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Home > India > News > Columnists > Shubhranshu Choudhary

Salwa Judum: Strategy that backfired

June 19, 2008

Last month the Salwa Judum completed three years in Chhattisgarh.

Thirty years back, the Naxals walked into a void created by an absence of governance in a difficult tribal terrain and stayed on to gain in strength. A reluctant State was on the back foot all along.

Three years back, the state decided to hit back with the Salwa Judum, many say with a firm push from India Inc. According to the Reserve Bank of India [Get Quote], Chhattisgarh received maximum investment in comparison to any other Indian state in the last two years.

The government projects the Salwa Judum as a spontaneous Gandhian movement to be replicated in other states.

Before the Salwa Judum

There are many in Bastar who are angry with Naxals and have been fighting to throw them out.

'Salwa Judum can't work in the long run'

Prominent among them is the Village Suraksha Samiti movement started in 2001. The leaders of this peaceful anti-Naxal movement claim it had reached more than 100 villages before Salwa Judum appeared on the horizon.

They ask why their peaceful movement was not supported by the government.

The launch of Salwa Judum

In the first week of June 2005, two newspapers published a news article about the coming together of locals disgruntled with the Naxals, at Karkeli village.

It was commended as a spontaneous uprising and the start of Salwa Judum.

Armed might won't defeat the Naxals

One of the editors told me, "I got the news from an anonymous phone call after which I got a confirmation from the police."

But the local reporters in the nearby town of Kutru did not report the event!

The first big Salwa Judum rally was planned subsequently in Bijapur town. The 'Salwa Judum leader' who announced the rally from a jeep that day works now with the special branch of the police in Dantewada.

The growth of Salwa Judum

After Karkeli, Salwa Judum organised rallies in village after village -- to recruit members for the movement.

To understand the way it grew, take the example of village Kotrapal, a big tribal village.

Naxals, India's enemy within

"Naxals first visited us in 2002," a villager told me. "They held meetings. Many among us did not like what they said. But no one protested. We were afraid of them. They persuaded us to demand better rates for tendu leaves. Naxal committees called sanghams were set up with about 30 members. Only four or five people worked for them sporadically. And no one had joined them full time."

'Then Salwa Judum came'

An audio recording of the superintendent of police, Bijapur, made at the time that Salwa Judum was acquiring strength has been circulated by the Naxals. It has the SP telling his team on the walkie talkie, "Tell the villagers, they will be given Rs 3 lakh if they join the movement. Tell them once, tell them twice, if they do not agree burn the village."

Police officers privately accepted that the voice on the CD was indeed that of the SP, Bijapur. Officially the government denied it.

Understanding the Maoist threat

In the same CD, the SP directed, "If you see any journalists just kill them."

When the Salwa Judum came with their bows arrows and guns for self-protection, the villagers in Kotrapal ran away. The old and feeble who could not escape were shot, beaten up, houses and crops were burnt and looted.

BBC's David Loyn visited Kotrapal a year later. He wrote: 'I met a woman who still carries a bullet lodged in her stomach since the night of the attack by government forces last summer, and a man told me that his father and two uncles were shot dead since they could not move out fast enough. In scenes reminiscent of Darfur, I saw several burnt houses, and the villagers said that more than 20 had been burnt in all.'

The New York Times quoted a triumphant Ajay Singh, the Salwa Judum leader in the nearby town of Bhairamgarh, as saying: 'We finished off the village.' Then he clarified: 'People were excited. Of course they destroyed the houses.' 

Naxals retaliated by killing four Salwa Judum leaders. They also killed two Salwa Judum supporters from Kotrapal.

The saga of State impunity

Since then it has been a bloody cycle.

In the last three years, Kotrapal has seen 25 dead and 40 are missing. The villagers suspect they have joined Naxals, full time.

A village divided

Many took shelter in the roadside Salwa Judum camp. Some have been elevated to the ranks of special police officers. SPOs are armed by the government and paid a monthly salary.

In the confusion arising out of mass movement and migration everyone is suspect of being a supporter of one group or another. Father and son, brothers stand divided.

Why Dr Binayak Sen must be released

A villager from Kotrapal relates this story:

"One day two of our villagers were killed outside the camp, supposedly by Naxals for being Salwa Judum supporters.

"Two weeks later, another three were killed inside the camp. SPOs from our village helped the police in killing them, because they suspected them of having played a role in the earlier killing by the Naxals, outside the camp."

He continued, "I want to go home now, like many others. But we fear the police will force us to return. These three years have taught us that security forces are worse than the Naxals."

'Awakened' villages -- Where have the people gone?

Like Kotrapal, 644 villages are deemed to have been 'awakened' by the Salwa Judum. This comprises 3.5 lakh people.

Government records show 47,000 people in the camps, though NGOs claim the number is less than 20,000 now.

Three lakh people should be in the villages according to census figures. However, the ration, school and health intervention were stopped to these villages after the start of Salwa Judum.

Although the government denies migration to other states, NGOs say more than 50,000 are living a miserable life in the forests of Andhra Pradesh alone.

Has the experiment worked?

The police says its intelligence has improved with the help of SPOs and they have killed more than 500 Naxals in the last three years. The figures are hugely contested.

"The shifting of people into camps has helped. It is like taking the water away from the fish," one officer told me. "This will work in the long run."

But is the cost of this 'success' justified?

Two Public Interest Litigations in the Supreme Court chart a list of 548 killings, 99 rapes and more than 3,000 burnt houses by the Salwa Judum in last three years. The National Human Rights Commission is currently investigating these allegations.

One of the petitioners says, "It is difficult to go to villages, SPOs do not allow you to travel. The actual number of killings could be many times higher than what we have recorded."

In a village like Kotrapal, instead of the four reluctant participants, Naxals now have 40 full-timers. It is a similar story village after village. It is anybody's guess how many of missing three lakh have joined the Naxals.

What kind of strategy is it where you create 50,000 "enemies" to kill 500?

Was it an experiment for India Inc to get tribal land vacated or a counter-insurgency strategy gone horribly wrong?

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