The protest against a newly set-up paramilitary camp reveals the dark realities of decades-old fighting between Maoist insurgents and the Indian state.

For more than two months, tribal villagers have been protesting against a camp set up by India's paramilitary police force on the border of Bijapur-Sukma, two remote districts in the northeastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh. 

On May 17, the size of the protest was quite large with several thousand people from various villages of Chhattisgarh gathering outside the contested camp and asking the Indian government to remove it and clear the area from the 'unwanted' police presence. 

But the violence soon struck the protest site as police fired at the protesters, killing three and injuring several dozens of them. As per local estimates, the total death toll caused by the police firing had climbed to 4, adding yet another bloody event to the troubled history of the Chhattisgarh state, where a Maoist insurgency against New Delhi has been raging for several decades.   

Two months after the killings, what's left of the protest site is a handful of villagers still holding placards with the hope of convincing the Indian government to remove the paramilitary camp from the area. 

For the Indian state, the camp is a strategic asset, an extension of another paramilitary camp set up in a neighbouring village called Tarrem. The Indian security establishment sees the two camps as launching pads for military operations carried out against Maoist fighters in what is locally known as 'liberated zones' or Maoist-controlled areas. 

In a tit-for-tat battle between the Indian security forces and the Maoist insurgents, the tribal villagers of the Chhattisgarh state often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. 

The police said Maoists killed 34 civilians within eight months last year and that most of the victims were punished for being police informers. 

On the other hand, almost every protester who asked for the removal of the paramilitary camp had a story of injury or loss to tell. They believe the 24/7 presence of armed soldiers in the camp resolves nothing but raises the spectre of violence and the state's heavy-handedness such as "emotionally-exhausting search operations, sexual assaults, fabricated police charges against innocent tribals, staged 'encounter killings' and other things".

But the government provides a profoundly different account. Calling the slain protesters the "Maoist helpers", the police said they opened fire in retaliation as the Maoist fighters had infiltrated the protest site in a bid to burn down the police camp.   

“It’s a Maoist-sponsored protest," said P. Sundarraj, Inspector General of Police, Bastar Range, Chhattisgarh. "They are taking the help of villagers to protest against the camp. It’s the Maoists who don’t want any police camp. This is their core area and we are pushing hard against them. We are gaining control in their core areas and as a result, they are compelling the villagers to protest”.  

Many social activists however empathise with the tribals who fear the increased police presence in their villages. Speaking to TRT World lawyer and activist Bela Bhatiya said the instances of police shooting innocent people dead and then branding them as Maoist insurgents is a recurring nightmare the tribals have been living with for several decades. 

"This is a dark tunnel with no light on the other end," she said. 

Bhatiya invoked a nine-year-old case of extrajudicial killings, saying that despite the court pronouncing the security forces guilty of "murdering 17 innocent tribals including children", no action has been taken against the perpetrators.

"Not even a First Information Report (a report of formal police investigation) has been filed. There is no respect for even the judicial findings in the state,” Bhatiya said. 

Villagers sitting on the other side of the trench that has been dug to make bridges crossing Silger Police Camp.
Villagers sitting on the other side of the trench that has been dug to make bridges crossing Silger Police Camp. (TRTWorld)

Not a knee-jerk reaction

A few days after the police firing in Silger, the local government ordered a probe into the killing and also announced a cash compensation to the victims' families.  

Much of Chhattisgarh, a mineral-rich state largely inhabited by tribals, is protected under special provisions. Local tribal courts called Gram Panchayats are legally entitled to approve or prevent any land procurement or new constructions.  

There were times when the villagers were caught in the eye of the storm as they refused to allow private companies to come in and set up shops on their mineral-rich lands. 

The infamous Operation Green Hunt launched by the former Congress-led government in 2009 received widespread criticism as many believed it was a war waged in tribal lands with an aim to displace people in order to allow a smooth entry of big mining corporations.

Therefore, for a state that has a varied set of motives from achieving security goals to pushing aggressive capitalistic policies in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh, the human rights abuse and disenfranchisement of people is inevitable -- and fighting legal battles against the Indian state becomes a herculean task, says Bhatiya, the activist. 

"The education standards are very poor and neither do they have full knowledge of their rights nor do they have any resources to fight with. People, especially the youth need to start acting and take responsibility to educate and inform the people about their rights and fight for all the wrongs that have been done and might be done in the future”. 

The protest on the Bijapur-Sukma border is not a knee-jerk reaction but one of the consequences of the ongoing war between the Maoists and Indian security forces. 

Although the monsoon rains and farming season have thinned the presence of tribals from the protest site, they still have strong reasons to resist the overwhelming security presence in the area. 

Once the security camp gets up and running, they fear they will not be free to go to forests and get on with their lives.

“After establishing the camp, the police harasses us, beats us for even collecting the wood from the forests. We are dependent on the forests. We collect firewood, Tendupatta (leaves used to make bidi, a cheap alternative to cigarettes), Mahua among other things. Many times a tribal is shot dead just for carrying a bow and arrows that we use for hunting,” said Lakhma, an elderly from Bastar region of Chhattisgarh.

“Do we need to give proof of police oppression? Look at what they did to us for simply protesting against the camp. They shot down three innocent villagers one of whom was merely 22 years old while the other two had families and children. Now who will look after them?,” said another tribal at the protest site who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons. 

Even after 73 years of India's independence, the village of Silger doesn’t have electricity. The tribals say they can't bear the sight of a police camp as it only reminds them of the government's iron-fisted approach and its failures to address their basic infrastructural needs. 

A 15-year old tribal teenager who studies in class 8th told TRT World that there is a "huge difference in what we tribals want as development and the government’s version of it". 

"We want an armed-less development. Here's what the government does. They cut down our forests to build a road. Then to protect that road they set up a police camp and cut more trees. After that, they destroy our habitat, exploit our forests by allowing private mining. The tribals are booked on false allegations, labelled as Maoists and every voice against them would be crushed using these methods,” the student said. 

While the Indian government has intensified efforts to go deep into the Maoist-controlled areas and hit the insurgents harder, the security forces have also taken heavy losses. In early April this year, the Maoist guerillas ambushed the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), killing 22 personnel and injuring several dozen. 

The incidents of 'encounters', a shootout between the police and any armed group, including Maoists, show no sign of ebbing. The police claims and counterclaims keep the local media busy. 

For instance, on May 31 the police said it shot dead an 18-year-old tribal girl named Payke Veko, who carried a reward of $2685 (Rs 2 lakh) as she was allegedly a member of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, a Maoist outfit in Chhattisgarh. 

But a week later, Veko's family rejected the police's version of events, alleging that the security forces had raped her first and then shot her dead

Amidst the crisis of trust between the tribals and the police, the prospect of having a security camp close to the village population triggers panic. 

“It is my land. My ancestors have grown rice and pulses and fed their families on this same ground. We are also doing the same. They can’t just come in one morning and take our lands. I have told the government committee that came to meet on June 3 that I would not give up my land. I am the rightful owner and the police should vacate the land,” said Korsa Soma, a villager from Silger who claims to be the owner of the land where the security camp has come up. 

Source: TRT World