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Around the camp fire

How the Chhattisgarh authorities created a new problem for themselves to solve a longstanding one. Sutirtho Patranobis tells us.

india Updated: Aug 21, 2006 03:31 IST

On a muggy June afternoon last year, an officer in the intelligence wing of Chhattisgarh police received a call from one of his juniors stationed in a village in Bijapur. The caller was excited and asked the officer whether he knew what was going on in some villages in Bijapur. The officer was soon hanging on to every word of his junior.

At about the same time, the Chhattisgarh administration was busy putting its ear to the ground. Reports of unusual activities in villages in Bijapur had begun to trickle in. The news was that cadres of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) — who had been gradually stepping up attacks against the state administration and police since the Nineties — were in for a nasty surprise.

The Maoists were under attack for the first time from a quarter they least expected — tribal villagers. This was reportedly triggered by an incident that had taken place at Uskapatnam village under the Kutru police station. A paramilitary personnel had roughed up a ‘suspect’, accusing him of helping the Maoists in stealing provisions. When the villagers asked actual Maoist sympathisers to help rescue the ‘suspect’ in custody, the request was shrugged off. According to an officer in the Chhattisgarh administration, that was when something snapped.

The village elders immediately called a meeting and announced that no logistical support would be provided to the Maoists anymore. Those who didn’t agree to this embargo were beaten up by the locals. A few days later, another meeting was organised in the neighbouring Jangla village. Word spread quickly through the dense jungles of Bastar and soon more meetings were organised in which hundreds of determined villagers decided to stop abetting the Naxals.

The Naxals were taken unawares. Their intelligence network in the villages suddenly withered, recruitment suffered and logistical support — like food and shelter — dwindled. They carried out sporadic attacks on gathered villagers, killing one and kidnapping a dozen from one such meeting. The attacks, however, only fuelled the villagers’ determination to stand up against the Naxals, ultimately leading to anti-Maoist marches through villages in Bijapur and Bairamgarh. It was an opportunity the state’s administration and politicians had been waiting for.

It wasn’t long before Dantewada MLA Mahendra Karma, the chief opposition leader and a tribal himself, jumped into the fray. He christened the anti-Maoist movement ‘Salwa Judum’ (peace initiative) and took over its reins. Karma organised bigger rallies and promised to protect Salwa Judum (SJ) activists from any Maoist backlash.

Three months later, the Naxals regrouped, reworked their strategy and began a renewed attack against the movement. And for the first time, they didn’t hesitate to attack fellow tribals. SJ activists were kidnapped and killed. Some were handed out death sentences in hurriedly held ‘jan adalats’ by the Naxals.

The villagers were now told by the state administration that if they wanted to be safe from Naxal retaliation, they would have to move into camps, under the protection of the police and paramilitary personnel. Over the next few months, 700 villages were reportedly emptied out and more than 55,000 people shifted to the camps which were located adjacent to the national and state highways.

Today, there are 17 such camps housing 15,366 tribals, the biggest being at Dornapal. The Dornapal camp is actually endless rows of tin houses next to open, squalid drains. Till a few months ago, the inhabitants tilled their meagre lands for a living. Today, they either have temporary jobs or none at all. Chichor Ganga last worked two months ago when he was part of a team laying down a ‘kuchcha’ road inside the camp. Now, he just sits around a temporary medical OPD shed, smoking bidi.

Dornapal is some 500 km away from Raipur, the state capital. The way to the camp along forested, often kuchcha, road is dotted with deserted, silent villages. The reason given for setting up these camps was to ‘secure’ them from reactionary Naxal attacks. The protecting ring comprises personnel from paramilitary forces, the army’s Naga battalions, the Chhattisgarh Armed Force and tribal ‘special police officers’ (SPOs), who are essentially youngsters who have been armed. Officially, there are 2,745 SPOs deployed in 17 relief camps. They have been given basic training in firearms and are paid Rs 1,500 every month.

With such a set-up in place, the Naxals, rather predictably, turned their gaze on to the camps. Eight tribals were killed and many injured in the first major attack on the Gangaloor camp. At least five major attacks were thwarted. Sporadic attacks continued and casualties, compared to 2005, increased three-fold.

It was around this time that murmurs against the SJ movement began to be heard. The massacre of 36 tribals at Errabore camp barely 5 km from Dornapal on July 17 further strengthened opinion against the SJ. Only a month earlier, in June, a Citizen’s Initiative study had predicted that violence would escalate because of SJ.

So what about protection? For Dornapal, there is a CRPF camp and a police station with less than 100 personnel located on one side of the road passing through the camp. The ‘protectors’ are made up of only 132 SPOs. Karma, however, remains adamant. “The movement can’t be withdrawn. It could be fatal to give orders and instructions to stop a movement,’’ he stated when asked to react to the Congress’s reported reluctance to carry on with the movement.

As in everything else in India, politics has entered the anti-Naxal strategy. Karma has found a willing political ally in BJP Chief Minister Raman Singh. Singh told me that he doesn’t “understand the reason” why SJ is 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.

Logistically, it is a nightmare for the authorities to run the 17 camps and feed and provide work to more than 55,000 people (the official figure is 4,85,239) who are now refugees in their own land. “It’s not exactly a happy situation. There are a whole lot of problems,” admitted a senior bureaucrat, “But how can one close down the camps.”

But for how long can these camps be run? The state government has already pumped in more than Rs 300 crore. Apart from the money, the intangible human cost of displacement has also been huge. The life of the uprooted tribal seems to have changed forever. And if the government six months later decides to dismantle the camps, will the tribals feel safe enough to return to their  homes? The Naxals may then be in a mood to teach them a few lessons for siding with the government.

But there is another scenario. The camps, over months and years, may be turned into permanent settlements. Permanent structures are already being built in some camps. There are reports that the RSS is making inroads there, holding shakhas and schools for the children.

Hundreds of villages are now empty. So when the next elections are held, polling booths will have to be located inside the camps. With it will come the not-so-tacit pressure on the inhabitants to vote for ‘one party’.

One also has to remember that during the last assembly elections, large parts of Bastar boycotted polls on the direction of the Maoists. For the authorities and the inhabitants of the camp, it has become a permanent vigil. For the Naxals, still unrestrained because of the lack of a coherent policy, all that is needed is one attack on targets that have already been put in place.