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Bastar: Adivasis and the anatomy of a conflict zone


This fact-finding report assesses the impact of the ongoing conflict between the state and the Maoists on the Adivasi villagers of Bastar,  and also investigates reports of atrocities by the security forces and the Maoists. The study team visited villages in Sukma, Bijapur, Bastar and Kanker districts, where the conflict is at its most intense.

Archana Prasad, Economic & Political Weekly

This article is written on behalf of the study team and has received valuable inputs from members Nandini Sundar, Vineet Tiwari and Sanjay Parate.

On 21 June 2016, the Chhattisgarh High Court ordered that the body of Madkam Hidme be exhumed and a post-mortem conducted which would be videoed. Hidme’s family has alleged that she was raped and killed in a fake encounter by police personnel on 13 June 2016 in Gompad village, Sukma district. The police say that she was a Naxalite and a member of the “Kistaram Platoon Number 8.” The court’s order was the result of a public interest litigation petition demanding a judicial probe into the incident (Ghose 2016), which has yet again exposed the repression faced by local residents in this part of the country and is the latest in a long and continuing series of such incidents.

The high court order clearly shows that the state government has not been following the directives of the Supreme Court, which in its order in Nandini Sundar and Others v State of Chhattisgarh (2011; Salwa Judum case) held that the Government of Chhattisgarh and the union government should cease to use all forms of civilian counter-insurgency forces like the Special Police Officers (SPOs) or Koya Commandos to combat the Maoists and “Naxalites” in Bastar. This judgment has been considered a landmark in the history of the conflict between the state and the Maoists. It argues that (1) Naxalism, Maoism and other forms of “Left Wing Extremism” cannot be fought through only a military strategy, but there is a need to address the question of deprivation and rights too; and (2) the human rights of the Adivasis of the region were being violated by both the Maoists as well as the state.

Following this judgment, the Government of Chhattisgarh intensified its military offensive by using security agencies like the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Border Security Force (BSF). These agencies have not only opened camps in the vast interiors of the Maoist-dominated territories, but have also been following a policy of compelling villagers to surrender to the police and then inducting them into the police force both as informers and as members of the auxiliary police force, which was formed under the Chhattisgarh Auxiliary Armed Police Force Act, 2011 (enacted to circumvent the Court’s order). At the same time, the Chhattisgarh government also claimed that it had started several developmental programmes and Jan Jagran Abhiyans to win the trust of the villagers, and that they were well on course to winning the war against Naxalism. But, our visit to Sukma’s Chintagufa area in January 2016 showed that this is far from the truth and that the atrocities of the security forces were only increasing day by day in the area. At the same time, the Maoists have also accelerated their coercion. The government’s strategy of using the “surrendered Adivasi youth” auxiliary force and the informers (doing the work of erstwhile SPOs) as the first line of defence has led to repression by the Maoists of ordinary villagers. In this situation, the villagers, caught between the state and the Maoists, are at the receiving end of atrocities from both sides.

Given this background, a study team comprising Archana Prasad (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Nandini Sundar (University of Delhi), Vineet Tiwari (Joshi–Adhikari Institute of Social Sciences) and Sanjay Parate (Communist Party of India [Marxist] Secretary, Chhattisgarh State) visited four districts of Bastar division during 12–16 May 2016. The main objective of the visit was to assess the impact of the ongoing conflict between the state and the Maoists on the Adivasi villagers of the region, as also to investigate reports of atrocities by the security forces and the Maoists. The team visited villages in Sukma, Bijapur, Bastar and Kanker districts and found that the level of Maoist presence and scale of state repression varies somewhat across the districts. The worst affected at the moment appear to be Sukma district, portions of Bijapur district and the Darbha/Tongpal areas of Bastar/Sukma district. But, irrespective of the scale of Maoist presence, fake encounters, rapes and arrests by police and security forces, beatings of villagers by police and Maoists, and IED blasts and killing of informers by Maoists are serious problems everywhere. All the preliminary findings and conclusions of the team should be seen in this context.

Material Context of Conflict

The historical underdevelopment and exploitation of Bastar has laid the foundation of the growing conflict in the region. During its visit, the study team tried to ascertain whether the villagers were receiving the benefits of the schemes run by the state government for areas affected by left-wing extremism, and the general conditions of survival in remote areas. It ascertained information about the main livelihood strategies, namely, agriculture, collection of tendu patta (tendu leaf), the public distribution system (for which the state is famous), and the work generated through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MgNREGA). Almost all the blocks visited revealed one common feature: the villages near the camps of the security forces or where these camps were located had better facilities than the ones that were in the remote areas. This is largely because the government is using development as an incentive to get villagers to cooperate with security agencies.

For example, in Somanpalli village, the panchayat headquarters near the road, all villagers have ration cards, get about 45 days of MgNREGA work (at ₹160 per day), and have 15 days of tendu patta work (getting ₹200 for 100 bundles). They also sell about 50% of their rice produced and make a profit of ₹2,500 per acre. The average size of land is three acres. Overall, the family makes about ₹1,300–₹1,500 per month. In another remote village, Tadmendri, of the same panchayat (at a distance of 14 km on the forest road), the villagers have not got any MgNREGA work since 2014. They also have to walk 14 km for their rations and were not able to produce anything on their land in 2016 because of the drought. The households of this village barely make about ₹1,000 per month.

There are other villages in the Koleng panchayat, where villagers have not received wages for MgNREGA work for several years. The villagers informed us that they completed work for making a road six–seven years ago under the MgNREGA, but have not been paid for it yet. Therefore, when the contractor contacted them to do the MgNREGA work recently, they refused to work for him. A similar story is seen in other villages too, where villagers have not been paid under the scheme for a long time. A look at the MgNREGA website yields the following data about the amount of work generated for villagers in 2015–16 for selected panchayats visited by the study team (Table 1).

The lack of work in the MgNREGA is accompanied by machine-driven construction of roads in the entire area. However, the lack of MgNREGA work is not only a function of the state government’s inability to provide work and make regular payments. The pressure from the Maoists to stop this form of work also creates fear in undertaking it. This year, in one case, the Maoists detained villagers for up to 12 days as punishment for cooperating with the district administration, including demanding MgNREGA work.

The story of schools is similar. Since the schools were earlier used as police camps, their buildings have been destroyed by Maoists in several villages. During the Salwa Judum, the administration moved all schools to camps and has not restored them even when people have gone back to their homes. One such village is Mukabeli, whose ashram school is now housed in Farsegarh, opposite the security camp, more than 20 km away from the actual village. Hence, developmental work has suffered because of the ongoing conflict between the Maoists and the state. The villagers are beaten up if they cooperate with state schemes for their own survival, and face the ire of the security forces if they refuse to cooperate. In both cases, the victim is the ordinary Adivasi whose survival needs are compromised in the current situation, and whose lands are under threat of being taken away, especially in mining areas such as Raoghat of Kanker district.

Recording Instances of Violence

As mentioned earlier, the study team encountered several instances of Maoist violence in the villages. In one village in Kanker district there has been a history of Maoist targeted killings since the mid- 1990s, and this has escalated in the last few years. In Kumakoleng and Nama villages of Sukma district, the villagers narrate how they face the harassment of the Maoists. They agree that this harassment has escalated in recent years. Though the conflict and tension in the area prevents villagers from freely speaking about the Maoists, it is clear that the Maoists’ targeting of “police informers” has increased in the last few years.

On being repeatedly questioned about the frequency of Maoist visits to the villages, at many places villagers said that the Maoists have stopped coming regularly to the villages since security forces started patrolling. But, the visit and preliminary findings make it clear that the increase in tension in the region is a result of the heightened militaristic approach of the government. The more the government intensifies its militaristic offensive and civilian counter-insurgency strategy, the worse will be the violence of the Maoists. This evidence is provided by the villagers, who even demonstrated the medieval methods used by the Maoists to beat them up.

Dimensions of State Repression

Perhaps the most revealing facet of our Bastar visit has been the extent to which the region has got fortified. As mentioned earlier, reports of fake encounters and surrenders continued to pour in and were investigated. A week before the study team arrived in Sukma, two boys from Marjum village were killed by the security forces. The sarpanch of Marjum, the anganwadi worker, family members and other villagers confirmed that the boys had nothing to do with the Maoists, and that this was murder of two innocent tribal boys by the police/security forces.

There were several instances of forced surrenders of people who had nothing to do with either the local sanghams (village-level units) or the dalams (armed squads) of the Maoists. One such case is in Kanker district near Amabeda, where two brothers from the same family were arrested for being Maoists. One of them has since died. He had borrowed ₹20,000 from other villagers to pay the police the bribe they had demanded. The villagers allege that a tiffin bomb was planted in his house to prove that he was a Maoist. The brother was picked up three months ago. His wife died and his three small children, two of them girls, have been left helpless. The villagers claim that both brothers had nothing to do with the Maoists. The story of forced surrenders is a curious one because some villagers report that unemployed youth declare themselves as Maoists, and then surrender to get jobs. In a situation of extreme unemployment and deprivation, the security personnel use the option of “fake” surrenders to lure the unemployed youth.

Another aspect of repression is the sexual exploitation of women by members of the security forces. Before the study team undertook its trip, it had received several reports of rapes in Kanker district. However, a visit to these villages did not yield any details. In one village, it appeared as if the villagers had collectively taken a decision not to say anything about the security forces out of fear. Only one clear incident was reported where a girl was repeatedly raped by a BSF SPO and became pregnant. Her pregnancy was discovered after she got married to a third person. She was then sent home and it was decided that the SPO would pay ₹51,000, but even this promise was not fulfilled. She even wrote to the collector regarding her case but no cognisance was taken of the complaint. In fact, the SPO boasted that “this was the reward for being a police informer,” and that he had been given the licence to commit these types of crimes.

New Style of Salwa Judum

While the aspects of state repression described above have been recorded by several other visiting teams, this study team also found an additional dimension in the state strategy. It discovered that villages like Kumakoleng and Nama of Sukma district were seeing the rise of a new form of Salwa Judum. It was observed in and around the Kanger Ghati National Park—in Tongpal and Darbha blocks—that the police were holding Jan Jagran Abhiyans (the original name of Salwa Judum), threatening villagers as well as distributing all kinds of goodies to them, including mobile phones, to have them give information about the Maoists. This is very similar to the origins of Salwa Judum. In Kumakoleng village, 50 persons were forced to “surrender” in March, and are now living in different police and CRPF camps. On 15 April, the police/CRPF held a Jan Jagran Abhiyan in Kumakoleng. On 17 April, the Maoists beat up villagers, including women, for asking for a CRPF camp to come up near their village. Two-thirds of the entire village of Kumakoleng has now fled and is living outside the village for fear of Maoists.

In neighbouring Soutnar panchayat, the villagers have resolved to keep the Maoists out and have been patrolling the villages with bows, arrows and axes for the last three months. In the past, the Maoists have beaten and killed people in the village on the charge of being informers. The villagers say that the police have refused to set up camp, telling them the Maoists will go away if they patrol, thus making them vulnerable in the first place and then leaving them to their own devices. Given this situation, the study team is extremely concerned that such developments will lead to large-scale divisions and displacement as had happened during Salwa Judum, and urges all parties to work in the best interests of the Adivasi population.

Harassment of Study Team

The study team returned from Bastar to Raipur on 17 May 2016. In the course of its visit, it was continuously stopped, followed, and questioned by the police. As soon as the study team left Bastar, a fabricated complaint was filed in the name of villagers from Kumakoleng and Nama, alleging that the team had gone to these villages and threatened the villagers that if they did not cooperate with the Maoists, their villages would be burnt and they would be killed. The complaint also alleged that the study team had gone to instigate the villagers against the government. This unverified complaint was posted by the district collector on his personal Facebook page and canards were spread through social and electronic media about the “Maoist” orientation of the study team.

The entire episode was even linked to the fact that one of the professors was from Jawaharlal Nehru University and that it is natural that teachers and students from this premier university would be “anti-national” and “Maoist.” Zee News went to town with a biased and defamatory story. In fact, the villagers have told reporters that they know nothing of these complaints. A demonstration of “villagers” was organised by the police outside Darbha police station, followed by a letter dated 23 May 2016 to the President, again in the name of these so-called villagers, asking that the members of the study team be arrested and sacked from their jobs. On 27 May, members of the Samajik Ekta Manch, a vigilante group, organised a protest with pictures of Archana Prasad and Nandini Sundar, in Jagdalpur. The so-called villagers are actually SPOs or the people who have already surrendered, and are all under the control of the police.

The preliminary findings and the press release (Factfinding May 2016 Bastar 2016) of the study team made its position clear that both the Maoists and the state were responsible for the existing situation. But the intimidation and witch-hunting has continued with serious consequences for the members of the study team.

What is worse is that all the local people who accompanied the team are being harassed beyond measure. Manju Kawasi, a member of the CPI, who accompanied the team, was visited by the police at midnight and asked to appear before the Sukma and Kukanar police. Mangla, the local contact from Nama has been inaccessible since the incident took place, and the car driver hired from Raipur has been continuously hounded. These incidents only show that the state government is wary of any independent study groups and does not want the voices of Adivasi villagers to reach the outside world.

Way Forward

As already mentioned earlier, the study team found that the state and the Maoists are both responsible for the current state of affairs in Chhattisgarh. This situation can only be remedied if democratic and transparent processes are restored in the region. Hence, the study team suggests that an all-party delegation visit the region to hear the villagers and put pressure on the administration and the Maoists to engage in a ceasefire and come to the table for peace talks. A monitoring committee should be set up under the watchful direction of the courts to take stock of fake encounters, rapes, forced surrenders, and other state atrocities. All fake encounters, forced surrenders and Salwa Judum-like counter-insurgency programmes should be stopped. The state must punish the guilty officers and stop its military offensive in order to facilitate peaceful development of the region. On their part, the Maoists should be pressurised to stop their repressive tactics and should allow the villagers to undertake MgNREGA and other work for their own survival. Political pressure must be applied to make the Maoists realise that the only way forward is to have peace talks. If this does not happen, the Adivasis will continue to be oppressed by both sides.

References

“Factfinding May 2016 Bastar” (2016): press release, 20 May, viewed on 22 May 2016, https://sabrangindia.in/sites/default/files/files/factfinding%20may%2020….

Ghose, Dipankar (2016): “Exhume Body of Sukma Woman Killed in Encounter for Autopsy, Orders Chhattisgarh HC,” Indian Express, viewed on 22 June 2016, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/chhattisgarh-naxal-woman-death-bastar-sukma-encounter-2867875/.

Ministry of Rural Affairs (nd): “Gram Panchayat Module, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act,” Government of India, viewed on 22 May 2016, http://164.100. 129.4/netnrega/loginframegp.aspx?salogin =Y&state_code=33.

Nandini Sundar and Others v State of Chhattisgarh (2011): AIR, SC, p 2839.

– See more at: http://www.epw.in/journal/2016/26-27/commentary/adivasis-and-anatomy-conflict-zone.html#sthash.apGbHuRB.dpuf

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