On the Repression of Tribal People in Silger

Forum Against Corporatization and Militarization

The Moolvasi Bachao Manch gave an open call for a mass gathering and events from 15th to 17th of May 2022 to mark the 1st anniversary of the Silger movement and the martyrdom of those killed in the firing. Soon after the call, an eight-member ‘Solidarity Visit Team’ was formed by Forum against Corporatization and Militarization in New Delhi to visit Silger.

The team reached Raipur on the morning of 15th May 2022 at around 10 AM and despite being denied further entry into the “sensitive zone” by the soldiers of CRPF’s 168th Battalion near Chinna Kodepal CRPF Camp, roughly 450 km away from Raipur, the team struggled its way to Silger on the evening of 16th May.

What we experienced was nothing short of a war-like preparation or deployment of security forces, with a camp every few kilometres, heavy Mine Protected Vehicles (MVPs) that are being built by Motor Giants like TATA and Mahindra, soldiers carrying sophisticated weaponry with Under Barrel Grenade Launchers mounted on deadliest assault rifles. It looked like war-torn Jaffna or Laos or Cambodia.

The roads here have an eerie silence about them, unused by the people around but so well maintained, so much money put into them. Once in a while you see a huge military vehicle pass by, or an ambulance only meant for the paramilitary. Villagers have stopped using the big, new roads in order to avoid being harassed — or arrested and killed — by the paramilitary. The camps and roads go together. Earlier this was part of the Indian state’s Operation Green Hunt, now it is called the Operation SAMADHAN-Prahar. Road construction contractors and labourers live in the camps and they go out to work with an elaborate security cordon around them, fearing attack by Maoists. On our way to Silger, we saw multiple road-opening parties of CRPF heavily armed, wearing bullet-proof jackets, with land-mine detectors, protecting the road-construction teams. Paramilitary camps, fortified and secured like in a war zone, are being built by the government everywhere in Bastar. Every 2 to 3 kilometres you have a camp. This is part of what the Home Ministry calls “Forward Operational Bases” meant for areas of “Left-wing Extremism” (LWE). Built in a short time, the camp, once it comes up, seeks to control everything around it, be the power centre, impose diktats, doing great violence to life and resources. The camp is a terrible eye-sore to every Adivasi, to even a passer-by.

Silger is a village on the border of Bijapur and Sukma District and falls on the ambitious road project to Jagargunda. The road has come past Tarrem till the point where the camp has been built in Silger. But now the road cannot be extended to Jagargunda. Why? Because there is Silger, because there is the Silger resistance. Silger is witness to a mass protest movement since more than a year — easily one of the longest movements in recent times. A locally embedded movement, Silger has in significant ways challenged rapacious mining corporations that are today protected by the Indian state’s military scorched-earth policy called “Operation SAMADHAN-Prahar”. It is a movement of the people, a resistance movement against militarization and corporatization. It is in solidarity with the victims of the massacre of Adivasis in places like Sarkeguda, Tadmetla and Gompad by state forces.

On the intervening night of the 11th and 12th May 2021, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) started building a camp on the 10-acre agricultural field beside the road, without prior consultation and consent of the Gram Sabha as mandated under the Panchayats (Extension to the schedule areas) Act, 1996.

On 13th of May, the villagers and Gram Sabha representatives were beaten up and heckled by the CRPF personnel when they tried to have a dialogue about non-compliance of PESA. Next day, 14th of May 2021, saw huge amassing of Adivasi villagers, who came in protest.

On 17th May 2021, CRPF opened fired on the huge crowd of protestors, killing three, namely Kawasi Wagha, Korsa Bhima, Uike Pandu. A pregnant woman, Punem Somli was heavily injured in the stampede that ensued after the firing and later succumbed to her injuries on 18th May. Apart from those who lost their lives, 18 people were injured, 11 admitted to Sukma Field Hospital and 7 were admitted to Bijapur District Hospital.

The protestors kept the bodies of the four at the protest site among a huge gathering of shocked Adivasi villagers, in order to demand a judicial enquiry into the killing. On 22nd May, the CRPF killed Midiam Masa from Tolervati, another Adivasi villager of the same area, when he and two others were collecting mangoes near the CRPF camp. In all, five people were killed between 17th and 22nd May. The rising rage of the Adivasis against the killings and their constant effort pushed the Chhattisgarh government to order a magisterial probe. Nothing significant has come from this probe and the deadlock continues.

Since then, the movement against the building of the paramilitary camp in Silger has been continuing for a year now, expanding into a bigger movement against the setting up of multiple paramilitary camps in Bastar. On 2nd November 2021, a joint squad of Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) and Sukma District Police detained 55 Adivasi villagers as part of their ‘area domination operation’ at Morapalli Village in the Chintalnar police station area. All except 8 of them were released, booking the 8 under the Arms and Explosives Act and several other penal acts by labelling them ‘Maoists’. All of the 55 villagers were coming back from Silger, after attending the celebration ceremony of Chhattisgarh’s 23rd formation day, joined by thousands of Adivasi villagers and multiple organizations from across the state and the country.

One significant development was the founding of the Moolvasi Bachao Manch (Aboriginal Defence Forum), an Adivasi platform. The Silger movement as well as many mass protests in Bastar are now being spearheaded under the aegis of Moolvasi Bachao Manch. This is a significant development, as it points to a new form of mass resistance.

Silger is like an Occupy movement, a sit-in blockade or dharna. It does appeals and petitions the authorities, but also physically sits in and blocks the supply chains of mining corporations and the state — occupying the exact place where the proposed road is to be built and declaring the state forces out of bounds. The proposed road will bring in forces and processes that will destroy Adivasi life, but it is simultaneously about control over the iron-ore mining areas of Bailadila and Dantewada, in order to facilitate the mining-politician-police nexus.

One might think of this area as “remote forests” but the iron-ore from here quickly travels to Japan and elsewhere. Conveyor belts criss-crossing the lacerated hills directly load iron-ore onto the waiting freight trains that speed off to the Vishakhapatnam sea port and thereon into the global supply chains. Kirandul is the railway station here and this is one of the highest revenue-generating rail lines in India. “Made in Japan” diesel engines from Hitachi are deployed for efficiency and ensuring just-in-time production, the hallmark of logistical capitalism. Apparently, Japan is stocking up iron-ore under the sea for the next hundred years! If not in trains, then, the iron-ore travels in fresh water from the Bailadila hills through what are called “slurry pipelines” initially built by the ESSAR company. The water is then dumped into the sea as “waste”.

Big capital and the state have unleashed a dirty war against those resisting this loot and plunder. Extra-judicial killings and state impunity seem like an understatement. It is a permanent state of emergency, normalised and routinised. Even incarceration seems like a better option, as with those like Soni Sori who are thrown in jail after IPS-rank police officers are done with meting out their “punishment” and revenge often through brutal sexual violence. Judicial custody after torture and revenge by the police is routine. Whether the political regime is “liberal” or “right-wing” makes little difference.

One is forced to come to the conclusion that what the Adivasis are facing is nothing less than genocide against their life and existence. A silent genocide secretly sanctioned at the highest levels of the Indian political class and state power since at least 2005 (the time of Salwa Judum) in Bastar. Normalising the process of mass destitution of Adivasis at near-starvation levels in detention camps manned by security forces as well as across the social body. An upper caste Brahminical mindset reinforces the militarization and corporate destruction of Adivasi culture and identity.

The implications and significance of a movement like Silger are therefore much bigger than those in power — and many activists — are willing to admit. This mass democratic resistance movement has secured a huge area from attempts at “area domination” by those in power. With an adjoining camp of hundreds of paramilitary forces who have recently shot and killed five villagers and injured many, it is an eye-to-eye-ball fight with the armed machinery of the state and companies.

For those in power, Silger has proved to be the weakest link in the chain of domination and exploitation of the land, resources and people of Bastar. They are desperate to crush it.

To the mining corporations and state, owing to the people’s resistance, it has been clear for a long time that it won’t be easy to just reach the mining blocks with their big machinery and just get on with extraction. Therefore, a complex web of security apparatus akin to a proto-state mafia network is propped up by India’s parliamentary democracy, in the name of countering the Maoist movement and maintaining peace for development.

You get a sense of the security apparatus being built if you look at Silger, Bechapal, Pusnar, Elmagonda, Empuram, Gompad, Singaram, Potali, Tettem, Nahodi, Karrepura, Minpa, Mankapal, Bana and Bechaghat etc., the places where the protest movements are going on.

We gathered that almost 60 camps have been built in the last 5 years in Chhattisgarh. According to a report published in the Indian Express dated April 27, 2022, seven districts have seen 42 camps coming up in less than three years. These seven districts include Sukma, Bijapur and Dantewada, where there are multiple protests going on against the building up of the CRPF and Police Camps.

On 17 May 2022, on the first anniversary of the CRPF firings, the march started from the protest site, 2 kms away from the memorial, with slogans like “Jaan denge par zameen nahi”, “Bastar se police camp khali karo”, “Bastar mein narsanhar band karo”, “jungle pe drone hamle karna band karo”, “Sarkeguda-Edesmettake shaheedon ko nyay do”, “na lok sabha na vidhan sabha, sabse upar gram sabha” (we will die but won’t give away our lands, remove police camps from Bastar, stop massacres in Bastar, stop drone attacks in forests, justice for the Sarkeguda-Edesmetta martyrs, neither Lok Sabha nor Vibha Sabha, supreme is the Gram Sabha, respectively) among many others. The whole forest echoed with the slogans of thousands of Adivasis stretched across in a rally almost a kilometre long. There were people as far as the eyes could properly see, walking like ants on their mission.

According to Moolvasi Bachao Manch, 48,503 people from over 1000 villages attended the 3-day ceremony. Asked how they know the exact number of people attending the protests, they said that they receive information from the head of each village of who and how many people will be attending the event, so as to keep a record, in case any unfortunate event of arrest or detention takes place. Hundreds of villages are woven together to organise such protests, giving a sense of the deep social base of the Silger movement and indeed of similar mass protests in Sarkeguda, Gompad or Bechapal.

Right by the camp, challenging it, is the Martyrs column. It is a green concrete structure with the names of those killed with a flag on top. It is as if those martyrs are resonating with the slogan ‘Jaan denge, par zameen nahi’ (we will give our lives but not our land). The structure has a green flag atop with a sickle and an axe symbolizing the Adivasi culture and struggle. Looking at it from a distance easily reminds one of the hammer and sickle found on a red flag — we do not know if this proximity is intentional! Green colour, sickle and axe — that is the combination.

The masses paid tribute to the Martyrs at the Martyrs column by raising slogans like “Ursa Bhima Johar lo!”, “Punem Somli Johar lo!”, “Uike Pandu Johar lo!”, “Kawasi WaghaJohar lo!” and “Midiam Masa Johar lo!” (Johar to Ursa Bhima, Punem Somli, Uike Pandu, Kawasi Wagha and Midiam Masa). The respect and love for the martyrs is such that the whole crowd is surrounding the martyrs’ memorial and their slogans are so loud that they can be heard from miles away.

Various journalists and activists like Arvind Netam, Manish Kunjam, Bela Bhatia, Sudesh Tikam, Surju Tikam from Sarva Adivasi Samaj, leaders from the CPI, Adivasi Mahasabha and others are present to witness the conclusion of the three-day long programme. The main stage is built on an elevated platform made of mud, with a wooden structure as its shed. No tents, no steel rods, everything that is there, apart from some solar panels to provide electricity for the mike and the speakers and some chairs, is from the forest itself.

Saroj Giri, a professor at Delhi University and member of FACAM, stressed the fact that the roads and camps are being built to bring in the paramilitary forces, crush the movements against corporatization and extract the resources of Chhattisgarh Silger and many such similar protests are the walls that protect the environment and the Adivasi culture from destruction by the mining corporations.

The families of Martyrs came forward on the stage and rejected the state’s foul propaganda that the families were rejecting compensation as Maoists were threatening them not take any and clarified that they were offered 10,000 rupees each for the loss of their loved ones. They reiterated their demand of enquiry and action against the CRPF personnel responsible for the killing and said that only after the said action, will they accept a compensation of Rupees one crore each. The question that arises is, whether the cost of a person’s life is measured as low as 10,000 rupees, if it can be measured at all in monetary terms? And is it so easy for the Forces to kill anyone and claim that they were “Maoist” who attacked the forces? Looking at the track records of forces present in the region, the answer is apparently affirmative.

New Model and Leadership

The members of Moolvasi Bachao Manch are mostly young men and women not above the age of 25 and are very dedicated and unflinching in their resolve. These are the youngsters who have experienced the horrors of Salwa Judum in their early age; they saw either someone from their families or someone from their village getting killed or raped by vigilantes of Salwa Judum. These young leaders of today have themselves faced sexual harassment and torture at the hands of the security forces.

Shanti Punem, leader of Mulvasi Bachao Manch from Gangloor, has been active in protests against sexual violence and state repression from a very young age. She has assisted various fact-finding teams in detailing sexual harassment cases. Shanti is barely 25 years of age and she is fluent in Hindi, which enables her to communicate the issues of the area with other activists and journalists.

Speaking about the reasons to oppose the camps, Raghu Midiam, leader of Mulvasi Bachao Manch at Silger, told us “These camps were built by forcefully acquiring the agricultural land of villagers of Silger; no consent of gram sabha was attained as mandated by PESA and 5th Schedule of the Constitution. These camps bring large numbers of forces to the region and they commit atrocities against the villagers. Women are sexually harassed and even raped, people are detained illegally and any protest against the mining companies are crushed by these very forces; they are not here to protect us but to loot our Jal-Jungle-Jameen and hand it over to the mining companies”. Asserting the demands of the people, he adds “we don’t want camps; we want schools and hospitals, there are very few schools in this region and those too very far off. For good medical facilities, we have to travel to Bijapur; therefore, what we need is good health care and education facilities not camps”. Raghu is just 22 years old and has completed his intermediate education. Raghu is among those who witnessed the brutalities of the state and vigilante militias during the period of Salwa Judum and Operation Green-Hunt. His own sister was sexually abused by the forces.

What would Birsa Munda, Gunda Dhur and Komaram Bheem be like in today’s world? The struggle they waged was for their Jal-Jungle-Jameen and against the exploitation of resources and the struggle being waged by the Adivasis of today, by Shanti Punem, Raghu Midiam and thousands of other Adivasis, for protecting their Jal-Jungle-Jameen is similar in its essence. Earlier, the exploiters were the British colonisers; today it is Indian Corporates like Adani, Jindal and Tata. The difference is today’s Gunda Dhur and Birsa Munda are learning and adopting new tactics of struggle and in turn, teaching the world how struggles against big corporations and the mighty repressive state should be waged.

The mode of struggle used by the Adivasis during Salwa Judum and Operation Green-Hunt is different from the model of a protracted sit-in strike – a new one for the region. We have seen this form of struggle, where thousands of people gathered at a strategic point and continued their sit-in for months in Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere during the Anti CAA-NRC-NPR movement. Kisan Andolan carried forward Shaheen Bagh’s ‘Chakka Jam’ model and blocked 3 important highway entry points to the Capital city at Singhu Border, Tikri Border and Ghazipur Border around Delhi.

The Silger Anti-Camp movement implemented the model of a protracted mass movement but in an entirely different setup and within a more repressive environment, where whatever happens hardly gets reported owing to the large-scale media blackout.

The Kisan Andolan and Anti-CAA-NRC-NPR movement, though being defamed by the corporate media, was widely covered and propagated by alternate media channels as well as international media houses. But when it comes to places like Bastar, places like Silger, the flow of information becomes a privilege the Adivasi people have not been bestowed with. Freedom of the press becomes an imaginary word and the only “freedom” the press has is to publish the narrative of the police, mining officials and compromised politicians. The Silger Anti-Camp movement, despite being one of its kind in this region, continuing for a year with mass mobilization of thousands of villagers, has gained very little media attention that it was due. The state has been deliberately trying to curtail the realities of these regions from coming out, by intimidating and harassing the journalists working on the ground, in order to create an information blackout. This information blackout helps the state to carry out its brutal repression of the people, which is nothing less than a war unleashed by the state on its people, without any outside observers and witnesses.

The Genocidal Weapon: Operation Samadhan-Prahar.

The state has been using the iron fist in its approach to “tackle” the Naxal question for a long time now and this whole period has witnessed various genocidal initiatives and policies like Salwa Judum, Operation Green-Hunt, Operation Anaconda in Jharkhand, Mission 2016, Mission 2017 etc., all claiming to wipe out the movement from these regions to pave the way for “development” of the regions affected by the Maoist movement. The building of paramilitary camps and networks of roads in those regions are also a part of the state’s policy to crush the people’s resistance and pave the way for corporate looting of resources by heavily militarizing the region in the name of countering LWE.

Initiated in 2017, Operation SAMADHAN-Prahar is one such policy aimed at launching a massive offensive on the people of the country. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh launched the fancy policy in a review meeting held in the month of May, 2017 at New Delhi. Addressing the top bureaucrats and police officials, he said “The fight against Left- Wing Extremism is a coordinated battle on the security and development front that has to be fought to the finish and won. Who could be more suitable and competent than you all? Let your action speak for itself”, the Economic Times quoted. The statement itself speaks a lot about the state’s approach in tackling the questions raised by the movement and the people of the region. The Home Minister’s imagination of development is more militaristic than civic. SAMADHAN expands to – ‘Smart leadership, Aggressive strategy, Motivation and training, Actionable intelligence, Dashboard based key performance indicators and key result areas, Harnessing technology, Action plan for each theatre and No access to financing’.

The words like Smart Leadership tell us of the thinking behind promoting notorious IPS officers like SRP Kalluri or Abhishek Pallava. The aim is to build ambitious leadership, capable of devising ruthless policies like Lone Varattu (Surrender Policy devised by Dantewada SP Abhishek Pallava), in order to suppress the people and support the state’s narrative of winning the war with the Maoists. Through SAMADHAN, the state aims to gain ‘Actionable Intelligence’ by gathering information from “surrendered Naxals” as well as deploying them in the form of “Gupt Sainiks” (Shadow Intelligence Officers). Consequently, the state is committed to the installation of 2343 new mobile towers with additional 2542 towers in the upcoming years to assist the desired work these “Gupt Sainiks” are supposed to do. “Surrendered Naxals” are also inducted as auxiliary forces such as District Reserve Guards and Bastar Fighters, despite the Supreme Court banning the use of civilians and surrendered Naxals in Counter-Insurgency Operations.

Further, ‘Harnessing Technology’ part of the policy means use of sophisticated weaponry, GPS and satellite tracking, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or Drones) to monitor the movement of rebels and devise operations accordingly. The policy of using drones has been corroborated with the recent air strikes in the villages of Bijapur and Sukma Districts and a similar aerial strike on the villages of Bijapur in April, 2021. Key performance indicators (KPIs) and key result areas (KIAs) are parameters through which each mission or operation is judged based on the “kill ratio”, setbacks to Maoists in terms of arms and ammunitions, destruction of the Adivasi way of life, and sexual assault of women, among others. The whole acronym and the policy contain generous use of corporate-style terminology to sweep off the Maoists.

The policy of Operation SAMADHAN-Prahar, which the state envisages as an antidote for the Maoist Movement, provides for building 400 fortified police/paramilitary stations also referred to as Forward Operational Bases, Building of Roads under Road Requirement Plan (RRP-I) and Road Connectivity Programme for Left-Wing Extremist Areas (RCPLWEA). The paramilitary camps being opposed by Silger and various other protest movements are built under the very policy of SAMADHAN. Further the road constructions that are facing protests by the Adivasi people at various places are also being built under the aforementioned plan. The state has sanctioned a total of 17,600 kms of roads, out of which 9,343 km of roads have been built already.

In April 2022, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai, informing the Lok Sabha in a written reply, stated “Rs. 1,623 crores have been released to the LWE affected states under the SRE scheme during the last five years. Under the Special Infrastructural Scheme (SIS), projects worth Rs 371 crores for strengthening the special forces (SF) and Special Intelligence Branches (SIB) and for 250 Fortified Police stations worth Rs. 620 crores in vulnerable LWE affected areas have been approved since 2017”. The Minister went on saying “in previous SIS/FPS scheme, the Central government released more than Rs 1,180 crore for the construction of 400 Fortified Police Stations and upgradation of police infrastructure in the states”. Further, the funds for the construction of these roads are also being allotted by the centre to the states under various Security Related Expenditure (SREs) and Special Infrastructure Schemes (SIS). Additional funds are also provided by the Centre in the name of the Special Central Assistance (SCA) scheme. It is pertinent to mention that these fancy schemes, allotting thousands of crores for ‘development and security’ expenditures, are withdrawn once the area is considered “Naxal Free”. Clearly, the governments at the centre as well as state level are more interested in militarizing the whole region to crush any resistance against the corporate looting than “developing” the area in the interest of the Adivasi people.

Furthermore, starting from Salwa Judum to Operation Green-Hunt, the state has been hell-bent in creating a war without witnesses by harassing the activists, lawyers and journalists working on the ground to bring out the grim realities of these regions. This narrative control is a well-devised mechanism of Public Perception Management that the state is using as part of Operation SAMADHAN-PRAHAR in order to present itself as generous, solution-seeking and development-friendly agents struggling with the decadent, anti-development and violence-frenzy Adivasi masses led by the Maoists. This Public Perception Management allows the state to cancel out any debate and criticism of the state’s actions and policies, by portraying such attempts as anti-development, anti-national and even pro-Maoist, thereby leaving close to no space for any scrutiny by the larger civil society and the masses. This in turn allows the state to carry out its brutal repression with impunity to displace and disinherit the Adivasi masses of their Jal-Jungle-Jameen in the interest of the big corporates.

Rajveer Kaur from Forum against Corporatization and Militarization stressed the importance of recognizing Operation SAMADHAN-Prahar’s role behind the construction of these paramilitary camps every few kilometres. She pointed out that these anti-camp movements like Silger are, in essence, also a movement against Operation SAMADHAN-Prahar, and she said that it is very important to speak about this policy from such spaces and stages like Moolwasi Bachao Manch in Silger.

Forum Against Corporatization and Militarization calls upon all democratic and progressive forces, public intellectuals, writers, artists, journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, professors, students, workers, peasants and the broader masses of the people to support the Silger Anti Camp Movement and join hands to fight back the Genocidal Military Operation SAMADHAN-Prahar.

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