Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Being neutral is the biggest crime
The National, November 6, 2009
VECHAPAL, INDIA : The staccato rattle of gunfire startled Poneym Pandroo from his sleep. He reached for his bow and arrow, quickly gathered his four children, and fled into the nearby jungle, away from the only home he had ever known.
He remembers the confusion as villagers ran for their lives as their houses were set ablaze behind them. Those who were not quick enough were chased down by the gunmen and savagely killed. When the villagers returned four days later, Mr Pandroo, 40, found his home destroyed. The gunmen had torched the paddy farmer’s thatched hut, looted his food grains, and slaughtered his chickens.
“They call us Naxalites,” he said, sitting outside his gutted home, gaunt, withered and trembling. “Because we refused to join Salwa Judum, we are automatically equated to Naxalites.”
Suspected of having links with Naxalites, or Maoist rebels, about 700 villages, such as Vechapal, in the Maoist heartland of southern Chhattisgarh, have been burnt down by the Salwa Judum, a state-sponsored anti-Naxal vigilante militia set up in 2005. Since then, its relentless attacks have forced 50,000 people to move into squalid government camps and another 250,000 people to flee into the deeper reaches of jungles, living a life of fear, hunger and misery.
Vechapal, located in the state’s Bijapur district, has been torched more than a dozen times in the last three years – recently in August. Tribals cower inside their huts at night, clutching axes and bows and arrows, fearing more attacks. Some tribal families have lost their homes so many times in arson attacks that they have given up on rebuilding all together. They sleep in tarpaulin tents in the nearby jungle at night. In rebel-controlled or “liberated villages” as the Maoists call them, like Vechapal, perhaps lies a plausible answer to why India is losing its war against the rebels.
The Salwa Judum attacks, the Chhattisgarh government claims, are meant to cleanse the countryside of Maoist influence. But far from breaking the Naxal web of support, this reign of brutality has transformed the region into a fertile Maoist stronghold and recruitment ground.
Those who visited Vechapal before the Salwa Judum was formed, testify that this was not always a Naxal-supporting area. Its loyalties shifted away from the state only to protect itself from repeated invasions.
“If the state wantonly kills villagers, they’re giving them a message that it has the power to do so only because it wields guns,” said Himanshu Kumar, a human rights activist. “The state is thus inspiring villagers to embrace guns.”
The rebels actively exploit the anger of such people who now view the state as their enemy and the rebels as modern-day Robin Hoods sympathetic to their woes. Armed Naxalite guerrillas boldly roam the village in battle fatigues for their signature monthly meetings and freely come and go from the nearby jungles for nightly rests and daytime meals.
They have managed to create a state within a state. Villagers travel to the nearby jungle to attend Jan Adalats – the “people’s courts” of the rebels – to settle local disputes.
The Naxalites have told the villagers that the persistent attacks on their homes are a conspiracy by multinational mining companies which, in connivance with the state, want to take over their land to gain access to the mineral-rich tribal belt. The villagers tend to believe them.
They now greet outsiders with “Lal Salaam”, or Red Salute, the traditional greeting of the Maoists. “They are our protectors from oppressors,” Mr Pandroo said of the Naxalites. “Now we don’t salute the Indian flag, but only the Red flag.”
Comrade Vijay, the deputy leader of the local Naxal squad that controls 70 villages in Bijapur district, said in an interview that public support for the rebels had increased threefold since the Salwa Judum came into existence. “Our cadre strength has gone up, our area of operation has expanded,” he said.
His men, he revealed, were training villagers on tactics to “protect themselves” from the invading forces more effectively with their traditional weapons, mainly bows and arrows. Young boys are plucked and trained to plant detonators in the ground for improvised explosive devices.
Previous government fact-finding missions agree with the view that the Naxal movement is spreading rapidly because of rising support from tribals caught up in the crossfire between the government and Naxalites. A fact-finding committee in October 2008 comprising senior bureaucrats, activists, and intelligence officials said the main support for the Naxalite movement came from dalits – people belonging to the “lowest” castes – and Adivasis, India’s tribal population.
But Raman Singh, Chhattisgah’s chief minister, dismisses the view, claiming that Salwa Judum is a “spontaneous reaction of the people” against growing Naxal tyranny. He likens Naxalism to a disease, the only antidote to which is cutting off the source of the disease: Adivasis living in Naxal villages. Salwa Judum, he insists, will only be disbanded “once the Naxal menace is eliminated”.
Himanshu Kumar, the rights activist, says this is comparable to the American counterinsurgency strategy of “draining the water and killing the fish”. “The state forgets that Adivasis are not fish, and the villages they inhabit are not fish bowls.”
For years, the state has punished “liberated” villages for harbouring Naxal sympathies. The administration has long stopped providing social and welfare support to villagers, already among the poorest, most disadvantaged people in India.
Vechapal’s tribals endure pitch darkness at night because the village is not connected to the power grid. The government-run higher-secondary school was burnt down by Salwa Judum three years ago. Weekly health check-up camps have long been discontinued. Instead, villagers rely on a local shaman, who chants prayers to exorcise evil spirits.
Vechapal is full of stories of dispossession and deprivation. Hunger and illness are endemic. The village is full of naked, chronically malnourished children with distended bellies and fly-covered noses.
Most tribals, who belong to the Gondi tribe, one of the aboriginal tribes in Central India, sweat all day long in the fields in the broiling heat wearing tattered lunghis, sarong-like lengths of cloth, doing the laborious work of thinning the rice plants. When agriculture fails, as it did this year as a result of a delayed monsoon, they are forced to scavenge in the forests for seeds, berries and wild vegetables.
Human rights activists warn about the forthcoming military counter-offensive being planned by the state to flush out Naxalites. There could be a potential genocide, they say, with the villagers of places such as Vechapal trapped in the middle between the military and the Maoists.
“This will only mean an indiscriminate massacre of tribals, a full-scale war against hundreds of thousands of people, against the people at large,” said Mr Kumar.
He suggests another solution. “To wean people away from Naxalites, don’t send in soldiers,” he said. “Send in doctors and teachers instead.”