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Breaking the mistrust in Chhattisgarh

by Nandini Sundar, 22 May 2010

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(From: The Indian Express, May 22 2010)

The Maoists’ unconscionable attack on a passenger bus once again underlines the urgent necessity for a new approach to the problems of Dantewada. Even if the SPOs on board the bus were returning from an operation in Gumiapal where they allegedly killed two innocent civilians, nothing justifies the bombing of a vehicle known to be carrying civilian passengers. But if Maoists have lost the distinction between civilians and combatants, the government must ensure that its own counterinsurgency practices stringently make the difference. The line is important not because combatant deaths are any less mourned, but because even war has rules.

Unfortunately, both the Union home minister and the Chhattisgarh chief minister are obsessed with civil society actors, as if they are responsible for the decades of governmental neglect and injustice that enabled Naxalism, and as if their insistence on the rule of law is equivalent to IED blasts by Maoists. Tomorrow, if the Supreme Court were to dismiss our PIL against Salwa Judum and ensure full impunity for the excesses by the police and vigilantes, this would not lead to any reduction in Naxalite attacks. On the contrary, seeing that every avenue for justice is closed to them, people would only join the Maoists in greater numbers. Government intelligence sources are on record saying that Maoist recruitment went up dramatically after Salwa Judum burnt homes, killed people and raped women on a large scale.

Those who continue to defend the Salwa Judum as a self-initiated movement against the Maoists, as Chief Minister Raman Singh did at Delhi’s Constitution Club on May 20, lose sight of the fact that past “origins” matter less than present conduct. After all, the Maoists too are a self-initiated resistance movement against the state. Not only has the NHRC clearly indicted the Salwa Judum for burning houses, but the Chhattisgarh government has admitted as much in its affidavit of October 17, 2008, stating that “necessary relief money be given in cases of properties damaged by Salwa Judum activists/security forces, besides Naxalite violence, after village-wise analysis”.

The Chhattisgarh government cannot take refuge in the fact that it is going through a violent phase as its latest affidavit before the court (May 3) suggests. After all, it has had two years to announce a compensation and rehabilitation package. If it was unable to do a village-wise survey, why not admit that the area is not within its control and invite outside observers, as international law suggests, or at least allow a high level monitoring committee consisting of eminent citizens who are willing to help? Such a body is needed to break the mutual distrust between people and government. This is what we are asking the Supreme Court to set up. The other alternative is to follow the 5th Schedule, which gives the Centre full powers in Scheduled areas. Are villagers, whose stocks of grain were burnt by vigilante violence, supposed to stop eating till “area domination” is complete? Should they die from untreated diseases because of the government’s ego?

The Chhattisgarh government’s position seems to be that if their police cannot go in freely, nobody else should be allowed to visit either. A group of eminent Gandhians who had recently gone on a peace mission were chased away by slogan-shouting BJP and Congress goons. The collector of Bijapur admitted (‘Salwa Judum’s reverse march’, IE, April 25) that he is now able to visit Lingagiri and Basaguda villages — but the credit for that goes not to the Salwa Judum, which drove the villagers away, but to a group of NGOs who rehabilitated them and invited essential services back in.

More shocking is the government’s refusal to even recognise the majority of the people who are affected. In their May 3 affidavit, they argue that there is “no point in keeping such a category” (of people needing rehabilitation in their own villages) and that allegations regarding refugees in Andhra are “baseless”. If the government ignores the legitimate needs of some three lakh persons (the estimated population of 644 affected villages), and focuses only on the 25,000-30,000 SPOs and Salwa Judum supporters left in camps, what peace do they expect? Even the data on relief camps is two years old, reproduced from the 2008 affidavit.

In the plan we submitted to court, we outlined some immediate steps precisely to take account of this war-like situation. Apart from a high level committee which would work with the Chhattisgarh government to ensure rehabilitation, we suggested a survey of affected villages to be carried out by local college youth, and retired district judges to hear complaints in block headquarters. If this process were publicised in the local newspapers, and independent observers allowed free access, people might feel emboldened to register complaints. It is impossible for people to file FIRs with the very police who have been responsible for the violence.

For their part, the Maoists must respond positively to the home minister’s clear offer on May 21 of a suspension of operations in return for their own suspension of violence for a limited period, so that talks can be fixed. The adivasis of Bastar need justice and peace, and for too long they have been denied both.

The writer is a professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics. A PIL she filed along with Ramachandra Guha and E.A.S. Sarma in 2007 is being heard by the Supreme Court