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Updated: June 4, 2011 19:17 IST

Barefoot - Living with civil war

Harsh Mander
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Caught in the crossfire... Photo: Akhilesh Kumar
Caught in the crossfire... Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Caught between the Maoists, the security forces and the civilian vigilante groups, the communities of Dantewada have for all purposes been abandoned by the State developmental machinery…

It is an ancient land, weighed down today by great suffering. A land ravaged and devastated by unending fratricidal undeclared civil war; by regular eruptions of both land mines and hate; by recurring blood-letting and pervasive fear; by centuries of oppression and want. It is a land with no clear heroes and villains, only clear and desperate victims.

I found myself fleetingly at the epicentre of the Maoist insurgency, which has smouldered for decades over large tracts of tribal and forested central India. I was deputed to investigate for the Supreme Court, complaints of starvation in villages of Dantewada district in South Bastar, resulting from attacks on their homes and grain stores.

Devastated landscape

The state government helicopter descended over a small clearing amidst the trees. I could see even as we flew over the settlement the burnt shells of the torched homes of the residents. A clutch of residents gathered to speak to us. Most were thin, even emaciated; the children showed clear symptoms of malnourishment. Their eyes were marked by fear and resignation, as were their answers. There were more uniformed soldiers of security forces in the village than civilian residents.

The day I visited the village was coincidentally the first anniversary of the Maoist killing of 76 CRPF personnel very near that village. At the central square of the village, Maoists had constructed a red painted memorial to the eight Maoists who were killed during that attack. The names of the Maoist ‘martyrs' were inscribed in Hindi on the column, amidst triumphant claims of the ‘victory' of their successful assault. Officials claim that the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army was supported by village associations, including of the village Morpalli where we had landed. They believed that the residents were ‘sympathisers' of the Maoist insurgents.

This is perhaps why their homes were destroyed, for the second time in four years. When I visited the burnt-down huts and grain stores of the villagers and spoke to some of the women there, I could observe that this was not simply a routine surgically executed attack of armed forces. There was evidence of vicious personalised hatred of the kind that I have observed only in communal pogroms and anti-dalit attacks. The villagers claimed their homes were attacked by armed civilian vigilantes of the Salwa Judum, supported by security forces.

The indigent local tribal communities are trapped in unending cycles of often brutal violence, unleashed consecutively by Maoists, security forces and vigilante armed civilian groups such as the Salwa Judum, and its incarnations by other names. Each group claims that their attacks are retributive and defensive, and that they have not initiated the violence. But none of the groups can defend such a claim.

The villagers also suffer the consequences of taking sides — or being seen to be taking sides — with each of these warring groups. They are condemned equally if they act or they do not act. They are called upon by visiting dalams or squads of Maoist militants to supply them food, uniforms and sanctuary. They frequently comply, whether out of active sympathy with their ideology of armed rebellion, or from fear and helplessness. As a consequence, many ordinary villagers are jailed as Maoist sympathisers, under draconian anti-terror and anti-militancy laws in the State, and languish for long periods in prison, without even the succour of national and international support and human rights backing as surged for Binayak Sen. Security forces often camp in the villages, or march through these, and make similar claims on the impoverished local residents, grabbing their grain and livestock, and demanding that they cook for them and serve them. They also suffer bouts of brutal retaliatory violence from the vigilante civilian groups like the Salwa Judum, who unleash periodic violent attacks on local villagers.

The reliance on civilian vigilante groups to fight the Maoists, or more accurately to terrorise local villagers so that they desist from supporting the militants — and punishing them when they are seen to aid the dadas or Maoist dalams — has bitterly torn apart the social fabric of the homogenous tribal communities. It is not unusual, say, for one brother to be a recruit of the Salwa Judum and his sister to have joined one of the Maoist squads, and the old parents left in the village struggling to survive the consequences of the violence of both. These vigilante groups have been, and continue to be, supported actively by the state government, and ironically also by sections of the main opposition party, the Congress. They have armed and trained them, extended an informal amnesty for all their lawless violent actions and appointed many as Special Police Officers.

Their fragile economic conditions are aggravated further by the virtual abandonment of the local people by the entire state government machinery, except the security forces. Apart from the recently resumed PDS, almost all other most basic public services are unavailable to the villagers. The Maoists had bombed and razed the school building in 2007, and since then no school has functioned in the village. There is no ICDS centre and I could see highly malnourished children all around me; very few aged persons receive pensions. The sub-health centres were also not functioning. This is the only village I have visited anywhere in the country in which the villagers had not even heard of the Mahatma Gandhi NREGA, let alone possess job cards or receive wage employment in public works.

Dysfunctional

The elected Sarpanch was absconding from the village for many years. The Secretary of the village panchayat had not visited the village for four years. She ventured into the village, as did the teacher and ICDS worker, only because of our visit – although they presumably were drawing their salaries regularly. On enquiry, I found that she was a non-tribal, wife of the local grain trader and moneylender! She recalled that many years earlier, she visited the village occasionally with her husband, when he went there to buy or sell grain to the villagers. But since the Maoists gathered strength, her husband's visits dried up, and so have hers!

However, there are also a few fine and courageous officials at various levels, including reportedly the earlier Collector of Dantewada, Prasanna, who braved fears of attack and roamed the length and breadth of the district, without being blocked or intimidated by Naxalites.

Worrying data

The districts of South Bastar are economically and socially devastated by the conflict, but even otherwise are among the poorest in the country. Equally worrying is recent data from the Census 2011 that the decadal rate of growth of population of these districts is far below that of the state and country. In Dantewada, it is as low as 11.90 per cent (and in Bijapur 8 per cent) as compared to 22.59 per cent for the state. This could be because of large number of deaths due to hunger and illness, displacement or simply because they were not counted by the census officials.

I also spoke to the security forces, uniformed armed young men from many parts of the country. Some had moved from other combat locations such as Kashmir. They worked in hostile, unfamiliar and insecure conditions, and could not communicate with the local villagers in their dialect. I tried to remind them that their duty was to protect the local villagers rather than to fight them. That these were their own people, caught up in extreme poverty and a prolonged bloody conflict. They deserved their humane support and protection, not violence and intimidation.

The Maoist revolt and the state's counter-insurgency have doomed the impoverished fragile forest-based communities to unending fear and violence, and the abdication of the developmental state. The battle against Maoist violence (and vigilante ‘ counter-violence') will be won in the end not by armed commandos and the further shedding of blood, but by schools, health centres, feeding centres and employment.

However, this is one war no one is waging today.

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