Chinnaram Gotta ploughs his fields with a tractor, three bodyguards and five guns: two ancient Lee Enfield .303 bolt action rifles, a modern Self Loading Rifle, a 0.315 sports rifle and a double-barrel 12 bore shotgun. While the bodyguards, .303’s and SLR are courtesy the Chhattisgarh police, the sports rifle and shotgun are Gotta’s personal weapons.
“The Maoists have made 29 attempts on my life,” said Mr Gotta, at his home in Pharsegarh village in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district, “I carry a gun when I go to the toilet.”
A wealthy adivasi farmer with more than 200 acres of family land, Mr Gotta is one of the Salva Judum’s earliest leaders, and played a crucial role in transforming a small anti-Maoist protest in 2005 in Karkeli village, Bijapur, into a controversial programme that turned south Bastar into a battlefield.
Five years on, Mr Gotta is one of the founding members of the Dandakaranya Shanti Sangharsh Samiti (DKSSS), an organization unveiled on October 2 this year in Kutru, Bijapur in the presence of Bijapur District Collector Rajat Kumar and Superintendent of Police R.N. Das.
According to a press note in Hindi, the DKSSS “is separate from all prior agitations” and is a peace movement that urges the state administration and CPI (Maoist) to arrive at a solution for the betterment of the adivasis of Bijapur. However, the DKSSS leadership comprises almost entirely of men who shot to prominence at the height of the Salva Judum: Madhukar Rao, Chinnaram Gotta, Vikram Mandavi, Balaram Nag, Jyotiram Azad all made their careers as Judum leaders and have now migrated to the new outfit.
For its supporters, the Salva Judum, variously translated as ‘peace march’ or ‘purification march’ was a spontaneous, peaceful adivasi upsurge against the banned CPI (Maoist) that demonstrated that Chhattisgarh’s tribal population did not support the Maoists. For its detractors, the Judum was a movement of government backed vigilantism that resulted in the forcible displacement of over 60,000 adivasis. Public interest litigations filed in the Supreme Court (Writ Petition (Civil) 250/2007 and Writ Petition (Criminal) 119/2007) accuse Judum members over 500 murders, 99 rapes, and 103 acts of arson.
“It is true that there was some violence during the Judum years,” said Madhukar Rao, “That was because the Judum was infiltrated by the Maoists who carried out atrocities to defame our peaceful movement.” Both Mr Rao and Mr Gotta insist that the DKSSS has learnt from its mistakes and shall carefully vet every individual before offering them membership.
The DKSSS shall also shun all political patronage, according to its founders who believe that the Judum was hijacked by political parties, used for electoral gains and then abandoned when the programme became too controversial. “The administration has abandoned us,” said Mr Gotta, who specifically stated that Mahendra Karma, former leader of opposition and the public face of the Judum, would not be allowed to join the DKSSS.
“Karmaji is free to use our platform to deliver his message, but he shall have no decision making powers,” said Mr Gotta. Mr Karma was not available for comment.
But what about the Judum? “You can say that the Judum has stalled. It is neither stopped, nor is it functioning. Which is why we have started a parallel movement.” said Mr Rao.
According to its leaders, the DKSSS shall peacefully agitate for employment, construction of roads, education and shall play a leading role in ‘convincing’ suspected Maoist sympathizers to give up their allegiance to the party and join the state administration. Mr Gotta said that the state police should recruit as many adivasi youth as possible and make them Special Police Officers (SPO) – a move, he believes, shall provide employment and also assist the state in anti-Maoist operations.
In its pamphlets, the DKSSS explicitly attempts to drive a wedge between the Maoist cadres and leadership. “Maoist leaders are all Reddys from Andhra. We have received information that the rank and file in Chhattisgarh is disillusioned and is looking for avenues to surrender,” Mr Gotta said.
While the movement has thus far stayed below the radar, there are indications that the DKSSS might trigger off a spiral of violence similar to that observed from 2005 to 2007. The CPI (Maoist) has taken note of the formation of organization and has made its opposition clear. “The CPI (Maoist) has called for a 48-hour Dandakaranya bandh on 22 and 23 October with the demand to disband the …new avtar of the fascist Salva Judum,” said CPI (Maoist) spokesperson Gudsa Usendi in a press note sent to this correspondent.
In a throwback to 2005, Bijapur town has also seen the arrival of 87 families from Adhed, an interior village in the Gudipal panchayat, suggesting that the battle-lines between the police and Maoists may be drawn afresh. Pardham Pandu, an SPO from Adhed said that the Maoists had threatened the villagers. Inquires revealed that Adhed has long been a point of contestation between the Maoists and Judum supporters.
While the villagers of Adhed attended anti-Maoist rallies during the Judum, the Maoists allowed them to stay in the village. However, in March this year, the Bijapur police arrested 6 suspected Maoist Sangham members from Adhed and neighbouring Gudipal. “This convinced the Maoists that there were police informers in the village,” said Pandu. In August 16, Pandu said that the Maoists killed sarpanch Phulse Bhima in retaliation. Soon after, villagers from Adhed began to leave their homes, at least ten of whom are planning to join the police force.