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Greetings From Basaguda

November 9, 2009

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There are still shoot-at-sight orders at Basaguda police station at night.

‘Villagers who escaped the Maoist-Salwa Judum conflict return to their homes after three years’

On the fifth of March, 2006, the thriving village of Basaguda was attacked around nine in the night by an angry crowd shepherded by gun-wielding Naxalites. Four people were killed by axes and hatchets. There are reports that one man was executed in front of the entire village.

Eventually, the raiders disappeared into the darkness, and the villagers took the bodies of their friends and neighbours across the bridge to the police station to file a report. On the way back to their homes, they were beaten by the C.R.P.F. and the Salwa Judum and dragged back across the river to live in decrepit Salwa Judum camps. They were not allowed to return to their homes.

A few days later there was an explosion in the vicinity where around nine villagers were injured. One man, Erragalla Lakshmaiya would eventually succumb to his injuries. This was one of the six IED blasts on the road to Avapalli to Basaguda, that mostly targeted civilian vehicles. According to the police, the bombmaker is an ‘anghutachap’ – a man who neither reads nor writes.

At the same time, the police re-entered the village Basaguda and started to harass villagers who had somehow managed to remain in their homes and on their land. The police threatened to strip all the women if the villagers did not inform them about the movements of the Naxalites. They also threatened to arrest everyone from the village. Eventually, they caught three men and accused them of being Naxalites and asked them to run into the jungle. The villagers were aware that this was a ruse, and they would surely be shot dead, in an ‘encounter’, if they even considered to run.

Eventually, they were set free and everyone had enough of the harassment and left the village of Basaguda by June 2006.

Not very far away, around two kilometers from Basaguda, the village of Lingagiri, specifically Boreguda, was attacked by the C.R.P.F. and S.P.O.s on the 25th-26th of December of 2006, where three men were killed, two women were raped, out of which, one was also shot dead. Another man was stabbed repeatedly by the C.R.P.F. and managed to escape to Cherla in Andhra Pradesh, some seventy kilometers away.

Another girl, Gantal Beby was nine months pregnant as she was escaping into the jungle. She would deliver her baby in the middle of the jungle and would eventually name him, ‘Aadvi Ramudu’ – which means, simply – ‘boy born in the jungle’.

All villagers of Boreguda escaped to the village of Cherla where they lived as landless labourers in abject poverty. Their village was completely burnt to the ground, and was entirely empty by 2006.

On the other side of Basaguda, two kilometers away is the village of Pisepara and Pakela – twin villages, a stone’s throw away from one another. Both villages have seen arbitrary arrests, beatings, lootings, arson and threats from the Salwa Judum and the security forces. Three people died as they were escaping the Salwa Judum raid – two from snakebites and one from overexposure to heat. Two people from Pakela were arrested as Sangham (village-level Naxalite group) members and are now languishing at Jagdalpur jail. All the villagers of Pakela and Pisepara had abandoned their village as well, in 2006.

There are also reports that during this same period, three people from the village of Maharpara, which is a part of Basaguda were killed by the Naxalites as they were trying to find materials for their homes. The villagers of Maharpara also left their village in 2006.

The same fate had fallen upon all the other villages and ‘paras’ in the vicinity – Kumarpara, Doleguda, Dharmapur, Pathanpara and Nayapara. A constant feeling of dread and terror had pervaded all the nights of Basaguda Block, at one time, it was a thriving marketplace that even drew visitors from Andhra Pradesh. It had a river, endless fields, a rice mill, a mosque, a school, a sense of community – for this is a land where there are Mahars, Telgas, Murias, Muslims, Halbas, Dalits, Kunbis and Kalars. Yet this would be the land, where the villagers of Lingagiri would huddle in a mass, and take refuge at Pathanpara – the hamlet of the Muslims, yet even they were not spared. Almost all the homes were burnt – there was really no discrimination.

By late 2006, all villages of the area were derelict empty wastelands, every other home was burnt to rubble, looted, and all the inhabitants had disappeared. By late 2006, no one crossed the bridge to Basaguda, to Lingagiri, to Pisepara, to Pakela, to Maharpara, to any of the villages or paras on that side. People languished in Salwa Judum camps, and had no access to electricity, ration, transport and most importantly, their land and their harvest. Women would walk some seventeen kilometers in the sun to Avapalli and carry back around ten kilograms of rice on their heads. The only remaining schools were also seventeen kilometers away in Avapalli and many children in the camp would suffer from Grade 2 malnutrition.

Other villagers languished at Cherla, in Andhra Pradesh where they lived as IDPs – Internally Displaced Persons – refugees in their own countries. People languished in small rented shacks and shanties in the towns of Avapalli and Bijapur, trying to find whatever work they could find. Many people started to live further within the forests, higher up in the hills, away from the reach of the combing operations of the security forces.

And of course, there are implicit causes to what happened in Basaguda. Nothing speaks for itself more than a sworn statement signed by the villagers of Basaguda themselves –

‘On the 5th of December, 2005, the workforce of Salwa Judum and the C.R.P.F. visited Basaguda and stuck posters that said that a Salwa Judum meeting is going to be held at Avapalli on the 1st of January, 2006, and if the villagers do not turn up, they shall be called Naxalites. We attended the meeting on the 1st of January 2006. We were told that, if those who are members of the Sangham (village-level Naxalite groups) do not surrender right away, all of us will be killed. Nine of the villagers who were not members of the Sangham were forcefully made to admit that they members of the Sangham. After this, we stayed till the meeting ended and came back to our village. After some days, on the 21st of February 2006, the Salwa Judum workforce came to Basaguda and asked us to deliver a speech against the Naxalites, and those who would not, would be deemed as a Naxalite.

Two days later, villagers from (names withheld) were made to carry out a rally at Lingagiri, Boreguda Korsaguda, Sarkeguda, Mallepalli, where many houses were burnt, people were beaten and many women were raped. Out of rage, a few days after the rally, the Naxalites came to Basaguda on the fifth of March, 2006 at 9pm. They attacked the villagers and killed four people.’

* * *

As of now, May 2009, the matter of the legality of the Salwa Judum is still in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court also instructed the Administration to rehabilitate the villagers back to their rightful homes and to provide compensation. According to Human Rights Watch, there have been at least 40,000 people displaced by the violence in Chhattisgarh since 2005. Some sources place those numbers as high as 60,000 people, others as high as 1,00,000. Officially, there are 644 villagers that lie empty.

India, herself is no stranger to displacement. In the name of development, uprooting whole communities and whole villages is almost a mainstay of the development gospel. According to some sources, around 50 million people have been displaced due to development-related projects since independence.

This time, people have been forcefully displaced out of some experimental idea of severing the Naxalites from their home base. Of course, that’s what it is on the surface, as many, including the Naxalites themselves, claim that entire idea of herding villagers into Salwa Judum Camps is merely a ruse to capture the land of the Tribals and to sell it to the companies like Essar and Tata.

Whatever it is, it’s no small thing for people to live in exile in their own country, without rights, without land and with constant risk of being uprooted again.

As many have said, it’s no small thing to not have a home – to lose your land.

In a country like India, the issue of land is close to boiling point, the heart of the matter. More than half of India languishes below the poverty line for they have neither land nor the ability to harvest on the little that they have. Many farmers are actually incapable of producing anything profitable. And farmer suicides are tragic events that only manifest the real faceless expression of an India that weeps herself to sleep, as the GDP soars and the Naxalites find arguments to justify killing. People can earn less than Rs.30 a day, and have to feed around five children. And finding opportunities to earn Rs.30 a day is not that easy itself – the landless have to beg for work at times. And eventually they find a landlord who’d provide them a day’s work. They’d toil and they’d toil on someone else’s land who can barely pay them.

Their fate is such, that even the beggars in the metropolitan cities can earn more than them.

Give these many landless labourers land, so many have said, and people have been fighting for their rights, for the redistribution of land. After all, companies like Tata and Essar will not starve to death if they don’t have land.

In Bastar, people had land. Even if they only had about five acres or three acres, they all had land. The villagers of Basaguda had land. The villagers of Lingagiri had land. The villagers of Pisepara had land. The villagers of Pakela had land. The villagers of Doreguda had land. They all had land.

The villagers of the entire mineral-rich Bastar, also have the Fifth Schedule and their rights have been protected, or so it says in the Indian Constitution. Not a single building can be built or torn down on tribal land without exclusive permission from the Gram Sabha – the heads of the village.

Yet so many of them lost it all and lived as landless labour, or as ‘coolies’ as they’d call it. So many had left their homes with nothing but the clothes on their back. So many had left their homes with nothing but the memories of a serene life. All they knew was that they had to go back.

The villagers from the camps of Basaguda made repeated requests to the Collector’s office of Bijapur to help them reclaim their homes. They weren’t even aware of the Supreme Court’s requests to the Collector’s office to rehabilitate the villagers to their rightful homes.

With the initiation of numerous activists and a local Gandhian NGO, Vavasi Chetna Ashram, that the people of those villages have been motivated to return. First, there was the village of Nendra in Dantewada that was rehabilitated a year ago. Then it was the villagers of Lingagiri who were brought back from Cherla with help from NGOs from Andhra Pradesh such as the ASDS. Yet they were initially detained at the police station and prevented to go back to their homes.

A week after Lingagiri, the villagers of Basaguda were taken back by human shield volunteers.

Within the first five weeks, there were little to no attempts of the administration to provide assistance for the people of Basaguda and Lingagiri. They had repaired one hand pump and their other major contributions have been the constant harassment of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram and their workers. On one occasion, the police confiscated around fifteen quintals of rice brought by the NGO for villagers of Lingagiri who had long run out of ration. They had also stolen about 35 kilograms of cooking oil from the same confiscated ration.

A few policemen had also entered Boreguda and verbally abused some of the villagers. And the perpetrators of the crimes of Boreguda roam free. Gantal Raju, whose sister was raped and murdered can identify a man riding a motorcycle at Bijapur as the killer of his sister. And barely does he talk about justice. He has repeated his story a thousand times to a thousand different people – journalists, human rights lawyers, activists, and often he’d exclaim that he’s tired of it.

Eventually, the neighbouring villages of Doleguda, Pisepara and Pakela also requested help from the NGO to help them reclaim their homes. The NGO organized transport, their human shield volunteers, and informed the administration of their intentions. They also prepared the long list of demands and problems that the villages would face. The homes in their villages are inhabitable and the monsoons are coming. They would all have to start again from scratch. They would require ration, a bus service, access to clean water, and most importantly a sense of security – they want nothing to do with the security forces and the Salwa Judum or the Naxalites. They want peace.

Back on their land after three long years, the villagers slowly and hesitantly rummaged through the remains of their lives. Soon enough, without much initiation, the villagers began to rebuild their lives, together. They would share the little food they had and they would work together to clean up the remnants of one another’s homes. People were laughing even if they had nothing. People were happy to be back to the vestiges of the little bit of the past that has survived, that’s now embellished with Naxalite graffiti calling for a boycott of the general elections. People ignore all of that, most don’t even have voter cards, so how will they vote?

The fact remains, that the villagers of Basaguda block reclaimed dignity. The State made that little miscalculation when it rehabilitated people into Salwa Judum camps and expected them to fend for themselves. Why would they, really? It was not theirs, they did not ask for it – this little shack, this small plot of dirt, this non-existent land, this ‘concentration camp’. Why would they want to rebuild their lives in poverty? It was on their own land that they’d work, for on their own land, they’d find dignity. It was on their own land, that they’re masters.

Eventually, I had asked a group of villagers from Basaguda and Lingagiri, about what they’d do if ‘they’ come and burn their village again.

‘We’d never leave, we’d die here, we know there’s nothing else out there.’ – is an answer I often heard.

* * *

Two days after the villagers of Pisepara and Pakela were rehabilitated on their land, the state demolished the main buildings of the Gandhian NGO Vanvasi Chetna Ashram. The state claims that the NGO was encroaching on forest land, while the NGO claims that they live on land with express permission of the Gram Sabha. The matter was still sub-judice, and therefore no action was to be taken by the state. The notice to leave the premises by the 17th of May, was delivered to the NGO on the 16th of May, when it was issued on the 13th of May.

A week after the demolition, the NGO begins initial work on the rehabilitation of villagers from Jagargonda block.

* * *

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