Monday, 30th October 2017

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  • Published 27.06.06

Exactly a year ago, in June 2005, a movement arose in Dantewara named ?Salwa Judum?, whose aim was to throw the Naxalites out of the district. It apparently arose spontaneously, the handiwork of villagers fed up with having the grain taken away to feed guerrillas wandering in the forest. However, Salwa Judum was soon adopted and reshaped by the leading politician of Dantewara, Mahendra Karma, who is currently leader of the opposition in the Chattisgarh assembly. The state government was persuaded to throw its weight behind the movement. As many as 3,000 Salwa Judum supporters were given the title of ?special police officer?, paid a monthly salary by the state, and presented with a rifle each. They were asked to monitor the movements of civilians, and to assist the police and paramilitary in taking on the revolutionaries.

The first press reports on Salwa Judum were complimentary. It was presented as a people?s movement, autonomous of party politics, that had successfully combated the Naxalites and thus proved itself worthy of emulation by other districts and states. Its presentation was made more attractive by the fact that while Karma is a Congressman, his enthusiasm for Salwa Judum is shared by the BJP chief minister of Chattisgarh, Raman Singh.

Later reports about Salwa Judum were more ambiguous. Elements in the movement were said to have gone astray, and taken to harassing ordinary villagers in much the same manner as some Naxalites had.

The status and functioning of Salwa Judum were a particular focus of our group, whose other members were the journalists Harivansh and B.G. Verghese, the sociologist Nandini Sundar, the social activist Farah Naqvi, and the retired civil servant E. A.S. Sarma. Calling ourselves the ?Independent Citizens? Initiative?, we spent four very intense days in Dantewara district, travelling hundreds of miles and speaking to hundreds of people, mostly villagers, but also many Salwa Judum workers and leaders.

From our investigations we reached four principal conclusions. First, while it may have originated independently, the Salwa Judum movement had quickly been assimilated into the political agenda of Mahendra Karma. The leadership of the various units had been assumed by his close associates. Crucially, these were all non-tribal; traders, contractors and teachers who lived not in the villages, but in the small towns of the district.

Secondly, by creating these ?special police officers?, the state had created a culture of machismo among the unemployed youth of the district. Educated just enough to have a certain disenchantment for labouring in field and forest, but not enough to be absorbed with honour in the modern economy, these boys were enticed into a job which paid them a salary (albeit a meagre one ? Rs 1,500 a month), and gave them a certain status in society. With a gun in hand they now strutted around the countryside, forcing those without weapons to fall in line.

Ironically, by arming civilians the state was merely reproducing the methods of the other side. For these boys were joining Salwa Judum for much the same reason as other boys had previously joined the Naxalites. There, too, those less than enthusiastic about farming or hunting were attracted by the prospect of a quasi-formal position and the weapon that went with it. Call them sangam organizer or special police officer, the young men of Bastar were seduced by their new-found ? and essentially unearned ? authority. In this manner, the machismo of revolution was being answered by the machismo of counter-revolution. On both sides, there were now several thousand young males punch-drunk with the power which, as Mao said, flows from the barrel of a gun.

Third, the state appeared to have ?outsourced? law-and-order to the Salwa Judum. As we found to our cost, it was they, and not the uniformed police, who enjoyed real power. And it was not a power they always used wisely. At one place, the driver of our vehicle had a knife placed at his throat, and his CDs snatched. At another place, three team members ? the present writer included ? were stopped on the main road by a Salwa Judum mob, and forbidden from proceeding further. Production of a letter from the additional chief secretary, asking the local administration to assist us in our enquiries, cut no ice whatsoever. Since this happened right outside a major police station ? at Bhairamgarh ? we went in and requested the constables inside to help. They professed helplessness. From our mobile phone we contacted the superintendent of police, who instructed the station officer to disperse the crowd and let us go. He still would not move for, as his demeanour showed, he was terrified (as well as drunk). Returning to the road, we were now accused by the mob of being Naxalites. The ensuing argument turned violent, and not on our side. Our tape-recorder and camera were taken away. Finally, the leader of the mob was persuaded that we were ?important? people from Delhi. We were set free, minus, however, our camera.

Less important people have felt the wrath of the Salwa Judum in far greater measure. In several villages we met tribals whose homes had been looted and burnt by them. But we also met other tribals who had been attacked by the Naxalites. Thus we reached our fourth, final, and most worrisome conclusion ? that the creation and consolidation of Salwa Judum had greatly increased the level of violence in Dantewara. Villagers were being forced to choose one side or the other. Those who hesitated were savagely set upon. In the last year, several hundred people had died as a consequence of the conflict. Since ?Salwa Judum? translates as ?peace initiative?, its literal meaning has to be understood in Orwellian terms alone.

How did Salwa Judum see its future? We got an answer from the horse?s mouth, as it were, when we spoke to the movement?s leader, Mahendra Karma, for an hour in Raipur. Rather, he spoke, and we listened, at first with fascination, but increasingly with horror.

Karma gave us his version of the origin and trajectory of Salwa Judum, interrupted only by the odd interjection. He claimed, as proof of success, the fact that the Maoists had sent in reinforcements from other districts to combat Salwa Judum. When I asked whether this was not self-defeating, for it meant that instead of expelling Naxalites from Dantewara the campaign had only increased their number, he raised his voice and spoke loudly of fighting a ?dharm yudh? ? holy war ? under the slogan: ?Do or Die?. Since the Naxalites want to destroy our society, he said, we must be prepared to go to any lengths (?kisi bhi hadh takh?) to defeat them. He said he would fight to win the battle in Bastar, and then spread the movement to other parts of Chattisgarh and India.

We offered some contrary opinions, based on what we had seen on the ground. One of us pointed to the criticisms of Salwa Judum by some Congress MLAs. Karma answered that the critics were afraid of being assassinated by Naxalites. We then told him about the homes burnt by Salwa Judum goons, and the attacks on our own party. His reply was that in a great movement small mistakes are sometimes made. (It sounds more chilling in the original Hindi: ?Bad? andolanon mein kabhi kabhi ais? chot? apradh hot? hain?.) Like the Naxalites ? not to speak of George W. Bush ? Karma dismissed civilian casualties as the ?collateral damage? inescapable in (and perhaps necessary to) a holy war.

Mahendra Karma is a round-faced, thick-set man, with the look and build of a middleweight boxer. His office has many pictures of him in varying poses and forms of apparel. Like all demagogues he has no ear, except for the sound of his own voice. One of my colleagues, who has wide experience of working in Gujarat, told me that he reminded her of Narendra Modi. Like the Gujarat chief minister, Karma is a dangerous populist stoking violence while parading as a glorious, lonely fighter against extremism and terrorism. Like Modi, he is playing for very high stakes indeed. However, as we shall see in the next instalment, his game?s costs are principally borne by his own constituents.