“If those killed were ‘extremists’, then why were most of them unarmed?”

Union Tribal Affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo has challenged Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s version of the killing of 20 Adivasis in an anti-Maoist operation by security forces in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district last week. Speaking to The Hindu, Mr Deo said, “I have been getting feedback not just from the Congress State unit but also from voluntary organisations that of the 20 persons gunned down, half were teenagers and a child who sustained injuries was just four years old.”

“If those killed were ‘extremists’,” Mr. Deo asked, “then why were most of them unarmed? No arms were recovered from them.” The first principle of counter-insurgency was that “you don’t shoot unarmed people.” The explanation being put forward that it was dark did not wash as night vision devices were available now, he said. “You cannot fire at random in the dark; it’s inexcusable.”

To the Chhattisgarh government’s plea that half a dozen men of the Central Reserve Police Force had been injured as well and that some of the slain civilians had been used as “human shields” by the Maoists, Mr. Deo’s response was sharp: “The State government has not provided protection to the tribals against the extremists. If the tribals are being forced to assemble at some place, must they pay with their lives?”

Mr. Deo’s comments come in the wake of Mr. Chidambaram backing the Chhattisgarh government’s version and its characterisation of all those killed as Maoists, even as the Congress has ordered a party-level enquiry into the tragic events in Bijapur. Questioned why the Union Home Ministry had backed the State government’s line, Mr. Deo said, “It’s possible the Ministry hasn’t received the proper feedback.”

The reality, he stressed, was that the tribals were being assaulted by both the security forces and the Maoists: “I have always had my reservations about the notorious Salwa Judum created by the government. It has resulted in both the security forces and the Maoists using young tribals to kill each other.”

Mining threat

While he acknowledged that the law and order aspect of the Maoist problem had to be dealt with, Mr. Deo emphasised that until the government addressed the root of the problem, there would be no solution. In this context, the biggest threat to tribals and forest dwellers in the country — apart from the manner in which they were being systematically deprived of all sources of livelihood — was the prospect of mining activity in the areas they lived in.

The Forest Rights Act, Mr. Deo said, must be implemented fully before commencing mining. “The FRA was the first step to recognise the rights of the tribals over their land. If mining begins before you recognise the tribals’ rights over their land, and you simply throw them out, they will be rendered homeless and stateless.”

The government, which was evolving a national mining policy, must therefore ponder over several issues, Mr. Deo said, pointing out that most developed countries were conserving their natural resources. “We are still in a nascent stage of development and we need to consider how much of our mineral wealth we need to exploit. If we mindlessly permit mining now, there may come a time when we don’t have enough for our needs.”

Once the government decided how much needed to be mined in the national interest, then people living in these areas “from time immemorial must be made stakeholders.” It was, therefore, imperative that implementation of “the FRA must precede any mining activity.”