This is Part II in the NL Sena series on Adivasis displaced from Chhattisgarh who now live in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. .
In April last year, Dudhi Ganga was found dead, his body lying by the roadside near Konta in Sukma district, Chhattisgarh.
Ganga, 35, was an Adivasi from Arlampalli village in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district. According to news reports, he fled the state in 2015, fearing Maoist violence. Ganga built a new life in the village of Geletvada in Andhra Pradesh.
Days before his death, a delegation of Adivasis from Chhattisgarh, displaced either due to Maoists or the Salwa Judum, had met chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, seeking their rehabilitation back to Chhattisgarh. Led by a group called the , they submitted the names of 154 Adivasis, presently living in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, who wanted to return home.
Ganga’s was the second name on the list.
Soon after this meeting, he had told New Peace Process members that he was visiting his native village in Sukma to participate in a Dudi clan ceremony that happens every 12 years.
Ganga never returned. In October, according to a press release issued by the Maoists, Maoists claimed responsibility for his death, saying they believed he had been a member of the Judum and had participated in “atrocities” against villagers.
Ganga left behind two wives. He had no children. His death also threw a spanner in the rehabilitation process.
“Following his killing, at least 50 percent of those who put their name on the list wanted their names withdrawn,” said Shubhranshu Choudhary, convenor of the New Peace Process. As to how the list was prepared, he said the Adivasis came up with it themselves when the Chhattisgarh chief minister asked for it.
But this isn’t the first rehabilitation effort to go off the rails. In 2019, 35 families were rehabilitated from Andhra Pradesh back to Chhattisgarh, but left a month later when a local was killed by a Maoist. “They were scared they’d be next,” Choudhary said.
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Maraiguda in Chhattisgarh, the location of a failed rehabilitation attempt in 2019.
As a result, “going home” is no longer an option, as several displaced Adivasis told Newslaundry. There’s of being murdered on suspicion of being an “informer”, like Ganga. Between 2000 and 2020, 1,769 Adivasis were killed on suspicion of being police informers, according to police records. Scores more have been arrested by security forces on false charges of being Maoists.
Madkam Deva, who left Chhattisgarh in 2007 for Telangana, was a member of the delegation that went to Delhi in April 2022 to address a press conference on the rehabilitation of displaced Adivasis. After Ganga’s death, he worried about dying too.
“The situation in Chhattisgarh hasn’t improved yet. Killings have not stopped yet,” said Deva. “Here at least we have some peace and the opportunity to earn a few bucks. If I return, I could become an easy target.”
Madkam Sambhu, who fled Chhattisgarh’s Bastar for Telangana in 2005 when he was just 18 years old, also told Newslaundry he doesn’t want to return to the state that was once his home.
“Until this war continues, it is not safe for us to return,” he said. “We may again be caught in the crossfire. At least here there are no such fears and we are able to earn a livelihood.”
Going home, but how?
On April 4 this year, Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel announced that his government would facilitate the return of displaced Adivasis. Baghel had just met with the New Peace Process delegation and assured them that he would create a conducive environment for their return.
“Those who had to migrate from Sukma, Bijapur and Dantewada districts of Chhattisgarh during the Salwa Judum, and want to come back now will be provided with all kinds of facilities, including ration shop, school, employment, along with land for agriculture,” a press release from Baghel’s office read.
Choudhary, who had been part of the meeting with Baghel, said it had been decided that those Adivasis who wanted to return would initially be settled in roadside camps for their safety. There were no specifics in the press release as to how this rehabilitation would take place.
In May, the Chhattisgarh government conducted a survey of displaced Adivasis in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh to poll whether they wanted to return or not. Haris S, the district collector of Sukma, told Newslaundry that five teams were sent to both states to cover around 85 villages.
“They spoke to around 9,700 villagers. Only eight or nine said they want to come back,” he said. “We prepared a report based on the survey and sent it to higher authorities in June.” He said they’re still waiting to hear back on the next course of action. Newslaundry was unable to access a copy of this report.
Six months have passed since then and there’s been no word.
Manish Kunjam, the former MLA, was critical of the Chhattisgarh government’s plan to rehabilitate displaced Adivasis “on the roadside”.
“First of all, our people love to roam independently. They would need land for livestock and other things. Our people cannot live in confinement,” he said. “Second, any vacant land either belongs to a village or is on the border of a village. So, one has to take the gram panchayat’s permission to establish a village there as per the Forest Rights Act and the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act. And I don’t think any village would give away their land. So, I don’t think it’s a practical solution.”
His theory is that displaced Adivasis must be resettled in their original villages, which would require the state government to consult with tribal bodies like the Sarv Adivasis Samaj and Koya Samaj.
On Adivasis being frightened of returning, Kunjam said “top Maoist leaders” have “no problem” with their return. The issue lies with local Maoist leaders, he said, who “take odd decisions and can even execute killings without the knowledge of top leadership”. His hope is that the tribal bodies, which often meet with these leaders in interior villages, can pave the way for those keen to return.
Kunjam also said it’s up to the central government to intervene and solve these issues. “It involves three states,” he pointed out. “The central government’s intervention is required.”
Choudhary from the New Peace Process agreed. He cited of the Forest Rights Act which gives Scheduled Tribes and traditional forest dwellers the “right to in situ rehabilitation”.
“This problem has dragged on for a long time and needs an early solution,” he said. “Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are also victims here and should push the centre to initiate a process for a permanent solution. But Chhattisgarh needs to take the lead where IDPs [internally displaced persons] have made their applications but no work has been done for them in so many years.”
What went wrong in 2019?
If an Adivasi, who was displaced nearly 17 years ago, was to return to their native village now, would they be welcomed home?
A snapshot of how this would play out was seen in the village of Maraiguda, located deep inside the forests.
Thirty-five families living in Andhra Pradesh resettled in Maraiguda in 2019. They packed up one month later.
Maraiguda is around 30 km from Konta, a town and tehsil in Sukma district in Chhattisgarh. Travellers need to step off the highway from Konta to Sukma and take a muddy, unpaved road from Errabor to a village called Gaganpali. Cross a lake, walk down a bushy trail for seven km, and you’re there.
It was here that an attempt was made in 2019 to rehabilitate the families of 35 displaced Adivasis who were living in Kannapuram village in Andhra Pradesh. Choudhary said the families approached him for help in 2018, asking him to organise their homecoming “as early as possible” so they could ready their land for the next crop season.
Choudhary and his team met Chandan Kumar, the district collector of Sukma, who told them to “get it in writing” that the villagers of Maraiguda would “welcome the displaced Adivasis back and live with them”.
The team did just that. “We went to Maraiguda and wrote out a proposal, saying, ‘We welcome them, they are our people, please bring them back.’ It was signed by all the villagers,” Choudhary said. “We even asked the villagers whether Dadalog” – referring to Maoists – “would be fine with it, and they said yes.”
Choudhary submitted the signed proposal to the district collector and the process to move the Adivasis began. They returned to Chhattisgarh in March 2019.
But the 35 families stayed in Maraiguda for just a month before they packed up and left.
A teacher at the village school said the families found it “very difficult to come and adjust here again”. Another nameless villager said a “killing took place, after which they left”. No one was willing to speak on the record, or even speak at all to a journalist.
Choudhury, however, repeated the “killing” theory, saying a Maoist had killed a villager and the 35 families left in terror. But he put the blame squarely on the police.
“The police visited the returning Adivasis in the village and even issued statements ‘welcoming’ them,” he alleged. “It was obvious that the Maoists would react. After another villager was killed, the returned Adivasis got scared, worried they would be next.”
He added, “I believe this effort to rehabilitate them was, knowingly or unknowingly, deliberately sabotaged by the police.” He emphasised that he had asked the police to “keep away” from the process but they did the opposite.
But this story doesn’t surprise the displaced Adivasis who spoke to Newslaundry.
Vungaram Vanjam, a displaced Adivasi who now lives in Palevagu hamlet in Bhadradri Kothagudem in Telangana, asked why the villagers left behind would welcome them.
“Some villagers were killed, some joined the Judum, some came here to escape the violence,” he said. “Now, if we say we want to go back, they won’t accept us. They’ll say we fled when people were getting killed, and that it was them who went through all that and saved the land. Why would they give us land now?”
Several other villagers in Palevagu, which is home to a large number of Adivasis who left Chhattisgarh in 2005, said they never want to go back, even though they have no electricity, schools, hospitals or even drinking water, save a stream.
“Even though there are fewer facilities here, life is peaceful here,” said Vanjam. “Who wants to go back to get killed? Here at least there are no such tensions. It is difficult to go to the hospital from here and we often use forest herbs for medical treatment. But we still love this place.”
But Vattem Satish, who left Chhattisgarh in mid-2007 to escape what he called “a hell of a life”, isn’t convinced. He along with a few others met Vikram Mandavi, the MLA from Bijapur, twice in February and June last year hoping to be allotted government land in Chhattisgarh so they could return.
“But nothing happened,” he said bitterly. “Here, we live at the mercy of the government. There is no guarantee of what will happen to us. Today, they have snatched away our land. Tomorrow, they may ask us to leave as well. I have been running all my life. Will my children tread the same path?”
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