Home / Politics / News /  How the Salwa Judum experiment went wrong

Dantewada, Chhattisgarh: It took five days for Gantala Baby and people from the 60 families in her small village in mineral-rich southern Chhattisgarh to cross the Dandakaranya forests and arrive at their destination, Khammam in Andhra Pradesh. Several people died during the 260km trek through unfriendly terrain, and Baby’s son Aadavi Ramudu was born en route.

That was in 2006. Baby, now all of 18, is still struggling to make ends meet at Charla in Khammam. She is among at least 150,000 tribals who have been forced to leave home in Chhattisgarh. Some have moved to Andhra Pradesh. Others live in camps run by the Salwa Judum, a state-backed militia formed around three years ago to fight Maoists (or Naxalites) in the region.

After criticism from several entities, including human rights organizations and India’s top court, the Chhattisgarh government, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) one, is disbanding Salwa Judum, which is translated as peace force by some people and cleansing water by others.

Mahendra Karma, a Congress legislator from Dantewada who played a role in the creation of Salwa Judum, announced recently that it will soon cease to exist. Both the Congress and the BJP supported Salwa Judum, which essentially functioned as the local government’s deterrent against the growing influence of the Maoists.

Formed in 2005—the result of a secret deal between the state and a giant conglomerate that wanted to set up a steel plant at a cost of Rs10,000 crore or roughly $2.3 billion, according to a popular rumour prevailing among the mostly illiterate tribals in southern Chhattisgarh—Salwa Judum sought to conscript villagers, moved entire villages to what were essentially detention camps so as to cut the support base for Maoists, and engaged in pitched battles with the insurgents.

Over three years, the Maoists and Salwa Judum had an equal hand in displacing tribals such as Baby from their homes and destroying local economies.

Many of these tribals now live in camps in Chhattisgarh or in settlements in Andhra Pradesh. The state government is trying to lure them back with the promise of free forest land and elections are due in November.

That, and the disbanding of Salwa Judum could see some tribals returning to the state, although the issues that resulted in the growing influence of Maoists in the region—a model of industrialization that doesn’t factor in the tribals as stakeholders and government-sponsored inward migration where people from other northern states have been brought in, settled, and often given free land—are yet to be addressed.

Large-scale displacement

Nobody knows how many people have abandoned their homes and villages in the three years Salwa Judum has fought the Maoists.

“Displacement is a big challenge for us. Five out of the 11 development blocks in Dantewada and Bijapur districts are severely affected," says a local government official who asked not to be named.

Collectors of some districts have begun visiting settlements in Khammam to assess just how many people have been displaced. “We will be making more field visits and we will try to gather data so that the forest land rights due to these people can be granted," adds the official.

Activists claim the government has no idea of the extent of displacement. “Some abandoned villages are not recognized by the government. The displacement has happened in 800 villages out of the 1,354 villages in Dantewada and Bijapur districts, while the government claims that displacement has happened in only 644 villages," says Himanshu Kumar of Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, an activist group that works with tribals.

Government officials admit that there isn’t enough data on new settlements in Andhra Pradesh, spread mainly across Khammam, Warangal, Adilabad and Karimnagar districts. Shashi Bhushan Kumar, the district collector of Khammam says there are around 20,000 internally displaced people in his area but P. Janardhan Reddy, the district collector of Warangal, has no clue on how many there are in his. Other local officials contacted in Andhra Pradesh declined to comment.

Forced migration

The tribals who have moved out of Chhattisgarh to Andhra Pradesh live a hard life but it is better than what they faced back home.

A fact-finding mission headed by the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, a government body, that visited the new settlement areas, says: “Each testimony included a narrative of extreme violence committed against them, families and property—by the Maoists, Salwa Judum and the security forces. Many people shared accounts of family members being killed and women raped."

And a report by the International Association of People’s Lawyers, or IAPL, an organization of human rights lawyers based in the Netherlands, released in October 2007, says: “The Salwa Judum campaign intends to concentrate tribal people in Dantewada in so- called ‘relief camps’ with the acquiescence and even blessings of the Chhattisgarh state. Only a few villagers reportedly moved voluntarily to the camps. Those that refused to leave their villages have apparently been forced by Special Police Officers, or SPO, militias from the Salwa Judum campaign that did not hesitate to use coercion, threats, intimidation, deception and violence for this purpose. Serious atrocities have been reportedly committed by these forces..."

Andhra Pradesh is the default destination for some tribals from Chhattisgarh because in the past many have worked in the state that borders their own.

Sodi Sammaya, a farmer, ran into Deva, who uses only one name and his family at a border post between Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. “They were sitting under a tree and crying. The forest guard had brought them to the police, who were asking them to go back to Chhattisgarh. They were pleading that they be permitted to stay in Andhra. So I brought them with me, as labourers in my fields and gave them a piece of land to build their houses."

Life in Sammaya’s farm isn’t bad. A nun visits the place thrice a week and puts Deva’s children through their letters. “It is not too bad here. We earn Rs50 a day. But it was better at home before all this began," says Deva.

Still, Deva and his family have had better luck than many others. Some tribals are still hiding in the forests, in Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh—they can’t go back to their villages and don’t want to live in Salwa Judum camps.

A dying way of life

The clashes between the Maoists and Salwa Judum, and the large-scale displacement has affected the life of tribals in Chhattisgarh.

“We know that these displaced people are severely traumatized but we don’t know how to deal with it. It will need the intervention of specialized medical anthropologists. Due to this trauma, marriages have not taken place for the past two years in these affected areas and fertility rates have fallen," says J.P. Rao, a sociologist from Osmania University, who has conducted research on tribals in southern Chhattisgarh.

Gangalur, in the region, used to be a prosperous trading town. After Salwa Judum set up a camp there, the town’s markets downed shutters. Gangalur also used to have two hospitals that have both closed down. Locals walk to nearby towns to buy even salt.

Meanwhile, industrial projects in the region either continue to languish or have run into organized opposition.

On 5 January this year, 50 people were injured in clashes with the police during a public hearing held by Jindal Steel and Power Ltd, or JSPL, at Khamaria village in Raigarh district of Chhattisgarh. JSPL wants to mine coal in the resource-rich region and the company’s executive vice-chairman Naveen Jindal says that most people in the region are in favour of the project. He adds that around 10% of the people are “causing trouble".

Most projects require land and the first the tribals hear of them is when the government or a private company wants to acquire their land. That helps the cause of the Maoists who have convinced tribals that development means a loss of land.


The appeal of Naxalism

In early 2007, the Naxalites, officially known as the Communist Party of India (Maoist), held a conference, the 9th Unity Congress, in the forests near the Orissa-Jharkand border. This was the first such conference in 30 years and its objective was “to call on all forest dwellers to resist till the end the massive displacement taking place and protect their land and forests from the robbers and looters seeking to seize them."

It isn’t just the Naxalites that oppose development based on land acquisition, other parties such as the Communist Party of India, or CPI, do too. “Adivasis (tribals) will be ruined...killed if these factories come up," says Manish Kunjam of the CPI.

“Why would an Adivasi who is self-sufficient for the most part, living off his land, want to give that up by selling this land to companies for mining and industry.... (and then) become an unskilled labourer?" he asks. He adds that the tribals will not be able to work in factories, a view that is endorsed by others as well. “Who will give jobs to Adivasis? It is difficult to get work done by them. All they want to do is drink all day long," says Ranvir Singh Chauhan, a contractor in Kirandul where Essar Steel is building a plant.

“The government asks us how we are happy (without economic development), but we are happy... Except for salt, we get everything from the land we live on...," says Sachdev Sori, the head of a panchayat that oversees a region close to the Bailadila iron mines.

Chauhan’s father migrated from Uttar Pradesh. Most migrants come from this state and Gujarat, although Chhattisgarh also has its share of Bangladeshis who were resettled here in the 1970s. Today, in some parts of Chhattisgarh, migrants outnumber tribals. “I recently visited Korba. It used to have a migrant population of 10-15%. Now, the tribal population is only 42% (and the) rest are migrants," says Kunjam.

The migrants, like the government (and the opposition, the Congress) want industrial development. The tribals don’t. Nor do the Naxalites. That explains the support for the Naxalites among tribals.

However, a political analyst says the rise of the CPI and other communist parties will curb the influence of the Naxalites. “The Left parties speak the same language as the Naxalites but they believe in parliamentary democracy unlike them. The rise of the Left parties will ... put an end to Naxalism," says Mallika Joseph, assistant director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, a Delhi-based security think tank.


Salwa Judum camps

Shanty towns of huts covered with aluminium and asbestos roofing mark Salwa Judum camps such as this one at Dornapal, located along NH 221, one of the arterial national highways running through Chhattisgarh. Cattle, mostly emaciated, roam the surrounding sal forests untended—their owners have long since moved to camps.

The camp at Dornapal is the largest of around 23 Salwa Judum camps. And many of the people who live there have had their homes and livelihoods destroyed by Salwa Judum. Kosdeva is one such, and his days in the camp have made him a supporter of the very organization that destroyed his village. “Salwa Judum is a good thing," he says.

Deva, a tribal who works as a farm labourer in Andhra Pradesh, isn’t so sure. “We had our chicken, cattle, pigs, and fields. Then why would we want to go there? What would we do there?" he asks.

Kosdeva says he mostly does nothing. “The government gives us rice; I have been living like this for three years," he adds. That kind of inactivity and dependence is just what the government wants, says a government official who does not wish to be identified. This will help the government gain the trust of tribals who have thus far supported Naxalites, this official adds.

“We admit that these tribals have not seen the face of the government except for the forest officers. It is our mistake. But now it is time to get them to our side." That view is echoed by Rahul Sharma, superintendent of police of the Dantewada district. “Now people know what the government has to offer. We give them education, health care, we take care of them. What do the Naxals offer them?"


Migration and its fallout

Andhra Pradesh is an ideal sanctuary for tribals driven out of their homes in southern Chhattisgarh. The two states share a border. Some tribals, such as the Khoyas, a sub-group of the Gond tribe, speak Telugu and actually have members of their extended family in the state. Others have worked in Andhra Pradesh, in tobacco and chilli farms, in the past. And still others prefer to live in forests in the state where they are unlikely to be bothered by either Salwa Judum or the Maoists as long as they keep out of sight. “Nearly 30% of the (tribal) population (in southern Chhattisgarh) has been displaced at various times during this conflict (between Salwa Judum and the Maoists), with half of them in the camps and, half in the forests and in Andhra Pradesh," says Himanshu Kumar of Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, a non-governmental organization.

The Madia settlement in the forests in the Khammam district houses people belonging to the third category. The Madias are expert woodcutters who can clear large swathes of forests rapidly. Unlike other tribals who live in mud huts, Madias live in those made from rough-hewn planks. The men in this settlement work in farms in the area. Such settlements do cause the occasional conflict with locals, typically over the cutting of trees. “In Khammam, out of the 100 hamlets that we know about, conflicts with locals have occurred in 10-15. But these people (the tribals) are a source of much needed cheap agricultural labour in these parts, so locals generally don’t oppose" their presence, says P. Raghu of ActionAid, a non-governmental organization.


Why the Judum fell

The Salwa Judum’s violent methods and corruption in camps has led to the organization’s decline. “The governments of India and Chhattisgarh spend Rs100 a day on every camp inmate. So they (Salwa Judum) are inflating the number of people in camps and siphoning off money...," alleges Ajit Jogi, a former Congress party chief minister of the state. “Disposable plastic drinking cups that cost 20 paise each are being bought for Rs9," alleges an activist who does not wish to be identified.

Both the Congress and the BJP are now distancing themselves from Salwa Judum. “The Salwa Judum has only caused damage... How is it beneficial to us?" asks Satyanarayana Sharma, a Congress legislator from Chhattisgarh. “The government has begun to consciously distance itself from Salwa Judum. It has even replaced the earlier collector of Dantewada district who was actively pro-Judum. The current collector is trying to set right the excesses of Salwa Judum," says a government official who does not wish to be identified.

This change in the government’s stance has resulted in a decline in Salwa Judum’s activities. Earlier this year, the organization asked the government for permission to restart the ‘padayatras’, or marches, through villages, rustling up support and conscripting members. The government declined permission.


Fight for resources

Chhattisgarh is one of the most resource-rich states in India: 18% of India’s coal, 20% of its iron ore, and almost all its tin deposits are to be found here. In all, the state has enough mineable resources of around 28 minerals and metals, including diamonds.

Last year (2007-08) alone, around 206,780 tonnes of iron ore was mined in the nine months to December and the state government earned around Rs700 crore in the same period from royalty payments on mining, according to Chhattisgarh’s directorate of mining.

Locals claim they do not benefit from this mining activity. “If you are going to mine and export our minerals the world over, at least give us a chance (through education) to get there. It’s been 40 years since the mining began (here). What has changed?" asks Sachdev Sori, the head of a panchayat that oversees a region close to the Bailadila iron mines.

Sori further claims that the state’s residents rarely get to know what’s happening. “If you are going to bring projects, at least tell us what is going to happen and how."

That seems to be a larger problem. In March, the Union government granted an in-principle approval for the new National Mineral Policy. Ten days later, the chief ministers of five mineral-rich states— Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand, and Rajasthan—protested the policy saying they had not been consulted. The five states account for much of India’s mineral wealth and are also governed by either the Bharatiya Janata Party or its allies (the Centre is ruled by a Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government).


1. Life on a street in Dornapal camp seen in the rear-view mirror of a car.

2. A memorial for a special police officer who died fighting Naxalites, in Errabore village in Dantewada district.

3. Migrants from Chhattisgarh now living in Charla village in Andhra Pradesh during an enactment of alleged torture by paramilitary forces.

4.Special police officers on a search operation near Dornapal.

5.A family at their home in the interior village of Adpal in Dantewada.

6.A pamphlet left by Naxalites on the highway near Dornapal calling for Salwa Judum to be disbanded and people living in camps to be returned to their homes.

(Photographs by Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint)

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