Three tribal villages were reportedly set ablaze in Chhattisgarh in March. That little was heard of the aftermath until the Supreme Court ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation to inquire into the incident as late as July 5 exposes the level at which violence is accepted as routine in the state. It is no surprise that the court responded in strong terms during the hearing of a petition accusing the Maoists and the Salwa Judum, the Chhattisgarh government-sponsored armed militia composed of young tribal men, of rights violations. The court has now forbidden the government to use members of the Salwa Judum, called special police officers, in counter-insurgency operations, and to withdraw all arms from them. Arming and using tribal people against Maoists is unconstitutional, the court has said, including in its rebuke the Centre, because the Centre pays the state Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,000 for each recruit.
The state has broken its own law, according to the Supreme Court. The state law allows SPOs to help people in natural or man-made disasters and support other agencies in the implementation of relief measures, but that is all. The two-month training given to semi-literate, unskilled, young tribal people merely turns them into “cannon fodder” for the highly trained and technically advanced Maoists. This point is particularly important: the constitutional rights of tribal people being armed by the state are the court’s first concern. Implicit here is the court’s criticism of the government’s attitude towards its tribal subjects. The court also criticized the perpetuation of the cycle of violence and the violation of the human rights of those caught between the Maoists and the Salwa Judum. There may be something to be said in favour of the principle behind training and arming members of the public for self-defence in situations of extraordinary crisis, but its practical application in Chhattisgarh has resulted in tragedy and bloodshed. The irony is that such a militia, raised cheaply on the promise of a livelihood of at most Rs 3,000 a month, can come only from among the underprivileged and can be given only a sketchy training. Going by the court’s argument, arming them not just for self-defence but also for informal wars, as Chhattisgarh has done, would always endanger them and others, and therefore, always be unconstitutional. States must think of other ways to fight insurgency.