Terror force

Published : Aug 26, 2011 00:00 IST

The tribal residents of Dantewada district live in constant fear of Salwa Judum and the security forces.

recently in Dantewada

IN Dornapal, exceptions are common. Here, as the day breaks a grudging sense of fear sets in, at sunset the fear turns real, and only at night there is some sense of relief. Until 2005, this tiny hamlet in the heart of Dantewada district in Chhattisgarh was like any agricultural village. That year, the State government turned it into a fortress of paramilitary forces and opened a camp for Salwa Judum, the civilian armed vigilante group it formed to combat the Maoist problem in the region. Surrounded by open spaces, the hamlet was found to be the ideal site for the camp. Since then not just the demography but also the psyche of the place has changed.

Dornapal has the second largest Salwa Judum camp in the district after Jagargunda. In the mornings it is abuzz with unusual sounds. Gunshots from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp rend the air, the special police officers (SPOs) recruited for Salwa Judum practise guerilla warfare, and State police personnel, in their unkempt uniforms, hold a drill. The young SPOs, dwarfed by the guns slung on their shoulders, move around with a self-assurance that is uncommon among the Gondi tribal people of the south Bastar region. While people go about their daily business, the SPOs walk around with their guns as if they are in charge of the security of the village. However, the line between providing security and monitoring is thin in Dornapal. The SPOs point their guns at people even at the slightest sign of defiance.

A local politician remarked: In Dornapal, if anyone owns a motorcycle, he should be an SPO or a supporter of the SPO. The ownership of a motorcycle contrasts with the abject poverty that is visible everywhere in the district.

This power trip is born out of the immunity sanctioned by the State government. In the combing operations for Maoists in the jungles, the SPOs lead the Central and State forces. In Dornapal and other fortified villages, the residents blame the SPOs for disrupting normal life. They say the armed youth regularly indulge in arson and loot.

The sense of fear is the highest in the Konta block, which has the largest number of SPOs. At Dornapal and Jagargunda, people living in camps set up for them as a shelter from Maoist ire, give a grim picture of the evenings. This is the time of day when the SPOs, drunk on power and alcohol, harass them. Tikesh Kosa, who lives in Jagargunda camp, said: In the mornings, there is fear of the evenings. The drunken SPOs come to our houses, abuse our women, eat our food, and sometimes destroy our belongings without any provocation. In fact, the SPOs want to return to their homes, in areas affected by Maoist activity, and their show of strength, we feel, is a ruse to overcome insecurities and the fear of death.

Miserable ever since Salwa Judum shifted them to the camps, the camp-dwellers have for long wished to return home. About 80 per cent of them have gone back to their villages after the government withdrew some powers from Salwa Judum following resistance from civil society. The rest of them could not go back either out of fear of the SPOs or owing to a lack of resources to restart their lives.

The July 5 judgment of the Supreme Court ordering the State government to disband Salwa Judum and disarm the SPOs has come as a great relief to the tribal population of Dantewada.

The government has, however, decided to file a review petition in the apex court as it thinks the SPOs are vital for its fight against the Maoists. It is a fact that the State and Central forces rely on the tribal youth, who have a good knowledge of the jungle terrain, to assist them. But this has encouraged the SPOs to indulge in large-scale violence in many tribal villages.

Human rights violations

A few major incidents of human rights violation in the recent past are worth noting if the impact of creating a force such as Salwa Judum is to be understood. In March, three villages near Chintalnar in Dantewada were allegedly ransacked and burnt by Central forces, assisted by SPOs and Koya commandos (SPOs with some experience, who were inducted into the State Police). These villages are Tarmetla, where 207 homes were burnt; Morpalli, where 35 homes were looted first and then burnt, two women were sexually abused, and one person was killed; and Timapuram, where 75 houses were set on fire. Along with the houses, harvested paddy, which was stored in granaries, was also burnt.

During a recent visit to these villages, this correspondent found the tribal people in a highly impoverished state. The villagers depend on forest resources for succour. The majority of the children showed signs of Grade-2 and Grade-3 malnutrition.

Tinku, a resident of Morpalli village, said: Around 400 CRPF men and 20 SPOs came on the morning of March 11 and set everything we had on fire. We fled to the forests when we saw the forces coming. Two women who could not run were sexually assaulted and one person who tried to protect them was killed by the SPOs. When we returned, we found the village completely ransacked. Even our beds and clothes were destroyed.

Morpalli is a scenic village with lush forests and is surrounded by mountains. Since the village is 45 kilometres away from the main highway, it is a safe haven for the Maoists. The Maoists have built a victory memorial there for some of their comrades who died in the ambush of Chintalnar in 2010 in which 76 CRPF jawans were killed. It is apparently for this reason that the village was under the scanner of the Central forces. All the houses were burnt, and since the houses were built of wood and mud, most of them were completely destroyed. The villagers had built makeshift houses. Morpalli does not have any infrastructure such as a primary school, a dispensary, drinking water facilities, a gram sabha building or an anganwadi centre.

The condition of Timapuram is no better. Tarmetla, situated 4 km from the highway, suffered the worst damage. Here granaries and 207 homes were set on fire. The residents had fled to the forests. Tarmetla is under scrutiny as the security forces believe that it was with the help of its residents that the Maoists were able to attack the CRPF battalion. Local journalists aver that the arson and loot that took place in these villages was a vengeful act of the security forces.

However, Tarmetla is slightly better off than the other two villages because most of its residents got a grant of Rs.25,000 each to rebuild their houses and were given some food grains. The State government was alarmed when newspapers carried reports of the arson in April. Around the same time, the Supreme Court, responding to a writ petition, directed its Right to Food Commissioner Harsh Mander to inquire into the reports of malnutrition in the region. Because of its proximity to the highway, the village received some funds. This correspondent saw the residents of Tarmetla building their new homes, but they feared that the security forces would come and destroy them. Most of the villagers said they lived in constant fear of the Central forces.

Fake Encounters

Reports hinting at fake encounters in Bastar hardly surprise anyone. A journalist from Kanker in Upper Bastar remarked: There are so many fake encounters that we have stopped covering them unless the damage is too big to ignore. Not antipathy but compassion fatigue makes journalists and social workers of the region display such an attitude.

Two important cases in the past six months based on eyewitness accounts are narrated below.

The first incident involved Sukhra Kalmu, who was allegedly killed by Koya commandos and some 400 CRPF jawans at Pallorpura village. Ganga Kalmu, in her 50s, was not sure about the exact date, but she said it was a morning like any other when her son, Sukhra, had gone to harvest moong dal, which is generally harvested vin December and January.

Ganga Kalmu said: Sukhra left at six in the morning for the fields as usual. I had left half an hour before him. One of our friends told us that he had taken a route where CRPF jawans were patrolling. When I came back from the fields in the afternoon, I asked my husband, who was at home, about Sukhra. When he did not return home in the evening, we went to the village sarpanch, Bicheli Podni, who reported to the police that Sukhra was missing.

After two days, his body was brought to the police station. The police identified him as a naxalite who was killed in an ambush. We have no connections with the Dadas [Maoists]. The villagers nodded in agreement and kept reminding Ganga about the turn of events.

He was wearing a lungi [wrap-around] when he left home, but his body had a military uniform that the Maoists wear and the police said that a locally made gun called Bharmaar [the gun Maoist guerillas normally use] was recovered from him, Ganga said. Some villagers said they had received information from their relatives that he had been taken to a place some 45 km from Pallorpura and was killed there. Sukhra's father is too old for manual labour. With the loss of Sukhra, the Kalmu family is left without a breadwinner. It only owns a small patch of land.

Kawasi Lakma, the Congress legislator from Sukma and a firebrand tribal leader, took up Sukhra's case in the State Assembly and tried to follow it up with the police and the government. I took Kalmu's surviving family members to the Governor, protested in the Vidhan Sabha [Assembly] so many times, but there has been no action. Leave alone justice, even compensation was not given to them. There are eyewitness accounts and circumstantial evidence to establish that Sukhra was not a naxalite. The police reports can easily be countered. But the government does not have any political will. It is more interested in scaring people away to bring in multinational companies to Bastar, he told Frontline.

The second case is that of Vecko Kosa of Neelavaram village. His family and the villagers say that he was killed in the marketplace in full public view. Kosa is survived by his wife and two minor children. Villagers told this correspondent that they saw the encounter in February.

One of them said: It was a Monday, the day of the weekly market. Vecko had gone to see the cockfight in the market. The SPOs suddenly fired in the air, and one of the bullets hit Ismail Khan, who died almost instantly. Tension filled the air, and in the melee everyone started to run. Vecko took shelter in a room near by. The jawans and the Koya commandos saw him enter the room, followed him and shot him. Later, the police claimed that since Vecko ran in a different direction and not towards where the crowd was going, he was suspected to be a naxalite.

A person named Markami Ganga, who was witness to this incident, later went to the police to inquire whether Vecko was dead or alive. It was there that he saw the body. Ganga was beaten up and tortured in other ways in the police station. The police alleged that the villagers gave the naxalites food whenever they came to the village, he added.

Kawasi Lakma took up this case, too, but nothing materialised. As per the government register, Rs.10,000 was released to Kosa's family to perform his last rites. But that money never reached them, the MLA said.

In every village this correspondent visited, the constant refrain was that the SPOs and the Koya commandos were a terror force, much more feared than the paramilitary forces. Civil society activists think that it is a strategic move of the government to empower unemployed tribal youth with guns and unleash terror.

Salwa Judum has divided the tribal society. Because of Salwa Judum extremism has increased. More tribal men are joining the Maoist ranks in order to protect themselves from the SPOs. There are about 6,000 SPOs, but not a single one of them is a non-tribal. I ask the government why is there not a single Agarwal, Mishra, Verma and Sharma [surnames of caste Hindus who rule the businesses in Bastar] among the commandos? Do they not suffer from the naxalite problem? Dividing the tribal people will benefit the government as it will result in dividing resistance to the mining companies, which are set to take most of the tribal lands. Kawasi Lakma's words ring loud in Dantewada.

The only thing that the tribal people can pin their hopes on is the immediate disbandment of Salwa Judum following the Supreme Court judgment.

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