Note: I've recently been accused of being 'a Naxalite supporter' by Naxal Terror Watch: apparently, a link to an entry in this blog appears in one of the pro-Naxalite websites. According to this view, I seem to have only two choices: either I can be a member of the CP (Maoist) or a supporter of Salwa Judum. The third option, of speaking the Truth, does not exist for me. To set the record straight, I do not subscribe to such a dogmatic interpretation of Humanity. Thankfully, neither do these brave people of Bhopalpatnam, whose long suppressed voices, I hope, will begin to find utterance through this article.
The leaders of Salwa Judum (SJ) never tire of saying that it is ‘a spontaneous and peaceful people’s movement’ against militant-Maoism: this is what gives SJ its moral and political legitimacy; this is why we stop short of condemning SJ but merely criticize the way it is being conducted (‘provide security and training to the tribals first before asking them to take-on the Maoists’).
Two nights ago, 28 elected representatives from Bhopalpatnam block of Bijapur (in Dantewada 'revenue' district) appeared almost out of nowhere in the drawing room of our Raipur residence. It had taken them twelve days to get here. This is their story.
Mrs. Shashikala Dhruv, Chairperson, Janpad Panchayat, Bhopalpatnam:
"On 19 June this year, we were driving to Dantewada to see the C.O. regarding pending works in our janpad. Our jeep was stopped at the ghati. It was searched thorougly. An SPO got in and asked us to keep driving to Bijapur. At Bijapur, we were taken to the SJ base-camp. We were asked to get out of the jeep. A lady SPO asked for my handbag. Before she could snatch my handbag from me, I quickly took out my janpad seal and threw it away because I saw that other members were being beaten to sign some document and put their seal on it. My handbag was searched thoroughly. All the papers relating to janpad work were thrown away. Then we were taken inside a room. Narad Mandawi asked me where I was going. I told him that we were going to the C.O. office in Dantewada. He abused me and asked the lady SPO to beat me. She hesitated saying that 'how can I beat a woman?' Narad slapped her and said that "what's so special about ladies, are they 'topchands' (bigshots)?" He told her that if she doesn't beat me, he will beat her. Then the lady SPOs- there were four of them, aged between 17-18 years- began to pull my hair and hit me. It was around 11 'o clock in the morning. My 3 year old son and 12 year old niece (elder sister's daughter) were with me. They began to shout and scream. They continued to hit me. I don't know when I fell unconscious. There were 5 other women in the room along with the two children and 4 lady SPOs. It was a small room with no electricity. At 7, somebody brought us dinner, rice and lentils (daal-bhaat). I didn't eat much. The 4 lady SPOs said that "if we don't hit you, they will hit us." After dinner, 4 new lady SPOs came. They again started to beat us. I don't remember for how long but I fell asleep. All the time, they kept using the filthiest abuses against us in Hindi. It surprised me that ladies could speak such filthy language. Next day at 4 in the evening, we were given chuda (edible mixture). Nadar Mandawi, Chinnaram Gota, Madhukar Kondra, Hanif Khan and others asked us to sign on a blank piece of paper. They asked me put my seal on it but I told them that I didn't have it with me. Then Narad took our photograph with his mobile phone camera. We were then asked to 'get out quickly'. They told us that if we said anything about this to anyone, we would be killed."
Q. Why were you going to see the C.O.?
A. No work was being done in our janpad. The last time we had met the C.O., he released a measly sum of Rs. 2000 to each panchayat, which is not enough even for tea and snacks (chai-nashta). So we all decided to go together to ask him to release the allotted fund (moolbhoot rashi) at least.
Q. Why did the lady SPOs abuse you in Hindi? Why not in Halbi or Gondi?
A. In Bhopalpatnam, we speak mostly Telugu. We don't know Halbi. So they abused us in Hindi.
Q. Who is Narad Mandawi?
A. He is a Zila Panchayat member. His wife is also a member. Both were members of the 'sangam' (Maoist village committee) and could get elected only with the help of Naxalites. When SJ started, they squealed on other members. Now they are both on the (Naxalite) hit-list. They are extortionists, nothing else. If SJ ends, they will go back to being Naxalites.
Q. Who were the others with him?
A. Chinnaram Gota contested and lost the janpad election. Madhukar Kondra is a government teacher. Hanif Khan is a Congress worker, I think. They were all sangam members. Budhram Rana is the president of Bijapur SJ camp and janpad vice chairman. Suresh Rana is the secretary of the SJ camp. Gautam Sahu was a tailor. He is the local BJP head. There are not many BJP people here.
Q. Why did they beat and detain you?
A. I don't know.
Mr. Jaihind Kumar Latkar, Janpad member, Bhopalpatnam:
"We had decided to go to meet the C.O. in Dantewada from our respective villages (in Bhopalpatnam). In all, there were four jeeps. We had decided to halt midway at the Bijapur bus stand for refreshments. I was just telling Miccha Istari (Sarpanch, Tamnapalli) that I will have mutton curry when our jeep was stopped at the ghati at Mathed. I was asked to get down and a SPO got in. He asked us to drive to Bijapur base-camp. All along the way, I was made to stand on the footstand of the passenger's door...
Mr. Miccha Istari, Sarpanch, Tamnapalli:
"When I got down, I was taken to a man with a notebook. He asked me my name. Even as I was answering, 3-4 people started slapping me from behind. All my facial skin came off. There was blood all over. I fell unconscious. When I woke up, I was in a room with the rest of the men. We were 15-20 of us. A government doctor came to see us. He didn't ask or speak anything: just gave us all some capsules and an injection each, and went away...
At this point, Mr. Ingé Narayan, janpad member, shows me his right arm. It is bruised and slightly disjointed. He says even now he has difficulty moving it. By now, others present have gotten involved in the discussion. We get around to talking about more general issues. For the sake of continuity, I shall continue with the Q and A format. However, the answers are given jointly, with people adding or clarifying things to what someone has already said.
Q. Is there SJ in Bhopalpatnam?
Q. Do you oppose SJ?
A. No, we don't oppose SJ. We only want that it shouldn't be started in Bhopalpatnam. That is why we have come to Raipur.
Q. Have the SJ people come to your block?
A. Yes, thrice.
Q. How did they come?
A. In gypsies, matadors, taxis, all bearing "CG" number plates. Once the CRPF jawans had come riding 32 motorcycles.
Q. Do you mean to say that the CRPF also comes?
A. Yes. They do nothing. They only provide protection to the SJ leaders.
Q. What do the SJ leaders do when they come to Patnam?
A. They go to the rest house. Then they send for local officers and the seths (well-to-do merchants). They also send for us but most of us don't go. When SPOs with guns come to our houses, we hide ourselves. They say: "you are supplying things to Naxalites. We know because at one time, we also did the same thing. But now we are SJ. So now you must to chase them away. If you don't, then we will burn our houses. We will eliminate you.
Q. Why don't you do as the SJ asks and 'chase them away'?
A. If the armed forces cannot do it, how can we? Let the police fight the Naxalites. It is a global problem. Why should we come in between? Why are innocent people being killed? We tribals are being killed both ways. SJ does it during the day, the Naxalites do it in the night. Everybody is leaving. Two more years, and no man will be left here.
Q. Why is everybody leaving?
A. To escape SJ, not Naxalites.
Q. Were the Naxalites better?
A. The Naxalites fought with the police and forest guards. Not with the common people. They let us live.
Q. Where do they go to?
A. They go to Andhra Pradesh: Chintur, Bhadrachalam, Etur Nagaram in Warangal district, Khamam...
Q. Don't the Andhra Pradesh people have problem with new people coming into their area?
A. No, they like us. We are hardworking. We do kulibhuti (labor). There, we get work for 12 months. They take three crops of paddy and one crop of chilly in a year. Even the Andhra Pradesh government is very helpful. It gives us land, builds houses for us. Here, the Chhattisgarh government takes away our land, burns our houses.
Q. SJ has not yet started in Bhopalpatnam. How can you say that the state government takes away your land and burns your houses?
A. We know because it has happened in the Usur block. Nearly 70% of that block has been 'emptied' (khaali kar diya). Entire villages are destroyed: Basaguda, Avapalli, Fuswanka, Gangnapilli, Pamed, Pujari Kanked, Nanbi, Galgam, Tegmetla...All the houses have been burnt. No cultivation is allowed there. No paddy, not even corn (bhutta). It also happened in Bijapur. In Gangalur village, the CRPF men came. They started to take the goats, chickens, everything. So the villagers started to run. Maybe the CRPF thought they were Naxalites, we don't know? But they started shooting at them. Countless people died. In Gornamankeli, the Naga (battalion) didn't even spare little children. Recently, in Dornapal they killed a Bengali fellow.
Q. Have you seen all this yourself?
A. Those people who cannot do kulibhuti (labor) do not go to Andhra Pradesh. They come and rent rooms in our villages. We give them work. Otherwise they cross the river Indravati into Ankisa in Maharashtra. It is only five kilometers from Asaralli, a village in Usur.
Q. If all the people are going away to other states, then who stays in SJ base-camps?
A. Very few do. That too only because they are afraid to go anywhere else. Most of them prefer to run away.
Q. But there are officially more than 55,000 people living now in base-camps?
A. In Bijapur, there are SJ base-camps at Jhangla, Nimid, Toyanar, Wangapal, Matwada, Bhairamgarh and Bijapur. Jhangla is probably the biggest of the lot. It doesn't have more than 400 persons.
Q. Why do you think there is this discrepancy between the official figure and the actual figure of persons living in base-camps?
A. Every base-camp chairman (adhyaksha) is allotted daily funds for food (ration) and other facilities on the basis of number of persons living there. If he says 3000 when there are not more than 300, then he pockets the extra money. It's that simple. Nobody goes to check anything anyway.
Q. How are base-camp chairmen (adhyaksha) appointed? Is there any election, any criteria?
A. No. Ajay Singh, the Bhairamgarh chairman, was appointed by (Mahendra) Karma.
Q. Are all base-camp chairmen appointed by Mr. Mahendra Karma?
A. Karma and his men make all appointments.
Q. What about the SPOs?
A. They are also appointed by them. Many are 13-14 year old boys. They are given guns. They go about doing what they wish. If you don't listen to them, they kill you. Now they are all being recruited in the state police...
Q. Doesn't the district administration have any say?
A. [Kaka Bhaskar, Tarlaguda sarpanch] I was intercepted by SPOs at Bhairamgarh. They told me that I had to go to back to Bijapur base-camp to join the rest. The additional (superintendent of police) was also there. I asked him to help me. He said he couldn't do anything and I must do what the SPO tell me to do. When we got to Bijapur, they smashed the glass-panes of the jeep. The SDO was sitting there. He also did nothing...The entire district administration takes orders from SPOs and SJ people. They are with them. At Errabore, the SPO killed two people in the presence of Pisda (Collector of Dantewada district)...
Q. Then why doesn't anyone complain to the state government?
A. If they can beat us (elected representatives) like this, one can only imagine what they will do to the public. In Awapalli in Usur block, two students from Murdanda decided to complain. They were tortured for three days and shot. Then they put (Naxalite) 'dress' (uniform) on their bodies. Same thing will happen to us. They will kill us, then put a dress on our bodies.
Q. This incident happened in June. Why did you wait for five months to come here?
A. We were afraid of going through Bijapur after what happened to us. Eventually we all decided to slip away quietly to come to Raipur via different routes, so that it does not happen to us again.
Q. Different routes?
A. [Jaihind Kumar Latkar] I took my motorcycle till the river (Indravati). I crossed the river at Jimmalgatta. From there I kept changing buses, and came via Viratghat and Ballar to Nagpur. Then I came to Raipur. I reached here on 3rd November. Then I waited for others to come. They trickled in slowly on the 4th and 5th. It took me 12 days...[others describe similarly round-about routes]
Q. Why did you change buses?
A. We were afraid of being followed, intercepted, shot...
Q. How long does it ordinarily take to come to Raipur via Bijapur?
A. 6-7 hours by bus.
Q. Are there others who haven't reached?
A. Yes, 2-3 persons. The sarpanch of Sarouncha called this afternoon. He said he might reach by the evening. He didn't disclose his location. Others haven't gotten in touch as yet.
Q. You have all come alone. Why didn't you bring your families with you? Isn't there a danger to their lives now that you have come here and publicly said things?
A. Yes, there is. We called them. They told us that the SJ people are coming again on the 11th. We don't know what they will do to them...
Q. You met the Chief Minister today. What was discussed?
A. Yes, we went to his house during 'jan darshan' (public audience) this morning. He called 3-4 of us. He asked us "are you opposing SJ?" We told him "no". We said that all we want is that SJ should not be started in Bhopalpatnam so that we can live in peace. We also gave him the gram sabha resolutions unanimously passed by every village panchayat of Bhopalpatnam block demanding that SJ should not be started there. (They have also given copies of these to me.)
Q. Anything else?
A. We asked him for security, for us and for our families. We told him that without security, we cannot go back. The SJ people will kill us now, for sure.
Q. What did he say?
A. He said he will write to the Collector of the district administration.
It is clear to me from this dialogue that SJ is neither spontaneous nor peaceful. As such, it has no moral right to continue. It must be stopped.