ARMED with little more than bows and arrows that his tribesmen have for long carried, Phooldar is determined to take on the might of the naxalites of Chhattisgarh. Why? "They killed my tribesmen," he says.
Phooldar, who is not yet 18, is accompanied by Munna, 12, and Ramlal, who appears to be still younger. Ramlal holds an AK-47, but does not know how to use the trigger. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel accompanying him and other boys who have joined the "Salva Jodum" (All Together) movement provide the training.
Salva Jodum is the new buzzword in Bastar and Dantewada districts. It signifies the tribal people's willingness to counter the naxalites. The police, the administration and the politicians are all hoping that Salva Jodum will do what they themselves could not: break the backbone of the local naxalite movement.
Chhattisgarh's tribal people have, like the proverbial worm, turned. And their turning is suddenly visible. On the highway, makeshift checkpoints have been set up, with a rope stretched taut across the road. Arrows are trained upon suspicious commuters who do not slow down. Buses are stopped and checked. Truckloads of armed youngsters move from village to village to conduct public meetings.
Once a village decides to join the Salva Jodum, the men accompany the police and spread the word. Pledges are taken to defeat the `naxaliye'. Pamphlets in bold red are nailed to the trees, exactly as the naxalite literature and warnings used to be found. Members of sangham, a local unit of administration in naxalite-controlled areas, are either surrendering voluntarily, or are hunted down and handed over to the police. The tribal people have also stopped holding their weekly bazaar in an attempt to stop the naxalites' daana-paani (food supplies).
The call for a public campaign against the atrocities committed by naxalites is believed to have been initiated by a little-known schoolmaster from Kutru, who got his students to stand up and declare a joint struggle. (Nobody, however, seems to remember his full name or know where he may be found.)
In any case, the backlash was immediate. At a meeting at Talmendra, attended by more than 10,000 people, naxalites allegedly opened fire and killed hundreds of people.
However, that did not stop the people from banding together and holding public meetings. Soon politicians, chief among them being Opposition leader Mahendra Karma, jumped into the fray. Bijapur and Behramgarh were declared pilot blocks for the Salva Jodum. The government has sanctioned Rs.30 crores for development projects in these blocks.
One of the first official Salva Jodum rallies was at Attabeli (Kutru) on June 8. Police records show that at least 11,000 people gathered there to pledge support. Over 50 such meetings have been held already.
The only public detractor of the movement is former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi. He claims that the tribal people will receive no protection once the politicians leave. "Tribal people are being crushed on all sides - by the police, the naxalites and Salva Jodum activists. Strangely, those leading the movement are careful not to hold rallies in their own constituencies. One of our legislators, Kawasi Lakhma, showed me a list of those who joined Salva Jodum rallies in his constituency. Not a single man is alive today," Ajit Jogi said.
The naxalite movement here is different in that it appears to have provided little benefit to the tribal people. Bastar has a predominantly tribal population.
According to Raghuram, a surrendered sangham member, no good has accrued to his village, Nileshnar, during the three decades since the first naxalite came from Andhra Pradesh. "We were forced to become sangham members. We gave them food and drink, though we had so little for ourselves. For 25 years, they have been here. Earlier they would sweet-talk us, promising to stop exploitation of Adivasis; they said they would form the government. They made fools of us. They harass us, after the police ask questions; they even take away our young girls. Then, they began to kill. They claim to hold jan adalats before doling out punishments or execution orders, but I never saw one."
The story is corroborated by others. About 50 men camping in Dantewada admit to being surrendered sangham members. One of the primary reasons why they felt the need to resist was that their livelihoods were threatened. Naxalite leaders prevented them from collecting tendu leaves when they could not agree on the rates with contractors.
The surrendered men also claim that it was mostly fellow-Chhattisgarhis who harassed them. Raghuram explained: "The Telugu ones were the ones with guns and in black uniforms. They would only pass orders and hold meetings. It was the locals, who wear lungis and speak our language, who caused the most damage. The CRPF and the police force recruited our boys but their parents were beaten up and the boys were dragged back and beaten. The naxalites also demand chanda [tax]. If you are poor, you give two bags of rice. If you have money, you give ten rupees."
Raghuram and 118 other men from seven villages are currently camping at Bangapal in Dantewada, an all-male relief camp set up by the government to cater to people who are forced to leave their homes for fear of retaliatory strikes.
Somaru, an elder of Kodali village, says he moved to the camp because he was threatened by the "naxaliye". "The women and children are still at home. We've been here since July. In the village, the women gather in one spot to sleep. They're managing the farms, somehow."
This has been the most serious implication of the Salva Jodum. Even Chief Minister Raman Singh admits that 7,000-10,000 people were displaced and will need rehabilitation urgently if they refuse to return to their villages. The government is supplying food and sheds or tents for the displaced. But the supplies are not always regular. For instance, the Jungla camp had not received food for two days. Kamli, an old woman of Mulunpara, told Frontline: "No farming is done in the village since the women have also left. We are feeding the children, and making do without food." They have been told that a food-for-work programme will be initiated but are afraid to complain to the administration. "What if they stop giving us food?"
In the meantime, the Salva Jodum is going to test the State's commitment to deal with the naxalite movement. It is also a turning point for the naxalites, since this is the first time that their stronghold is witnessing a rebellion from their own support base.