Salwa Judum – A Ruling Class Response to the Tactics of a Militarised Revolutionary Movement

Shambhu Shankar

Bastar in the state of Chattisgarh bordering Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Orissa has been a major theatre of the experiments of CPI (Maoist) with the tactics of armed revolutionary movement. This movement derives its social support from the tribal people living in this hilly and forested region. The gradual erosion of the control of the tribal people over their forests – which is their major source of livelihood and also the basis of their cultural identity – and the increasing control of the rapacious forest department over their lives forms the background for the steadfast support the tribal people have given to the revolutionary movement. Without going into the merits of the tactics adopted or its sustainability in the long run, we may note the positive impact the movement has had on the tribal people. There has been a marked decline in the oppressive presence and exaction of the forest/police department minions. The forest cover which has greatly depleted where ever the forest department has had unbridled power, has survived fairly well in this region. Traditional tribal communal institutions like the Ghotul have revived and are playing a positive role in both the cultural and economic lives of the people. Tribal people, looked upon as hapless uncivilised creatures to be exploited and dispossessed at will elsewhere in post-Independence India, are looked at with respect and even fear in these parts. Perhaps more important than all this, the existence of a strong armed movement of the tribal people here has restrained the state from dispossessing the tribal people in the name of development. These regions are extremely rich in mineral deposits like iron ore and bauxite as well as bio diversity reserves and there has been concerted attempts at ‘opening up’ these regions for multi-national exploitation. It may be reasonably argued that such armed movements have held at bay the efforts to open up the region for capitalism. However this may not be uniformly positive in its impact as it has led the region into isolation with poor transport and communication, poor health and education services, greater reliance on forest use for livelihood, etc. This has also had an adverse impact on gender relations and assimilation of tribal people from diverse ethnic background with each other.

However strong the revolutionary movement has been, Bastar has not been immune to the march of capitalist development, especially in the areas adjacent to the main roadways, weekly markets etc. There is a growing presence of the non-tribal outsiders, especially traders engaged in trading forest produce and petty officials in the region. Even among the tribal people a strata has emerged which has prospered through such trade and petty contracts. In fact it is widely believed that the revolutionary organisations themselves tax these traders and contractors and as such participate and benefit from and protect their activities. However it seems to be a relation of extortion rather than one of collaboration. In other words there is a growing and substantial segment of the population which is uncomfortable with the armed revolutionary movement, both within and outside the tribal groups. One must also not forget to mention the furious activity of the front organisations of the RSS combine in the region. They have been trying to foster a Hindu identity among the tribal people mainly operating through the traders and tribal elites and setting up single teacher schools for the children. Their growing influence can be seen in the surprise sweep of assembly seats from Bastar by the BJP in the last elections to the state assembly. Further recently, the Government of Chattisgarh entered into an MOU with the Tata-Essar group to set up a steel plant in Bastar. The actual terms of the understanding have not been revealed not only to the public but even to the cabinet. The so called Salwa Judum movement has to be situated in this context.

Ironically, Salwa Judum in the Gondi language means ‘peace march’ even though it is anything but that. It was initiated in the middle of 2005, spearheaded by the Congress Party’s Mahendra Karma, a Member of the Legislative Assembly from Dantewara in Bastar. He has an interesting background – he began his youthful political career in the Communist Party of India, Bastar being an old parliamentary stronghold of that party. He quit it to join the Congress and has since emerged as a major ‘tribal leader’. He is said to be involved in the infamous malik makbuza scandal in which tribal lands with precious teak trees were sold off for a song. He is also said to be linked with illegal trafficking in forest produce. He may not enjoy the cooperation of his fellow Congressmen especially Ajit Jogi the former Chief Minister of Chattisgarh who sees in Karma, a rival tribal leader. Yet Karma, termed by his supporters as the ‘Tiger of Bastar’, is a close confidant of the present BJP chief minister. Karma’s close ties with the central government through the Congress Party and with the BJP led state govt. through the chief minister are crucial to understand the nature of the Salwa Judum and the support it has been getting from the state.

The Salwa Judum is made out to be a voluntary and spontaneous ‘uprising’ of the tribal people against the Maoists. However it will be clear from the following account that it is a well organised action plan backed by the state and the two principal political parties. The principal strategy seems to be to forcibly vacate villages and shift the tribal villagers to temporary camps, guarded by the Salwa Judum activists and the para-military forces. This strategy is also used to terrorise other villages to join the Salwa Judum and act as its cadre and informers. Segments of the tribal and non tribal population opposed to the Maoists have been paid, armed and trained as a Special Police Force to fight their brethren who support the Maoists.

The Salwa Judum movement begins with meetings organised and addressed by Karma and the district collector. All villagers of the particular village and nearby villages are forced to attend the meeting by the Salwa Judum activists and the para-military forces. The meetings are themselves heavily guarded by the police and the Naga Battalion specially stationed in Bastar to fight the Maoists. Villages which refuse to participate in the meetings are looted, set fire to and subjected to economic boycott. The Naga Battalion adds its bit through special terror expeditions into the villages. This persists till the villagers abandon the villages and agree to shift to the camps. The people have been forced to leave behind their animals and household goods.

So far more than 40 villages in Bhairamgarh, Gidam and Bijapur areas have been thus vacated (all the three regions are on an arterial road connecting Bijapur and Dantewara). These villages it should be noted are south of the Indravati river and the Ahujhmar hills, said to be the stronghold of the Maoists. Thus while not making inroads into the heart of the Maoist area the Salwa Judum skirts it and perhaps seeks to cut off its southern corridor for contact with Andhra Pradesh.

There are more than 15,000 people living under dismal conditions in the camps. These have been built without minimum facilities, and the inhabitants have no choice but to participate in the activities of the Salwa Judum to eke out a living. They are being forced to act as informers, and join attacks on villages which still have chosen to remain back. There are reports of Salwa Judum activists killing villagers who speak against them and leaving the bodies behind as warnings to others.

The response of the Maoists has been a degree of escalation of violence, with frequent attacks on the Salwa Judum camps, vehicles and activists. Now that is also what the Salwa Judum wants, to provoke the Maoists into fratricidal violence and reinforce the fissures in the tribal communities.

There has been a concerted effort by the bourgeois press, the political parties to cover up the misdeeds of the Salwa Judum and project it as a spontaneous uprising of the tribal people. However, some independent journalists, civil right activists and political activists have sought to bring to light the real facts behind the developments. This they have done under extreme pressures and threats. It is noteworthy that the CPI was among the first of the political parties to condemn the Salwa Judum.

Already other state governments like the Madhya Pradesh government have declared that they are considering extending Salwa Judum to their states to counter the so called Naxalite problem. The central government has promised all possible help to the Salwa Judum. All this indicates that the state is considering the Salwa Judum as a potential strategy to counter armed revolutionary movements.

The story of Salwa Judum is still unfolding as the violence on both sides is escalating. Yet a few broad questions that it has thrown up for the revolutionary movement need serious consideration. Marxist Leninist strategy would see military activity during the phase of build up of the revolutionary movement as secondary to mass work and mobilisation of the masses around concrete issues. Armed insurrection can take primacy only after a revolutionary crises has matured and the masses are overwhelmingly in favour of revolutionary change. Giving primacy to military strategy at the very outset of the movement forces the movement to seek shelter in terrains where state power is weak and where the society is homogenous and only minimally stratified. This essentially restricts the broadening of the movement into the mainstream society. While the Maoist movement has achieved much for the tribal people in the Bastar region and has also won the silent sympathy of broad masses including the middle classes in Chattisgarh, the primacy it has given to military activity has hemmed it to the hilly and forested margins. Movements like Salwa Judum while following copybook counterinsurgency tactics, seek to use the break up of the tribal societies and force the people to fight against each other and decimate the social base of the movement. Today the Bastar is no longer a poorly controlled margin for the Indian state. It is the hub of neo-colonial activity as it sits on huge mineral and biotic resources. With stakes so high the state is forced to batter resistance by whatever means. There is even a talk of airborne attack on villages supporting the Maoists in the core areas. The Maoists thus will be faced with the difficult choice of losing their stronghold to superior military forces or broadening their strategy to cover wider section of the population over a wider region and giving primacy to working with the masses on broader fronts.

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