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RIGHTS-INDIA: State Sets Vigilantes on ‘Maoist’ Tribals

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

NEW DELHI, Jun 1 2006 (IPS) - While Maoist rebels have begun talks with the seven-party ruling alliance in Nepal after the monarchy was overthrown, in neighbouring India, a citizens’ group has accused a provincial government of supporting vigilante groups to confront tribal, left-wing extremists, resulting in a situation ”frighteningly close to civil war”.

A contiguous stretch, starting from the Himalayan country of Nepal and running through the central Indian provinces of Bihar, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh to reach Andhra Pradesh in the south is often described as the ‘red corridor’ because of the similar situation of left-wing extremists operating in a vast, poverty-ridden swathe of territory.

Prachanda (one word), Nepal’s Maoist supremo was recently quoted in the media supporting ‘’multi-party democracy”, fuelling speculation that insurgent groups are ready to join mainstream politics in that country. In India, on the other hand, leftist extremism is still seen as a “law and order” issue rather than a socio-economic problem.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described leftist extremism as the “single biggest internal security challenge”, in a country where a fourth of the billion-strong population lives below the internationally-defined poverty line of earning less than one US dollar a day.

Because law and order in India, is the domain of provincial governments there is little uniformity in the way the leftist-extremists are handled in the different states. In some states they have, like their counterparts in Nepal, joined the political mainstream. Other groups reject parliamentary democracy and believe that the Indian state should be violently overthrown. Typically, the areas where Naxalite groups are active are characterised by sharp economic inequalities between the landed gentry and landless peasantry drawn from marginalised Hindu castes and aborigines.

But what is happening in largely-tribal Chattisgarh calls for immediate federal intervention, according to a six-member team from the Independent Citizen’s Initiative, that toured that central Indian state in the third week of May.

Comprising academics, prominent journalists and former civil servants, the team has warned of an “impending humanitarian crisis” in the region. Members have described in great detail how the local administration had indirectly armed groups of villagers – including minors – to counter the violence of Maoist left-extremists with more violence.

“There is an atmosphere of fear and a great deal of violence in which ordinary villagers and tribals in particular are the main sufferers,” a note issued by the team, this week, stated. “The violence by Maoist guerillas continues. On the other sideàthe Chhatisgarh administration appears to have ‘outsourced’ law and order to an unaccountable, indisciplined and amorphous group which calls itself Salwa Judum. The leadership of this group has passed into the hands of criminal elements who are not in the control of the administration.”

“Violence is no answer to violence,” said senior journalist B. G. Verghese, a member of the fact-finding committee. “I think that violence in fact multiplies violence,” added another team member, E. A. S. Sarma, a former senior civil servant.

“If the government of India, as well as the state administration, does not begin confidence building measures immediately, the situation will worsen in an area where the civil administration is already on the point of collapse,” said Sarma, who has served as secretary to the government.

According to the citizen’s committee, the vigilante group that ironically calls itself Salwa Judum (campaign for peace) is sponsored by a member of the provincial legislative assembly, Mahendra Karma, who also happens to be the leader of the opposition in the Chhattisgarh assembly. Karma is, in turn, solidly backed by state chief minister Raman Singh. “The ruling party and the opposition seem to have sunk their differences when it comes to supporting the vigilante groups,” said Farah Naqvi, writer and social activist.

A part of the fact-finding team, Naqvi described how members of the committee were physically attacked and threatened by members of the Salwa Judum on three occasions. “Members of the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) were helpless spectators as a camera was snatched from the hands of Nandini Sundar and taken away,” she said.

Sundar, a team member and professor of sociology at the University of Delhi, who has been studying the tribals of the area for many years, asked: “If this was the way we, who are educated and come from big cities with letters from top officials were treated, imagine the plight of local residents.”

Given the abject poverty and the lack of jobs in the region, it is not difficult to “recruit” young people for the vigilante groups, team members pointed out. Those who join the Salwa Judum are designated “special police officers” and given a rifle.

For the para-military forces stationed there, these young men and women function like a human shield. “They are like canon fodder,” said Ramachandra Guha, eminent historian and columnist who was also a member of the fact-finding team. He added that Karma had curiously become a “tribal leader of the non-tribal elite of the region”.

To “prove” that they are not Maoist sympathisers, tribals and local people must mark attendance periodically at “camps”, team members stated. This has created a deep chasm within tribal society and polarised people into contending groups. Tribals in the district are bullied by non-tribal contractors and traders who are invariably accompanied by armed guards, not dissimilar to warlords in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Brinda Karat, a member of parliament belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has said that tribals are often the worst victims of extremist violence. In the Dantewada district tribals are caught in the crossfire between Maoist insurgents on the one hand and state-sponsored militia, on the other. Sundar talked about how people were forced to leave their villages by the Salwa Judum, after their houses had been burnt down, and herded into camps.

Sarma estimated that since June 2005 about 500 people have died violently in the Dantewada district, although the official figure is less than half this number. Guha described how, during the meeting the team members had with Karma, he had unrepentantly and darkly hinted at more violence in the offing.

The citizens’ team wanted the government to ensure that the activities of the Salwa Judum were wound up to bring lasting peace to the district. D R Karthikeyan, a former high-ranking police officer has been quoted as saying that the vigilante group represented ‘’an abdication of the responsibility for governance” and said it could lead to the ‘’militarisation and criminalisation of society”.

The committee concluded that there was a need to punish, by legal means, ”perpetrators of violence whichever side they belong to” and also for ‘’more focused and sincere efforts to make tribals true partners in the political and economic development of India.”

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