On Wednesday, as the Supreme Court prepares to hear how Chattisgarh has shut down the Salwa Judum, the state-sponsored vigilante group and the state government have, for about two weeks now, closed all access to three remote villages where about 300 homes were burnt and an unknown number of women raped and men killed during a security operation.
Though the Chief Minister claimed otherwise, police and semi-official vigilante groups are stopping reporters and anyone outside the government from visiting the villages of Tadmetla, Timapuram and Morupalli in the tribal district of Dantewada in south Bastar, more than 550 km south of state capital Raipur.
Late on Monday, Chattisgarh’s BJP government reluctantly allowed National Advisory Council member and Supreme Court commissioner Harsh Mander to fly in by helicopter but only to Tadmetla, the sole village that has received food, relief supplies and compensation in an attack blamed on so-called Koya commandos, special police recruited from local tribals, and elements of the Salwa Judum (“peace march” in the tribal Gondi language).
“I do not know why the government is so reluctant to let me visit the other villages,” Mander told Hindustan Times before leaving for Tadmetla, where 76 paramilitary soldiers were killed in India’s bloodiest Maoist ambush a year ago, among 102 security personnel killed in the area since 2007.
“They have now agreed to let me go to Tadmetla but with security,” said Mander.
Admitting to “brutalities” without specifying who was responsible, Chief Minister Raman Singh told Hindustan Times that “the area happens to be heavily mined” and no one was being stopped from visiting.
“But whenever various issues or cases concerning the state comes up for hearing in Supreme Court, efforts are evident from some quarters to launch propaganda against the state government with the intention to influence the proceedings,” he said.
The Supreme Court is presently hearing public-interest litigation on the disbanding of the Salwa Judum and the refusal of the government to register cases after acts of violence like those at the three villages. The next hearing is due in Delhi on Wednesday.
Ground zero of India’s battle against the Maoist insurgency, much of Dantewada has been reclaimed since the April 6 ambush, but some areas remain under Naxal control.
The Chattisgarh government blames the attacks on the three villages on Maoists, but villagers in the neighbouring villages, reached on phone, said Koya commandos — whom many argue are the Salwa Judum rebranded — and special police officers (SPOs), locals who assist the regular police, were responsible for the atrocities.
“Bachcha bachcha jaanta hain ki force aur Salwa Judum aayen the in gaon main (Every child knows the forces and Salwa Judum had come to these villages),” said Uday Bhaskar, a sarpanch member from Ghummadi told Hindustan Times.
Chattisgarh Home Minister Nankiran Kanwar told the state assembly that Maoists led the attack on villagers and burnt homes to divert the attention of police, who were on an “area-domination exercise” between March 11 and 16, 2011. Police said 36 Maoists and three SPOs were killed.
Evidence of blurred lines and disagreement within the government on how to tackle the insurgency emerged a week ago when an official relief column sent to the villages by Dantewada Collector R. Prasanna — later transferred — was stopped by a mob led by Kartam Surya. A Koya commando and a rape-accused, Surya, despite being declared “absconding” by the Dantwada Sessions Court in 2008, openly retains his job, like Kiche Nanda, an SPO similarily declared an “absconder”.
Villagers in Timmapuram have now identified both Surya and Nanda as being among those who took refuge there during the Maoist firefight and later burnt and allegedly killed one villager, according to report by 13 members of a civil society “fact-finding” team, the only non-officials to have visited the villages.
On April 2, Chief Minister Raman Singh, governor Sekhar Dutt and home minister Kanwar visited Tadmetla, handing out Rs. 25,000 as compensation to some 16 villagers. Singh asked officials to issue new ration cards to 96 families whose homes were burnt down in the attacks.