of Naxalites in Bastar." Another reporter identified pizza and Pepsi as the administration's latest and most successful weapons. He quoted a senior official as saying, "Money spent into weeding out the Maoist menace makes sense when it is going into buying soft drinks and pizza that feed hungry people. When the people get direct money, they spend it on alcohol."

Spending money on pizza might make sense to the administration but most adivasis in Dantewada can make little sense of the operation. The area between Dantewada and adjoining Bijapur has become a battle zone, with refugee camps located in the larger roadside villages and small qasbas. People have fled, usually without anything at all: the open tarpaulin shelters often contain nothing beyond a fireplace and some vessels. Youth, mostly non-tribal, man checkpoints along the road. Many of them have now been trained, armed and given status of special police officers. The Central Reserve Police Force and the Naga Battalion are a common sight, either on their way to or returning from combing operations. Villages off the main road are silent and deserted. In Gorna, a village we visited, houses had been burnt a while ago, there were creepers growing in the ashes, and the paddy was lying unattended in the fields -- all this in the name of the Salwa Judum, whose supporters gloss over its meaning: a 'peace campaign'. Literally translated into Gondi, the term, however, means a 'purification hunt', and this captures Salwa Judum for what it is: a classic counterinsurgency 'sanitisation' campaign. Police officials admit in private that there is an undeclared war between the government and the Maoists, but the story for public consumption is something else. Kamlesh Paikra, the one local journalist in Bijapur, who is willing to tell the truth, has had to leave the place for fear of being 'encountered'.

Salwa Judum's origins are murky. But what is amply clear is that Mahendra Karma, Dantewada's mla, misappropriated it. He had led previous attempts at ending Maoist influence, and this movement too began as another Jan Jagran Abhiyan. Somewhere along the way it acquired its fancier title, even as Salwa Judum came firmly under administrative management. A secretly recorded audio message released to journalists (which the police claim is a fabrication but which sounds very authentic because the principal voice keeps saying, Steno ko bulao) has Dantewada's police superintendent saying that villages joining the Abhiyan will be given Rs 2 lakhs each, and those who kill Maoists will also be rewarded. However, not all villagers who have come into the camps have done so voluntarily. Ostensibly they are there because of the fear of Naxalite retaliation, but closer probing reveals that many have been herded by the Naga Batallion. Villages which refuse to attend Judum meetings or hand over villagers who are part of the ' sangham', the Maoist led village-level organisation, are repeatedly attacked till they 'surrender'. Captured sangham members are forced to work as informers. On the other side, we saw a school that had been blasted by the Maoists on the ground that it was used as a paramilitary camp. But one also wonders why schools should be used as camps. In any case, no teaching is going on in large parts of the block, since everyone has fled either to the jungles or to the camps.

The Maoists are killing people theysuspect are government informers. According to a government list, 81 have been killed by them. But the government is completely silent on the murders in the course of Salwa Judum. The bodies are left to decompose, in the confident knowledge that the state has complete impunity.

The government plans to convert the camps into long-term strategic settlements, attached to police stations, with a permanent base of informers. Rations were stopped long back; people are now engaged in food-for-work schemes, widening roads to bring in private capital and the paramilitary. When all this ends, if ever, Dantewada will have no resemblance to its former self.

Nandini Sundar was part of an all-India fact-finding team that visited Bastar in December 2005

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