The Karma Of Salwa Judum

What is the Salwa Judum? Who was Mahendra Karma? And why was he killed?

BySomi Das
The Karma Of Salwa Judum
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What’s this about us being back in Naxalbari again? It’s not Naxalbari. It’s the heartland of Chhattisgarh. There was an attack on a convoy of Congress leaders in Chhattisgarh’s Jagdalpur district on Saturday which killed 24 people, including State Congress chief Nand Kumar Patel and senior Congress leader Mahendra Karma and grievously injured VC Shukla. The Maoists have taken responsibility for the attack.

In a four-page note and video clippings sent to the media, Maoist spokesperson from Dandakaranya, says a People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army or PLGA detachment carried out the attack on the convoy.

And the reason for this? The four-page note states that Mahendra Karma, Nand Kumar Patel and V C Shukla were its prime targets. They pointed out that Karma was on their radar for spearheading the Salwa Judum.

So what’s Salwa Judum? In response to the brutality of the Maoists, Salwa Judum was formed in the year 2005 in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. Salwa Judum means “peace march” or purification hunt in Gondi language. The immediate trigger for the locals to form an organised protest group against the red rebels was the Maoist call against collecting tendu leaves, which have both an economic and cultural significance among the tribals. Under the leadership of Mahendra Karma of Congress, the movement got political backing. It was given legitimacy by the Chhatisgarh government and its chief minister Raman Singh.

The Maoists don’t care for people’s movements? Well, not when the people’s movement is a quasi-security force set up to fight against the Maoists themselves. In fact, it is even alleged that the government funded and supported the Salwa Judum movement – but there’s no official documentation to corroborate their support. The death of Karma has suddenly brought the Salwa Judum back into media discourse.

So the government had no role in the Salwa Judum? A large number of the SalwaJudum members were local civilian youth trained by the state government to form an armed militia to fight the menace of Naxalism. The movement then took the shape of a state-sponsored counter-insurgency operation. A huge chunk of funds to train the locals also came from the Centre. With the government intervention, young locals (many of whom were part of the Salwa Judum) were officially trained with arms and came to be known as Special Police Officers (SPOs) or Koya commandoes complete with uniform.

In his book ‘Tales from Shining and Sinking India’ conflict zone-reporter Akash Banerjee gives a firsthand account of an incredible story of a Koya Commando Kichananda, who is a former Naxal-turned-saviour for the untrained CRPF personnel in the rugged terrains of Dantewada. Banerjee documents how commandoes like Kichananda provide the CRPF with insights into Naxal operations.

Sounds like it was all for a good cause. So what made Salwa Juduma name one must never utter? Initially, the militarisation of a local movement worked well for the government. Soon there were reports of Salwa Judum militia unleashing terror with reports of extortion, looting and rape of local women and tribals. Since it came into existence in 2005, over 50,000 villagers have been displaced from their homes and deprived of livelihoods. The group is reported to have indulged in gross human rights violation. The worst part of the Salwa Judum movement was that thousands of youth were being used as human shields by the CRPF in the Naxal-infested region in the state. In fact, according to Forum for Fact-finding Documentation and Advocacy survey, a huge chunk of the “officially recruited 4200 Special Police Officers (SPOs)” were minors. According to a report in The Times of India dated March 20,2010 in a Salwa Judum camp in Konta, Dantewada,“Skinny, impoverished young men dressed in battle fatigues greet you at the camp”.  The report says that uneducated young boys are given training to be SPOs and are paid Rs 2,150 a month. “The government gives the ‘loyal’ inmates rice at Rs 2 a kg, free oil and onions.” The report also says that Judum members cut off supply of provisions to villages if they refuse cooperation or resist relocation.

So is it because of Mahendra Karma’s association with the SalwaJudum that he was targeted in this attack? Known as the Bastar Tiger,Mahendra’s fight against the Maoists dates back to 1991 when he had launched the Jan JagranAndolan – the precursor to Salwa Judum.  It was under Karma’s leadership that the Judum movement gathered momentum and became a force to reckon with. Despite changing party affiliations from CPI to Congress, he was very successful in mobalising locals and motivated them in taking up arms against the Maoists. Belonging to the landed class, Karma’s antipathy to Maoists was obvious. Joining the movement in 2005, Karma said, “This is the first such example where the villagers are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with security forces in the interests of the country”.

There was some skirmish between the Supreme Court and the SalwaJudum, right? In July 2006, the Supreme Court banned Salwa Judum.  In a scathing judgment, the Supreme Court chided the Chhattisgarh government for letting an armed militia flourish under its watch. In its judgment the court said: “This case represents a yawning gap between the promise of principled exercise of power in a constitutional democracy, and the reality of the situation in Chhattisgarh, where the Respondent, the State of Chattisgarh, claims that it has a constitutional sanction to perpetrate, indefinitely, a regime of gross violation of human rights in a manner, and by adopting the same modes as done by Maoist/Naxalite extremists. The State of Chhattisgarh also claims that it has the powers to arm, with guns, thousands of mostly illiterate or barely literate young men of the tribal tracts, who are appointed as temporary police officers, with little or no training, and even lesser clarity about the chain of command to control the activities of such a force, to fight the battles against alleged Maoist extremists.”

So what did the SPOs do after they were banned? Was the government kind enough to rehabilitate them or did they just pretend they didn’t exist? The ban became the cause of much heartburn for both Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh and then-Home Minister P Chidambaram. Raman Singh never accepted the existence of Salwa Judum and considered SPOs a part of government strategy to counter Naxalism. After the SC ruling, the Raman Singh government issued an ordinance to create the Chhattisgarh Auxiliary Force to absorb SPOs in regular employment. The ordinance provided legal ground to the Centre to continue funding of anti-naxal operations in the BJP-ruled state.

The Centre in its clarification application said that the SPOs were not peculiar to Chhattisgarh and they are a part of the government’s anti-Naxal strategy in other states also. Author and sociologist, Nandini Sundar who filed the petition in Supreme Court to ban SalwaJudum says that the ban was never implemented by the state government. In a Firstpost report, she is quoted as saying, “On no count has the government done anything to implement the Supreme Court judgment. In fact, they have done everything to subvert it and make the situation worse”. The situation has indeed worsened. Locals are now caught in the cross-fire between the Salwa Judum and the Maoists. Saturday’s attack though, was the first one in which politicians were killed, with the prime target being Karma.

So, Karma took the bullet but why were the Gandhis not present at his funeral? Well, perhaps they don’t like politicising the death of their leaders or garnering sympathy votes even when the elections are due for in Chhattisgarh later this year.  And while they were riding high on the popularity of Karma among the tribals in the ongoing election campaign, his involvement with an ‘unconstitutional’ body like Salwa Judum may not be best thing for the Congress to associate itself at this time of the year.

Finally, it’s quite puzzling to see the Media using the words Maoists and Naxals in the same line and the same breath. Are they all the same?

Well it depends on the context. The Naxal movement began as a peasant uprising in Naxalbari in West Bengal against the zamindaars in the year 1967. (Read more on Naxalite movement Maoists on the other hand are followers of Mao Zedong’s ideology. Maoism also revolves around peasant revolution and land rights. In the Indian context though, the terms are often used interchangeably.


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