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Double Whammy: The Onslaught Against Adivasis

Adivasis in southern Chhattisgarh are caught between the violence of the Maoists and the state. The state has suppressed and criminalized dissent, shrinking the democratic space, and narrowed any possibility of a political solution to the violence ravaging the region, write Somnath Mukerji, Umang Kumar and Garga Chatterjee.

(Above): Bhima Mandavi along with his mother stand before the burnt remains of their home in the Chhatisgarh village of Badepalli. [JAVED IQBAL photo]

In the euphoria following the results of the Indian election of May 2009, the shining example of democratic India was repeatedly emphasized. Did not such a supposedly free and fair exercise of franchise prove the fact of India being a vibrant and free democratic system?

Yet, one might ask if we are really free to live on our own land without a constant fear of the state. And, under the aegis of the constituents of a democratic system—a supposedly independent judiciary, an independent media and a vibrant civil society—is there assurance that gross violations of human rights will not happen?

Most of us would reply in the affirmative, with a vigorous nod. However, such certitudes do not seem to hold if you are an adivasi, especially living in the southern districts of Chhattisgarh. And certainly not if you are also among the poorest in India living on lands that holds the richest mineral reserves in its womb. Democracy, then, all of a sudden has a different connotation for you.

Over the past three decades, the leftist Maoist movement has struck deeper roots in the marginalized rural population of Chhattisgarh, a majority of whom are adivasis. An expert committee to the Planning Commission of the Government of India acknowledged the Maoist movement’s “strong base among the landless and poor peasantry.” The report, published in April 2008, listed several factors—landlessness, displacement and eviction due of large projects, bad governance and police repression—as the main reasons for the discontent of the people.

The state’s response to the armed struggle spearheaded by the Maoists was to requisition large contingents of central paramilitary forces, treating the state of affairs as a mere law and order situation. In June 2005, the state blessed a vigilante movement against the Maoists, christened Salwa Judum which means a “purification hunt” in the Gondi language. This minimally trained armed juvenile group, which was not accountable to any authority but was backed by the security forces, soon let loose a reign of terror. It split the adivasi communities asunder, forcing them to choose between the Maoists and the SJ, creating a civil war-like situation.

An increasing reliance on militaristic solutions to combat the Maoist movement resulted in a shrinking democratic space and the consequent strangulation of dissent of all varieties.

Targeting Dissent: The Case of VCA

Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, a Gandhian organization, has been working with the adivasi communities in southern Chattisgarh for the last 17 years on education, health, rural technology and other related issues. It has openly condemned SJ and spoken out against the human rights abuses of the adivasis. It formed a legal aid cell that helped people, who had been brutalized by the SJ, security forces and the Maoists, to file complaints against their perpetrators.

In December 2008, VCA’s permit to obtain foreign funding was suddenly revoked by the Ministry of Home Affairs. According to the government order, VCA’s capacity to obtain foreign funds was “likely to prejudicially affect the public interest.”

Till March 2009, VCA had facilitated the filing of over 500 complaints of arson, rape, murder, loot and kidnapping with the administration.

Displacement and Resettlement

The operations conducted by the Salwa Judum against the Maoists in the adivasi areas has resulted in the displacement of thousands of adivasis. Often entire adivasi villages are herded into makeshift camps run by Salwa Judum. A Human Rights Watch report, “Being Neutral is Our Biggest Crime,” released in July 2008, estimated that by December 2007 around 49,000 villagers were living in 24 camps run by the SJ and 65,000 had fled to the neighboring states. At present, 644 villages lie vacant under a pall of death and pillage.

VCA has been actively trying to resettle and rehabilitate the villages that have been labeled “abandoned” by the administration. In October 2008, VCA volunteers, acting as human shields, went to stay with the returnees in the village of Nendra. Their presence successfully protected the villagers from violence from either side. Although the volunteers had to eventually retreat because of direct Maoist threats, a successful beginning of the resettlement of adivasi communities had begun.

Dr. Binayak’s Sen’s Bail: A Wake-up Call for Broader Justice

The two-year long unjust incarceration of Dr. Binayak Sen finally ended May 25, and he is now reunited with his family and friends. In an interview with IBN TV, shortly after his release, Dr. Sen noted: “I regard myself as an index case…a demonstration of what the government intends to do.” Indeed, Dr. Sen’s case served to demonstrate starkly the government’s assault on civil rights of citizens, and highlighted many inconsistencies and violations of due process by the Indian legal and executive system, as well as the judiciary’s inability to call into question the violation of rule of law and practice of violence by the State. As such, Dr. Sen’s case has functioned to bring to the fore the public’s indignation and frustration with the state machinery, and has thrown up grave questions about the reality of the relative independence of these branches of government. Even as we celebrate the bail granted to Dr. Sen, we cannot forget that these larger issues about the integrity of government institutions still need to be resolved.  

Dr. Sen’s case raises fundamental questions about citizens’ right to dissent in a democracy, and the state’s obligation to respond to such challenges. However, the promulgation of repressive laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (“UAPA,” a federal-level law), and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (“CSPSA,” a state-level law) both of which allow the state to bypass due process, expose an alarming anti-democratic tendency to silence dissent.

On the one hand, individuals working for human rights such as Dr. Binayak Sen, Ajay T.G., Lachit Bordoloi, Prashant Rahi, Shamim Modi, Abhay Sahoo, Bhukhan Singh, Niyamat Ansari, Govindan Kutty, Vernon Gonsalves, Ashok Reddy, Dhanendra Bhurule, Naresh Bansode, many of whom have been charged under UAPA/CSPSA, have been kept under prolonged detention without bail. On the other hand, groups working for human rights, such as the Vanavasi Chetna Ashram in Chhattisgarh, which has been involved in the rehabilitation of hundreds of adivasi families (who had earlier fled their villages because of the violence unleashed by Salwa Judum), are also being targeted.  

It is clear from the actions of the Chhattisgarh state government and the support it receives from the center, that critiques of the Salwa Judum militia will not be tolerated even when it comes from persons of such stature as Dr. Sen. Salwa Judum’s reign of terror has led to a virtual civil war in the state of Chhattisgarh, and has resulted in the displacement of at least 300,000 Adivasis (indigenous groups). Many human rights groups and independent citizen’s groups such as the Asian Center for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and the Indian National Human Rights Commission have documented in detail ongoing atrocities by the Salwa Judum.  

The persecution of Dr. Sen must remind us that innumerable Adivasis continue to face even worse treatment at the hands of the Chhattisgarh government and Salwa Judum. These unnamed victims who do not enjoy the visibility of Dr. Sen, or the VCA, are the primary victims of the reign of state terror that prevails in the state of Chhattisgarh, and it is a fundamental responsibility of democratic forces to call attention to the plight of Chhattisgarh’s Adivasi population. We must recognize that the granting of bail to Dr. Sen represents a unique opportunity for the international community to pressure the Indian government to disband the militia, and the legal apparatus that supports it, including the repressive UAPA and CSPSA. We must hold the government of Chhattisgarh accountable to following the directives of the Supreme Court of India, and the recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission to help the displaced Adivasis return safely to their villages, provide just compensation for losses of their homes, livestock and crops, and rehabilitate their livelihoods, as well as support their efforts in holding their aggressors to legal accountability.

—Anu Mandavilli

Binayak Sen

Binayak Sen, a doctor and a civil rights activist, had worked to provide health care in the most underserved areas for three decades. In November 2005, as part of a fact-finding team, he had reported the excesses of the SJ. The report, titled “When State Makes War on its Own People,” declared SJ to be a “state-organized anti-insurgency campaign.” The report was critical of the violence perpetrated both by the Maoists and the state.

In March 2007, Dr. Sen, pressured the state government to carry out investigations in the encounter killing of 12 adivasi youth in Santoshpur. Sen’s outright criticism of SJ and the state’s developmental policies did not go unheard. He was arrested May 14, 2007 under the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (2005). He languished in jail for two years, including a spell of solitary confinement, under false charges that were never corroborated. The Supreme Court eventually granted him bail May 25.

Pliant Media

In Chhattisgarh, not only has the media failed to play the role of a watchdog for gross human rights violations, it has dutifully parroted the state’s language. SJ was celebrated as a spontaneous people’s movement against the Maoists. The newspapers selectively reported the violence perpetrated by the Maoists, leaving out the excesses of the SJ and the security forces. This helped the state in developing a conveniently skewed official view of the problem.

Ajay TG, a documentary filmmaker who was incarcerated under trumped-up charges, also exemplifies the attack on free media. Ajay was making a documentary on Binayak Sen, who was behind bars. After a shameful prosecution argument the court granted him bail three months later.

If one thought this was a softening of stance on part of a state, one would be rudely disappointed. VCA’s resilience in face of multiple attempts by the state to silence it and the evidence borne out by its experiments of resettlement became a threat to the state’s contention that the adivasis were safe only in the SJ camps.

(Above): The village of Badepalli in Kuokonda block in Chhattisgarh was attacked for the second time by security forces on the 26th of April 2009. [JAVED IQBAL photo]


On the morning of May 16, the day the results of the general election were declared, VCA was served with a notice to vacate the premises by the next morning. A contingent of 500 CRPF men surrounded the VCA campus and bulldozed it down, not sparing even the sole government-installed tube well in a 50 km radius. In a clear conflict of interest, the sub-divisional magistrate who had presided over the Singaram killings directed the demolition. Not only was the demolition a vulgar display of power, it was also illegal since the issue of the alleged encroachment of land by VCA was sub judice.

That the mighty state feels threatened by even modestly dissenting voices is an indication of its propensity to operate in the undemocratic space, where the voice of the already marginalized adivasis is feebler and that of the alleged state enemy, in whose name the excesses are happening, stronger. The state would do be better advised using its power to safeguard democratic institutions and processes, but nothing clouds judgement more thoroughly than absolute power. The lesson of history, however, is clear. Violent suppression of human and civil rights can backfire with terrible force—just ask advisors of the Shah of Iran or U.S. policymakers during the Vietnam War. It’s a warning the state government ignores at its peril.

Help Adivasis Displaced from Their Homes

The Association for India’s Development is supporting relief and rehabilitation services for internally displaced persons from Adivasi communities that have taken refuge in the forests near Bhadrachalam (in the state of Andhra Pradesh) after having fled there from their homes in Chhattisgarh. Local groups have been assisting the displaced with food and medical and educational services for the children of the community.

The communities have gradually built their confidence and are speaking out, and demanding their rights to basic government services as well as due process of law. Recently, some families have returned to their homes in Chhattisgarh, and have resumed farming their lands. AID appeals to you to support this humanitarian effort.  Please visit www.aidindia.org to read detailed reports of this work, and to make a secure online donation.  You may indicate “All India Relief Fund” at aidindia.org/donate.

Somnath Mukherji is a volunteer with Association for India’s Development and writes about developmental issues in India.
Umang Kumar is a software engineer and a student in the Boston area. He also volunteers for Association for India’s Development.
Garga Chatterjee is a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard University and a volunteer with Association for India’s Development and www.sanhati.com.


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