Chhattisgarh: The war within

As Home Minister P Chidambaram meets the heads of seven Naxal-affected states to craft a decisive, post-monsoon offensive against Maoists, Chitrangada Choudhury traveled through the region to reveal a land in a war that is shattering minds and lives. See exclusive pics
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Updated on Aug 17, 2009 09:20 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByChitrangada Choudhury, Chattisgarh

As Home Minister P Chidambaram meets the heads of seven Naxal-affected states to craft a decisive, post-monsoon offensive against Maoists, we bring four stories that suggest why guns alone might not secure the war against what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls the country’s “greatest internal security threat”.

In the villages and dense forests of southern Chhattisgarh, a brutal civil war is quietly playing out between the Indian state, the Naxals and a government-sponsored, extra-constitutional force -- the counter-Naxal Salwa Judum.

This unfolding war has been on since 2005 in a region that is home to some of India’s most culturally distinctive tribes and coveted natural resources. It claims at least one life every day, no longer attempts to distinguish between civilian and combatant, and offers a sense of security to none. View Larger Map

The conflict challenges democratic India, as it steadily widens a

traditional gulf between government and people, and shrivels options for negotiations. It is a microcosm of the Naxal challenge, now affecting 180 of India's 626 districts.

On Monday, Home Minister P Chidambaram meets chief ministers and police chiefs of seven Naxal-affected states, to put in place a decisive military strategy post monsoon. But what of the 1.5 million people who will bear the brunt of this action? Chitrangada Choudhury traveled through the region to reveal a land in a war that is shattering minds and lives.

‘The police and the Naxals — both are convinced we belong to the enemy camp’

Venkatesh, The Pacifist

In Chintur, a small town nestling on the Chhattisgarh-Andhra Pradesh border, community worker Venkatesh, tried hiding his distress after the killing of two young men, allegedly by the Naxals, two nights ago.

Displaced from Chhattisgarh, and living in a nearby village in Andhra Pradesh, the two men were hacked to death late at night.

"One of them was once our employee in a community kitchen," the 30-plus Venkatesh said. "The Naxals must have killed him,
suspecting Salwa Judum links, because he visited a Judum camp across the border days ago to get food supplies."

It is the sort of wanton violence that Venkatesh’s organisation – which runs bridge schools for children displaced by the conflict – has seen on countless instances in a war that has taken about 3,800 lives since 2004.

Venkatesh spent the previous day hosting human rights lawyers who investigated the incident, following it up with appeals to the government and the Naxals to abandon arms and come to the negotiating table.

But “when we undertake such activities, we are questioned by the police as well as the Naxals. Both are convinced that we are doing this because we belong to the enemy camp”, he wryily smiled.

Himanshu Kumar of the Adivasi Chetna Ashram, a Gandhian group in Dantewara working to educate local tribes about their rights, has seen his colleagues assaulted by the Naxals, and arrested by the police in recent weeks.

His worries are larger.

“Sending troops here to flush out militants from the forests seems foolish. Forces will be stuck here for years. Naxalism won’t end. On the contrary, we are risking the militarisation or criminalisation of an entire (tribal) community,” he said.

Scenes at the local court suggest how. In its vast, gray structure, from two cramped cells, under trials – men in one, women in the other – looked out through the bars at guards playing cards in the corridors.

Prisoners this morning included seven farmers of the Muria tribe. Two days after a landmine blast near their village, policemen picked them up and beat them up, without asking questions.

None of the inmates understood the charges. “My farm needs to be sown while the rains are here,” said Mahadev Mandal, as if he might be set free to resume life just as easily as he was arrested.

Mandal was the cell’s only inhabitant to speak broken Hindi.

“Most tribesmen do not understand Hindi, and we don’t speak their language. So we can’t prepare their defence, ” said K Dewangan, a government lawyer assigned to defend the tribesmen who are too poor to afford legal expenses.

A senior police officer in the district had little idea how his men might distinguish between a militant and an innocent villager on the ground. In a conversation in his office, interrupted every minute by calls as he deployed troops in the forests, he said: “Most tribals are uncivilised savages. They are all idiots.”

Chhattisgarh’s police chief, Vishwa Ranjan, shrugs: “In any war, there is bound to be collateral damage.”

‘They took my husband and son and shot them. Nobody knows why...’

Somidi Madvi and Muchaki Moti, The Bereaved

In a cluster of thatched hutments deep in the forests bordering Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, Somidi Madvi watches her kid daughter — a malnourished six-year-old, ironically named Lakshmi — painfully hobble about in a courtyard.

With a calm but bitter expression, Madvi – in her mid-30s—recounts how her husband was shot dead during the Salwa Judum and the police’s attempt to clear her village. The entire village had to escape to the forests.

More then 600 villages, with over 3 lakh people as per government estimates, were shifted out of their homes in an anti-Naxal operation that began in 2005 in southern Chhattisgarh.

People had to choose sides: staying back meant being condemned as a Naxal supporter, or a Naxal. Leaving home to live in a state-sponsored camp run by the Salwa Judum militia meant, “You are with us (read: the government).”

Four years on, hundreds of families are still on the run, hiding in forests and villages of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, and living on the edge of destitution. Local police suspect them of supporting Maoists. Governments do not extend any health or education facilities to them.

To feed her daughter and herself, Madvi now works on farms and collects forest produce to barter them for rice -- two kilograms of mahua, a local fruit and flower, fetch one kilogram of rice in the weekly market.

“I went back once. Everything was burnt and destroyed,” she said of her native village.

Across the border in Chhattisgarh, Muchaki Moti of Nendra village is among a handful of villagers who returned home last September after three years in state-camps or on the road. Families have been living here since a year, but Nendra is still abandoned by the government.

A strawberry pink school building, blown up by the Naxals because it could potentially house troops, hasn’t been repaired, and no teachers show up there. A healthcare centre remains locked.

Moti, in her early 50s, said her husband and son were among a group of villagers killed by Salwa Judum leaders one night, while residing at the state camp at Errabore.

“They took them away and shot them. Nobody knew why. I couldn’t even see their bodies,” said Moti, pulling out a photo of her teenage son. “Later, the camp was attacked by a group of Naxals, and again many of us fled.”

‘Is the government meant to work for the people or the powerful?’

Mahangu Madiya, The Alienated Local

Mahangu Madiya has Rs 55 lakh in his account, but does not even own a cell phone. He has no use for most such material possessions. Or even this big sum of money, lying untouched since it landed in a bank account this January as ‘compensation’ given by the state, in return for acquiring his 35-acre farm for a proposed steel plant.

“I am concerned with farming. My land is important to me?” asks the middle-aged farmer.

Madiya’s Dhuragaon village is among 10 villages along the Indravati river in Bastar district, whose 12,000-strong population the government is currently attempting to displace. Amply aided by a colonial-era land acquisition law, it plans to transfer these fertile farms to Tata Steel Limited for a steel plant.

Most villagers here are from the Maria tribe. The community of industrious and thrifty rice and corn cultivators worship their ancestors, pray to nature in elaborate festivals for good harvests, and believe local gods have marked their village boundaries.

On paper, the government says 1153 of 1700 families have already accepted compensation. But on the ground, no land has changed hands.

People claim the government pushed through the acquisition procedures deploying deceit and force. The state called gram sabhas (village assemblies) in 2006, with heavy police presence.

“We were required to sign a register at the entrance before going into the meetings. There officials told us a steel plant was in our best interests. Soon local newspapers were carrying statements from officials saying our villages have agreed to give up their land”, said Madiya. “Is the government meant to work for the people, or for the powerful?”

Madiya is among several villagers here who found criminal cases lodged against them in the following months, arrested from protest rallies. Many like him are out on bail, but must still put in monthly court appearances.

In the next village, Ran Singh says, “My brother is a peon in the Collector’s office. There, officials forced him to take the monetary compensation for our family’s land, or else he will be suspended indefinitely.”

In the district administration, a senior official speaking on conditions of anonymity says the villages had agreed to the land acquisition. “They changed their mind probably because of Naxal influence. Since the last two years we are ascertaining what is behind the opposition.”

“Anyway, once I declare any acquisition under public interest, the land becomes the government’s,” the official added clinically.

‘Naxals are the worst terrorists, but we are ready to mediate for peace’

Soyam Moka, State Militia Leader

The origins and achievements of Chhattisgarh’s four-year-old counter–insurgency operation -- Salwa Judum (a march for purification in local dialect Gondi) -- are severely contested.

Critics call it an extra-constitutional authority armed by the state, guilty of scorching entire villages to end potential support to Maoists, killing resistors and abusing women.

The state and Judum members assert it is a spontaneous local movement against years of Naxal terror. “Since my teens, I can remember life being dictated by the Naxals,” said Soyam Moka, who hails from Dantewara’s Ganganpalli village and was once a government school teacher.

In 2006, he led a large gang of armed men who burnt down Ganganpalli and emptied out its residents, witnesses said. The attack
was part of a common strategy that Salwa Judum adopted in the region.

“If villagers remain in villages and forests, they will have to perforce support the Naxals,” said Moka, son of a Congress legislator. “We want them in camps till the Naxals are finished, and then security forces will accompany them back home.”

Moka said his trouble with the Naxals began when they began to control village matters, undoing the goodwill they had earned from building farm ponds with community labour, checking harassment by forest guards and ensuring traders paid tribals the right price for the tendu leaves (used to roll bidis).

“The Naxals insisted we back them rather than any other political party. They suspected any interaction with local politicians or the police”, he said. “We said ‘enough is enough’ and began holding secret meetings to build the Salwa Judum.”

People like Moka and some 2,600 members of the armed militia today live in the shadow of paramilitary camps across Bastar.

The Naxals want their blood, and they want to eliminate the Naxals.

Moka’ greatest fear is getting killed by the Naxals, like his brother was four years ago. Else, people like him enjoy impunity. Moka cares little about being named in a case of gang rape, awaiting hearing at a local court.

Across the border in Andhra Pradesh, families from Gaganpalli hiding in the forests are still coping with disrupted lives.

One farmer, who didn’t want to be identified, fearing reprisal, was unsure what the policy has achieved.

“I had then read a newspaper statement by Moka that the Salwa Judum will finish the Naxals in 3 months. But the Naxals are there. The police are there. Our lives have been crushed.”

Moka admits that the campaign hasn’t worked as was planned.

“We are reassessing our strategy now… If there could be a political solution, the Salwa Judum would support it. People like me are even ready to mediate,” he says wearily. “We want peace back in our region. If not for ourselves, for our next generation.”

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