Print edition : June 28, 2013

Mahendra Karma, the founder of Salwa Judum, at a camp in Konta village in Dantewada. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

MAHENDRA KARMA, who founded the anti-naxalite Salwa Judum movement in Chhattisgarh, knew fully well the consequences of what he was doing and was perhaps mentally prepared for them. “If we cannot win, I would prefer to die fighting,” the controversial Congress leader told this correspondent on March 20, 2007. Six years later, his words proved prophetic when on May 25, he was killed by Maoist insurgents who ambushed a convoy of State Congress leaders at Darbha Ghati. According to eyewitness accounts, after triggering landmines and immobilising the convoy, the insurgents came looking for Karma, calling out his name. Karma gave himself up realising there was no scope for escape. The naxalites stabbed him several times and even fired shots at his lifeless body. The naxalites, many of them women, then danced around his body, mocking him.

Attempts had been made on Karma’s life before; the May 25 encounter was the fifth such. In November last year, Karma’s convoy was ambushed at Kanwalnar, barely 4 kilometres from Dantewada and close to Darbha Ghati.

Karma, a tribal leader from Bastar, had scripted his own end. He had lost over a dozen members of his family to the naxalites’ bullets. He formed Salwa Judum to deal with the naxalite problem. He mobilised tribal youth to form a civilian militia. Salwa Judum activists later herded tribal people into camps on the pretext of protecting them from the fury of the naxalites.

Karma’s belief in the efficacy and righteousness of his method and his abhorrence for naxalites were almost psychotic. “In India, naxalites have always sabotaged the dialogue process. The government should first crush them and then agree for talks. Our first priority should be to finish them, and for that people’s involvement is the last resort. If we do not succeed now, we will hand over the country to naxalites,” he told this correspondent in 2007, shortly after the Rani Bodli massacre in which 77 “special police officers” and policemen were killed.

On being asked whether it would not lead to more violence and retaliatory killings, he said: “People are not afraid, not worried, because they know it is a battle for their survival. They are instead excited, too eager to kill. This will help us tackle the problem from its roots because the naxalites have flourished because of people’s support at the grass roots, and if this root is destroyed, they will perish.”

He said there was no alternative left now because naxalism was threatening the very survival of tribal identity and culture besides robbing them of all development benefits. “They don’t allow any development work to take place. Theirs is political terrorism and its effect on our samaj is the same. We have no option but to fight, to fight for our survival.”

On the escalation of violence and killings as a result of this counteroffensive, he said nonchalantly: “There is no problem that can be solved without losses. This is a war which will lead to peace.”

He dismissed accusations that Salwa Judum was a politically motivated step. “Can such large number of people be mobilised by narrow parochialism? Can people’s movement be run if people are not genuinely interested in them?” he asked. About the irony of a movement started by a Congress leader getting the overwhelming support of the Bharatiya Janata Party government in the State, he explained: “Naxalism is a national problem, so there should be no politicking in handling this issue. Naxalites threaten our democracy and sovereignty. Hence, political allegations and counter-allegations should stop now in the larger interest of the nation.”

He firmly believed that Salwa Judum would help wipe out naxalites and thought nothing much about the displacement of people from the villages into camps. “This is just a temporary phase. They have been put up in the camps for their own safety and will go back once the naxalites have been chased out. Their network in 100 villages has been destroyed. Salwa Judum is a great setback for them and they are desperate now. What we are doing is trying to solve the problem from its roots, and decisions based on ground realities [like shifting people to camps] were necessary,” he said.

He was equally nonchalant about threats to his own life. “Should we stop doing our work because of fear? I don’t care much for these things. If we cannot win, I will prefer to die fighting,” he said.

Ajit Jogi, another Congress leader and former Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, had told this correspondent a few days later that it was impossible to withdraw Salwa Judum without large-scale killings of those associated with it. “Naxalites would kill them all,” he said.

Purnima S. Tripathi

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