New Delhi: The fight against Naxals in Chattisgarh’s tribal-dominated Bastar district has taken a new turn, with the government raising a special battalion that invokes memories of the outlawed Salwa Judum militia.

A massive recruitment drive is under way for the Central Reserve Police Force’s (CRPF) Bastariya Battalion, drawing locals and tribals from the south Bastar region.

The battalion was announced by Union home minister Rajnath Singh on 3 June. 

“CRPF, for the first time, is raising an exclusive composite tribal battalion by recruiting male and female tribal youth from south Bastar region. The recruitment process is going on and is likely to be completed by January 2018. The recruits will be joining in April 2018 for their basic training," Singh said. 

The home ministry said this was the first time CRPF was reserving 33% of constable-level vacancies for women. It has so far recruited 743 candidates, including 242 women for the battalion.

The controversial Salwa Judum, formed in 2000, was composed of tribal and non-tribal villagers in Bastar who were armed by the state authorities.

Set up to fight Maoists, the untrained militia received official support but was banned by the Supreme Court in 2011 over violations of human rights. In 2013, its founder Mahendra Karma was killed by Naxals.

However, a senior CRPF official aware of the developments stated that the main difference between the Salwa Judum and the Bastariya Battalion lies in the extent of formal training. 

“The Salwa Judum started with the aim to fight Naxalism. It gave arms and ammunition to the locals but it spiraled out of control because of supposed human rights violations. The youth and the locals we recruit will receive training from highly skilled personnel who are already operating in the area. So, there is no risk of poorly trained personnel in the battalion," said a senior CRPF official stationed in Dantewada, on condition of anonymity.

Home ministry data indicates a 25% decline in Left Wing Extremism related violent incidents from the three-year period of May 2011-April 2014 to May 2014-April 2017. During the same period casualties among security forces dropped by as much as 42%.

At the same time, the home ministry added that between May 2014 and April 2017 the number of LWE cadres who had been killed had risen sharply by 65%, while surrenders by LWE cadres recorded a 185% increase.

The shadow of the Salwa Judum movement is still evident in the region, with Karma’s wife and daughter struggling to keep his work going. “It is imperative to build an intelligence network with the locals and then find a way to eliminate Naxalism from the state. The forces are doing a great job but a strong and foolproof method of tracking the Naxals need to be formed," said Tulika Karma, Mahendra Karma’s daughter. 

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