In the dominant political culture of India, citizens are encouraged to treat terrorism as an unavoidable feature of modern existence and undertake no independent initiatives to counter it. When seven bombs on commuter trains left 200 people dead in Mumbai on July 11, the gratuitous advice from 'responsible' quarters was for angry citizens to observe a minute's silence, emulate activist celebrities in wearing white on a specified date and then go back to work pretending nothing has happened. When deadly explosives packed in pressure cookers killed some 25 devotees at Varanasi's Sankat Mochan temple, the suggested palliative was a dignified bout of Indian classical music.
When occasionally, very occasionally, citizens choose to break the shackles of liberal squeamishness and fight back, the full weight of 'enlightened' opprobrium is hurled against them. The human rights industry, famous for its remarkable sense of selective indignation, the editorial classes and the 'minences grises of the NGO sector rise as one to discredit anything that smacks of either retribution or self-defence.
Even before the late-night massacre of 32 adivasis by Maoists in the Errabore relief camp in the Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh on July 17, a fierce propaganda offensive had been unleashed to paint the Salwa Judum movement in the darkest of colours. In December 2005, a group of 'human rights' activists released a report denouncing the Salwa Judum movement as an assault on the dignity of the tribal population. While silent on the atrocities committed by Maoists, the report accused 'forces from other states' of 'behaving like an occupation army'. The demand was made for a judicial inquiry into all atrocities committed by Salwa Judum activists and the police. In a feeble attempt to be even-handed, the report also called on the Maoists to provide details of all those killed by them.
Since this report was too tendentious to be digested by even the normally gullible media, another group, this time comprising well-connected senior journalists, retired bureaucrats and academics, with the grandiose title of Independent Citizens Initiative, ventured into Dantewada and other parts of the old Bastar district in May this year. Although there were some critical references to the Maoists, this report' which received very wide coverage ' accused the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Chhattisgarh government of using Salwa Judum to divide tribal society and use hapless adivasis as cannon fodder against the left extremists. The handful ' 150 out of 5,000 to be exact ' of special police officers appointed by the local administration who were issued primitive .303 rifles were also accused of unleashing a wave of terror. In these columns, Ramachandra Guha, a member of the 'independent' study, described the Congress leader of opposition, Mahendra Karma (the man credited with kick-starting Salwa Judum), as a 'dangerous populist' and compared him to the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi.
The call for the government to disband all relief camps and put an end to the Salwa Judum movement was subsequently echoed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo and the former Chhattisgrah chief minister, Ajit Jogi. A meeting of the United Progressive Alliance and left coordination committee held earlier this month, ostensibly to discuss inflation and price rise, ended up with the communists badgering the Congress to pressure its state unit into withdrawing support to Salwa Judum.
The magnitude of the opposition to Salwa Judum may seem surprising considering its scope is so far limited to Dantewada district ' a Congress, not BJP stronghold. Yet the CPI(Maoist) has thrown its entire resources ' both political and military ' behind an attempt to snuff out a popular movement against its armed terror. Almost the entire top Maoist leadership, mainly drawn from Andhra Pradesh, has moved into the Dandakaranya region, particularly the 3,924 sq km of the thickly forested Abujhmad region. It has shifted both men and material from adjoining Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and the Gadhchiroli district of Maharashtra into Abujhmad to ensure that Salwa Judum does not spread beyond the 645 villages of Dantewada. Equally, the Maoists are determined to intimidate the 50,000 or so tribals who have taken sanctuary in 32 government-run relief camps.
Salwa Judum poses an enormous long-term threat to the Maoists. Contrary to what its overground publicists claim, the so-called socio-economic underpinnings of Maoism are feeble. To craft the Pashupati-Tirupati revolutionary corridor, the gun-totting guerrillas depend on terror and inaccessibility. The presence of just a handful of AK-47-wielding, trigger-happy guerrillas in a remote village ' where it takes hours for any police party to reach ' is enough to transform a clump of forestland into a 'liberated' zone. Since the state, in most cases, doesn't have the ability to offer 24x7 protection, many villages have succumbed to the Maoists without a fight. Today, Maoists are said to be in a commanding position over some 20 per cent of India's forests. What a senior police officer in Raipur called the 'tyranny of distance' has facilitated the Maoist advance.
The Maoist takeover of a village is also accompanied by a ruthless policy of divide-and-rule, which leads to one section ' particularly unemployed youth ' becoming collaborators. This is followed by the imposition of draconian controls over the economic and social life of the community ' restrictions on tendu leaf collection, ban on toddy and cockfights and supervision of marriages. In 'difficult' villages, occupation is preceded by the systematic destruction of all hand-pumps and the demolition of school buildings ' because these can be used as makeshift police camps. The Congress leader, Karma, was not exaggerating in describing Maoism as 'an assault on our tribal identity.'
The genesis of Salwa Judum lies in the refusal of a large section of tribal society to endure this nonsense any longer. What began in May 2005 in Kutru village in Dantewada and quickly spread to neighbouring areas was essentially a non-cooperation movement against an occupying Red Army. Maoists and their sympathizers were chased out of villages and their supply chain was crippled. When large 8,000-strong gatherings of local people voted in unison to fight the Maoist menace, if necessary with bows and arrows, Chhattisgarh saw the beginnings of a popular upsurge.
The local administration had neither the force nor resources to provide adequate protection to the Salwa Judum. The Maoists responded to the challenge with characteristic savagery. On February 28 this year, 26 people died in a landmine explosion at the venue of a Salwa Judum rally. On April 28, 13 people were abducted from Mankota village and killed in a particularly brutal manner. The idea was to intimidate villagers into submission.
The Maoist reign of terror has yielded results. The 50,000 people living in the relief camps have not been forcibly relocated ' as Maoist pamphleteers suggest. They are refugees who have fled their villages with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. During a visit to the Dornapal and Kutru camps earlier this month, I was struck by the absence of cattle and livestock. The adivasis said they had left all their possessions in the villages where, presumably, the Maoists had appropriated them. 'We are willing to return, but only with protection' was the universal refrain in the camps.
A feckless Central government has not yet come to terms with the enormity of what the prime minister called the 'biggest threat' to the country's internal security. The Maoists cannot be tamed by pouring money into inefficient welfare schemes. The guerrillas want to usurp political power by force. They can only be removed by a full-scale military operation aimed at recapturing lost territory. Salwa Judum can be a fitting complement to a mammoth counter-insurgency drive. It needs to be replicated throughout the Maoist belt.