Around 300 tribal people, along with rights activists, took part in a week-long bicycle rally, calling for peace in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, which has been mired with a decades-long violent conflict between Maoist rebels and security forces. The conflict has claimed more than 12,000 lives in the past two decades.
The tribal people started their procession from Chhattisgarh’s rebel-affected Bastar region on February 22, urging the newly elected Congress party government in the state to rehabilitate numerous villagers who have fled their homes fearing violence from both security forces and Maoists. They also demanded that the government release innocent tribal people languishing in state prisons on charges of being “Naxals,” another name for rural Maoist guerrillas active in the region.
Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former journalist-turned-tribal rights activist working in the region, believes that if the government accepts these demands, which it is obliged to under various domestic and international laws concerning internally displaced persons (IDPs), it can help vulnerable tribal people trust the government – which would facilitate a conducive atmosphere for dialogue between the state and locals who have turned against the government.
The Maoist rebels in the state have been fighting a guerrilla war for more than four decades now, aiming to overthrow elected government and set up communist rule. They accuse the government of forcefully controlling tribal land and resources, and not giving the tribal communities the autonomy granted in the Indian Constitution. But caught between the state and the Maoists, tribal people are paying the price.
The tribal people who participated in the rally were among the thousands of people who had been rendered homeless during the years when Salwa Judum, a counter-insurgency militia founded in 2005 and supported by the state government then, was fighting the Maoists. The militias were later accused of committing serious atrocities on innocent villagers deemed to be Maoist sympathizers.
As a media report said at the time, “Salwa Judum sought to conscript villagers, moved entire villages to what were essentially detention camps so as to cut the support base for Maoists.” Those who refused to leave were forced to move in by the militias from the Salwa Judum campaign, who allegedly used coercion, threats, intimidation and violence.
Just before Salwa Judum was launched, the state government had signed a memorandum of understanding with Tata Group, one of India’s oldest private businesses, for setting up a mega steel plant in the Bastar region, which required the acquisition of tribal people’s land.
Some suspect that in the name of combating Maoists, Salwa Judum had displaced tens of thousands of villagers to help the state government implement its plans for economic development. Salwa Judum was disbanded in 2011 after the Supreme Court declared it illegal.
Many of these IDPs are living in the adjoining states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Some of them want to return to their villages, but the others, fearing more violence, are requesting the government to rehabilitate them in other parts of the state.
Apart from the atrocities by Salwa Judum, there are innumerable cases of illegal detention under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act of 2005, custodial torture and staged shootouts by the state police. A study conducted by a non-profit organisation, Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, reveals that some of the jails in the tribal areas are overcrowded because of an excessive number of fake cases filed by the police. On an average, 96 percent of the tribal people arrested have been acquitted by the court, the research adds.
In 2017, Deputy Jailer of Raipur Central Jail, Varsha Dongre, was suspended by the state authorities after a post she made on Facebook, which she deleted later, had accused the state’s security personnel of widespread torture and sexual abuse of minor tribal girls inside prisons. She had also alleged that entire villages had been burnt and women raped to push the locals out of their land in forests rich in natural mineral resources so that industrialists could invest.
The state government has assured the locals on several occasions that it will release the villagers imprisoned on fake charges, but hasn’t done so yet.
In 2012, a standing committee headed by a former chief secretary, Nirmala Buch, was set up by the government of the adjoining state of Madhya Pradesh to review pending cases of prisoners following an agreement with Maoists for the release of Alex Paul Menon – the Magistrate of Maoist-affected Sukma district in Chhattisgarh who had been abducted by the rebels.
More than six years later, the government has not disclosed if it has released any prisoner since the committee’s formation. Locals believe they have been betrayed by the government.
Aggravated by the government’s high-handedness, and to save their land, forest, and dignity, many tribal people have picked up guns and joined the Maoist movement. Maoists came to Chhattisgarh’s forests nearly four decades ago seeking refuge after the Indian government cracked down on their long-time fight for a revolution in the adjoining states, including the southern Andhra Pradesh state and east Indian state of West Bengal.
Although they constitute most of the fighting force in the Maoist insurgency, there is no tribal presence in the movement’s leadership. Choudhary, who also rode his bicycle for the ongoing rally, says, “Though the tribal people who have joined the insurgency parrot some lines about Maoism, what they are actually fighting for can be gained if we can simply implement the Constitution.”
The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 (PESA) and the Forest Rights Act of 2006 can impact the tribal communities favourably by ensuring the rights that facilitate self-governance and giving them access to their resources. However, media reports suggest these laws are poorly implemented. More than 20 years since the PESA was passed in the Indian parliament, rules for its enforcement are yet to be framed in the state.
Choudhary, who has been watching the conflict unfold for nearly two decades, fears that while the scattered Maoist movement is waning with no young leadership being developed, there is a very real danger of a gang war breaking out within the movement once the old leaders, who are keeping the factions together, die. And that could throw the region into even more chaos. Such a situation, adds Choudhary, makes steps like the bicycle rally a necessity.
The rally, after concluding in the capital city of Raipur, was followed by the second Bastar Dialogue, a two-day event that began on March 1, where several activists and tribal leaders from Maoist-affected adjoining states assembled to discuss the roadmap towards peace in the entire conflict zone – which comprises parts of Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, and Orissa states among others. They also discussed ways to establish self-governance for tribal people to bring the rebels back into the mainstream.
The significance of the efforts for peace being made by the tribal people and activists is yet to dawn on Indian media, which have largely ignored the event in the same way as the country’s politicians ignore concerns of the tribal people.