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Citizens vs militants: a battle gone wrong

The Govts armed the people to fight militants and protect themselves, but the results have been mostly disastrous, report Nagendar Sharma and Neelesh Misra.
Hindustan Times | By Nagendar Sharma and Neelesh Misra, Raipur/imphal
UPDATED ON JUL 10, 2007 12:18 PM IST

More than 50,000 people from 650 villages left their homes and now live in makeshift roadside shelters, guarded by police and paramilitary forces.

On the Andhra Pradesh border with Chhattisgarh, these are the haggard soldiers of a war gone wrong.

As insurgency spread, from Kashmir to Jharkhand to Manipur and Chhattisgarh, governments armed the people to fight militants and protect themselves.

The results have been mostly disastrous. Villagers have become vulnerable to gruesome revenge attacks by militants in the absence of training and guidance from the security forces.

In Chhattisgarh, the worst affected by Naxalites, a controversial two-year-old movement called Salwa Judum (People's Movement) has set off a furious cycle of conflict, with spiralling casualties.

It was aimed at preparing the mainly tribal villagers to fight Naxalites by vacating their villages and living instead in tents close to police posts.

But hundreds have died in their clashes with Naxalites. Tens of thousands are staying away from their homes - and still losing lives to rebels and bullets of security forces.

"We have been facing Naxalite attacks regularly. They burnt the newly constructed houses in camps and have threatened to kill us," said Soyam Muka, president of the Konta Project, the biggest relief camp.

In the relief camps, residents sit idle with no source of income, surviving on government rations.

"I want to return to my village and see my land, but security forces tell me I will be killed by the Naxalites the moment I return to my village," said Mohammad Illyas, a middle-aged farmer in Dornapal relief camp in Dantewada district.

"It is better to die from a bullet rather than die in such a camp where I have nothing."

In Jharkhand, groups of armed citizens called Nagrik Suraksha Samiti were formed in 2003. Thirteen Naxalites were killed that year by village groups led by women in Lango village in Orissa.

"Since then, Maoists have not been spending too much time in villages. They do their business and leave," said Shailendra Singh Burnwal, deputy superintendent of police involved in anti-rebel operations. "It was the biggest experiment by villagers, it was their local initiative. We gave the arms licenses."

These villages soon became sites for bloodbaths. Many Naxalites were gored with arrows, and their bodies slashed with axes. The militants retaliated. In one incident that created waves across Jharkhand, tribal headman Jeevan Masih Bhuiyan was brutally beaten in public, his body hacked with an axe, and then burnt.

In Manipur, Village Defence Committees (VDCs) seemed a solution in the early 1990s. But eventually they provoked more conflict as armed tribal militias clashed with each other to settle scores.

The only place where the system has worked with relative success is Jammu and Kashmir, where villagers in remote Hindu-majority areas in Jammu were armed. But the concept failed in the hub of insurgency, the Kashmir Valley.

"The VDC system is working very well. We have not witnessed any terrorist activity in those areas," said Kuldip Khoda, additional director-general of police. "In the Valley, it did not take off."

The Salwa Judum movement, described as a spontaneous "people's movement", is fully supported by the Raman Singh government in Chhattisgarh and is being run under the guidance of Mahendra Karma, a powerful tribal leader of the opposition Congress. Some 57,000 villagers now live in 23 relief camps. In a series of clashes, 750 people died last year.

"Higher casualties in Chhattisgarh are due to the Naxalite-Salwa Judum confrontation and proactive counter-operations by security forces against Naxalites. Overall, Naxal violence in the country has shown a decline in 2006," the Ministry of Home Affairs said.

Karma dismisses the criticism. "Anywhere in the world where people have faced political terror, displacement has taken place. In Chhattisgarh, it is positive displacement that has strengthened the resolve of the people to fight Naxalites. We are fighting for victory and small things do not bother us," he said.

Many disagree. The move to recruit villagers as special police officers (SPOs) is especially running into tough opposition, and critics say that could pitch tribals against their own community.

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