Chattisgarh goes J&K way-I

There are two similarities between Jammu & Kashmir, North East India, and Chhattisgarh? First, they seem to have been touched by god himself and secondly for the people living in these places, god is dead.

Those who believe in ‘independent’ India need to take the long trains to these places to see its real meaning. The beauty of these three places are punctured with destruction of war and shrill cries of terror.

Being border states, the pain of J&K and the North East have been well documented. What is surprising at first sight is Chhattisgarh’s similar plight.

Chhattisgarh, a state carved out of Madhya Pradesh on November 1, 2000 has some of the largest reserves of minerals anywhere in the world with coal, iron ore (23 per cent of India’s deposit), limestone, dolomite, bauxite and cassiterite reserves being the largest in the country. Also abundant are gold, tin, diamonds, uranium, corundum and copper. It isn’t surprising that Chhattisgarh accounts for over 13 per cent of India’s total mineral production, worth around Rs 4,000 crore a year. Thus, despite not being a border state, it is a ‘vital’ organ of the country. Perhaps that explains the violence.

Bastar, the southernmost part of the state, has the 32 km long and 4 km wide Bailadila hills, part of the Dandakaranya forest, and first abode of Rama according to Hindu mythology. Tribals account for 70 per cent of Bastar’s population. The nearest cities to Dantewada, the largest district in Bastar – Raipur, Vishakhapatnam, Hyderabad or Nagpur being over 10 hours away making it a region literally in the middle of nowhere. The tribals here have no idea of our elite notion of Independence. In almost all villages, the only signs of government works are the police station. No roads, no schools, no primary health centres. But the tribal has somehow managed to be at peace despite his frugal amenities. He makes no demand; no minister has ever visited him. Yet, today the mining companies are grabbing the ground beneath his feet, and the government acquiesces to this, stating that this is for the "welfare of the nation". Where will this tribal go when even their last straw has been snatched? Not surprisingly, Chhattisgarh and neighbouring Jharkhand together account for 65 per cent of the total Naxal violence in the country.

Adding to the woes of the tribals were two Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) signed by Chhattisgarh government with Tata Steel and Essar Group, in June 2005. Tata reportedly selected 10 villages (5,300 acres) to set up the plant, while Essar zeroed in on 3,097 acres in two villages near Dantewada. Of the vast land mass that Tata wants to acquire, 87 per cent is agricultural land.

This acquisition of land is in the name of development meant for those leading their lives in urban concrete jungles. But when almost all the arable land of the poor tribal is snatched away, where is he to go? The tribal doesn’t have a litany of complaints like an urban citizen – all he needs is his forest which provides him everything. But the government, in connivance with the mining companies, do not allow him to lead his simple life. The tribal tries to dissuade the government from taking away his land by sitting on the dirt patch leading to his village, thus protesting in silence. But companies cannot wait: time is money, and a tribal’s life is cheap. And so the last resort is violence.

So that’s where Salwa Judum (‘peach march’ in Gondi language) had its roots. With the support of the Home Ministry, it was announced as a people’s movement in Dantewada to crush Naxal violence, but the fact that it was launched the day after the MoU with Tata Steel was signed explains the real reason for launching this vigilante militia. As per the Police Act, young tribal boys were appointed as Special Police Officers (SPOs) to be the face of Salwa Judum. They were handed guns and given military training to combat Naxals. Some of the SPOs were ex-Naxalites who joined Salwa Judum for the lure of a steady salary and the prospect of becoming a full-fledged policeman. Others were forced to take up the gun. With an honorarium of Rs 2,500 per month, the young boys had no choice.

By handing guns to the young boys, the government has become the facilitator of a civil war. The SPOs have to fight off their own brothers, and the gun has given them the liberty to assert their power on their brethren. In the five years of its existence, Salwa Judum managed to displaced three lakh people from 644 villages in Dantewada district alone. The tribals fled into the jungles; some fled into neighbouring Andhra Pradesh too. Those who stayed behind were made to march into the Salwa Judum camps where they have no means of livelihood.

Cases of rape, loot, arson and murder have become an everyday phenomenon. Villagers are silenced – they are threatened against filing any complaints of atrocities. They cannot afford to go back to the their homes in the jungles, which have been burnt down by Naxalites as well as SPOs. In this dirty war, the tribal is crushed in between. About 100 SPOs guard villages which have a population of a about 500 people. Haven’t we seen this in Kashmir and the North East too?

In a meeting with Home Minister P. Chidambaram in early 2009, Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh claimed to have liberated nearly 30 per cent of the total 75,000 sq. km. area under Naxal domination. Chidambaram had praised the role of SPOs in fighting Naxalism and called for their appointment "wherever required". Of course, it is important to note here that Chidambaram was a director on board of Vedanta – the company that aims to rob the 40-km long Niyamgiri hills in Orissa to mine for bauxite.

Where does this leave the tribal? With no land to himself and his family torn apart, he can either wait for his leaves-and-bamboo house to be burnt once more, or he can choose to fight back. No wonder then that since Salwa Judum was launched, the strength of Naxals has increased by 22 times.

But this wasn’t something that the government had expected. Salwa Judum had failed, the government has initiated ‘Operation Green Hunt’ — a centrally coordinated paramilitary operation to flush out Naxals, with the participation of state police, Army and even the Air Force, in the Naxal-affected states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. When repeatedly asked about the tremendous loss of innocent tribal life, many ministers have referred to it as an inevitable ‘collateral damage’. But Naxalism is a mere alibi for the justification of Operation Green Hunt – the enticement of investments by mining companies has turned this activity into Operation ‘Greed’ Hunt.

And the media chooses to be blind, dumb and deaf. Under the notion of development, the tribal is made a scapegoat, and the country is today in the midst of a genocide.

How can a government eliminate its people whom it is meant to protect? How far can the government continue to be pimps for profit-hungry companies? How sterile can IPS and IAS officers continue to be in this ‘system’ where they have to operate? How apathetic can the average middle-class continue to be? How far can the value of a life be determined? Can you put a monetary value to your own life and survival?

There are no easy answers. Only these obvious questions.