Left in the lurch

The Sunday Story
We are not SPOs. We are regular policemen." The diffidence with which the three boys speak and their youthful looks belie their claim. Madkam Nanda, Vetti Ganga and Podiam Edma stand guard at a ramshackle watch-post perched on top of a government dispensary at Dornapal in Dantewada in the Naxal heartland. They have no guns in their hands. Their 12-bore rifles stand retired—butt down in a heap in a corner with a cloth thrown over them.

After the recent Supreme Court order to disband the army of Special Police Officers (SPOs) engaged by the Chhattisgarh government to fight Naxals, calling the Salwa Judum unconstitutional, boys like Madkam Nanda, Vetti Ganga and Podiam Edma are uncertain over what the future holds for them.

Dornapal, the biggest of all "rehabilitation camps" set up for villagers who were either persuaded or forced to join the counter-Naxal force, is called the Salwa Judum capital. But it's home to a shrinking force. With most of the villagers having returned home, it's only hard core members of the Judum that are left in the camp.

The three boys belong to a group of SPOs that mans one of the eight watch-posts (morcha) at the camp. The members take turns to man the post, each working on two shifts of two hours a day. There are four more posts here manned by the regular police.

"I am 22," says Madkam evasively. All three boys keep glancing through the gap between the tin shed and the wall, keeping an eye on the surrounding forest, looking out for Naxals who could make a sudden dash at the camp.

"Vetti is 21 and Podiam 22. We have been regular policemen for three years now," he says, adding that they get a salary of Rs 10,000 a month.

Many minutes and many questions later, he finally tells the truth. "Actually, we are all 18 and we are SPOs," admits Madkam. "What should we say now? We are told we may be out of a job soon. I am too afraid to say anything," he says.

The other two boys, meanwhile, keep quiet, before making a quick exit. "We are stuck between life and death. After this court order, we are now entirely at the mercy of the Naxals," says Madkam. "What shall we do if the Naxals attack us? We have been asked to drop the gun," he says.

Though the Chhattisgarh government has assured SPOs they will not be out of jobs and that they will be given given other duties, it is yet to define them and the SPOs are not sure they'll have a job for long.

Salwa Judum, which means a purification hunt in Bastar's tribal dialect, started as a spontaneous uprising against Naxals in Ambeli village in Kutru block of Bijapur district on June 4, 2005. Tired of constant harassment by the police who came looking for Naxals, people from Ambeli and a few neighbouring villages decided to hunt them out themselves.

The Salwa Judum, which garnered political support, would march from village to village, with security personnel throwing a cordon around them, asking people to join them—often allegedly forcing them. It was supported by then Opposition leader Mahendra Karma of the Congress. The BJP government of Raman Singh also saw in it an opportunity to pin down the Naxals. It provided funds to set up camps where people coaxed or forced by Judum activists to join them were settled. For two years, the government even provided free ration and medical facilities to every one at the camps.

Thousands left their villages to join the Judum and began living in the camps set up for them as a shelter from Naxal ire. About 23 camps were set up in the state—14 were located in Bijapur district and nine in Dantewada. The Chhattisgarh government drew SPOs from the Judum, giving them the responsibility of guarding these camps.

Over the years, many villagers who had joined the campaign grew disillusioned and left the camps. As reports of alleged excesses by Judum supporters started coming in and the government came under fire, it gradually started withdrawing support from them. Judum leaders like its founder K Madhukar Rao fell out with the government and blamed it for the petering out of the movement. In fact, Judum leaders are now holding the state government responsible for the Supreme Court order.

Director General of Police (DGP) Vishwa Ranjan says there are still nearly 30,000 villagers in various camps and their security is priority. More regular security personnel will be moved to the camps now that the SPOs have been disarmed, he adds.

Sources on ground say only 20 per cent of those who were shifted to the camps when the Judum started are now left in the camps. Dornapal, for example, had about 12,000 residents in 2006-07 but in the last few years, many of them returned to their villages "after being pardoned by Naxals". Now, the camp has a little more than 2,000 residents.

"All those remaining now in the camp are only those who can never make peace with Naxals and vice versa. So, they have no option but to stay back," says a senior policeman. Following the Supreme Court order, the DGP says, the priority has shifted from proactive anti-Naxal operations in the deep to protecting the Judum camps.

Though the Judum stands discredited in the eyes of many, police and local residents credit it with successes in opening up new areas for police and government to intervene in the deep interiors where there was no sign of any government presence for more than sixty years.

Police say Judum members and SPOs were familiar with Naxal hideouts and the routes they took, making anti-Naxal operations safer and easier. Naxals are firmly entrenched in the deep interiors of the state and are making strategic moves from southern districts of Dantewada and Bijapur to new areas like Raipur and Mahasamund with the twin purpose to establish a buffer for the so-called Red Corridor connecting Abujmad to north Orissa and Bihar and to relieve the police pressure on south Bastar.

Others, however, have questioned the Salwa Judum and its methods, alleging that their brutal campaign, in fact, led many to join the Naxal ranks.

SPO POST NO. 8 on the south-eastern corner of the Dornapal camp is empty. All SPOs are busy playing cards in an adjacent shed. Seeing the camera, they get up quickly.

"Naxali paper padhenge nahi kya? Agar hamko tapka diya to? (Won't the Naxals read your paper? What if they kill us?)," they ask. The question underscores the fear that has filled their ranks after the Supreme Court order.

"We have been asked to lay down arms. We don't know why the SC has issued this kind of an order. Now the Naxals will make our lives miserable," says Madkam Ayta, 22.

"Not only has the SC order made us vulnerable, it will also affect the anti-Naxal drive. Naxals always say they don't fear the sheher ke kutte (dogs from the city, a derogatory reference to the regular police). They only fear the Koya commandos (the local name for SPOs). Once we are out of this fight, the Naxals will have a field day," says an SPO who didn't want to disclose his name,

The court may have ordered the SPOs to lay down their guns, but members of the force say if the Naxals suddenly attacked them, they would be left with no choice but to strike back. "If they come shooting at us, we will also pick up guns and shoot back, no matter if we have been disarmed. The SC should also first tell the Naxals to put the guns down. After all, they have also pitted our own brethren against us," says an SPO.

Naxals vs Salwa Judum

In its order on July 4, the Supreme Court blamed Chhattisgarh's "policy of privatisation" for its inability to build "capacity to control social unrest". But many in the state blame the "undue" Naxal intervention in the socio-economic set-up of the tribals as the root cause of the rot.

"They (Naxals) say nobody should own more land than others. So, they take away land from bigger landholders and give them away to those who have less. How can I allow my land to be arbitrarily taken away like that," asks Chandra Madkam (name changed).

"They don't want tribal youth to study. So, they destroy schools and take away those who study up to higher classes despite their opposition," says another SPO. "Moreover, they also ask for chanda (extortion money that they call party fund) of Rs 100 per family per month. Why should we give it?" ask Judum members. Naxals have often described the Judum as a campaign led by upper-crust tribals.

"What many outsiders fail to understand is that most of the tribals don't in the first place know what Maoist ideology is. Most of them fall in line simply out of the awe and fear that the Naxals evoke. There are many who don't agree with the Naxal ideology, particularly the educated ones, and they want tribals to progress," says Kudiam Chinnuram, a police constable who belongs to a remote Naxal-affected village in Bijapur.

A senior police officer, however, blames the government for the crisis. "Had the government intervened immediately after Naxalism started spreading in the Eighties, we wouldn't have been in the kind of mess that we are now in."

Says Mukka Soyam, a Judum leader from Konta, a tehsil place at the southernmost tip of south Bastar: "The Chhattisgarh government has clearly failed to effectively put across the ground realities before the court. The SC order will only lead to invigoration of the fight between those who believe in the rule of law and those who are opposed to it. We will now continue our struggle against Naxals in a Gandhian way.

Some SPOs are hopeful things will gradually look up. "If Naxals too drop their guns, we can also get back to our villages and all the tribals can then start living as a united lot once again.

Forced Out

The Supreme Court on July 4, struck down as unconstitutional the practice of using special police officers (SPOs) in the fight against Naxals in Chhattisgarh. The SPOs, also known as Koya commandos, are mostly tribal youth drawn by the Chhattisgarh government from the Salwa Judum, an anti-Naxal force

The Supreme Court order was on a petition filed by sociologist Nandini Sundar, historian Ramachandra Guha, former bureaucrat EAS Sarma and others seeking a direction to the Chhattisgarh government to refrain from supporting the Salwa Judum

Salwa Judum, which means purification hunt in Bastar's tribal dialect, started as a spontaneous uprising against Naxals in Ambeli village in Kutru block of Bijapur district on June 4, 2005. K Madhukar Rao, a teacher from Kutru, led the movement, taking those opposed to Naxals under his wings. Thousands left their villages to join the Judum and began living in the camps set up for them as a shelter from Naxal ire. Twenty-three camps were set up in the state—14 were located in Bijapur district and nine in Dantewada

Though the movement received support from both the Opposition and the government in Chhattisgarh, soon the government started distancing itself from it. In the last few years, many Judum activists, disillusioned with the force and its excesses, have returned home to their villages

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