The security around Mahendra Karma was tight. Young mostly tribal men with guns casually slung over their shoulders lined up the staircase leading to Karma’s office in a rundown colony of apartments in Raipur.
Outside the apartment block, there were more armed men, leaning on jeeps and smoking cigarettes.
The room I was escorted to was shorn of luxury; a table, couple of chairs, a sofa-set coming apart at the seams and small television in one corner, hurriedly muted as Karma walked in.
The man himself, short and stout, was eager to explain the Salwa Judum (peace initiative) movement he was supposed to have orchestrated to take on the Communist Party of India (Maoists) cadres.
His first explanation was – denial.
The tribals, he told me, were fed-up with violent ways of the Maoists and had taken up arms themselves to fight them; he had only given them direction.
This was in 2006 and Karma was then the Congress MLA from Dantewada, a hotbed of Naxal movement and activities; he was also the main Opposition leader, who had literally cut across party lines in extracting support from the ruling BJP – with chief minister Raman Singh at the helm – on supporting the Salwa Judum movement.
“If peaceful protests fail, then how do you fight them? The ‘special police officers (armed youths trained by the police to protect the camps for tribal villagers)’ have been given capsule training by paramilitary forces,” he told me in his Raipur office.
The Salwa Judum movement had begun to take shape from around the middle of June, 2005. It was Karma who gave the vigilante group its name and organised rallies in the villages of Chhattisgarh – rallies, which had attracted large number of tribals.
But the Salwa Judum had also begun to attract stringent criticism from rights groups, who said that the government-sponsored vigilantes were a law unto themselves. They were essentially acting as gangs of armed criminals and extortionists terrorising, looting and raping villagers; they had no accountability, civil rights groups said.
Singh, coming out in support of Karma, had told me then that he failed to “understand the reason” why Salwa Judum was being criticised. “Stopping the SJ would mean surrendering to the Naxals. If people come to the camps, we can’t let them go. We have to protect them,’’ he added, explaining why the government had set up around 17 squalid camps to shelter thousands of tribal villagers
“The movement can’t be withdrawn. It could be fatal to give orders and instructions to stop a movement,” Karma had said.
By then, Karma had also had earned the wrath of the Naxal leadership. He had managed to create a chasm within the tribal community, pitting one group – often residents of the same village --- against the other.
In April, 2006, Naxal leader Gopannah Markan had told HT during an interaction inside the unmapped jungles of Chhattisgarh that after the Salwa Judum movement was started, the Naxals had decided – for the first time – to target its sympathisers even if they were tribals. “…by April-end (2006), as many 150 had been killed. More than 95 per cent of those killed incited the tribals against us.”
In July, Maoist cadres had descended on a camp for tribals and had mercilessly shot dead 36 men, women and children.
Later, the Salwa Judum was finally disbanded following court orders.
But Karma had clearly earned enemies for life who neither forgave nor forgot that he had played and divided the tribals, turning one against the other.