Archive for the ‘Gompad’ Category

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A Short History Of Death And Madness in Bastar

July 8, 2012

A young boy outside Basaguda police station in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh.

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 8th of July, 2012.

The list of villages are endless. Operation Green Hunt was only the second phase, Operation Hakka and Vijay are only new names to an old war. But the names of villages touched by war can sometimes repeat themselves. Gompad, Singaram, Gacchanpalli, Lingagiri, Nendra, Rajpenta, Tatemargu,Tadmetla, Vechapalli, Gaganpalli, Kottacheru, Maraigudem, Pallecharma, Munder, Pollampalli, Kotrapal, Burgil, Bhejji, Goomiyapal, Hiroli, Jangla, Dhampenta, Hariyal Cherli, Karremarka, Mankelli, Sameli, Regadgatta, Pusnar: these are just a few villages where adivasis have been killed in the last 8 years in undivided Bastar district, with testimonies collected by journalists and anthropologists and political activists whose own list was submitted as petitions to the Supreme Court.

Since 2004-2005, the Salwa Judum rallies conducted themselves completely out of sight and out of mind like they did in Basaguda block.

From the testimonies of the villagers themselves, ‘On the 5th of December, 2005, the workforce of Salwa Judum and the CRPF 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 Sangam (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 Sangam were forcefully made to admit that they were members of the Sangam. 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, Korsaguda, Sarkeguda, Mallepalli, Borguda, 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. The villagers then went to the police station to file a report, and after the post-mortem of the deceased, they returned back across the river. Meanwhile, the Salwa Judum and CRPF came and beat us, grabbed us from our necks and took us to the camps on the other side of the river, where we were kept for two months, and the mistreatment continued.’

Three years after that, with the help of a Supreme Court order that gave the villagers the right to go back home, did the villagers from Basaguda block return back, to live in a tentative peace that was shattered by the killing of 18 people in Sarkeguda on the 28th of July, this year. In 2010, Basaguda block was hit by a ‘cholera’/dysentry epidemic that claimed more than sixty lives. Those who never went back to their homes in Chhattisgarh still continue to face violence in Andhra. Just recently, on the 2nd of July, another IDP settlement was destroyed by the Forest Department in Khammam.

The state has never shied away from geography of murder: everyone who lives beyond a certain village, further into the forests is a potential Naxalite and can be killed. The mandarins of the mainstream media can call it collateral damage when they’re confronted by overwhelming evidence of an unjustified killing. And at the same time, they’ve never taken themselves into the civil war whose brutality raged for six years in complete silence, until Herr Chidambaram would finally make his exhortations of development, and the Tadmetla massacre of 76 jawaans had journalists in newsrooms wondering where is Dantewada.

‘Did any journalist come to the village the last time it was burnt down? I had asked the villagers of Badepalli of Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh.

‘No.’ They said.

‘Did any human rights activists come?’

‘No.’

‘Did any lawyer, or anyone from Manish Kunjam’s party, (Communist Party of India) come?’

‘No.’

‘How many homes were burnt down that time?’

‘All.’ Said the Sarpanch, ‘But this time, only two survived.’

The above conversation took place in the village of Badepalli, in Kuakonda block of Dantewada District of Chhattisgarh in May, 2009, a few days after the village was burnt down by security forces for the second time in five years. The first time was in the summer of 2006 when it didn’t even make a statistic, while violence was perpetrated by both the state and the Maoists on a daily basis. The second time in the summer of 2009.

This too, in an area where the government exempted around 108 villages from the 2010 survey due to inaccessibility of terrain and ‘prevention by the Maoists.’

Its existence, forget its burning, did not exist as a statistic, nor did it exist as an complaint against the police in any charge-sheet, or in any of the petitions that were filed in the Supreme Court.

So how many villages were really burnt down in undivided Bastar district by the Salwa Judum or the security forces when there was a chance that some were never even counted, and many were burnt down more than once? How many people were really killed in those eight years?

What is rarely mentioned in mainstream debates is the extent of violence perpetrated against the local population, starting from the mass forceful displacement by the Salwa Judum where village after village was burnt down, and people were forcefully driven into ‘resettlement camps’. There are thousands of testimonies of the same, that are repeatedly and categorically denied by the state of Chhattisgarh, who once, in a moment of pride a few years ago, mentioned that 644 villages were ‘liberated’ from the Maoists and its inhabitants were now living in the camps supporting the Salwa Judum movement. That is 644 villages, whose villagers were driven away from their homes and taken into camps. Then there were the Matwada Camp killings where three men had their eye sockets smashes by SPOs.

And burnings preceded killings, and killings preceded burnings.

Fifteeen killed in Gaganpalli. Ten killed in Nendra. A man talks about his brother from Kottacheru who was killed by the CRPF. ‘He was shot in the stomach, his shit was all over the place.’

Of course, Salwa Judum backfired, Maoist recruitment rose. Then came Operation Greenhunt.

Nine killed in Gompad. Five killed in Gacchanpalli. Three killed in Pallecharma. Six killed in Goomiyapal. Two killed a few months later in Goomiyapal. One fiteen year old boy killed again a few months later.

Seven killed in Tatemargu. Two killed in Pallodi on the same day. Ask the villagers about what happened five years ago, and again they would talk about the dead and murdered.  Sarkeguda, the epicentre of Chhattisgarh’s newest atrocity of the year, was burnt down in 2005. Their memories don’t fade. Last year when Tademetla, Morpalli and Timmapuram was burnt down, it was not the first time they were attacked. Sodi Nanda s/o Adma  of Tadmetla was killed by the security forces in 2007.  Barse Lakma s/o Bhima of Morpalli was going for ration at Chintalnar market when he was picked up by the security forces two years ago.

From Phulanpad village where Barse Bhima and Manu Yadav were killed last year, around three years ago, Aimla Sukka (20) s/o Chola and Aimla Joga (20) s/o Choma were killed when their village was raided by security forces.

The memory of violence in Chhattisgarh stays in the present tense. But how will the rest of the world beyond Dantewada remember something it never knew? Earlier there was silence, now the Murdochian media calls the dead collateral damage. When will the casualties of war be robbed of their gravestones, those nouns: Maoists, Maoist supporters, SPOs, Salwa Judum leaders, adivasis, CRPF jawaans, when will we start talking about killing itself as the war crime, and not who was killed? This is a war of attrition, a dance of death, a class war to some, yet the greatest inhumanity is to believe this is a war someone will win.

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Journalist Rito Paul from DNA has also visited the site of the latest killing with Kopa Kunjam, who worked to rehabilitate the villages in Basaguda block but would eventually be arrested for murder of a man who the Maoists had killed and who Kopa had tried to save. Rito’s report and the people’s reaction to meeting Kopa is here

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The Life Of A Witness

June 17, 2012

Photo credit: Tehelka photo

In memoriam: Tehelka photographer Tarun Sehrawat (1989 – 2012)

This piece appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 17th of June 2012. Another piece appears in Tehelka on the 30th of June.

I first met Tarun Sehrawat and the intrepid Tusha Mittal in January of 2010, when we both found ourselves with the duties of trying to investigate why the state of Chhattisgarh had kidnapped Sodi Sambo, a supreme court petitioner, and a woman who was shot in her leg during the combing operation of Gompad that took nine lives. She was there in Jagdalpur hospital, while we were outside the ward trying to get access to her, and Tusha Mittal would harangue every stubborn official with such gusto, that you were certain that war reporting was best left to women. Tarun and myself sat quietly, smiling at each other, joking and taking photographs of one another while Tusha did her job. He was an absolute delight to work with, or in this case, observe work. He had no malice and insecurity that most photographers had for their own. And his innocence was something that you were absolutely glad you could find in a place like Dantewada.

The next time we met, we found ourselves on the way to the village of Tadmetla, Timmapuram and Morpalli which was burnt down by the security forces in March of 2011. Tusha and I were this time, at each other’s necks like a bunch of Laurel and Hardy’s on steroids, regarding the best way to deal with the logistics of going into ‘the jungle’. Tarun, as usual would smile to placate our anger against ourselves. We all did do our jobs eventually, and Tarun’s images were an absolute justification of our profession.

Tarun was a witness to our state’s grand security operations in Central India. He has photographs of burnt homes, of widows whose husbands were killed by the security forces, of women raped by security forces, of fragile old men with country rifles who the state refers to the greatest internal security threat, and of Abhuj Marh, his final assignment, where few have ventured. But one of his most heartbreaking images would remain a photograph of a family in Dantewada sifting through their burned rice trying to separate the ash from what they could eat. That’s what he witnessed. That’s what only a few handful of people from the outside world have ventured in to see, some of the bravest and some of the most brilliant journalists and photographers I have had the honour to work with.

Yet it’s death from Dantewada that follows you around, as with each story of encounters, and killings. Just a few months ago, the controversial superintendent of police Rahul Sharma would take his revolver and shoot himself. Assistant Superintendent of Police Rajesh Pawar who I confronted about a fake encounter would be gunned down by the Maoists some years later. And now a tortured adivasi journalist Lingaram Kodopi would wish to die in jail, as there’s no way he feels he can get justice in this country. Each name jotted down in my collection of notebooks, of those killed, of sons named along with their fathers –Madvi Kesa s/o Bhima, Madkam Deva s/o Bhima, Madkam Admaiah s/o Maasa, and countless others. They add to a list that I don’t know sometimes whether they will have any meaning, when all that tends to happen, is that the war goes on. It’s the ghost of the conscience of the country that’s dead as each time the warmongers ask for helicopters to drop hell from above onto one of the darkest corners of the country.

A cellphone becomes the purveyor of madness and death. ‘There’s been an attack in your favourite village’ an activist once called and told me, and I went into a daze, and hated him – how many favourite villages did I have? Then came the final message about Tarun, ‘Pronounced brain dead.’ And this just a few days after friends would tell me that he was making a full recovery.

We all think we’re invincible. We venture into roads that could be mined with IEDs, as did one explode a day after two of us passed, killing three security personnel. We venture into the haven of the malarial monster, the killer of people that doesn’t discriminate like we do. In Basaguda, I remember the sight of a CRPF jawaan holding the hand and walking with another jawaan, whose body was sapped of energy, whose eyes lost of life, who would say the dreaded word: malaria. It was an absolutely tragic sight of watching these two towering men, pathetically walking down, broken down. A year later in Chintalnaar, a few days after 76 jawaans were killed in an ambush, the jawaans of Chintalnaar would exert, ‘You don’t even have to ask about the mosquitoes. Around 80% of us suffer from malaria at some point or the other’.Mosquitoes have killed one of the Maoist’s most iconic leaders- Anuradha Ghandy. And for the ordinary adivasis, their stories are left to statistics, sometimes to a world beyond statistics.

In Jharkhand, at the Roro mines of Chaibasa, an old adivasi miner left to die of asbestos exposure by the Birlas would talk to me, while three young children, slept behind him. All three had high fever. All three had malaria. In fact, a few months into the job, and it became standard operating procedure to not just document the atrocities committed on a whole people, but to finally ask about illnesses in the village. At one visit to an IDP settlement at Warangal last year, our investigation team very quickly became a medical team, and we had to take on the responsibility of taking people to the nearest clinic.

Some quarters mention how Tehelka should’ve guided Tarun with some precautionary measures but unfortunately those are never enough and some circumstances can’t be helped. Tarun had no option to drink pond water, in a place where water, even after boiling would turn yellow. A few years ago, my adivasi guides and a few other journalists and myself faced a similar problem. And we had to walk over 15 kilometres of hillocks in a summer that can blaze to around 48 degrees, and our water supply ran out. We had to drink from a miasmic river. And we all did and we were lucky.

The more water you carry, the more you’d tire, and the more you’d drink. And you can’t ration what is never enough.

I used to even take anti-malaria pills every week in my first forays into Central India, and ended up in the middle of nowhere with high fever, and find myself in the middle of a busy bus station, alone and wrapped in a shawl, shivering like my bones would be shattering, with my mind drifting away, waiting for a family friend to come and save my life. And I was lucky. Malaria was bombed out of my system. To most people in Central India, there’s little rescue. Where Tarun had gone, no doctors venture. In fact, in some of the areas in Dantewada and Bijapur where Doctors Without Borders did go to work, they were accused by the state of Chhattisgarh of ‘helping the Naxalites’.

The angel of death of Bastar made of iron ore, covered in flags and illusions of greatness, is touching and destroying everything that is beautiful. Tarun had a long way to go. Twenty three, the age of most SPOs and Maoists, is not the age to die.

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‘Even if they don’t let us settle here..’

May 4, 2012

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 4th of May, 2012.

Conflict and displacement in Bastar leads to deprivation and forest loss in neighbouring Khammam.

Around 43 families from the villages of Millampalli, Simalpenta, Raygudem, Darba and Singaram in Dantewada District, lost their makeshift homes for the second time in three months in the Mothe Reserve Forest of Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh on the 26th of March, 2012, when the Forest Department, mandated to protect the forests, would evict them using force.

A large number of families are Internally Displaced Persons who’ve escaped the Salwa Judum-Maoist conflict of Dantewada and have lived in Khammam as informal labour.

Most originated from Millampalli, that was burnt down by the Salwa Judum in 2006 and Maoists have killed at least three people – Sodi Dola, Komaram Muthaiya and Madkam Jogaiya in the past ten years. Another resident of Millampalli, Dusaru Sodi, used to be a member of the Maoist Sangam but would eventually become a Special Police Officer who witnesses from Tadmentla and Morpalli alleged was present during the burnings of the villages or Tadmetla, Morpalli and Timmapuram in March of 2011 by security forces. His name again re-appeared in testimonies by victims of rape, submitted to the National Commission of Women and the Supreme Court by Anthropologist Nandini Sundar.

Madvi Samaiya and Madvi Muthaiya from the village of Raygudem were also killed by the Maoists.

In Simalpenta, the Sarpanch’s brother Kurra Anda was killed by the Maoists in 2006.

In Singaram, an alleged encounter that took place on the 9th of January of 2009, where 19 adivasis were killed by security forces as alleged Maoists.

In Khammam, most of the IDPs/migrants have worked as informal labour during the mircchi cutting season, earning around Rs.100 per day and live off their savings in the summer season when there is no work, and little access to water to a majority of the settlements. The Muria from Chhattisgarh, or the Gotti Koya as they are known in Andhra along with Koyas from Chhattisgarh, have been in a struggle to appropriate the Reserve Forest land of Khammam for podu cultivation, often leading the Forest Department to evict them, aware that the entire forest cover is turning into a ‘honeycomb,’ as described by the DFO Shafiullah, who pointed out to satellite imagery of a pockmarked forest in Khammam, in 2010 itself.

The influx of migrants and Displaced persons has even led to conflicts with local adivasi Koya tribes over land and resources, sometimes leading to deadly clashes, such as an incident in Mamallivaye in Aswapuram Mandal where the local Koya burned down the homes of the Gotti Koya, or in Kamantome settlement in 2009 where one man would be killed as a Maoist by the police after an erroneous tip-off from the neighbouring village of migrants who had settled before the civil war.

Recently the Forest Survey of India, Ministry of Forest and Environment, published a controversial report that almost exonerates mining and land acquisition yet claimed that over 367 square kilometres of forest has been lost since 2009, pushing Khammam district to one of the worst affected districts where 182 square kilometres of forest cover have been lost.

In a recorded conversation between an activist and Home Minister P.Chidambaram during the first months of Operation Green Hunt in late 2009, when repeated combing operations in Dantewada/Bijapur led to further influx’s of IDPs into Andhra Pradesh, the activist Himanshu Kumar had urged P.Chidambaram to look into the plight of the IDPs and the migrants yet his claims were refuted by the Home Minister as an exaggeration.

Yet there have been many recent reports of IDPs from the previously independently estimated 203 settlements who have returned back to their villages owing to a decline in the frequency of combing operations and violent actions in their villages in Chhattisgarh and further difficulty to settle in Andhra Pradesh. After the villages of Nendra, Lingagiri and Basaguda block were rehabilitated with the help of NGOs and activists using Supreme Court orders, many others have simply moved back to their villages on their own accord, including those of Kistaram, Uskowaya, Kanaiguda, Mullempanda, Gompad and Gaganpalli, to mention a few. Both Gompad, and Gaganpalli have faced a large number of killings – nine people were killed in Gompad on the 1st of October, 2009 by security forces, and in the village of Gaganpalli, from where one of the leaders of the Salwa Judum originates, ten people were killed in 2006 during the burning of the village by the Salwa Judum.

While the Forest Survey of India Report 2011 has put the blame on leftwing extremists for massive deforestation in Khammam, the villages of Millampalli repeatedly exhorted and listed all the violent actions by the Maoists in their villages in Chhattisgarh. In fact, one of the most educated villagers of the settlement, Komaram Rajesh, is the brother of a Special Police Officer and has repeatedly claimed that the Salwa Judum didn’t oppress his people, often denying that his village was burnt down by the Salwa Judum, when the rest of his neighbours said it was indeed the Salwa Judum.

Beyond conflict with the Forest Department, other tribes, the Salwa Judum and the Maoists, another conflict takes place within settlements themselves where a growing tendency to cut down a large number of the forests for podu cultivation, has brought individuals in conflict with their own villagers who feel there should be more moderate felling of trees. Certain settlments cultivate rice without cutting larger trees while others have destroyed acres of forests.

‘If we cut the entire forest down, where will we live?’ A man from Kamantome once exhorted during a summer season when there was little access to food, or water for the settlement.

Ironically, in Millampalli, one of the men killed by the Maoists, Kumaram Muthaiya, was killed in 2002 because he refused to share his 70 acres of land with other villagers.

A Shrinking Space

Land alienation for the all the adivasi tribes of Khammam isn’t a new phenomena, and was adequately studied by late civil servant J. M. Girglani, who had commented in his report that, ‘The most atrocious violation of the LTR (Land Transfer Regulation) and regulation 1 of 70 is that all the lands in Bhadrachalam Municipal town and the peripheral urbanized and urbanizable area is occupied by non-tribals with commercial buildings, hotels, residential buildings, colleges including an engineering college. The market value of this land on an average is Rs.4,000/- per square yard. This was confirmed to me not only by local enquiry but also by responsible District officers. This would work out to about 5,000 crores worth of land, which should have been the property of the tribals. It is now the property of the non-tribals and is commercially used by them.’

Just two kilometres away from land that was meant to belong to the adivasis, is the latest Koya settlement that was destroyed by the Forest Department.

‘They (the Forest Department) destroyed our homes in January, and in February, and they came in March and even took away all the wood we used to make our homes. Now, we will rebuild our homes and if they come again and destroy them, we will rebuild them again.’ Said Komaram Rajesh of the village of Millampalli.

Villagers alleged that Forest Guards held them down and beat them on the soles of their feet, asking them why they had settled in the forest, and who had pointed them out to this patch of the forest. One man embarassing recollected in humour as his neighbours laughed, that one of the Gaurds threathened him saying, ‘ghaand mein mirrchi ghussa doonga.’

Officials would arrive a day later to convince all the Koyas, to leave the Reserve Forest but the residents protested. When the tractor arrived to carry away all the timber that was being used to make their homes, the adivasis willingly piled the timber onto the seat of the tractor, threathening to burn it down but refrained.

‘Even if they don’t let us settle here, we will manage somehow.’ Continued Komaram Rajesh.