An end to an unending war in India

After years of bloodshed, India’s Supreme Court bans arming militia in Chhattisgarh – but the state may not comply.

Commandos in Bhopal in anti-Naxalite drill crop
The funeral of 19-year-old Channu Mandavi, gunned down as an alleged Maoist on April 12, 2009 [Photo: Javed Iqbal]

On July 5, the Supreme Court of India delivered a judgment on the legality of the Salwa Judum, the armed counter-insurgency group – declaring it illegal and unconsitutional. The government had tried to portray the Salwa Judum as a peaceful Gandhian movement, even when its militants went to village after village, where they burnt, raped, looted and murdered people.

The idea of the state and the security establishment was to deliberately target the civilian population in order to sever the decades-long Naxalite Maoist insurgency from their base, also known as the “drain the pond to catch the fish” plan. This led to an escalation of violence that left more than 644 villages empty, according to government figures, and an estimated 60,000-200,000 people displaced, according to independent sources such as Human Rights Watch. In the writ petition before the Supreme Court, it was alleged that the state-backed Salwa Judum militia had committed at least 99 rapes and more than 550 murders between 2004 and 2008.

The Supreme Court, in its order banning the arming of the civilian population to combat the Maoists, stated that “this case represents a yawning gap between the promise of principled exercise of power in a constitutional democracy, and the reality of the situation in Chhattisgarh, where the Respondent, the State of Chhattisgarh, claims that it has a constitutional sanction to perpetrate, indefinitely, a regime of gross violation of human rights in a manner, and by adopting the same modes, as done by Naxalites/extremists”.

The court goes on to mention: “Tax breaks for the rich, and guns for the youngsters amongst [the] poor, so that they keep fighting amongst themselves, seems to be the new mantra from the mandarins of security and high economic policy of the State. This, apparently, is to be the grand vision for the development of a nation that has constituted itself as a sovereign, secular, socialist and democratic republic.”

The problem is, the Chhattisgarh government has a history of not paying any attention to the national judicial system. It has already paid no attention to the constitution, trying to justify an invisible war for a kind of industrial development whose nuclear weapons manifest themselves as perpetual poverty and chronic malnutrition. Indigenous societies and farmers across the country have rejected this kind of development.

Supreme Court orders asking the security forces to not occupy schools have not been followed. Supreme Court orders requesting the police to lodge First Information Reports regarding the killings were not followed, and a Sessions Court order for the arrest of Salwa Judum leader Soyam Mukha has repeatedly been ignored, even when he has given press conferences or led protest rallies in front of police officers.

Now, local reports claim that the police have been disarming Special Police Officers, while the government is considering a review petition appealing the Supreme Court decision. At the same time, Special Police Officers, or SPOs as they’re more commonly known, are aware that some of them can’t go back to their homes.

One wonders what will happen to Comrade Naveen, a Maoist area commander who allegedly raped a girl, then ran way from his village to eventually become a Special Police Officer, whom the police will now be disarming pursuant to Supreme Court orders.

The petitioners, in a press release dated July 8, stated: “We appeal to the Maoists to join all right thinking citizens in hailing this historic judgement and to desist from harming SPOs, or any other group of citizens in any way. They should be allowed to peacefully reintegrate into their villages.”

Peace is doable. Will the war stop? A few weeks ago, quietly and without much ado, the army also entered the jungles of Bastar, in Narayanpur District, for what it called “training exercises”. And yet there remain emphatic voices among the ruling class that the troops must be used to fight a war against the Maoists that the government and the Salwa Judum had fought with complete impunity for the past seven years.

No one knows the exact number of people killed by the Salwa Judum; the government never counted them, and the petitions were never complete. The village of Kottacheru for instance, had nine dead – but the court petitions alleged only five. The village of Badepalli was burnt down in 2006, and again in 2009 – but no one ever reported it. The violence was very real.

Brutal attacks on civilians

The fingers of 18-month-old Katam Suresh were cut off during an attack by government security forces on his village of Gompad, Chhattisgarh [Javed Iqbal]


On October 2, 2009, central government security forces attacked the village of Gompad, based on information that an armed Maoist squad was nearby. They killed nine people, including an eight-year-old girl; cut the fingers off an 18-month-old baby; brutally tortured and killed his mother; and shot dead his grandparents, leaving their bodies in a heap of corpses in a small open pathway. On the same day, another police patrol caught two young men, one from Nukaltong and the other from Velpocha, and shot them dead on their way back to the police station.

The village of Goomiyapal is a little over four kilometres from the mining town of Kirandul. The first documented attack there took place on April 12, 2009, when the Salwa Judum and the police beat a young man and his mother. Then, in December 2009, six people were shot dead in an encounter. A 15-year-old boy was shot dead on February 12, 2010. Then in May, a day before Maoists attacked a civilian bus with an improvised explosive device, killing 33, two people were killed and their houses set alight in Goomiyapal.

The villages of Tatemargu and Pallodi were turned to ashes as they were razed to the ground on November 9, 2009, by the security forces during a “combing operation”. Four people from Tatemargu, two from Doghpar and another from Pallodi were picked up and executed in the jungle. The villagers only remember the police taking them away, then discovering dry pools of blood in the jungle.

As the village of Pallodi was rebuilt, nearby Tadmetla village – where 76 security personnel were ambushed and killed by Maoists in April 2010 – was burnt down on March 16, 2011, along with the villages of Timmapuram and Morpalli. Three people were killed, three people died of hunger after getting lost in the jungle, and three women were alleged to have been raped. Numerous relief teams and private citizens were stopped from helping by the Salwa Judum or Special Police Officers.

Maoists culpable, too

Maoist atrocities also go painfully forgotten: the story of one member of a Maoist cadre raped by her own comrades was written off as state propaganda, just as the gunning down of children by the police was written off as Maoist propaganda by the state. Another class of “revolutionaries” referred to the gang rape of women in Tadmetla by the security forces as “good for the revolution” because it would incite the people to “wake up”.

This was told to me with disgust by the late civil servant, SR Sankaran, a man who once helped bring the government of Andhra Pradesh and the Naxalite parties together for peace talks. By 2010, he was a broken man, aware that his failure to bring peace to Andhra Pradesh indirectly led to an escalation of the conflict in neighbouring Chhattisgarh. And he knew both sides of the war, he had told me first of the Kakatiya train burning on the October 9, 1990, when the Maoists had set fire to the general class carriages, killing 47 people. Or how the police shot indigenious people protesting in Indervelli in Adilabad on April 20, 1981, killing anything between 13 (according to the government) or 60 (according to others).

When there is no end to state atrocities in the country, one would wonder, where is the revolution that the Maoists have apparently been fighting for?

In the Pamed block of Kanchal village, 14 Maoist Dalam members were poisoned one eventful morning in 2008. On the same day, two villagers disappeared with a visiting police patrol. In retaliation, the Maoists killed six villagers from Kanchal in front of their families as informants. Some 59 of 89 families in Kanchal left their homes and now live in Andhra Pradesh. So much for the revolution.

In April this year, I asked the displaced villagers of Kanchal: “If the Salwa Judum would go away, would you return to your villages in Chhattisgarh?” 


“If Naxalism would go away, would you return?”

“How would Naxalism ever go away?”
The killing of alleged informants by the Maoists has occured at regular intervals and is often unreported. As recently as July 7, Kailash and Shashi Majhi were shot dead by Maoists. Both of them were from Barigaon village in Kashipur, Orissa, a village on the forefront of the Adivasi agitation against displacement which has faced more false arrests and beatings from the police than any other village in Kashipur.

Back in Chhattisgarh, in the village of Basaguda, the Maoists killed four people. Two kilometres away in the village of Lingagiri, the CRPF and the Salwa Judum killed four people and raped two women.

It almost never ends. Story after story of Dantewada involve the killing of people by the Salwa Judum and the Maoists.

And at no point have there been any prosecutions for those who ordered the killings described above. The Supreme Court has ordered that the state must “investigate all previously inappropriately or incompletely investigated instances of alleged criminal activities of Salwa Judum, or those popularly known as Koya Commandos, filing of appropriate FIRs and diligent prosecution”.

Yet the men of power continue to be in power, or are shot dead in Maoist ambushes, leading to more vitriolic politics, and further contributing to the downward spiral of violence and counter-violence. So how does disarming the foot soldiers and the cannon fodder change things? Will there really be prosecutions?

To the credit of the state of Chhattisgarh, it is sometimes honest enough not to pretend to be a democracy. From the courts to the press to the intelligence agencies, there is zero tolerance for dissent. Any talk of human rights is denounced as hogwash, and vocal people are often accused of not loving their country.

The recent arrest of whistleblowers and environmental activists Ramesh Agarwal and Harihar Patel, who exposed the environmental crimes of the Jindal Group, is just the tip of the iceberg. Chhattisgarh also holds the dubious distinction of arresting a human rights worker on Human Rights Day for the murder of a man whose life he tried to save. Kopa Kunjam has been in jail for a year and a half now, even after witnesses testified in court that he tried to save lives.

Ironically, as civil society activists celebrate the Supreme Court judgment, Kartam Joga, one of the authors of the Writ Petition that was filed in the Supreme Court, is also still in jail on trumped-up charges.

In another case involving a recent police shooting in Uttar Pradesh, the Supreme Court has already gone on to mention that the “state is the biggest land grabber”, using a colonial era law – the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, to forcefully take farmers’ lands and hand them over to private companies over a loosely defined “public purpose”.

The state is also using this law in Jaitapur, Maharashtra for the Areva Nuclear power plant; in Lohandiguda, Chhattisgarh for Tata’s steel plant; and in Orissa for POSCO’s steel plant.  In Orissa, disenfranchised farmers have stood up, organised themselves into islands of resistance, and said “no” to the government’s policy of rehabilitation and compensation. One would always hear them tell you: “We’d rather die than give up our land.”

Today, children from the villages of Dhinkia and Govindpur have stopped the entry of the police and the administration into their villages, to stop land acquisition, when every government agency has conspired to cheat them of their rights.

Indian democracy falters

The administration has been pondering an armed intervention to break the barricade of young children and women. That’s Indian democracy today. A hunger for resources – for land, for forests, for iron ore, for bauxite – is trampling over the rights of people.

And it’s not just democracy in the government that is dying in India. Democratic thought seems to have been executed as anonymously as the 17,000 custodial deaths that have taken place in the past ten years, deaths reported by the Asian Centre For Human Rights.

Let us take, for example, the police shootings in Forbesganj, Bihar, on June 2, that left four dead, in which a policeman jumped up and down on a dying man – in front of the officer who said: “It’s enough, he got his punishment.” Or the shooting in Assam on June 22 that left three people dead, when they were merely asking the government to stop evicting them from their lands and to address their claims over the forest, as per the Forest Rights Act.

The Supreme Court order regarding the Salwa Judum is aware of the state of the nation, when it even goes on to mention, “… that unrest is often the only thing that actually puts pressure on the government to make things work and for the government to live up to its own promises. However, the right to protest, even peacefully, is often not recognised by the authorities, and even non-violent agitations are met with severe repression”.

Eventually, the Supreme Court is a democratic fantasy of the nation. They have passed orders that the poor and the disenfranchised of this country would only dream of. And that’s what they remain – dreams – as long as the political leaders and the ruling class conduct themselves in manners that are not democratic.

And if they want to change, they can start by reading the court order itself:

“The justification often advanced by advocates of the neoliberal development paradigm, as historically followed, or newly emerging in a more rapacious form in India, is that unless development occurs, via rapid and vast exploitation of natural resources, the country would not be able to either compete on the global scale, nor accumulate the wealth necessary to tackle endemic and seemingly intractable problems of poverty, illiteracy, hunger and squalor. Whether such exploitation is occurring in a manner that is sustainable, by the environment and the existing social structures, is an oft debated topic, and yet hurriedly buried. Neither the policy makers nor the elite in India who turn a blind eye to the gross and inhuman suffering of the displaced and the dispossessed provide any credible answers. Worse still, they ignore historical evidence which indicates that a development paradigm depending largely on the plunder and loot of the natural resources more often than not leads to failure of the state; and that on its way to such a fate, countless millions would have been condemned to lives of great misery and hopelessness.”

Javed Iqbal is a journalist who has been reporting on tribal issues in Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. He worked for The New Indian Express from November 2009 to April 2011, documenting state and Maoist atrocities in the undivided Bastar district of Chhattisgarh, and people’s movements in Orissa. He has also written extensively on people’s movements and slum politics in Mumbai.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.