In heart of India, a little-known civil war
Villagers are caught between two unforgiving sides: a communist insurgency that's left much of the country ungoverned, and a tough-as-nails 'peace movement.'
In the hours before dawn on a warm spring morning several weeks ago, Kudiyam Sannu came home to kill his brother.Skip to next paragraph
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He and his fellow policemen – some villagers say hundreds of them – knew his brother would be there, and they brought with them at least eight other suspects, bound in handcuffs. None of the villagers from Santoshpur saw what happened next. They were commanded to flee if they wished to save themselves.
But since then, some of the townspeople, who have settled here in an impromptu refugee camp under a nearby mango grove, have heard from relatives who stayed behind: Each was butchered by knives and axes – yet more savagery in a virtually unknown civil war within one of India's remotest jungles.
Sannu's brother, like the other men allegedly killed on that morning, was thought to be in league with the Naxalites – an insurgency determined to bring Mao Zedong's Communist revolution to India. For three decades, Naxalites have spread almost unchecked throughout the rural reaches of 11 of India's 28 states, leaving large swaths of the nation largely ungoverned.
Yet it is here in the southernmost forests of the state of Chhattisgarh that one district has essentially declared all-out war. Under the banner of a "peace movement," the campaign against the Naxalites has taken its most violent – and some say, its most devastating – form.
Instead of uniting the district, the movement, called Salwa Judum, has forced villagers to choose between two unforgiving opposites, unleashing an unprecedented cycle of killing and revenge as citizens bestowed with emergency police powers sweep through the countryside.
For a nation increasingly intent on meeting the Naxalite threat, the war in Dantewada strikes a note of caution. In the wilds of India, far from the eye of government or the media, an admirable idea has descended into wanton brutality, say villagers here as well as activists who have reported on the district.
Salwa Judum "has been very poorly managed," says Ajay Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. "They will have to reinvent this movement, or if it has been too tainted, they will have to start a new mass movement against the Maoists."
The threat posed by the Maoists is widely contested. Like many others, the leader of Salwa Judum, Mahendra Karma, calls them the greatest threat to Indian democracy. But the Naxalites' capabilities are limited. They can carry out quick strikes from their jungle redoubts, experts say, but they cannot take a small district seat like Dantewada, much less Delhi.
The Naxalites' ability to harass and terrorize, however, does have an effect on India's development. They can shut down certain roads at night and make a few districts like Dantewada off-limits for security reasons. But the greatest impact could be yet to come, as a growing thirst for electricity leads power companies toward the Naxalites' remote strongholds.
Some 85 percent of India's coal reserves come from the five states most affected by Naxalites. Since India is still heavily reliant on coal, "Naxalism puts almost half of India's total energy supply at serious political risk," says a report by the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington.
Rallying against Maoists
For now, however, the Naxalites' greatest impact is upon those who live in the broad, forested swaths of rural India that they command. And it is these people that Salwa Judum has sought to mobilize.