Home >Opinion >Blood on the sand: Salwa Judum II

On 25 May, the death anniversary of the creator of Salwa Judum, arguably among the most controversial vigilante forces in India, Mahendra Karma’s son plans to showcase Salwa Judum II. If it follows the violent path of the parent, then through Vikas Sangharsh Samiti, Karma’s son Chhavindra will have reintroduced the level of fear and intimidation that made Chhattisgarh a dirty word when Salwa Judum was introduced in 2005.

It will have again raised the flag of complicity between politics and business in the state for abetting conflict and human rights violations in this resource-rich region—acknowledged, exposed and censured by the Supreme Court.

First, a word about the elder Karma. Mahendra Karma was, along with several senior Congress leaders, killed in a Maoist attack on 25 May 2013 in southern Chhattisgarh. For long the Congress party’s point man in Bastar, sometimes called “Bastar Tiger", Karma often resembled a wolf that preyed on the tribals of southern Chhattisgarh, many of them from his own tribe, with disregard for their livelihood and lives.

For me, that was the central concern then and remains the central concern now—not so much the fact that the Maoists had hunted down the man who for years had hunted them. That was war, but Salwa Judum was so much worse. It preached violence in the name of peace. It practised violence on non-combatants in the name of saving them from the ambit of violence.

Created in 2005, and feeding quite legitimately on the intimidation and heavy-handedness of Maoist rebels against tribal communities—rebels, too, have repeatedly proved themselves to be no angels—Salwa Judum, which comprised tribal people, quickly spiralled into a deadly application of command and control. I have documents that prove how the local administration helped create and channel Salwa Judum, and interviewed local administration officials, one of whom provided the documents. These were published in Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and subsequent works.

What Mahendra Karma began, the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party government led by chief minister Raman Singh, now in his third consecutive term, helped to grow with knowledge of the erstwhile Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi.

Vigilantes destroyed homes, and stores of grain and any other food they had; killed dozens of men, women and children; maimed and/or raped several. Children were forced to watch the death and dismemberment of parents. Pregnant women were disembowelled. The death and torture of those suspected of allying with Maoist rebels was instantaneous.

This intimidation, blessed by posses of state police and Union government paramilitaries, at one point herded more than 50,000 tribal folk into little more than concentration camps across Dantewada district, split further since 2012 to create the additional districts of Bijapur and Sukma.

There was always the overhang of business—among the biggest names in India’s private and public sectors—supporting this project. And, as a matter of fact, the Supreme Court took note of it.

In a landmark judgement in 2011 on how the state and businesses sponsored Salwa Judum and its thinly veiled successors such as Koya Commandos to combat rebels (instead, non-combatants were the most affected, and displaced), two Supreme Court judges quoted from Joseph Conrad’s novel set in colonial Congo, Heart of Darkness. For the judges, who were ordering the disbanding of the vigilante groups, the state and businesses had violated a no-go human rights principle—that business should not be conducted in a zone of conflict.

Widely quoting rights and guarantees provided by India’s Constitution, the judges observed: “Policies of rapid exploitation of resources by the private sector, without credible commitments to equitable distribution of benefits and costs, and environmental sustainability, are necessarily violative of principles that are ‘fundamental to governance’, and when such a violation occurs on a large scale, they necessarily also eviscerate the promise of equality before law, and equal protection of the laws... and the dignity of life assured... Additionally, the collusion of... industry... and some agents of the State, necessarily leads to evisceration of the moral authority of the State..."

I wonder how chief minister Singh, bolstered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the region on 9 May, will describe Vikas Sangharsh Samiti. I had some years ago heard him say: “Salwa Judum is like the fragrance of the forest in summer."

In the competitive hell of Maoists-versus-the-State that is Chhattisgarh, perhaps it will be better if Singh keeps his lyricism to himself.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His earlier books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.

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