Disband Salwa Judum and Other State-backed Private Militias

At a Chief Ministers' Conference on Internal Security last December, PM Manmohan Singh described "left-wing extremism" as the "single biggest security challenge" in the country; and referring to Naxalism as a "virus", he had asked state governments to "choke" Naxal infrastructure and "cripple" their activities. Undoubtedly, the most celebrated state-sponsored endeavour claiming to “choke off” and “cripple” Maoism has been the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh. The Salwa Judum, projected as a ‘spontaneous’ uprising against Maoists, has Congress MLA and leader of the Opposition Mahendra Karma for its proclaimed leader and gets full backing from the security forces and the State Government. This vigilante force has relied on barely concealed coercion of the local tribal villagers, and has resulted in large scale displacement (an estimated 50,000 villagers are living in relief camps), human rights violation including rampant rape by security forces, and a virtual civil war situation in the tribal population of Bastar. Recently, on March 31, while hearing a PIL filed by a team of independent observers against the Salwa Judum, the Supreme Court expressed remarks amounting to severe reprimand to the Governments extending support to the Salwa Judum and other similar vigilante armies. Interestingly, despite the fact that the Administrative Reforms Commission, headed by Veerappa Moily, had recently recommended the disbanding of Salwa Judum, the UPA Government represented by Additional solicitor-general Gopal Subramanian joined the Chhattisgarh Government of the BJP in stoutly defending the Salwa Judum in Court. The UPA Government claimed that the reports of atrocities on tribals in Salwa Judum camps and in the name of curbing Maoism were ‘exaggerated’, and defended the Judum by citing several instances of ‘village defence committees’ in other regions of India, where Governments arm civilians to counter terrorism and insurgency. One must recall that the Home Ministry had several times in the past years advocated that other states replicate the Salwa Judum model in the name of countering ‘Naxalism’.

The Supreme Court Bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justice Aftab Alam, however, rejected such arguments. Terming the arming of private militias by Governments to be illegal, it remarked, “You (state government) cannot give arms to somebody (a civilian) and allow him to kill. You will be an abettor of the offence under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code.”

If one follows the letter and spirit of this Supreme Court remark, therefore, there are grounds to prosecute Mahendra Karma and the Chhattisgarh Government for abetment to murder, on the grounds of their open advocacy and support for the Salwa Judum! And it is not just the Government and the Opposition that are in partnership in backing Salwa Judum, it is the corporates too. In Chhattisgarh, the Salwa Judum has been promoted parallel to the large scale acquisition of land by corporates in this mineral-rich region of Bastar. The first public meeting of Salwa Judum on June 4 2005 reportedly coincided with the signing of a MoU by the Chhattisgarh Government with Tata Steel to set up a steel plant in Lohandiguda in Bastar. Essar is also setting up a steel plant in Dhurli/Bhansi region of Dantewada. Both Tata and Essar have also demanded lease and mining rights for the iron ore reserves in Bailadila. According to an annual report of Dantewada district collector, Essar has contributed to establish the Salwa Judum relief camps as model villages. This implies that the land originally inhabited by these tribal villagers will eventually be ‘left’ to the corporates to be exploited for their mineral wealth! The land earmarked for the steel plants in Lohandiguda, Dhurli and Bhansi all fall under the fifth schedule; thereby land acquisition requires permission of the gram sabha. There are reports that police and representatives of Tata and Essar joined forces to ensure ‘compliance’ by the villagers, deploying Section 144 and preventing any free gathering of the gram sabha! Clearly, the ‘public-private partnership’ represented by the Salwa Judum encompasses the State Government, political parties and corporate houses, with grabbing of tribal land being a top agenda.

The linked agenda is also of course the clamping down on all dissent by branding all voices of opposition or people’s movement as ‘Maoists’ or ‘terrorists’. The Chhattisgarh Special Security Act has a remarkably vague and one-size-fits-all definition of a ‘banned organisation’, allowing it to target virtually anyone. The arrest and incarceration of Binayak Sen and others who took up the issue of human rights violations by the Salwa Judum is the prime instance of this Act in action. On May 14, Binayak Sen will have been in jail for a full year; another bench of the Supreme Court unjustifiably refused to order bail for him. Recently, the DGP of Chhattisgarh declared that the martyred workers’ leader Shankar Guha Niyogi had been a Naxalite. Since Niyogi was murdered in 1991 by hired guns at the behest of Chhattisgarh industrialists and mafia, his political opinions or leanings are quite irrelevant; obviously the only point of such remarks is to provide a pretext to crack down on his organization, the CMM. The CPI(ML) too has been at the receiving end of accusations of ‘Maoist links’ - by the police in Orissa and by a senior Home Ministry official and head of the ‘Naxal Task Force’ at a recent press conference in Lucknow. Clearly, in the name of ‘choking off’ Maoism, the Indian State and governments of all hues intend to choke off all manner of mass movements, especially those which challenge the wholesale sellout of land and resources to corporate houses and MNCs!

Of course, the Public Private Partnership of the Salwa Judum variety is not restricted to Chhattisgarh alone. In Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, and the North East, ‘village defence committees’ armed by the State have been deployed as vigilante forces in the name o fighting ‘terror’ and insurgency, (in the North East, surrendered militants’ too have been regrouped as private militias) and the track record of these outfits too has been one long trail of human rights violations and brutalities against people. In Bihar, the Ranveer Sena, despite being a banned outfit which carried out massacres of agricultural labourers and dalit poor, received tacit support from a range of political parties and the Governments which termed it a ‘spontaneous’ reaction to Naxalism (the selfsame argument being peddled in Judum’s case). Needless to say, even after the horrific massacres like Bathani Tola and Bathe, no ‘VDCs’ were ever suggested to defend the labouring poor from the Ranveer Sena! And recently, the Nitish Government put an end to the Justice Amir Das Commission just as it was due to submit its report indicting several Bihar politicians for their support to the Ranveer Sena! Clearly, vigilantism and private militias as a concept to defend villages from ‘terror’ are sanctioned by Governments only when they define ‘terror’ as coming from Left-wing groups. Mass massacres by the Ranveer Sena do not constitute ‘terror’ in the vocabulary of the State, and while those accused of supporting ‘Naxalism’ are to be ‘choked off’, those who patronized and funded the Ranveer Sena will escape prosecution!

It remains to be seen how far the Supreme Court will go in actually issuing directives against the Salwa Judum, and also how the State and Central Governments will respond to the Supreme Court reprimand. There is a move to set up a Salwa Judum-type formation in Maharashtra – and the SC ought to issue a suo motu directive stalling it immediately. All democratic forces must, in light of the SC comment, demand immediate scrapping of the Salwa Judum and all such private militias and VDCs in other parts of the country, and prosecution of all those who patronize and attempt to legalise such militias. At the same time, we must remain vigilant against attempts by the State to interpret the SC remarks to further arm itself with direct repressive powers in the form of fresh draconian legislations and other measures.

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