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Salwa Judum

Chhattisgarh’s new Bastariya Battalion evoked memories of a disbanded force, and of concerns associated with it. But CRPF says these personnel have been trained far better, will give the force a clear human edge. On 10 Decembefr 2018, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh attended the passing-out parade of a newly formed battalion of the CRPF, the Bastariya Warriors, at the Anti- Naxal Training School in Ambikapur. The battalion, numbered 241, is unique: all the 549 recruits come exclusively from four districts in Bastar, and several relaxations in physical attributes were granted to them during the recruitment process.

Salwa Judum began in 2005 as a government-backed "people's resistance movement" against the Maoists sub-region of Bastar (baanstari, a Halbi word meaning the bed of or the land of bamboos) in Chattisgarh. Bastar is not the entire Chattisgarh — only the southern part of it. The three different sub-regions of Bastar are culturally and demographically different as it is a huge territory — equal/larger than some of the states of India.

In the Gondi language of the tribals of Dantewada and Bastar, Salwa Judum means peace march. Salwa Judum, if interpreted as a Gondi metaphor, or as one word, which it is, means rallying/bonding together. But if it is broken into two words, Salwa and Judum, the meaning changes; it becomes purification hunt, ghost busting (bhoot bhagana), etc.

The movement began in January across different villages of non-Abujhmaad (the unknown hills of Madia/ Koya tribe) region that initially galvanized approximately 20,000 tribals. It was spontaneous and non-political. It was unique as the movement was against a ‘revolutionary’ party, the Maoist, and not the state or the zamindari system as most peasant movements in rural India were in the past. Its build-up was the culmination of suppressed anger of the tribals that had developed over the decades against the Party.

But it involved authorities arming tribal villagers to fight the Maoists. The state created Salwa Judum, armed them and launched them against the local tribals resisting the bourgeois interests. “Arming sections of local people comprising disgruntled elements of the once dominating tribal elite, local non-tribal contractors and business persons and extreme right wing Hindutva cadres was a conscious policy decision of the government which was passed off as people’s resistance”.

Salwa Judum was mobilised in 2005 by the late Congress leader Mahendra Karma, who was assassinated by Naxals in 2013. At the very least, it was manufactured in Delhi, Raipur and in the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, and not in some Dantewada village. The movement was launched in 2005 and remained faceless initially. Subsequently it was led by Kalma Masa alias Mahendra Karma, a local Gond and a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) who was earlier with the Communist Party of India (CPI) and later joined the Congress.

It was also supported by the state and its political appendages. A small fraction of the movement’s activists (approximately 3,000) was recruited in the auxiliary police of Chattisgarh under the 1860 Police Act to protect them from the Maoist as well as assist the movement.12 The outside political support brought in new social dynamics. The number of rebel participants swelled over to 80,000 and more within a short span as the fear of Maoist retribution declined.

By the time the force was banned by the Supreme Court in 2011, it had acquired a bloody and controversial reputation. The state government allegedly supplied arms and tacit support to the Judum, which had turned into a vigilante group, recruiting poorly trained youth as “Koya Commandos”, or “SPOs (Special Police Officers)”. Many of the volunteers were former Maoists. Many people were killed, there were numerous allegations of the Judum entering and burning villages, several accusations of sexual assault, and of thousands being displaced from their homes. For the trapped villagers in Bastar’s forests, there were only two options: either stay put and be declared a Maoist, or move to Salwa Judum camps set up by the state. Thousands left their homes never to return.

The civilians whom it armed and christened the Salwa Judum, euphemistically calling it a ‘people’s movement’, began burning villages, killing people and raping women. Officially 644 villages, comprising some 3 lakh people, had been affected by Salwa Judum, and lived under the daily threat of attack and displacement. Some 50,000 were forcibly herded into camps, similar to the regrouping that happened in Nagaland in the 1950s and Mizoram in the 1960s. Those who escaped the regrouping – a lakh or so – migrated to Andhra Pradesh.

The civil society — the activists, the journalists, the academics — mainly urban-centric and writing in English, focused on the critique of the state, particularly against the local BJP government in Chattisgarh. Nandini Sundar went as far as to state that “... the BJP, in particular, has a history of justifying violence by displacing it onto ‘people’— whether the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the action–reaction theory of the Gujarat genocide, or now the Salwa Judum”.

Violence against adivasis by Maoists and Salwa Judum in Dantewada, Chattisgarh was brought to the notice of the National Human Rights Commission of India. The Commission called for a report from the State Government. While the matter was under consideration of the Commission, the Supreme Court on the basis of a writ petition filed before it, directed the Commission to examine/verify allegations relating to violation of human rights by Naxalites and Salwa Judum and the living conditions in the refugee settlement colonies.

The Supreme Court asked the Commission to appoint an appropriate fact finding Committee and submit a report. In compliance with the directions of the Apex Court, a team from Investigation Division in the Commission visited remote tribal and forest areas of Chattisgarh and the adjoining State of Andhra Pradesh, for collecting facts. There were incidents of attack on police by some groups during the visit of the team. Threat to their lives did not deter the team from performing their assigned task and they completed the visit.

In September 2008 the Bench comprising former Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan and Justices P Sathasivamand JM Panchal after going through the report remarked, “The allegation is that the stateis arming private persons. You can deploy as many police personnel or armed forces totackle the menace. But, if private persons, so armed by the state government, kill other persons, then the state is also liable to be prosecuted as abettor of the murder."

The Supreme Court put the onus on the Chhattisgarh government to prevent any such activity in future: “The State of Chattisgarh shall take all appropriate measures to prevent the operation of any group, including but not limited to Salwa Judum and Koya Commandos, that in any manner or form seek to take law into private hands, act unconstitutionally or otherwise violate the human rights of any person. The measures to be taken by the State of Chattisgarh shall include, but not be limited to, investigation of all previously inappropriately or incompletely investigated instances of alleged criminal activities of Salwa Judum, or those popularly known as Koya Commandos, filing of appropriate FIRs and diligent prosecution.”

Underdevelopment, unemployment and a constant fight for equity and justice that has been long denied to the rural regions of the country propelled expansion of Maoist ideologies. Although their talks about fighting for the rights of the poor and not so privileged sections found ground with the tribals initially, the gradual change in resorting to suppressive measures was not appreciated by many. In such a scenario the standing up of tribals against Maoist violence could be seen as a positive step. The formation of Salwa Judum did help in containing the Maoist expansion. This privately sponsored vigilante group that recruited tribals and trained them to fight Maoists in the region added fuel to the constant state of war in the region. This constant state of war between the Salwa Judum and Maoists led to large scale displacement of people and gross violations of human rights.

The State of Chhattisgarh rewarded the Koya Commandos with more money, better guns and an official title, “Armed Auxiliary Forces’. The surrendered sangham members and others who simply wanted a job were conscripted as Special Police Officers (SPOs), given guns and let loose on the villagers. They were accompanied initially by the Naga India reserve battalion, and later by the CRPF. With the BJP at the Centre, the operation against the Maoists in the state entered a critical stage as trained forces started challenging well-entrenched Maoists deep inside the strongholds of Bastar, Sukma, Bijapur and Dantewada, the areas which were inaccessible hitherto. This offensive coincided with large scale of development and infrastructure work undertaken by the Centre in the area to facilitate accessibility and bring marginalised people into the mainstream.

Perhaps for the first time the challenge of Maoist insurgency is being faced squarely together by the governments at the Centre and the state. Ideologically, both the governments are on the same wavelength with regard to insurrectionary radical left. This coordinated move has practically cornered Maoists whose front leaders are being eliminated successively. Unlike the past when human right activists and NGOs put up resistance to operation against insurgents, the new dispensation does not carry any such baggage and gives two hoots about the opinions of NGOs or intellectuals covertly favouring Maoists. The battle lines are clear this time and the governments are using all resources at its command to curb Maoism.

At the same time, the government offered various schemes to ameliorate the condition of the tribals. Apart from the state initiated scheme of providing rice and ration at cheap rate, the union government has been going out of its way to provide tribals accessibility to amenities like electricity, water and gas. There is a determined attempt to provide medical facilities at the local level to mitigate people’s plight. The fact these basic facilities are denied in this region for decades on end creates dissonance between people and the governance.

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