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A Monopoly on Violence: Salwa Judum

The right wing Salwa Judum vigilante group is a sign of the state’s shocking abdication of its responsibility to protect the rights of all. The violent group conducts a virtual ethnic cleansing of tribal people to further the corporate agenda of companies casting a lustful eye on Chhattisgarh’s land and resources, writes Anu Mandavilli.

(Above): Chhattisgarh politician Mahendra Karma (seated, l) with Salwa Judum’s armed militia, a right wing vigilante group backed by the state whose violence has forced many tribals to leave their homes.

The most disturbing thing about Salwa Judum isn’t that it provides such a shocking contrast to the glossy tales of dizzying growth rates, or of India Shining (and shopping!) that one hears — it is that the former is the ugly underbelly of the latter, that the violence of Salwa Judum is almost always the silent partner that enables this new prosperity. Indeed, to claim surprise that this is so is only the luxury of the pusillanimous few — the authorities in Chhattisgarh, for example, seem to have no such illusions about the price of “development.”

Take for example the fact that Salwa Judum was promulgated in June 2005, within days of the signing of Memoranda of Understanding between the Government of Chhattisgarh and Indian conglomerates Tata and Essar about the setting up of steel plants in Bastar district. And the fact that Maoist rebels in the region are insisting on the people’s rights over jal, jangal and zameen — the water, forest and land, and are therefore resisting the corporate takeover of their lands. Take these two facts, add the government’s determination to expropriate tribal lands, and there you have the bloody genealogy of Salwa Judum, a privately funded vigilante army that recruits, arms and trains members of indigenous tribes to fight Maoist rebels.

Starting in June 2005, local media in Chhattisgarh reported that local politician Mahendra Karma had taken up leadership of a new movement called Jan Jagran Abhiyan, or a “people’s-awakening movement.” Karma claimed that Salwa Judum meant “Peace March” in the dialect of the Gond tribes, though others have said that a more accurate translation would be “Purification Hunt.” Salwa Judum entails the arming of civilians of by the state, ostensibly to counter Maoist violence, thus in essence creating private militias. The permanent state of war created by Salwa Judum has led to large-scale and apparently voluntary displacement of indigenous communities, thus freeing up for corporate and industrial use land and natural resources that have historically belonged to local communities. Around 640 villages in Chhattisgarh are now officially listed as “abandoned,” but journalist Shubhranshu Choudhury who interviewed people in the government-sponsored refugee camps concludes that Salwa Judum, rather than being a spontaneous reaction to Maoist violence, is in fact designed to create conditions that lead to involuntary displacement, i.e. by people fleeing the violence of Salwa Judum. Choudhury’s interviewees in the refugee camps reported that members of Salwa Judum were going from village to village, forcing people to join with them. If the villagers refused to do so, their houses were burnt, and some of those who resisted were even killed. Choudhury also clarifies that people’s refusal to return to their villages is not a response to Maoist violence, as the state claims, but is rather a result of fears of retaliation by the Salwa Judum.

(Above): A long column of refugees in Chhattisgarh fleeing the violence of Salwa Judum.

As numerous reports since by human rights organizations like the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and the People’s Union for Democratic Rights have shown, Salwa Judum has wreaked havoc on indigenous communities through human rights abuses including staged “encounter” deaths and extra-judicial killings. Governmental bodies like the National Commission for the Protection of Children Rights have visited the camps and have expressed concern, while the Administrative Reforms Commission has recommended the disbanding of Salwa Judum. Writing about Salwa Judum, Indian historian Ramachandra Guha points out that this method of creating conditions for involuntary displacement is a well-known militaristic technique called “strategic hamleting.” (Essentially a form of demographic re-engineering, strategic hamleting was used by U.S. troops against the native population of Philippines as part of an effort to quell militant peasant and workers’ groups during the Filipino-American war, and again during the U.S.’s war against Vietnam as a counterinsurgency measure that was part of a scorched earth policy.) The Supreme Court of India, while responding to a public petition filed by Ramachandra Guha, Nalini Sundar and E.A.S. Sarma challenging the legality of Salwa Judum, expressed its disapproval of Salwa Judum. As reported in The Hindu, Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan asked “How can the state give arms to some persons? The state will be abetting in a crime if these private persons kill others.”

Legal regimes such as the Salwa Judum, in tandem with laws such as the CSPSA (Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act) and the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) work to shield the government from scrutiny by members of the public as well as by the media in that they criminalize any investigation or reportage about an organization once it is deemed “unlawful” by the state. These draconian laws sanction the violation of due process by the state and thus contravene internationally accepted norms of jurisprudence and of democratic governance. As K.G. Kannabiran, national president of PUCL argues in his letter to the National Human Rights Commission, the CSPSA and UAPA operate by criminalizing the very performance of civil liberties activities, and culpability is decided  not by direct proof, but through guilt by association. This is the context in which many activists and journalists are questioning the charges of sedition brought against health and human rights activist Dr. Binayak Sen who has been incarcerated for over a year in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. They have pointed out that the state’s evidence about Dr. Sen’s “Maoist connections” refers to Binayak Sen’s meetings with Narayan Sanyal (a jailed 70-year-old Maoist leader), which took place with the permission of the jail authorities, in their presence, and under their close supervision, when Sen, as the vice-president of the PUCL, visited Sanyal in the Raipur Central Jail to provide medical and legal assistance. That the evidence is flimsy is probably the point — as part of his work with the PUCL, Sen has been amongst the most vocal opponents of Salwa Judum, and it appears that he is being made an example out of, to serve as a salutary warning to others tempted to exercise their rights as citizens in a democratic state.

(Above): Destitute refugees from Salwa Judum violence, many of them women and children, in a government-run camp in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh.

Sadly, it appears that the success of the Chhattisgarh government in using “Maoist terror” to justify violence (not unlike the violations of fundamental democratic values and liberties seen in the West under the guise of waging the “War on Terror”), has emboldened others. In May 2008, the government of Manipur adopted a Salwa Judum-like program of arming civilians against Maoist violence. The state is clearly the main sponsor of this operation. According to published reports, about 300 youths at Heirok and 200 youths at Chajing, commanded by police forces, will be recruited to provide security to the people. Each youth would be provided with Rs..3,000 by the government and the Manipur Police Housing Corporation will construct barracks for the recruits, and all of them would be provided with .303 rifles and motorcycles.

The situation in Chhattisgarh, and now in Manipur must concern all people of conscience. The history of Latin America offers many examples of government-sanctioned private militias that have been used to advance corporate agenda. These have been often followed, as if by logical extension, by private militias/ paramilitary forces owned and operated by particular corporate entities thus bypassing the state altogether. One wonders if this is what’s next for Chhattisgarh and for India — when the state’s facilitation of corporate agenda turns eventually to complete abnegation of its role as the custodian of a land and its people, and a repudiation of its responsibility for the well-being of all.

Anu Mandavilli is an activist for issues of social justice. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.


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