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Bastar: How democracy lost a generation Karma rued Judum failure

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  • Published 3.06.13

The Salwa Judum was a failure, both to its opponents and the man who was its face.

“I shall repent the Salwa Judum’s failure my entire life,” Mahendra Karma had told a Dantewada journalist last year, months before being assassinated by the rebels last week.

The 62-year-old tribal Congress leader wasn’t referring to the extortion, murder and rape charges against the anti-Maoist militia — he considered them “collateral damage” of a just war.

What dismayed him was that the Judum had to be disbanded before it could complete its mission of driving out the Maoists — “outsiders” whose Telugu-speaking leaders he accused of exploiting Chhattisgarh’s tribals.

Opponents of the Judum say the harm the vigilante group caused to the local tribals will take years to undo.

“The spiral of killings and counter-killings has wiped out one entire generation of the young tribal leadership,” says Arvind Naitam, former Congress leader from Bastar who is now with Purno Sangma’s National People’s Party.

He says the Judum campaign polarised the entire tribal society and prompted thousands of families to flee the stark choice between having to pick up the gun for one side or the other. The violence put political parties off recruitment drives in the region.

“We are witnessing an ebbing of the flow of local tribal youth into the democratic political space, whether to the parties or independent social organisations,” Naitam says. “This will affect the tribals’ cause in the long run.”

That would be ironical, for few had done as much as Karma to nurture the tribal —as well as non-tribal — youth leadership, encouraging them to join the Congress as grassroots activists.

Yet his vocal support to the Judum and the violence that came with it ended the political careers of many among his young followers. Some left the democratic space to sign up with the militia; others didn’t but were stigmatised by their mentor’s Judum association. Both groups became Maoist targets of assassination.

The mascot

Karma didn’t found the Judum but began backing it wholeheartedly — the only political bigwig to do so — a month after its birth and attained the status of its mascot.

The Salwa Judum — whose name means “peace march” or “purification hunt” in the local Goendi tongue — began as a spontaneous movement at Ambeli village, Kutru block, Bijapur district, on June 4, 2005.

Tired of constant harassment by the police who came looking for the insurgents, people from a cluster of villages had decided to hunt them out themselves.

The vigilantes would go from village to village, protected by a cordon of security personnel, asking people to join them — often forcing them to.

When Karma, then leader of the Opposition, came out in support of the Judum, the BJP government saw its chance to pin the Maoists down without sparking a political outcry.

It provided funds to set up camps for villagers coaxed or forced by the Judum to join up. For two years, the government provided free ration and medical facilities to everyone at the camps, which at one point housed 70,000 to 80,000 people.

Most of these were ordinary tribals who were never armed and didn’t fight the rebels. Some of them acted as intelligence gatherers, the rest were basically seen as Judum supporters, the facilities ensuring they wouldn’t switch sides.

Only some 5,000 tribal youths chosen from the camps were trained as special police officers (SPOs) to help security forces track and fight the Maoists. The state paid them Rs 1,500 a month and armed them with self-loading rifles. For a time, the SPOs — known locally as “Koya Commandos” — helped push the rebels on the back foot in Bastar.

“This is the first such example where villagers are fighting shoulder to shoulder with security forces in the interests of the country,” a proud Karma declared.

But the idea of arming tribal against tribal was fraught with risks from the beginning. The militia was accused of looting and torturing villagers who wanted to stay neutral, raping women and extorting money out of local contractors.

Rights organisations and sections of the political establishment raised an outcry. Hearing a petition, the Supreme Court termed the vigilante group “unconstitutional” in July 2011 and ordered it disbanded.

The Chhattisgarh government closed the camps but recruited the SPOs as police regulars by raising a special state auxiliary force.

Last Thursday, Union tribal affairs minister V. Kishore Chandra Deo dubbed the Judum a “sinful strategy” whose “shadow is still chasing us”.


Karma had had serious differences with former Congress chief minister Ajit Jogi, who was against the Judum and its state patronage.

“Maoists don’t believe in our self-determination,” Karma had told this reporter in 2010. “What we should do with our lives will be determined by us, the Bastar tribals. Who are the Maoists to champion our cause?”

For all the negative publicity, Karma remained popular in south Bastar, as evidenced by the large crowd of tribals and non-tribals at his funeral here. Two tribal drummers played a melancholy rhythm amid chants of “Bastar tiger amar rahe” as women cried and sang a song of mourning.

Karma’s post-mortem report indicated that after riddling him with 50-odd bullets, the Maoists inflicted some 78 stab wounds on the body, possibly with bayonets.

“After him, I don’t see anyone who can take the Maoists on,” said his aide and former Judum leader Ajay Singh.

He said Karma had abandoned his Z security — 34 guards and a convoy of half-a-dozen cars — on the day of the ambush and joined the Congress Yatra with just one PSO in his vehicle.

“That was a huge blunder. But then, he didn’t fear death — that’s something we can learn from him,” Singh added, referring to how Karma had sacrificed his life to save others’.

The Congress leader had escaped four previous bids on his life but lost at least six members of his extended family at the Maoists’ hands. Podia Ram Karma, president of Bhairamgarh council, was killed in 1999; Sukuram Karma in 2002; Faraspal sarpanch Channu Karma in 2011 along with Kumma Karma, Sunil Karma and Nandu Karma. All were aged between 20 and 40.

Fresh threat

Karma’s death hasn’t ended the Judum’s bloody aftermath. On Thursday evening, suspected Maoists sent a fresh hit list to the Sukma collector’s office, naming 15 former Judum leaders and challenging the forces to protect them.

A day earlier, they had killed Soyam Mukka — tribal sarpanch of Asirgura village in Sukma who had steered Judum activities since 2006 —as he was returning from a wedding.

In the past two years, the rebels have killed over 200 low, middle and top-rung former Judum leaders in Bijapur, Sukma and Dantewada since the militia was disbanded. Many others are on the run.

In mid-2011, celebrated but controversial anti-Maoist campaigner Kartam Surya, an SPO who received training from Andhra Pradesh’s elite Greyhound commandos, was killed in an ambush. The 27-year-old who had mobilised youths to join as SPOs faced rape charges.

Last December, the Maoists assassinated Chinnaram Gotta, one of the Judum’s founders, who had recently launched an apolitical anti-Maoist platform, the Dandakaranya Shanti Sangharsh Samiti. Last weekend, they killed Gotta’s elder brother Banshilal.

In the mid-90s, the rebels had eliminated many young tribals associated with the Jan Jagran Abhiyan, a public awareness programme against the Maoists, especially after the movement fizzled out. Karma had been among the Jan Jagran’s leaders.