In Bastar, it looks as if the failed Salwa Judum idea is being given a fresh lease of life

The security establishment never tires of claiming that human rights activists are partisan, and only blame the state. But when they do expose Maoist crimes, the police is not interested. One wonders if the establishment’s problem is really the Maoists – in whose name the state is spending several thousand crores on militarisation – or rights activists and the idea of democracy they uphold.

A couple of weeks ago four of us, including a colleague from JNU, visited Bastar division. The press release we issued upon our return is unequivocal in blaming both the Maoists and the police for the current vulnerabilities of villagers. However, the police have drummed up a campaign vilifying us, claiming, ridiculously, that we threatened villagers with Maoist retaliation and instigated them against the police. The Bastar collector, Amit Kataria, has added to this by circulating fake complaints on social media, fuelling the ongoing anti-JNU hysteria.

CRPF/ BSF/ ITBP camps are visible every 2-5 km in Bastar. Villagers report that the camps come up overnight, cutting down acres of trees, and taking over land that villagers have been cultivating. No permission is ever taken from the gram sabha. In one village we visited, a young woman had a baby after being raped by a sahayak arakshak (former special police officer), attached to a BSF camp.

No action has been taken against the rapist. In the past too, women have complained about the insecurity generated by police and paramilitary camps, especially when they are located next to schools or girls’ hostels. Women’s groups have exposed three major instances of mass gang rapes and sexual assault by security forces out on combing operations.

Moreover, having a security camp next door is no guarantee of security from the Maoists. A schoolteacher in Dornapal was killed in broad daylight, allegedly by Maoists, in the close vicinity of a CRPF camp and police thana.

Over the past year the police have been holding Jan Jagran Abhiyans (the original name of Salwa Judum), at which they distribute clothes, money and even mobile phones. These are also occasions when they stage mass ‘surrenders’, many of which involve ordinary villagers. In some cases, villages are persuaded into thinking they will be better off with a police camp nearby.

In Kumakoleng, however, asking for a police camp has had dangerous consequences for villagers. It began when the police discovered some names in a diary kept by a Maoist area commander. In March 2016, 50 persons were forced to ‘surrender’ and are now living in police and CRPF camps working as informers.

On April 15, the police held a Jan Jagran Abhiyan in Kumakoleng, at which some of the villagers asked for a CRPF camp to come up near the village. On April 17, the Maoists beat up villagers, including women, for collaborating with the police. When we visited, two-thirds of the villagers had fled for fear of the Maoists. Not everyone in the village supports the idea of a camp. All this is dangerously like Salwa Judum, which too began life as Jan Jagran Abhiyan. Villages were divided and people displaced in large numbers, with some supporting the police and others the Maoists.

In neighbouring Soutnar panchayat, villagers have been patrolling for the past three months to keep the Maoists away, laughingly describing themselves as ‘the tangiya (axe) gang’. They told us they too wanted a camp, but the police refused, saying that the Maoists would go away if they patrolled. By promoting village patrols, the police are making people vulnerable in the first place and then leaving them to their own devices against armed Maoists.

In a drought year, the Maoist levy on tendu patta and mahua earnings and their objections to the villagers asking for MGNREGA work are creating deep resentment. On the other hand, people complain that they are not paid for MGNREGA work, for years at a stretch. Average incomes are Rs 1,000-2,500 per household per month, ie starvation levels.

In the current context, people need neither paramilitary camps nor a Maoist parallel government. What they need is a government, which cares about their well-being and is willing to engage in dialogue with all stakeholders to achieve this.