The Night of July 17 was significant in more ways than one. The Communist Party of India (Maoist) or the Naxals have always been known to target the police. But July 17 confirmed a change in strategy Hundreds of armed cadre descended on the Errabor relief camp and butchered 36 men, women and children — all of them tribals.
The killing is pointer to the nature of the conflict ahead — on how the Naxals will now take on their “class enemies” in Chhattisgarh as compared to Jharkhand. Not only will they target the police, para-military and the army, their guns will also rain bullets on the tribals staying in the 17 state government camps, inhabited by Salwa Judum (peace initiative) sympathisers. Since last June, Naxals have been targeting tribals who, they suspect, have responded to the anti-naxal movement. Home Ministry records cite that violence has doubled between June 2004 and June 2005 — 21 securitymen and 29 civilians were killed by the Naxals. In June 2006, the toll stood at 54 securitymen and 190 civilians.
The attack on Errabor is not the first of its kind — it has been preceded by five unsuccessful attempts. The message from the Naxals to the tribals in the camps is simple — go back to your villages and stay away from the highways. This trend where tribals are pitted against tribals, experts say, can easily lead to a civil war-like situation in the state.
A senior bureaucrat in the Chhattisgarh government says the Naxals were caught unaware when the Salwa Judum movement started in June last year. "They never expected that they would face opposition from the tribals, their traditional support base. We had under-estimated the Naxals and overestimated the Salwa Judum," he said. The first step for the Naxals was to pool in their best from Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Maharashtra to the Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh.
Messages were circulated among the leadership and then passed on to divisional commanders. The "jan militia" — eyes and ears of the Naxals in villages — was instructed to keep a tab on Salwa Judum activity.
Naxal leader Gopannah Markan said his outfit attacked and kidnapped those attending Salwa Judum meetings and "by April-end, as many 150 had been killed. More than 95 per cent of those killed incited the tribals against us".
The tribals are hemmed in by resurgent Naxals and tacit pressure from the state to vacate their villages and relocate to the camps, along the highways.
Mahendra Karma, Congress MLA from Dantewada and Opposition leader, leading the Salwa Judum movement, is firm. “If peaceful protests fail, then how do you fight them? The ‘special police officers (armed youths trained by the police to protect the camps)’ have been given capsule basic training by paramilitary forces.” At present, there are 132 special officers.