Ground-clearing with the Salwa Judum

On 12 September, a huge rally of indigenous people from more than 15 villages around Dhurli, in Dantewara District of Chhattisgarh, marched to the offices of the district administration in Dantewara town. They were there to protest the process of forced land acquisition that was to make way for a proposed steel plant owned by the massive Indian multinational Essar Group. Under the banner of the Adivasi Mahasabha, a mass-based indigenous-rights organisation, speakers at the rally alleged that a special gram sabha held three days earlier had taken place under inappropriate circumstances, and that over 6000 police personnel had coerced the people into giving their consent for the land grab.   Also present at the gram sabha had been the district magistrate and police superintendent, as well as Mahendra Karma, the leader of the notorious anti-Naxalite group Salwa Judum (Campaign for Peace). Individual villagers had reportedly been taken into a closed room under police escort, threatened with weapons, and made to sign papers that signified their consent to the land deal. The few villagers who resisted were taken into police custody and kept in the Bhansi police thana for over 24 hours, until the meeting was over.   For the past year, Dantewara District has been a troubled area. To a large extent, it has been the rise of the Salwa Judum that has divided society, split communities and led to conditions approaching those of civil war. Officially described as a spontaneous peoples' uprising against Maoist violence, the Salwa Judum has enjoyed the patronage of the state government, the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the leader of the opposition in the state assembly, sections of the Congress party, the state police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).   Currently active in the Bijapur and Bhairamgarh areas of Dantewara, the Salwa Judum has facilitated the creation of a cadre of vigilante youth who are trained and armed by the government, and euphemistically termed "special police officers". It has led to the forced displacement of thousands of people from 'sensitive' villages that are suspected of being sympathetic to the Maoists. The displaced are put in 21 relief camps, supposedly under police protection in the name of security. Conditions in these camps are subhuman. Each family is given a single tent in which to live, where they sleep on a rubber mat on the ground. There is no drinking water, nor lighting or health facility; food arrangements made by the police department broke down long ago. There have been several outbreaks of illness and diarrhoea, which have claimed several lives. In the past year, the rise of the Salwa Judum and the subsequent misery to which the people of Dantewara have been subjected have received some attention among India's intelligentsia. The current phase of local struggle, however, including the fight against the takeover of lands, remains relatively unknown. Most importantly, the interconnections between the area's natural resources, the corporate takeover bid of these resources and the state-sponsored violence is little understood.   Exploitation, unionisation
Dantewara is the southernmost of the 16 districts of the six-year-old state of Chhattisgarh. Formerly part of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh is a state rich in minerals and forest products, and boasts fertile alluvial plains. Dantewara alone has huge reserves of iron ore, tin and (it is whispered) uranium. The presence of these minerals has fuelled the industrial zone that cuts through the state's belly, and has also given rich royalties to successive national governments through lucrative export deals. The most well known of these, between the Japanese government and the National Mineral Development Corporation, has for three decades sent iron ore from the Bailadila mines in southern Dantewara to Japan through the Vishakhapatnam port. A special railway straight from Bailadila to Vishakhapatnam was built in the late 1960s with Japanese funding.   Despite the small island of 'development' around the Bailadila mines, Dantewara District has remained both poor and isolated from the rest of the state and country. Communication infra-structure is meagre. Literacy levels are low, dipping to just 29 and 14 percent for rural men and women respectively. Out of its 1220 villages, 214 do not (even officially) have a school. In 1161 villages, there is no medical facility. For large sections of Dantewara's indigenous peoples, rain-fed agriculture and collection of forest produce are the only livelihood options. Disturbances in the ecosystem have subsequently created major crises for the region's Adivasis; as late as 2004, people here were starving to death.   The history of modern political mobilisation in Dantewara dates from the early 1970s, under the aegis of the Communist Party of India (CPI). From its beginnings in the trade unions of the Bailadila mines, the party spread to the rural areas, building up a movement around issues of control over mineral resources and employment in the mines for local people. The Bailadila trade-union movement faced brutal state repression in 1977-78. The Maoist movement has subsequently had a significant presence in Dantewara since the 1980s.   The earliest issues taken up by the Maoist-led Dandakaranya Adivasi Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan (Indigenous Peasant Labour Organisation) revolved around the corruption of government officials, and the exploitation and oppression of local Adivasis. As the Maoists gained strength and influence, they extended their sphere of activity. Along with building up a militant force, they established structures to give direction to civilian life in the areas they controlled. The village-level sanghams were their primary governance organisations, which were set up to replace the traditional structures of authority. Through them, an attempt was made at setting up what the Maoists termed 'people's rule'. Ordinary governance functions were conducted by the party leadership, as were development works, education and other welfare-
type responsibilities.   The Maoists continued to consolidate their hold on the area through the 1990s, although there were earlier state-sponsored attempts to control their influence. By 2000, when the state of Chhattisgarh was created, the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) (People's War) controlled large tracts of forest areas in the districts of Dantewara Bastar and Kanker, as well as adjoining forest tracts of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Orissa. This was an area as large as Bangladesh where, for all practical purposes, the writ of the Indian state did not run.     Multinational takeover
The creation of Chhattisgarh brought the official agenda of development and governance much closer to the communities of Dantewara than at anytime in the modern era. As in other new states, in Chhattisgarh there was an attempt in the official discourse to link the formation of the state with the people's demands for greater autonomy. The new state was launched with much fanfare on 1 November 2000. During the inaugural ceremonies, the state's first chief minister, Ajit Jogi, declared Chhattisgarh to be the richest state in the country, although inhabited by its poorest people.   If there was any hope that the development vision of the new state would be rooted in indigenous perspective, however, it was quickly belied. It soon became clear that the new state had been born in the context of globalisation, and that the political agenda behind the policy of power devolution was in fact the opening up of third-world resource bases for first-world markets. It is this understanding that has propelled the agenda during the following six years.   Today the state officially prides itself on its new industrialising face. One of the first institutions to be established was the Chhattisgarh Industrial Deve-lopment Corporation, which immediately busied itself with negotiating development loans from the Asian Development Bank and other international financial institutions. By 2005, new industrial growth centres were established in the districts of Mahasamund, Surguja, Kawardha, Dhamtari and Raigarh. The previous year, an industrial policy was formulated with the expressed objective of creating "an enabling environment for ensuring maximum value-addition to the abundant, locally available mineral and other forest-based resources." The policy also sought to attract direct investments, including those to "the most backward tribe-dominated areas", and to woo investors (including NRI and FDI) with a host of incentives and tariff concessions.   Current developments in Dantewara need to be seen against this international backdrop, including massive new multinational-owned construc-tions, as well as the resistance of the local people and the urgency of the state government to re-establish its control over the district. In late 2005, two MOUs were signed by the state government with Essar and the Tata group, both of which assert the commitment of the state to industrial growth through the agency of "industrial houses of repute", and affirm its commitment to make available required land, mining leases, power and water.   The agreement with Tata also contains a confidentiality clause that precludes disclosure of information on the terms and conditions of the MOU to any third party, which is in violation of the Right to Information Act. This clause was the source of a major fracas in the state legislature in early 2006, when the government refused to accede to a demand from the Congress party opposition that the MOU be made public. Indeed, the proceedings have been so secretive that, as late as February 2006, a BJP MLA in whose constituency the Tata steel plant was proposed to be built publicly admitted that he had no knowledge of the plans for industrialisation in the area.   Land for Tata's steel plant and mining activities is proposed to be acquired around Lohandiguda and Bhansi; land for Essar's installations will be in Dhurli. In both areas, there is fierce opposition to the land acquisition, and over the past six months multiple demonstrations have been held in Lohandiguda, Jagdalpur, antewara and other proposed acquisition sites. These areas are largely inhabited by tribals, and covered under the 1996 Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, or PESA. There is an implicit assumption in this Act that the natural resources of a region belong to the local citizens, and for any exploitation of these resources the village community (in the form of the gram sabha) must give
its consent.   Here lies the source of the agitations in early September. The 9 September gram sabha at Dhurli had been preceded by two others, on 30 August and 30 June. Four persons were taken into police custody in Dhurli preceding the second of these; human-rights groups campaigning for their release were informed that there was considerable "factional" tension in the village, and that the arrests had been made in order to ward off any untoward incident. Upon their release, all four persons – Hingaram Kunjam, Gundaram, Vijja Patel and Budhram – reported that they had been intensively "advised" not to oppose the Essar land acquisition at the subsequent gram sabha.   Although PESA intended to give greater autonomy to tribal areas, and was part of the declared effort of the Indian state to decentralise governance and give greater space to local self-administration, today the decentralisation agenda seems to be in conflict with the globalisation agenda. And judging from the examples of Bastar and Dantewara, it is clear which agenda will have the nod of the state establishment during such conflicts.   In 2001, the villagers of Nagarnar, a prosperous agri-cultural comm-unity close to Jagdalpur, refused to give up their lands for a proposed public-sector steel plant. District-level authorities subsequently proceeded to falsify the gram sabha registers, forcibly handing over land to the National Mineral Deve-lopment Corporation. When the village people protested, they were lathi-charged and arrested; the police released them only on the condition that they accept compensation cheques for the land acquired. That plant is still not functional today – the land acquired stands unproductive, with only a wall and a signboard proclaiming the existence of the Nagarnar Steel Plant.   The Indian state is compelled to gain control over the large forest tracts in Dantewara that have been wrested by the Maoists over recent decades for one reason: last acquisition for corporate control. The reclaiming of the resource-rich land, the militarisation of Dantewara, the forced displacement of communities, the attempt to find the 'final solution' to the Maoist problem, the need to discern industry-friendly 'friend' from oppositional 'foe' – all of these stem from a common source. The Salwa Judum,purportedly here to 'rescue' the people of Dantewara from Naxalite violence, is in reality the military arm of the India Shining brigade.

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Himal Southasian