Camp Fire

Salva Judum members may end up being nowhere people

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab  (August 2007)

Variously called the Peace March, Fight from Freedom and Purification Hunt, Salva Judum — a group of people in Chhattisgarh who have risen against the Maoists — has managed to attract both admiration and criticism from various quarters. The story of how it came into existence in June 2005 is now part of Bastar folklore. Depending upon who the narrator is, the tale swings between heroic and exploitative. Though there aren’t many contradictions about its origin, the difference lies in the nuances and interpretation. It is quite simple actually. In June 2005, a tractor carrying police ration was driving from Kutru to Bedre police station in west Bastar. Members of the Maoist Sangham (People’s Militia), who primarily were the local tribals, looted the tractor and disappeared in the jungle. When the police found out, it swooped upon the village where the actual looting took place, caught a few tribals, including senior, respectable members of the community and beat them up. A few were put behind bars. This angered the tribals no end. Curiously, this anger was not directed against the police who had beaten the senior members of the tribe, but against the Sangham who looted the police tractor, thereby forced the police to beat them up. Anyway, the narrative goes that seeing the resentment of the tribals, the police let them off with the challenge that if indeed they had not looted the police ration then they must bring the culprits to the police.

To prove their innocence, the tribal seniors caught hold of the Sangham members and handed them over to the police. This angered Naxals. They attacked the village and killed a few tribals. The tribal anger against the Naxals boiled over. They decided to take matters in their hands. Forming groups, they started having meetings to work out a plan against the Naxals. One meeting was held in Tarmendri in June 2005, where Maoists attacked and killed 10-15 villagers. Next meeting was held in Matwara on June 18. Following this, a group comprising 10,000-12,000 tribals went to Kotrapal village for another meeting. Maoists struck again, kidnapping 10-15 villagers and killing five of them. By now the tribals were raging. A few days later, another meeting was held in Bijapur which was attended by 25,000 people. Even as the people were constantly travelling across villages and mobilising support, Congress leader and the head of the Congress Legislative Party in Chhattisgarh, Mahendra Karma, who belongs to the same tribe which spearheaded the campaign saw an opportunity here and extended his leadership to the movement. He christened it Salva Judum.


Another version says that the local tribals got angry with the Maoists because being atheist they showed no respect to their gods and other religious practices. The repeated insults of their totems, religio-socio practices and the corrosion of their social structures led them to protest. A senior police official says that since Maoists’ sway was slightly weak in this area, south of river Indrawati (Abujmarh is north of river Indrawati) they were in a hurry to establish their control and did not take the sensibilities of these tribals into account. The tribal protests were met with violence by some trigger-happy Maoists and gradually resentment started building up. Yet, it appears improbable that illiterate tribals could have mobilised in such huge numbers without somebody urging them to do so. It also seems improbable that Maoists would have deliberately been committing excesses against the very people who form their cadre. What seems more likely is that, when some tribals handed over a few Sangham members to the police, probably out of fear of the police, they had not bargained for the retribution from the Naxals. Once that happened, local political workers, including Karma’s brother who is one of the tribal leaders, must have seen the political advantage of fanning anti-Naxal feeling among the tribals. The fact that a large number of these people belong to Karma’s tribe and almost all of them form his constituency reinforce the idea that it was perhaps a move to consolidate his base and increase his leverage vis a vis the state government. Whatever may have been the motive, today Salva Judum includes such tribes as Gond, Dorla, Halba and some OBC groups. Karma convinced the state government that support and security must be given to this group as it is standing up against the Naxal terrorism. Since, the villagers had risen against the Maoists it was no longer possible for them to continue living in their villages. Consequently, the villagers were moved to camps outside their villages. In two years, the number of camps has increased to 25 with the total people living in them being around 45,000. Dornapal, south of Jagdalpur, is the largest camp with 15,000 refugees and now almost looks like a village, with houses, a community centre, solar lights and a school.

The women undergo some vocational training in handicrafts and so on inside the camp and some international non-governmental organisations run periodic health camps. The government officials take pride in these camps and frequently quote visiting UN officials who compared the camps with those run by the UN. For their own security, camp residents are not allowed to go out of the camp periphery, lest they are targeted by the Maoists. Of these 45,000 people, the police have recruited nearly 4,000 young men and women as Special Police Officers with the salary of Rs 1,500 per month. Some have been trained to use 303 rifles. The DGP, Chattisgarh feels confident that once they master 303s they can graduate to better weapons. Each camp is guarded by a company of the police or the Para-military along with the SPOs. The SPOs also work as the eyes and ears of the security forces and most often accompany them in their operations against the Maoists as they know the area well. Encouraged by the exemplary courage shown by many SPOs against the Maoists, the state government has sanctioned the raising of two SPO battalions. While it is true that SPOs are proving to be useful to the security forces in their anti-Maoists operations, Salva Judum by itself is turning out to be an exploitative movement. Human rights activists have been voicing their concern about the consequences of militarisation of the tribals. The Independent Citizen’s Initiative group comprising Ramachandra Guha and B.G. Verghese among others had gone on a fact-finding mission to Chhattisgarh. In their report titled, ‘War in the Heart of India’ they fear that the situation may spiral out of control with some kind of a civil war breaking out among the various tribes. “The creation and support of the Salva Judum has divided entire villages and families, perhaps irreversibly. They are forced to either choose the Maoists or the Salva Judum… A cycle of retribution and revenge has been set in motion, with the Salva Judum targeting villagers believed to be sympathetic to the Maoists and the Maoists in turn killing those active in Salva Judum,” says the report. The spiral of violence was only to be expected once Salva Judum got the government and police patronage.

As violence escalated from both sides, the Central government was forced to focus on Salva Judum and Mahendra Karma who leads it was asked to slow down the Judum activities. In a note sent to the Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Karma admits that, “It may be mentioned that Salva Judum activists are too much angry against Naxalites and their supporters (Sangham members) because of killing of Salva Judum activists, burning their houses, looting of their belongings, etc… At times, the overzealous Salva Judum activists act in vengeance against Sangham members.” Elsewhere in the same note he writes, “It is quite likely that over-enthusiastic Salva Judum activists might have burnt some houses of known Sangham members or regular supporters of CPI (Maoist). But then, the CPI (Maoist) cadre also burnt/looted houses of many Salva Judum activists. Such violent incidents are many more committed by Naxalites than by the Salva Judum activists.” Clearly, for the state government, Salva Judum is a handy tool to discredit the Maoists’ as mere terrorists who do not enjoy the support of the local people. The consequences of this line of propaganda are very clear: The government need not work towards alleviating the socio-economic grievances of the people because there are none. The only grievance is terrorism unleashed by the Maoists for which strong action by the police and the Para-military is required. The Salva Judum also enables the state government earn brownie points with other states. As both Netam and Karma repeatedly told FORCE, “In no other state have people risen against the Naxalites as they have done in Chhattisgarh. This is a historic movement and not only shows the courage of the local people, but also their urge to become part of the Indian democratic process.” Given that traditionally there has been very little presence of the government in these areas and the majority of tribals do not even know what government means beyond their tribal customs, it is remarkable that both the ruling as well as the opposition party can speak the same language. None realise that in their short-sightedness they have forced nearly 45,000 people to become refugees in their own state with an uncertain future.

Karma thunders at this suggestion, “Throughout the history, whenever people have fought a just war they have had to make sacrifices. Displacement of people always takes place in a conflict situation.” Usually people chose the refugee-like existence to avoid violence. They move out to what they think are safe places, even if they end up living in camps with bare minimum facilities. The Salva Judum case is completely different though. The displaced people continue to live in the war zone, albeit not in their villages but inside the camps which are guarded. They are easy targets for the Maoists who have been attacking the camps with regular periodicity. The government claim that villagers want to live in the camps because they fear going to their villages is belied by the fact that male tribals frequently slip out of the camps to till their fields even at the cost of getting killed by the Naxals. Even while the FORCE team was in Jagdalpur, five farmers living in Salva Judum camps were killed in one day in different instances and parts of Bastar. The war against the Maoists has to be fought by the security forces and other organs of the government machinery. It is always unfortunate that some innocent people get caught in bad situations. But the government in Chhattisgarh has actually collected innocent people as fodder between the security forces and the Maoists. This, more than civilians rising against Naxalites, is unprecedented. In any conflict area, be it Kashmir or the Northeast, innocent people always find a way around surviving in such situations, whether by paying security money to the terrorists or by spying for the security forces. They do not leave their homes and hearths with their wives and children to live in camps in a signal to the terrorists that they are waging an unarmed war against them. As of now, future does not seem to hold very much for the inhabitants of the Salva Judum camps. The government has no policy for their rehabilitation except that more money from the state/Central welfare funds would be pumped in the camps as majority of inhabitants have no means of earning. Home minister Netam says, “We have not yet thought of a plan to rehabilitate the Salva Judum tribals. They will go back to their villages once the crisis is resolved and it is safe for them to live there.” How many years, does the minister think it may be before they can go back home? “That will depend upon how serious the Centre is about resolving the problem,” he says. Considering that Chhattisgarh is not exactly flushed with funds and has a huge shortfall in the police ranks one wonders how long the state government can sustain the Salva Judum camps, let alone provide security to them.

‘Whenever Common People are Faced with Political Terrorism they are Always Forced to Flee’
Mahendra Karma, leader of opposition, Chhattisgarh State Assembly Assembly

Why is there so much Naxal violence in your state than in others?

The objective of Naxalites is usurpation of power by any means. They have nothing to do with the common people. Earlier Naxalites did speak of issues like development which concerned ordinary citizens, but not any longer. With the help of clever sloganeering, they mobilised people and quickly armed them. While many states of India have suffered from Naxal violence, the situation in Chhattisgarh worsened because here the people decided to fight them.

Why did the people of Bastar decide to fight the Naxalites?

Nobody has been able to enslave the tribal people. I know this, because I am also a tribal. Independence of spirit is second nature to us, which is why we do not adhere to any ‘isms’. We believe in our traditions and customs that have been handed down to us through generations. We are governed by our own rules and religious practices. But Naxals did not respect our tribal customs. Even when the Panchayati Raj was introduced in the tribal belts, it happened gradually and did not disturb our traditional form of administration, but with Naxals that was not the case. They tried to subvert our socio-religious institutions. Naxals first entered Bastar in the early Eighties. Why did it take so long for the tribals to get angry? Why did Salva Judum start only in 2005? The tribals never supported the Naxals. In the early Nineties also, there was a Jan Jagran Abhiyaan. I had started that and the Naxals were forced to leave Bastar. They came back once the movement died down. (According to the police, it was a small rebellion which was crushed by the Maoists) But yes, Salva Judum started in 2005 and the main reason for that was that the tribals got tired of atrocities by both the police and the Naxals. So they decided to oppose the Naxals in a peaceful manner. Salva Judum means peace march.

What role did you play in the creation of Salva Judum?

I was in Delhi when the first meetings of the tribals were held in June 2005. When I learnt that more and more people are joining the movement, I feared that they may go astray. I returned to Raipur on 23 June 2005 and met with the home minister. I told him that the government must support the people who are raising their voice against the Naxals. I reached Kanker on June 25 and addressed my first meeting in Kotrapal on June 26. If indeed it is a peace march then why are you giving weapons to the tribals and making them Special Police Officers? This was a government’s decision. But what is wrong in that? The weapons are for self-defence. Moreover, through this scheme they are also getting employment and are now part of the police force.

What about the displacement of so many people who are now forced to live in the camps?

Whenever common people are faced with political terrorism they are always forced to flee. Take the case of Afghanistan, Bangladesh or closer home Kashmir. This is a very natural process. Instead of using displacement of the people as an excuse to criticise Salva Judum, people should appreciate the fact that these tribals are fighting the Naxalites. And for this reason, the government has to stand guarantee for their security. Besides, those who are not living in the Salva Judum camps today are living the Naxal camps. It is amazing that instead of everybody putting their heads together to think of ways to overcome the problem of Naxalism, critics of Salva Judum are talking about the displacement of the people.


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