It’s a miserable life in the camps and going back to their villages means risking the Maoists' wrath.
For nearly nine years now, Paike Vaika, 46, has been waiting to return home to Neeram village on the northern bank of the Indravati river in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh’s Bastar. She can only hope.
Paike is among the thousands of Adivasis who live in Bastar’s Salwa Judum camps. The Salwa Judum, a counterinsurgency militia of Adivasi villagers and surrendered Naxals backed by the security forces, ran amok in the region in the second half of the 2000s, murdering, raping, pillaging, and burning down entire villages. By one estimate, they emptied out 644 villages and herded their inhabitants into internment camps. They also forced villagers to join their ranks under the threat of violence. This was meant to deprive the rebels of local support networks. It devastated Adivasi communities.
By 2011, when the Supreme Court declared the militia illegal and ordered its disbanding, there were 48,000 people in its 23 camps across Bastar. In the years since, thousands of interned Adivasis have found their way back home but over 15,000 are still stuck in the camps. Like Paike.
Paike lives in Dantewada’s Kasauli camp, which once doubled up as a training facility for the Salwa Judum.
“I have been living in this camp for 10 years even though I was tired of this place within months of arriving,” she said. “I didn’t come here by choice. Police called people from our village for a meeting. But when they got here, they were arrested and put in the camp. My husband was among them. Once he was interned, I had to come as well. The police labelled us Naxals while the Naxals still call us Salwa Judum.”
Paike and her husband, Manglu Oyami Veka, 50, have been working as daily wage labourers since arriving in Kasauli, and she hates it. “We had six-seven acres of land in our village. We would sell some of our harvest as well as forest produce for cash. We had no shortage of food. We had our forest. Here, we have been carrying bricks and mortar for 10 years. In a way, our lives have been completely destroyed. We hate it here but we cannot go back because the Naxals will kill us.”
Someday, though, she may be able to return. She has pinned her hopes on a small bridge being built on the Indravati.
“Our village will be more easily accessible to the police once the bridge is completed, so we won’t be as fearful of Naxals,” she explained. “But who knows how long we have to wait for that to happen.” The bridge, on which work started last year, is nowhere near completion.
Many of those still living in the Kasauli camp are former Salwa Judum militiamen who were later designated Special Police Officers, or their family members. They, too, long for home, but don’t dare go back for fear of the Naxals.
Surya Madwi, 35, was made an SPO in 2009, four years after he had left his Pusalma village, Dantewada, for the Kasauli camp. “The Naxals had started killing village heads and they would tell us anybody who opposed them would be killed,” he said, explaining how he ended up at the camp. “They would force villagers at gunpoint to demolish schools. It got worse after the Salwa Judum came. They and the Naxals both targeted the villages frequently. The problem was that the police called us Naxals and the Naxals considered us to be members of the Salwa Judum. Innocent villagers were losing their lives in this war between the police and the Salwa Judum.”
Surya’s salary increased from Rs 1,500 per month in 2009 to Rs 15,000 in 2015. It hasn’t budged much since, and Surya is unhappy.
“I have participated in several operations against the Naxals over the years,” he said. “I barely survived the explosion and gunfight in Bacheli near Nerli Ghat. I perform the same duties as a sub inspector from the police or the DRG. But their salary is Rs 40,000-50,000 a month and mine is just Rs 15,000.”
The DRG, or the District Reserve Guard, is a Chhattisgarh police unit made up almost entirely of local Adivasis and surrendered Maoists.
Surya would leave his job and return to his village in an instant if it weren’t such a dangerous prospect. “Village life was good. We would farm, pick forest produce, catch fish. We had everything we needed. We only had to buy soap, salt, some clothes from outside. We left all that and came here, but there is nothing in these Salwa Judum camps, not even a respectable income,” he rued. “We can’t go back home. We are stuck in these tiny houses, we can’t even go to markets or fairs anymore. This animosity will last generations. My children won’t be safe even after I’m gone. We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The government used us to fight the Maoists and has now abandoned us.”
Jai Kishore Mandawi, 17, has spent most of his life in the Kasauli camp. His family moved to the camp in 2009 from Pusalma, escaping the Maoists. There, his father Mangduram Mandawi was designated an SPO. “In 2015, the Naxals killed my father at Tumnar market,” Jai told Newslaundry. "We can’t go back to the village because the Naxals will kill us. I work as a daily wage labourer now to feed our family.”
Mayawati Ujji came to the camp with her family from Neram village when she was eight. She is 23 now. “I am a manual labourer,” she said. “I came here when I was young. I don’t know much about our village but I know I cannot go back. Naxals will kill me if I do.”
Ghasiram, 25, is a relatively new arrival at the camp. He survived the Salwa Judum but had to flee his Vidam village in Dantewada in 2016. “I ran away because the Naxals thought I spied for the police. My parents still live in the village. I haven’t seen them in four years. I work as a labourer here. I got married but my wife left because there wasn’t enough income,” he said. “I used to farm in the village and I had everything there. I don’t know what to do. There’s no work here and I will be killed if I go back.”
Bhima Karma, 50, from Faraspal village, was made an SPO in 2009 and moved to the Kasauli camp. “I have fought Naxals in the hills of Jagargunda. We joined Salwa Judum because Mahendra Karma called us here and now we are marked for life. I had 25 acres of land and cattle in our village. It was a glorious life. There’s nothing here and we can’t go back,” he said. “I have two sons, one is with the DRG, the other runs a shop. Who knows if we will ever be able to go back.”
Mahendra Karma was a senior Congress leader and minister who played a pivotal role in organising the Salwa Judum. He was killed in a Maoist attack in 2013.
The register of Salwa Judum’s heinous crimes is shamefully long.
The militiamen gang raped three women at the Jangla camp, Bijapur, a pregnant woman in Neelam village and, along with CRPF men, a woman in Karremarka on India’s Independence Day in 2006. They slashed off a woman’s breasts and stabbed her in the genitals, killing her, at Dhoram village in 2005. Indeed, Salwa Judum employed sexual violence against women as a weapon.
In October 2005, Salwa Judum SPOs and CRPF men assaulted a man at Mankeli village, Bijapur, gouged out his eyes, ripped open his chest, and tore apart his limbs. They also slaughtered four other villagers and burnt down 60 houses. In March 2007, a contingent of 15 SPOs led by a Chhattisgarh police official similarly gouged out the eyes of three inmates at the Salwa Judum camp in Bijapur’s Matwada, and crushed their heads with rocks.
This is just a snapshot of the atrocities committed by the Salwa Judum. In fact, most of their crimes were not even recorded, or even acknowledged by the government, either because the victims were terrified to complain or the police wouldn’t register their complaints.
The Salwa Judum’s reign of terror led to a brutal response from the Naxals, who harassed villagers to join or work for them. The rebels killed Adivasis they suspected of working for the militia or the police. The village head of Palnar and his three associates were killed merely for attending a Salwa Judum meeting in 2005. Gaita Bodu, 70, was murdered in Gongla village, Bijapur, for the same reason. While the Salwa Judum drove Adivasi villagers into internment camps, the Naxals wanted them to leave their homes and move deep into the forests.
The Naxals looted money and grains from Adivasis who didn’t support them. They destroyed school, anganwadi and hospital buildings. They wouldn’t allow panchayats to function. Anyone who dared defy them was met with violence.
Shubhransh Chaudhary, a veteran journalist and peace activist in Bastar, was a witness to the conflict between the Maoists and the Salwa Judum and the havoc it wrought upon Adivasi communities.
“Salwa Judum was a strategic policy that failed, terribly,” he said. “They emptied out villages and forced people to live in camps. Atrocities committed by the Salwa Judum led to many people joining the Maoists. The villages were torn by the conflict. One section of the population joined the Salwa Judum, some ran into jungles and joined the Naxals, many of those who didn’t want to take sides were left with no option but to move to Andhra Pradesh.”
He added: “Naxalism grew in Chhattisgarh because of Salwa Judum’s oppression. The Naxal insurgency was there before but local people were not part of it. Naxals gained support because of what Salwa Judum did. A Maoist leader told me once they were thankful for Salwa Judum, for helping them grow.”
Salwa Judum is history but innocent Adivasis continue to be killed and imprisoned without trial by the security forces, as Newslaundry has detailed in this series. One such killing, in fact, took place while we were in Bastar reporting for this story.
In the morning on March 19, Badru Pandu Madwi, 22, his friend Samdu Madwi, 21, and a few women from Gampur village, Bijapur, were going into the nearby forest to gather Mahua leaves – a source of income for Adivasis – when they chanced upon a DRG patrol who shot Badru dead without warning.
“Badru and Samdu were walking with us. Then they moved ahead to shoo away cattle from near the Mahua tree,” said Kosi Kosa Madwi, in her late 30s, who witnessed the murder. “They shot him in front of us.”
Sumri Tamo, 40, witnessed it, too, in horror. “Badru was shot right in front of us. I couldn’t believe what I saw. There were about 100 police personnel there,” she said. “When we tried stopping them from taking away his body, they beat us too.”
Badru’s mother Madko Pandu Madwi was away when he was killed. “I had gone to meet my sister, who is in the Jagdalpur jail,” she said, sobbing. “I came back to find my son had been shot dead. He was not a Naxal. He was an ordinary Adivasi. He never harmed anyone.”
Angered by Badru’s murder, Adivasis from Gampur as well as the neighbouring villages of Doditumnar, Badepalli, Vengpal, Andri, Tamodi, and Iroli refused to take his body until his killers were arrested.
On March 20, they gathered in Iroli, wanting to organise a protest march to demand the arrest of Badru’s killers, but Dantewada’s administration had imposed restrictions on gatherings in view of the coronavirus pandemic. So, local panchayat leaders suggested that the villagers take Badru’s body and file a case against the DRG personnel later.
As the discussions were going on, Badru’s mother sat silently at the edge of the crowd, staring into the distance with teary eyes. She knew perhaps her slain son would never get justice. For that’s the lived reality of Bastar’s Adivasis.
This story is part of the NL Sena project, which 35 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Manas Karambelkar, Abhimanyu Chitoshia, Adnan Khalid, Siddhart Sharma, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Sreya Bhattacharya, Abhishek Singh, and other NL Sena members. Contribute to our next NL Sena project, Long Wait for Home, and help to keep news free and independent.