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Getting ready to fight Salwa Judum II

Suhas Munshi | Updated on: 14 July 2015, 1:07 IST

Story so far

  • Chavindra Karma, the son of the slain leader of Salwa Judum Mahendra Karma, announced a new movement.
  • He admits that it can be called \'Salwa Judum part two\'.
  • Chavindra Karma\'s plans of going on padyatras in Maoist-affected areas are similar to how the original Salwa Judum began.
  • Maoists have retaliated to Chavindra Karma\'s provocations by killing one of his distant relatives and attacking a police post in Bastar.

The fight back

  • Those associated with petition that led to the ban of Salwa Judum in 2011 are now working to thwart all attempts of its revival.
  • Activists express unease with Bastar IG Police\'s public support of Chavindra\'s new undertaking.
  • Some draw parallels between industry\'s interests in area\'s minerals in 2005 and recently announced ultra mega steel plant project.
  • Tribals, worrying about possible attempt at their lands being usurped for the project, say they won\'t yield an inch.

The tribal heartland of Chhattisgarh has been scarred by years of conflict between the Maoists and the State. Now it may need to gear up for an escalation of violence.

The people who brought Salwa Judum to an end through their appeals in Supreme Court are preparing for another battle against a new vigilante force.

Also read: Govt plans massive offensive against Maoists. Green Hunt Redux?

Noted academic Nandini Sundar and spiritual guru Swami Agnivesh were among those who, in 2011, had successfully petitioned against the state of Chhattisgarh for raising an armed civilian vigilante group which, along with state forces, was responsible for the deaths and displacement of several thousand tribals in Bastar and Dantewada.

Both say they're now keeping a close watch on developments in Bastar, from where hints of another Salwa Judum are emerging.

Independent human rights lawyers say they are also exploring the option of launching contempt of court proceedings against Chhattisgarh for, what seems to be, an administrative support to a newer version of Salwa Judum.

The original vigilante movement

About 15 years ago in Bastar, Mahendra Karma, the first public figure in Bastar to openly defy Naxals, launched a peace march, which in native Gondi was called 'Salwa Judum'.

The so-called 'march' turned out to be a civilian armed campaign, sponsored by the state, to choke and flush out tribals and Naxals out of forests.

At its peak, between 2005 and 2008, thousands of people were killed, and several thousand more displaced. An independent report has put the total number of dead in the state since 2005 at 2,254. Another report put the casualties of Naxal-linked violence in Chhattisgarh over the past 20 years at 6,000.

Independent inquiries by organisations like Human Rights Watch discovered large-scale human rights violations - including rapes and murders. Children were found to have been recruited in Salwa Judum gangs.

Naxals made several attempts at Mahendra Karma's life and finally, in their most ambitious attack, managed to kill him and 31 other Congress leaders on 25 May 2013. The attackers were reported to have danced over Karma's corpse and stabbed him repeatedly.

Reviving the old spectre

For the past few months speculations were being made about a new front launched by Chavindra Karma, the son of Mahendra Karma, on the lines of his father's anti-insurgency movement.

Exactly two years after his father's death, in May this year, Chavindra Karma ended all speculations in a commemoration held for his father. He announced the formation of Vikas Sangharsh Samiti, a peace march which he admitted could be called 'Salwa Judum part two'.

The commemoration held for Mahendra Karma and 31 others, including some senior Congress leaders, who were killed by Maoists in 2013, was significant for two reasons.

First, the event saw a turnout of around 1,000 and it was held provocatively close to Jheeram Ghati - where Mahendra Karma and the 31 others had been massacred.

Though Chavindra Karma has not yet received the support of any party, some sympathise with his new movement

Second, among the attendees was the Inspector General of Police, Bastar, SRP Kalluri, who publically backed Chavindra Karma's movement.

Considering Kalluri's defence of Salwa Judum in the past, his presence and active support to Chavindra Karma's front was not a surprise.

Kalluri is considered an expert in anti-Naxal operations and has been accused of many human rights violations. He was accused of burning down 300 tribal homes in Sukma district, Chhattisgarh, in 2011. Soon after, he was accused of supervising attacks on economist Jean Dreze and Swami Agnivesh.

Ledha Bai, a tribal, accused him of ordering her gang rape and murdering her husband. Soon after filing a case against him, she went missing and hasn't been traced since.

Red retaliation

The Naxals didn't take time to react to Chavindra Karma'a provocation. A day after the assembly they killed a distant relative of Chavindra Karma and attacked a police post in Bastar.

Gudsa Usendi, a Naxal leader, also issued a press release warning a severe backlash at all attempts of reviving Salwa Judum. The release accused the state of colluding with private companies to extract iron ore reserves from the area and reviving Salwa Judum and named two senior government officials, which many consider to be a hit-list.

Naxals also floated a new slogan, which can be roughly translated from Gondi as, 'Salwa Judum do karoge to Jiram Ghati do hoga.'

All indicators point towards beginning of another cycle of violence.

Walking the old path

Some political observers draw a parallel between 2005 and 2015. Salwa Judum had started with what is believed was an attempt to flush out tribals from forests where private companies had invested heavily.

Analogies are drawn between then and now as thousands of crores of investment was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to build a ultra mega steel plant, a railway line and a slurry line, to transport iron ore to the plant, in Dantewada.

Local activists say Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar's recently announced policy of neutralising terrorists through terrorists, isn't too comforting either.

Bastar IG Kalluri has, in the past, been accused of burning 300 tribal homes and supervising attacks on Jean Dreze and Swami Agnivesh

"The connection (between big projects and large-scale state-assisted violence) seems real. A lot of people are connecting the dots similarly and I also feel this way. But I can't predict what shape the new Salwa Judum will take in future. The one thing I'm sure of, no matter what, is that we will not surrender our land," said Manish Kunjam, a tribal leader, who has twice been voted an MLA from Bastar.

Right after Modi announced the ultra mega steel project in Dantewada, Kunjam led thousands of tribals on a protest march against possible acquisition of their land.

Though Chavindra Karma has not yet received the support of any party, some sympathise with his new movement.

Brigadier BK Ponwar (retd) who runs the Counter-Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College (CTJWC) in the heart of Bastar, has trained thousands of policemen, military and paramilitary officers in counter-insurgency and jungle warfare.

He has also trained some local youth who joined counter insurgency operations and were made SPOs during Salwa Judum. Ponwar says there's nothing wrong with training locals to fight local insurgents.

"As a concept I quite agree with the idea of recruiting locals to fight local terrorists. This strategy has paid us off in Nagaland, Mizoram and Punjab. It will ensure the end of Naxalism in this region as well," said Ponwar.

He added that there were no plans, as of now, of arming locals or founding militias but any future move in this direction would be taken as per norms.

While the whole region is on tenterhooks following the announcement of Vikas Sangharsh Samiti, Dev Senapati, the district collector, Bastar, who was present at Mahendra Karma's commemoration, said he wasn't aware of such a movement.

"I haven't heard from those people (Chavindra Karma and his associates). They haven't elaborated on their strategies and haven't held press conference to talk about it, so without knowing about their ideas I won't be able to comment."

Counter attacking Salwa Judum

Bastar IG's public support for Chavindra Karma's organisation is a contempt of court says Nandini Sundar.

"It is clearly a contempt of court. Supreme Court's landmark judgement on this issue clearly forbids Salwa Judum in any name. It is not just Chavindra Karma who will be held accountable if he launches Salwa Judum part two. The onus of preventing a revival of Salwa Judum is on the state and we're closely monitoring it."

Swami Agnivesh, says the same people behind the first Salwa Judum are now visibly participating in another similar movement.

"In August 2011 when I was working to ship aid to tribals, an attempt was made on my life. I knew the police officer behind it, a vital member of Salwa Judum then. He has now been promoted to a very senior position in Chhattisgarh. Then there is Chavindra Karma, who's not really known in the area for his peace-time activities."

He added that he would once again volunteer to fight a legal battle against the state, if Salwa Judum was launched again.

Back in Bastar, a group of human rights lawyers are also monitoring the developments quite anxiously.

"The threat (of another Salwa Judum) is quite real. We're just waiting and watching for now, to see how this situation will pan out. Signs have been made to hint at a revival of Salwa Judum but political parties have distanced themselves from it, which is heartening to know," said Shalini Gera, a human rights lawyer, who works with Jagdalpur Legal Aid in Bastar.

Another human rights lawyer said, "The threat is quite real since the police and administration are openly supporting it. We have seen how much violence happened last time when people like Kalluri had free reigns. Chavindra's movement has the same tone - peaceful padyatra from village to village. We've gotten in touch with some lawyers in Delhi."

First published: 11 June 2015, 13:29 IST
Suhas Munshi @suhasmunshi

He hasn't been to journalism school, as evident by his refusal to end articles with 'ENDS' or 'EOM'. Principal correspondent at Catch, Suhas studied engineering and wrote code for a living before moving to writing mystery-shrouded-pall-of-gloom crime stories. On being accepted as an intern at Livemint in 2010, he etched PRESS onto his scooter. Some more bylines followed in Hindustan Times, Times of India and Mail Today.