Friday, September 14, 2007

A Cry Against the Hidden War ( Salwa Judam)

At a seminar in Delhi, Chhattisgarh tribals recount Salva Judum excesses. Felix Padel reports

A deafening silence surrounds the hidden war in south Chhattisgarh between Maoist guerrillas on one side and the State and its sponsored offensive, Salva Judum, on the other. How to break this silence and find a solution was the theme of a People's Convention on Salva Judum, attended by 250 people, organised in New Delhi in the first week of September by the Campaign for Peace and Justice in Chhattisgarh.

Key speakers included several tribals, witnesses to acts of unspeakable violence. Their eyes downcast, they described how the Salva Judum members came to their villages, ordering them to leave, before burning their homes, and killing and raping selected victims. Several of the speakers had been beaten for hours. Innocence was no protection. One attempted to lodge FIRs with the police about incidents he had witnessed of killings and torture. He paid a heavy price: nine months in jail, and repeated beatings by Salva Judum activists.

Ajit Jogi (ex-chief minister) and former CPI MLA Manish Kunjam drew attention to the way the Salva Judum has forced tribal people into a civil war not of their choosing. Over the last two years, 700 villages in Dantewada district have been burnt, and about one lakh people displaced. It has been apparent all this while that the Salva Judum is government-backed and enjoys the support of security forces stationed on the ground. Mahendra Karma, Leader of the Opposition in the Chhattisgarh Assembly and Salva Judum protagonist, had openly attended meetings of this militia in the presence of senior bureaucrats and policemen.

In essence, the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh is in the grip of a civil war that has locked tribals in a bloody internecine conflict. How to bring peace when so many communities have been torn apart by violence? The Chhattisgarh government's ban on independent reporting through the Special Security Act of 2005 ensures that atrocities by Maoists are highlighted, while far more numerous Salva Judum crimes go unreported and unpunished. Anyone criticising Salva Judum is labelled a Naxal supporter. Tribals have been herded out of their villages and located in camps. The camps' ostensibe purpose is to "protect" people from Maoist reprisals. But as a tribal woman whose young daughter was dying for lack of medical care said in the film, India's Hidden War (shown on Channel 4 TV, UK), "It's not the Maoists we fear. It's Salva Judum." Salva Judum cadres work under close supervision of the police. The film showed Salva Judum men moving from village to village, forcing people to attend meetings, while archers stand in a line at the side, their weapons drawn. Policemen stroll through the crowd interrogating people about their Maoist contacts.

BD Sharma (Former Commissioner for Scheduled Tribes & Castes) suggested at the conference that there should be a parliamentary committee to investigate this silent war, and that the President should order an end to it by invoking President's Rule. The most important thing, he said, was the return of the rule of law and democracy.

The delegates at the Delhi meeting called for the repeal of the Chhattisgarh Special Security Act (2005) censoring the media; a highlevel, independent enquiry into all killings, disappearances and rapes by the Salva Judum as well as Naxalites; the disbanding of Salva Judum, and a commitment to end violence by both sides; and a real dialogue between the Naxalites/Maoists and the government.

Hareesh from the People's Union for Civil Liberties flagged the case of Dr Binayak Sen, a doctor and human rights activist who was arrested after meeting a senior Naxal leader in Raipur jail, and who has now been in jail for several months on spurious charges. The Chhattisgarh government has recently tried to ban NGOs in the Bastar region, as well as Médecins Sans rontières, even though thousands of people are dying from lack of medical aid in the villages as well as camps.


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