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.

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.

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.

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?"

He estimates that his unit has killed 60 people this year. Asked if the dead were all Naxalites, he says he has no idea: He and his colleagues don't speak the local language so they rely on the judgment of the SPOs.

Though he says he has so far avoided killing anyone, he adds: "It's so brutal, and we can't understand what's going on."

While the superintendent of police in Bijapur, R.L. Dangi, says his officers have killed about 40 Naxalites in the past year he insists that "we haven't killed any civilians."

As for the incident in Santoshpur, Mr. Dangi says he has not received any complaints so far. Asked if he knew of a raid against Naxalites there, in which several people were killed, he said Naxalites often carry out attacks and blame them on the police.

'All these villages are being broken up'

No one at the refugee camp thinks that was the case. They contend that of the nine people killed in Santoshpur, only one – Sannu's brother, Bojja – was a confirmed Maoist sympathizer.

In the filtered light of the mango tree, Sannu's mother, Bime, sits on a small cot strung with woven grass rope. The rest of the refugees gather around her in a circle, some listening wordlessly to her, others tending to hissing pots and the crackling fires beneath them.

When Bime speaks, her voice is steady but distant, the lines of her face drawn into an expression of stoic resignation. Her sons had chosen their path well before the morning of March 31, and she had been powerless to prevent it.

She had known that Bojja was getting mixed up with the Maoists. She pleaded with him to stop, "but he never listened to me." She says she never got the chance even to talk to her elder son. One day, Sannu vanished without a word. His friend, Kudmul Laxmiah, knew Sannu had applied to be an SPO, but he, too, was surprised to find him gone. Sannu could not be reached for this article.

In Dantewada, where villagers emerge from the deep forests like listless shadows, life is barely less primitive now than it has been for centuries – scratched out from the earth, the monsoon rains, and firewood gathered in bundles and brought home atop the heads of village women. To some seeking a new life, the promise of an SPO salary of $35 per month is an opportunity never imagined. To others, it is a chance to do something at last.

"I have come here to fight the Naxals," says Gita Kunjan, a young SPO standing at a roadside security post, and running through a checklist. She has a uniform; many SPOs do not. Another young SPO nearby with a rifle slung over his shoulder says he got a year of basic training, though he was put on duty right from the start.

The Naxalites "kill people, saying, 'You are associated with the police,' " says Ms. Kunjan quietly, but with conviction. "I have a rifle, so that is helpful, but I am afraid for my family."

For her part, Bime would like her son to "come back home and be with me. But it is his decision," she says. "He thinks that if he comes back he will be killed, so he wants to die with the government."

It is the same for Salwa Judum supporter Jurri, who knows he has made a decision that has changed his life. "I am afraid, because I have burned houses and people have seen it," he says. "I fear that if I go back, there will be revenge."

This could be Dantewada's mantra. "There is this huge suspicion of fear and terror," says Nadini Sundar, who took part in last year's independent investigation. "All these families are being broken up and all these villages are being broken up."

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