Faced with the elimination on Saturday of its frontline leaders in Chhattisgarh in a brutal Maoist attack, months ahead of Assembly elections in that State, the Congress has decided to train its guns on the Raman Singh-led BJP government there, holding it responsible for the lack of security that led to the tragedy.
On Tuesday, party spokesperson Bhakta Charan Das, taking cue from the stern line that Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi reportedly took with the Chhattisgarh Chief Minister, pointed out that when the BJP top brass had travelled in the same Bastar region for their Vikas Yatra, they had a security cover of 3,000 police personnel. “Then why the required security cover was not given to the Congress leaders? Why this discrimination when other political party is having the same kind of democratic activity?”
He also charged the BJP government with indulging in crony capitalism, saying “… the State government is solely concerned about private companies causing loss of water, forest, mines and lands to the local tribals. These companies … are encouraging Naxalism in the State by funding them heavily so that the local people always live in panic.”
In the months preceding Saturday’s massacre, the Congress had launched its parivartan yatra, and under the leadership of Nand Kumar Patel, who was appointed PCC chief in April 2011, the party had begun to make an impact in the Bastar division where it had once held sway but had lost ground to the BJP over the last decade. Indeed, in the 2008 Assembly elections, the BJP had won 11 of the 12 seats — one solitary constituency, Konta, was retained by the Congress’ Kawasi Lakhma, the man, incidentally, who was abducted along with Patel and his son, Dinesh, on Saturday by the Maoists, and then released. Patel and his son, of course, were killed. In 1998, it was the Congress that had won 11 of the 12 seats in the division.
Given that in 2008, the difference between the Congress and the BJP was less than two per cent, and the number of seats that divided them was 12, a change in the mood in the Bastar region could make all the difference to the Congress, party sources stressed on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, even as conspiracy theories swirled around about the reason why the Congress leaders were targeted by the Maoists (ranging from internal sabotage to hints suggesting that this was the Brahmastra that Mr. Raman Singh had promised a few months ago to deploy in case all else failed), party sources pointed out that over the last decade even as activity by the extremists waxed and waned, the RSS’ Vanvasi Kalyan Kendra — that works among the tribals — grew in the area.
Indeed, the history of the Salwa Judum is interesting. In 2005, Mr. Raman Singh and Mahendra Karma — who was killed on Saturday — the then Congress Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, in a unique burst of collaborative inventiveness, created the Salwa Judum, a vigilante group, to take on the Maoists. By then the State had already ceased to exist in Bastar and its representatives — corrupt policemen, forest rangers and village heads, all exploiters of the Adivasis — were at the receiving end of Maoist ire. That situation changed dramatically after the arrival of the Salwa Judum, which had the backing of wealthy tribal leaders, traders and contractors.
Now ordinary Adivasis, who were being forced into the Salwa Judum by the administration or special police officers (SPOs) — drawn from among young Salwa Judum activists or ex-Sangham members (village-level Maoists) — were the targets. By placing the SJ/SPOs in the front line of the battle against the Maoists, the government succeeded in setting tribal against tribal.
The Salwa Judum never had any clear structure, hierarchy or functionaries barring the man who headed it, Mahendra Karma. Astutely, the BJP allowed Karma to be the Salwa Judum’s public face, leading to his being known, in the early days, as “the 60th member of BJP CM Raman Singh’s Cabinet.” Interestingly, the plan had actually been hatched by the BJP’s Brij Mohan Aggarwal, a former Home Minister. “Raman Singh and Mahendra Karma discussed Aggarwal’s scheme and decided that a bipartisan ‘non-political movement’,” a senior Vanvasi Kalyan Kendra leader had told this writer in 2006, “would make it easier to get funds from the Centre.”
They were right: the Salwa Judum experiment received the Centre’s tacit support.
The BJP divided the tribal population, using the Salwa Judum as an entry point, destroyed Karma, who failed to win a single election since then, either to the Assembly or the Lok Sabha — and wiped out the Congress base. The BJP, which used Karma as a pawn, ended up ruling the roost in Bastar.
The CPI’s Manish Kunjam had even accused the BJP of systematically destroying the political process in Bastar. “The Salwa Judum was created deliberately,” he had told this writer in 2010 “to help the BJP enter a region where the Congress and the CPI had a base. It used the political vacuum to make inroads through its sister organisations like the Vanvasi Kalyan Kendra.”
The Congress was trying in recent months to reverse that trend, with some success. Now, after Saturday’s tragedy, will the Congress gain sympathy or with much of its leadership gone, be on the backfoot again?