The central Indian state of Chhattisgarh is rich in minerals and resources, and is also home to a large proportion of India’s indigenous tribal peoples. However, for over 20 years the region of Chhattisgarh has been one of the most Naxalite-affected areas of the country. In 2000, when the state of Chhattisgarh was created, the People’s War Group, a Maoist group with a belief in armed revolution declared the tribal forest region as a guerilla zone in which no state officials or institutions would be allowed to function. Since mid-2005 the situation has worsened, with the Dantewada region of Chhattisgarh now locked in a situation akin to a civil war between security forces, Maoist groups, and an armed vigilante force known as the Salwa Judum acting as auxiliaries for the police.
While all parties to the conflict have perpetrated atrocities in Dantewada, violence by the Salwa Judum over the past two years has been widespread and particularly vicious. A public interest litigation petition recently filed by a group of citizens in the Supreme Court records that extreme levels of violence continue in the area, with around 540 people having been killed by the Salwa Judum and security forces since June 2005. Further, the petition records that at least 2, 825 houses have been burnt, 99 women raped and approximately 100,000 persons forcibly displaced by the Salwa Judum.[
The Salwa Judum
While national media coverage of the conflict in Dantewada has been piecemeal, in 2005 a coalition of independent non-governmental organisations reported that the attacks and killings of villagers by the Salwa Judum were frequent and brutal, and that the impact of these attacks on the daily life of the people was devastating. A further independent inquiry in 2006 found evidence of mass killings, burning of homes, and frequent attacks on women, including gang-rape. The most recent reports from non-governmental organisations operating in the region confirm that violent attacks continue to this day.
The looting campaigns of the Salwa Judum have led to the forcible displacement of many thousands of people within their own state. Typically, once Salwa Judum forces have pillaged local villages, huts and infrastructure are completely destroyed, leaving no place for residents to return. As well as creating severe humanitarian problems, this large-scale forced displacement has also severely threatened the cultural viability of the indigenous peoples of the region, who depend on their local lands for sustenance and survival.
Inadequate relief camps
Since 2005 the Government of Chhattisgarh has set up a number of “relief camps” in Dantewada district for those forcibly displaced by the conflict, but has struggled to ensure they are properly resourced. Quantities of government rations in the camps vary significantly, and many people have been engaged in food for work schemes, often at less than the minimum wage. In many of the camps there is no proper shelter, and sanitation conditions in nearly every camp are negligible. According to a report conducted by the National Commission for Women, “the enforced displacement is creating havoc with their normal way of living and is affecting women and children in particular.”
Health related infrastructure in the vast majority of camps is also extremely poor. In a number of the newer settlements mobile health services have been set up, but these are they are often ill-equipped and run at sub-optimal levels due to transport and logistical problems. Further, many of the camp inmates have reportedly been physically and sexually abused, and there appears to be no psychological support available for the victims.
Government sponsored terror?
Against this backdrop it is deeply regrettable that government agencies have so far failed to take action to disarm and disband the Salwa Judum. Of even more concern is the substantial evidence that suggests that Central and State governments have in fact supported Salwa Judum campaigns against non-combatant villagers in Dantewada using the pretext of counter-terrorism measures.
According to official statements made by the Indian government, the Salwa Judum is a “voluntary and peaceful” group that has been successfully combating the activities of Naxalites operating in Chhattisgarh. However, a number of facts appear to negate the government’s claim that the Salwa Judum has been operating independently. For example, the Government of India’s Annual Reports acknowledge Central Government support for the creation of “Local Resistance Groups” such as the Salwa Judum though lump sum funding for “security related expenditure”. Further, as of 2006 the Government of Chhattisgarh had officially appointed 3500 “Special Police Officers” to support the Salwa Judum. These “officers”, generally unemployed youths, have been given military and weapons training in order to set up a paramilitary vigilante structure parallel to the Naxalite movement.
There is little doubt that the spectre of armed attacks by Naxalites raises legitimate security concerns for the state of Chhattisgarh. However, both the state and central governments and their agencies have the power to take security measures against Naxalism that are lawful and consistent with the fundamental rights principles of the Indian Constitution and with international human rights and humanitarian law. In contrast, the large-scale evictions of village-dwellers from their homes in Dantewada have been conducted arbitrarily and with disastrous effects on their livelihoods.
Given the relatively poor socioeconomic indicators found among scheduled tribes in Chhattisgarh, the government’s fear that the collectivist ideas broadly espoused by Naxalites may have some appeal to villagers in Dantewada is not without basis. Rather than supporting the Salwa Judum’s programme of forced evictions, however, the government would better address the current appeal of Naxalite policies in the region by improving the indigenous people’s access to rural education, healthcare, and employment opportunities, as well as improved security of tenure and property rights. In contrast, the ongoing violence by the Salwa Judum can only lead to an escalation of political tensions in the region.
Government sanction - let alone sponsorship - of Salwa Judum activities is clearly a violation of the basic rights guaranteed to Indian citizens under the Constitution, as well as India’s obligations to its citizens under international law. Further, the acts are aggravated in scope in that they disproportionately affect the ability of indigenous tribal groups to exercise their traditional cultures and way of life in the area.
While the Chhattisgarh government may hope that Salwa Judum campaigns and the permanent forcible resettlement of villagers will put an end to Naxalite action in Dantewada, the human side effects of such a plan have already proven catastrophic. An urgent change in strategy is required if a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions