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.'
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Though the origins of Salwa Judum are the subject of much debate, officials say it began in June 2005, when several village chiefs in Dantewada held meetings to rally their people against supporting the Naxalites. Soon after, the state government adopted the movement to help it spread.Skip to next paragraph
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The strategy is correct, says Mr. Sahni: By holding marches and meetings against Naxalites, Salwa Judum "cuts at the very roots of the Maoist strategy of creating a mass base to support the revolution."
But Naxalites have responded. Of the 144 people killed in Naxalite-related violence during the first three months of the year, 70 percent were from Chhattisgarh.
For his part, Mr. Karma, also a member of the Chhattisgarh assembly, likes to separate Salwa Judum from security operations in Dantewada, calling it a Gandhian peace movement.
Villagers caught in the middle
Many people in Dantewada, however have a different view.
Paikuram Jurri was one of the first people to flee to the safety Salwa Judum offers. In 2005, he left his village to go to one of the many roadside refugee camps that Salwa Judum was creating. In these camps, villagers were told, they would be safe.
"We tried to persuade our villagers, 'Let's all live together on the other side of the river [in the camps] and see if the Naxals can survive then,' " says Mr. Jurri, standing outside a general store in the Nelasnar camp and blinking in the harsh afternoon sun. "The Naxals were only there because of us – we fed them."
Two years later, many others have joined him in the camp – though not all by choice, he says. "Many of the others did not come, so we agreed to put force on them, otherwise they wouldn't understand." "After we came here, we also went out with Salwa Judum to burn villages," he says.
There is little question that the Naxalite network in Dantewada has been seriously damaged since the advent of Salwa Judum.
"They are on the back foot," says M.R. Ahire, additional superintendent of police for the nearby town of Bijapur.
But the enhanced security has come at the cost of the rule of law, say critics of the group. The line has blurred between the police and the people, and citizens recruited as Special Police Officers (SPOs) attempt to match the Naxalites blow for blow.
"The state cannot outsource law-and-order to underage, untrained, and unaccountable civilians," concluded a report last year by the Independent Citizen's Initiative, a group of activists and journalists.
A district torn apart
Suspicions run deep in Dantewada. On one side, those who come to the camps are cast as supporters of Salwa Judum. On the other, those who remain in their forest homes are labeled traitors and Naxalite conspirators. Caught in the middle are those wishing only to live their lives.
"The government suspects that we have given food and shelter to the Naxalites, but we have never given them shelter," says Kadti Budram, who says he was repeatedly harassed by SPOs when he did not leave his village.
After he was tied to a tree upside down and beaten last year, he at last came to the makeshift camp beneath the mango trees, which is not run by Salwa Judum. Now that he has left, he says, "Naxals will think that we are on the government side, and if we go back they will kill us."
A reserve police officer from another part of Chhattisgarh confirms that the treatment Mr. Kadti says he received is not unusual. He spoke only on condition of anonymity, because he feared reprisals if he talked to the media.
"Everyday, we are killing people," he says. "Otherwise, how will they join Salwa Judum?"