Written by Bela Bhatia and Jean Drèze
Mass protests against the proliferation of CRPF camps have been happening all over Bastar during the last two years, without attracting much media coverage. It is only because of the death of three protestors in police firing on 17 May 2021 that the Silger protest came to light.
Silger is a small adivasi village close to the border between Bijapur and Sukma districts, both Scheduled Five areas. The 66-km road from Bijapur to Silger is pock-marked with CRPF camps. The pacca road ends a few kilometres before Silger, but the government is planning to take it forward to Jagargunda and build more camps on the way.
The Silger camp was set up in the dead of night (around 3 am) on 12 May, without informing the villagers let alone seeking their consent through a gram sabha or otherwise. The people of Silger got to know about the camp later in the day from residents of a neighbouring village who had come to Silger for the weekly market. About 40-50 of them went to the camp the next day to discuss and register their protest but they were dispersed with lathis, causing injuries to 24. On 14 May, about a thousand adivasis of five nearby gram panchayats started a mass protest which went from strength to strength in the following days. Mass protests continue to this day.
From 14 to 16 May, large numbers of women and men from Silger and neighbouring villages assembled on the road every day, a few hundred metres from the camp. (The camp is adjacent to the road and separated from it with two rows of concertina wire; two MPVs – Mine Protection Vehicles – are parked outside the camp.) People shouted slogans demanding the removal of the camp. Every day the police tried to disperse them, sometimes with lathis, sometimes with “mirchi pataka” or tear gas. Dozens of protestors sustained minor injuries during these days and returned to their villages for local treatment.
During this period the protestors remained nonviolent but determined. On 17 May the rally had peak numbers (according to one witness, around 10 thousand villagers were there). What happened that day is reasonably clear from consistent testimonies of multiple eye-witnesses.
Many of them explained that by then people’s patience was wearing thin. When the force began a lathi charge to disperse them, followed by tear gassing and firing in the air from the MPVs, some protestors ran helter-skelter but others started picking up stones and throwing them at the forces (most likely this was some of the gravel lying there for road construction). Some protestors are said to have shouted that they would burn the police vehicles, but this did not happen.
By that time the forces were on both sides of the road with protesters in the middle. Soon police firing started. Three protestors were killed on the spot (one of them, Uika Pandu – also called Murali – of Timmapuram village, who was hit in the head, was only 16 or 17 years old), at least another three had bullet injuries and as many as 40 were injured in one way or another. Most of the injured were taken to their villages for local care, the more serious ones to the district hospital. One survivor from Pusbaka village, who is now in the ICU in Bijapur, was shot in the back.
In a press note released around 20 May, the police claimed that peaceful protestors were somehow replaced on 17 May by a new group of 3,000 agitators, many armed, who attacked the camp with the intention of burning it down, leaving the forces with no choice but to open fire. This bizarre story does not fit with any of the testimonies we have heard. By that time the camp had a huge presence of heavily armed personnel and there was no point in trying to attack it.
Despite the trauma of this police firing, local adivasis are undeterred and the protests continue every day. In fact, the number of participants grew after 17 May. On 23 May, we witnessed their daily protest near the camp. It was a remarkable display of unity and resolve, wholly peaceful. The police, it seems, have been more restrained after 17 May and there was no lathi charge or other attempt to disperse the crowd when we were there.
On 24 May, we helped the villagers of Silger to prepare a formal complaint against the CRPF and accompanied one of them to the local thana (Jagargunda). The complaint demands that an FIR be lodged against the perpetrators under IPC sections 302 (murder) and 307 (attempt to murder). It took massive efforts to get the thana in-charge to accept this simple complaint and give an official receipt. If the people of Bastar are not even allowed to complain of such atrocities, where do we go?
As we write, the protest continues in the form of a “chakka-jaam” outside the CRPF camp, aimed at cutting off the camp’s supply lines. Today is the third day of this blockade.
The main reason for people’s opposition to the camp is that they are afraid of harassment (eg, searches, beatings, sexual assault, fabricated cases, fake encounters and such). The validity of this concern was dramatically brought to us soon after we arrived in Silger, when we learnt that an unarmed civilian, Midiam Masa, had been killed the day before near another new CRPF camp in the area. He and two others were gathering mangoes when the forces suddenly appeared. They started running away out of fear. Two escaped, but Masa was shot dead. This happened in Tolevarti village on 22 May.
Above note based on a fact-finding initiative of Bastar Adhikar Shala.