Andhra Pradesh

Tribes from Sukma still live in the crosshairs

A tribal family at a settlement of the Internal Displaced People in Chintoor Agency in East Godavari district.   | Photo Credit: T. APPALA NAIDU

It was a dark, chilly night in the winter of 2005. Madivi Appa (name changed), a Koya tribal, began a long trek along with his kin through the forests of the Dandakaranya in Chhattisgarh, accompanied by three other families.

They were fleeing their remote village on foot under the cover of darkness, leaving behind their homes, their fields and their belongings. While they had no destination in mind, their goal was clear — to escape the Maoist-Salwa Judum crossfire in which they had become unwitting scapegoats.

Survival for the tribes in this region was getting difficult by the day. Already in the crosshairs of the Maoist conflict, things took an even worse turn after the rise of Salwa Judum, a militia comprising local tribal youth that was deployed to counter the left-wing extremists with the support of the Chhattisgarh government.

Winter horror

Mr. Appa decided to flee his village after tragedy knocked on his door. “The Maoists caught hold of my 32-year-old cousin, and accused our family of feeding information to the government. We pleaded to them that government representatives meet us as we are the ‘Patels’ of our village, and assured them that we had never planned to join the Salwa Judum. We even offered them our cattle, harvest and everything we had. But they did not pay heed and executed my cousin in front of the entire village,” recounted Mr. Appa.

The Maoists wanted to send out a message that any villager wishing to join the Salwa Judum would have to pay with his life, he said.

“On that night, we walked nearly 40 km, leaving behind our harvested sesame, house, cattle, and our 20 acres of land. We did not know if we would be able return to our village ever. We just wanted to live in peace. We reached the Chintoor forests in undivided Andhra Pradesh and made it our home,” said Mr. Appa.

The Maoists killed 173 special police officers (Koya Commandos) of the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh between 2005 and 2011.

Thousands of tribals fled their villages in the Dandakaranya region and arrived in Andhra Pradesh. In July 2011, the Supreme Court declared Salwa Judum unconstitutional, directing the Chhattisgarh government to disband it with immediate effect. By then, over 6,660 tribal people from the Dandakaranya region —Sukma, Dantewarda and Bijapur districts— had settled in East and West Godavari districts.

A majority of them fled during the conflict between 2005 and 2011. The first batch of four families including that of Mr. Appa arrived in Chintoor forest in 2015. Now, the settlement has 19 families (Internally Displaced People), a majority of them having fled the conflict zone in Chhattisgarh.

The new conflict

“A new conflict has emerged in our villages. Those who had chosen to stay back during the conflict are now not ready to allow us to return. They say that it is them who had endured the conflict, while we chose to flee to safe zones,” said a 20-year-old Koya youth who lives in the same settlement.

“Now, we can no longer return to our native villages and stake claim on our land and ancestral properties. Our families are scared to return now,” he added.

A group of activists working for the development of the IDPs said that it is time the government framed a policy to decide the future of the internally displaced tribes.

“The conflict came to an end eventually. But the struggle of those who fled continues,” said another Koya tribe.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 10:04:22 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/tribes-from-sukma-still-live-in-the-crosshairs/article33670473.ece

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