Years of oppression in the name of “development:” A tale of ongoing human rights violations in Bastar
Srishti Chourasia is a writer based in Chhattisgarh and a student of Mass Communication from Jamia Millia Islamia. She tweets at @srishti_1999.
In this essay Srishti Chourasia explores how capitalist ideas of “development” have uprooted the Adivasi way of life. A culture that relies heavily on ideas of collective space is being forced to confront the state’s privatization ambitions, significantly altering their relationship to their land and their ideas of ownership and community. Residents of Bastar are then not only forced to face the violence of displacement but also state violence in response to their protests.
India’s central and eastern regions are rich in mineral resources and are home to indigenous people accounting for 8.2 percent of the total population. The Adivasi community believes in collective living and resources such as jal, jungle, jameen (water, forest, land), but their way of life has been deeplyaffected by capitalism, economic liberalization and agrarian reforms.
For centuries, Tribals opted for self-governance and the British administration framed them as “savages,” who need to be civilized in order to establish supremacy over indigenous populations and legitimize the violence of colonial policies. The British Raj also began the systematic attempt to sever the links between the Adivasis and the forests, which are integral to their way of life. The infringement on traditional and customary user’s rights, dictated by imperial strategic needs, began with the establishment of the Forest Department in 1864 and the Indian Forest Act of 1878, eventually taking the form of the more draconian 1927 Indian Forest Act. Since then, the Adivasi population has been fighting to protect their connection with the land and the environment and to secure stable livelihoods.
In the Bastar division of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, Adivasis and scheduled tribes comprise 67 percent of the population. Following the introduction of private property that had never been part of indigenous culture, the local Gond tribes were marginalized by colonial forest management practices. The 1910 Bastar rebellion, popularly known as bhumkal, was an armed struggle against these policies that marked the beginning of the alienation of tribal land in the name of “development.”
In the 2000s, the unrest started when the state government planned to give away acres of non-cultivable land to mining companies for development purposes thus leaving thousands of Adivasis in fear of displacement. Ram Chandra Guha, in his essay “Adivasis, Naxalites and Indian Democracy” argues that Adivasis didn’t get the chance to effectively articulate their grievances through democratic and electoral processes. Therefore, the failure of the State and of the formal political system paved the way for the revolutionary Maoists to fill a political vacuum.
Maoists helped Tribals to organize over land rights and displacement and against mining companies, Police camps and other State-sanctioned atrocities. The Government introduced Special Acts to protect the Adivasis’ land rights and accommodate their demands, including the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, which gives the gram sabha (village council) special power to prevent alienation of land and take appropriate action to regain unlawfully alienated lands.
Madhu Ramnath, a botanist, anthropologist and writer who has lived and worked for many years in Bastar writes: “There were several reasons behind the enactment of specific laws like the PESA Act for the Adivasis. It was essential to safeguard the Adivasi’s culture of truthfulness, vulnerability, and an alternative idea of using and owning land. But instead of being mindful of that, new ways have been found to overcome this safeguard.” Former Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh defined theMaoists’ rebellion in Chhattisgarh as the biggest “internal security threat” for India. This fear determined a large military deployment with approximately 41 battalions along with 31,000 personnelof Central Security Forces along with two special units of the elite CoBRA ( Commando Battalion for Resolute Actions) from the Central Reserve Police Forces (CRPF).
In 2005, after nearly three decades of unrest, the Indian Government began arming a civilian group, the Salwa Judum, to fight the Maoists in their stead. This militia had a better understanding of the terrain and of the local language, was more merciless than Indian Security Forces and frequently harassed innocent civilians for being Maoist sympathizers. Many villagers were also forced to join the militia. In March 2011, the Security Forces burned down at least 300 homes in the village of Tadmetla in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district, a brutal attack in which three men were killed and three women were raped. An independent citizens’ report claimed that Salwa Judum, supported by various government agencies, was responsible for killings, gang rapes, violence against women, arson, looting and forced displacement of villagers. About 30,000 Adivasis fled Chhattisgarh to settle in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to escape Salwa Judum’s violence. In 2011, the militia was finally outlawed by the Supreme Court.
In 2009, the Government launched “Operation Green Hunt,” a massive three-day joint operation in which CoBRA and state Police battled the Maoist forces. This led to a further increase in Security Forces deployment along the borders of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. As a consequence, “combing and search” operations, unlawful killings, rapes and murders intensified thus heightening the tension between the Maoists, Adivasis and the State.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which investigated a small sample of the killings on the orders of the Court, noted: “The villagers were specifically targeted when Salwa Judum was on the rise. The inquiry team has come across instances where some of these villagers were even killed despite having no criminal cases. Though the State has taken action against Special Police Officers in some cases for violations like murder and attempt to murder, these cases do not pertain to the violence let loose on innocent villagers during operations against Naxalites [another definition for Maoists].”
To study the ongoing war between the Indian State and the Communist Party of India (Maoist), Bela Bhatia, a human rights activist and lawyer first went to Bastar in 2006 and continued to work there since. Bhatia told me: “The counterinsurgencies by the Government – like building up camps, use of Special Police Officers, the Salwa Judum and Operation Green Hunt – have only resulted in an increase of violence and atrocities on Adivasis, particularly civilians.” Even after these operations came to an end, Bhatia alleged that there was a “short lull” in extra-judicial killings, but incidents of unlawful killings started rising again along with sexual assaults and rapes.
Human rights defenders were also targeted for their work. Tribal human rights activist Soni Sori was arrested in 2011 on charges of being an intermediary for the Maoists and was sexually assaulted in jailby the security personnel. In April 2017, a 14-year-old girl was sexually assaulted in her home by CRPF men in a village of the Sukma district. While pointing out these atrocities, Sori also alleged that three security personnel raped a woman who was five months pregnant and could not run away after they had cordoned off her village. A similar incident happened in 2018 as well. India’s National Human Rights Commission reported three incidents of mass gang rape and physical assault by the Security Forces against indigenous women of Bijapur district of Chhattishgarh between November 2015 and January 2016.
“The Security Forces think of everybody as Naxals, which is not the case,” said Bhatia. She added that security officers pick up men without any evidence, claiming that these men confessed to being Naxalites and surrendered themselves. The Government, however, held that of the 1,210 people who “surrendered” in Bastar in 2016, only three percent have been classified as Naxalites.
Villagers are the ones who pay the brunt of the conflict. Maoists recruit them for their operations making them more vulnerable to torture and arrest by government forces, but have also been accused of torturing and killing villagers for being Police informers. Moreover, according to a video report by local journalist Shankar Sukma, several Adivasis have been jailed illegally for months without an official arrest warrant or Court hearing. Others have been prosecuted for sharing a first name with suspected Maoists, despite having different surnames. “Every time we reached out to the Police, they only ensure to release him soon,” said a girl whose father, the sole earner of the family, is in jail since 2017.
According to Bhatia, “it becomes difficult for people to file complaints when they see the Police participating in the aggression along with the CRPF. Whenever we have tried to complain, they didn’t admit a complaint, let alone register First Information Reports (FIR). It is a very poor show in terms of justice mechanism and what we [activists] are trying to do is just to implement already existing laws.”
Even after filling FIRs out of pressure from civil society organizations and political activists, none of the alleged perpetrators accused of rape, sexual assault, molestation and looting have been booked. Investigations usually stall due to governmental inaction. In January 2017, the NHRC released a strongly-worded statement, condemning the rape by Chhattisgarh security forces of sixteen tribal women in Bijapur district and stating that “prima-facie, human rights of the victims have been grossly violated by the security personnel of the Government of Chhattisgarh for which the State Government is vicariously liable.” The Government, however, made minimal effort to investigate the violations and continues to deploy new forces in the region.
“A culture of impunity has seeped into the functioning especially of the Police and the Security Forces in Bastar,” said Bhatia. During such incidents of misconduct, the onus lies on the State Government to prove that the Security Forces did not overstep their duties. Bhatia explained: “There are some ‘unwritten laws’ in the sense that it is not a law but a practice. The Government never wants to reduce the confidence of the Forces, which results in impunity.” To emphasize the degree of impunity, Sori also alleged that the Police shamelessly threaten victims to prevent them from filing their complaints: “The Police say that the Government is not yours, it is ours.”
Innumerable cases of illegal detention, false implication, custodial torture, fake encounters and disappearances have become part of the daily life of people in the area. “The Police forced one Adivasi villager against his will to check out a spot cited in a Maoist pamphlet. Turns out there was an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that was planted at the spot. The device exploded and his body was torn to pieces. Who is responsible for this?” questioned Sori in an interview.
“Villagers fear the Police. CRPF treats every villager like a Naxal and then the onus lies on the villagers to prove that they are not,” said a local journalist Mukesh Chandrakar, who has been reporting from the ground for ten years. With every tussle with the Maoists, the Security Forces became more nervous and misbehaved with anyone they encountered during their “patrolling.” In this way, as the camps proliferate, the Naxals move further into the forest to avoid tracing while Adivasi families are forced out – even closer to the security camps.
In May 2021, the State Government constructed a Police camp in the Silger region of Sukma district. This sparked huge protests, as the construction of Police camps require deforestation. Protesters from over 30 villages of Sukma and Bijapur districts argue that the construction of the camps is illegal as the administration does not have permission from the village council.
“We are holding a rally against the camp. We oppose the camp because they detain our men and women and lodge us in jail. We are not against roads, but we don’t want this camp,” Nandram, a protestor, saidin a video rejecting the Police claim that Naxals organized the protest. “Maoist have not taught us anything. We are coming here on our own,” Nandram further added standing surrounded by other protesters.
As the protest progressed, on 17 May 2021, four people were killed and several injured in an open fire by the Police. At first, the Police began a lathi charge to disperse the protestors, followed by tear-gas and firing in the air. Some protesters pelted stones. Soon the Police started firing. Right after the incident, the media reached the site to report and tried to make a way for talks between the villagers and the Inspector General. “At that time, the Police had the 18 people who were injured, so we needed to rescue them too,” Chandrakar told me. He revisited his conversation with doctors and claimed that bullets have been fired from a very close distance. Uika Basanti, the niece of Uika Pandu, a resident of Timmapuram who was killed during the protest, said that “the Police handed over my uncle’s body after three days of his death. They even kept his Aadhaar card.” Later, the Government declared a compensation of Rs. 10,000 ($ 135) to the families as a tacit recognition that they were not Maoists.
“There’s a difference between the actual number of injured and what the Police claimed,” Chandrakar said. “For many days after the protest started, small clashes continued […]. So, according to my information, around 364 people in total are injured, most of them are common injuries,” he said.
The Communist Party of India’s leader Manish Kunjam, demanding a judicial inquiry by a High Court, pointed out that it is undisputed that the villagers were protesting peacefully. Three days after the incident, over 60 Adivasi protestors, including the head of Silger village, wrote a letter to the Governor of Chhattisgarh asking for protection as they feared more violence from the Police.
The Chhattisgarh Government defends its strategy of setting up Security Forces camps in Maoist areas of Bastar, claiming that it helps to push back the rebels and restore democracy. A government press release mentioned that these camps have paved the way for development. “The establishment of these camps has restricted the smooth movement of Naxalites in these areas. The manifold growth of security forces has proved to be a setback for the Naxal Movement,” said Taran Sinha, Commissioner of the Public Relation Department of Chhattisgarh, in the press release. The Silger camp is one of the several constructed along the 70 km Basaguda-Jagargunda road, which cuts across Naxals’ strongholds in south Bastar, a thickly forested area, home to many Adivasis, who have been uprooted to make space for the camps.
“The interiors of the forests are dotted with police camps that are very often [built] on private land without the consent of the villagers,” said Bhatia. She further alleged that the Police camps have resulted in increased surveillance and violence, further giving rise to fake encounters, sexual assaults and theft, while policemen and Security Forces remain unpunished. Meanwhile, villagers who are in favor of the camp and see them as an opportunity for infrastructural development are also sometimes targeted by the Maoists.
For journalists who live and report from these conflict-stricken regions, threats to life and other harassment is not particularly new. Journalists who report against the State’s misgivings are harassed by the Police with long interrogations and temporary detention and are declared Maoist sympathizers. This is not the only way the State tries to silence dissent. Several activists and human rights lawyers are also often stopped from entering encounter sites, refraining them to obtain any kind of information.
In September 2015, Santosh Yadav, who reported for Dainik Chhattisgarh and Dainik Navbharat newspapers, was picked up by the Police and slapped with charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA). He was also lodged in jail for allegedly providing information to the Maoists. Something similar happened to Somaru Nag, who was a reporter with Rajasthan Patrika. There have been cases when the journalists were also killed by the Maoists for reporting not in their favor. In 2013, Sai Reddy, a journalist with vernacular newspaper Deshbandhu, was attacked by the Maoists with sharp-edged weapons. He succumbed on his way to the Bijapur government hospital. In 2008, the same journalist had also been booked under CSPSA and jailed for having links with Maoists. Chandrakar commented: “If this is the situation of the media, you can imagine the situation of common Adivasis of the area.”
In April 2021, Maoists accused the Government of conducting airstrikes. “Initially, even I didn’t believe that any airstrike could happen in the forests of Bastar. I felt as if it were some kind of Maoist propaganda, but when I reached the location, I realized that it was not. Airstrikes did happen,” said Chandrakar. The Maoists claimed that twelve bombs were dropped using drones and helicopters. “You can see and kill your enemy when you’re fighting on the ground, but airstrikes are simply inhumane. You are killing innocents,” said Chandrakar. He added that from his interviews with military officers, he could gauge that the Government is prepared for civilian casualties and has no intention to clear the camps. Bhatia confirmed this point, “I don’t think that there was a time when the Government was not ready for the civilian casualty. With the kind of war that they have been waging in Bastar, there have been civilian casualties all along. So, it’s nothing like they are more ready now than they were before.”
On 3 April 2021, the Maoists ambushed Security Forces in Bastar, killing 22 and kidnapping one. Twojournalists, including Chandrakar, were then honored by Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel for their contribution in negotiating with the Maoists and making the release of the security personnel possible. “Local people and the Police both see us [journalists] as a protection shield. They want us to be there all the time,” said Chandrakar. He added that villagers think that the Police won’t beat them up or harass them if journalists are present, while the Police think that the media’s presence would help control the crowd. Right after the successful release of the security personnel, Sori wrote: “These journalists usually have good relations with the Police as well as the Maoists, so they must consider initiating peace talks between the Maoists and the State to at least end the killings of the innocent Adivasis.”
On 24 February 2021, some activists, journalists, and social workers constituted a peace committee to facilitate dialogue between Maoists and the Government to attain lasting peace in the Maoist-affected regions of Chhattisgarh. A month later, however, while presenting the budget for the year 2021-22, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel announced the formation of the Bastar Tigers, a dedicated unit to counter Maoists saying that priority would be given to the recruitment of local youth as they are well-acquainted with interior areas and forests. Given this climate, activists doubt the efforts of peace talks, arguing that any peace initiative requires years of sustained interaction with the victims of violence to document the crimes they were subjected to and understand the sort of peaceful future and inclusion they desire for themselves.
“Peace is fine. But when people have suffered years of injustice just wanting peace is not enough. There can be peace only when you would work to guarantee justice. Except that it is just wishful thinking,” said Bhatia.
Maoists, however, doubt the Government’s commitment to a peace process and claim that the State has been regularly backstabbing them by killing their senior leaders in the middle of talks. In a statement released on 6 April 2021, the Maoists showed their renewed will to join peace talks and emphasized the responsibility of the Government to create a conducive environment: “talks are possible if the government gives up concentrating armed forces, setting up camps, launching attacks and other oppressive measures.” Chandrakar argues that neither party will agree to the pre-conditions posed by the other, leaving fight as the only option and Adivasis as the target of unnecessary suffering. Speaking about the plights of Adivasis, Sori in a video interview lamented that all these injustices will only lead to more radicalization.
“There is a structure created by the State and there is a structure that the Maoists have created. The people are the citizens of India and are also part of the Maoists’ structure. A lot of tension happens because of that. If the Indian Government would implement their policies, work constitutionally and respect the right of the people of democratic dissent, then we can hope that the grievances will be heard through non-violent actions,” added Bhatia.
The Adivasis have witnessed widespread displacement, inadequate rehabilitation and compensation and the devastation of their environment since time immemorial, all in the name of an imposed idea of “development.” Neoliberal economic approaches leave little space to Adivasis’ unique idea of owning and using land collectively thus defying the capitalist norm of private ownership. A report by the Wildlife Institute of India concluded that the Adivasis in Bastar and nearby forests, adhere to the concept of jal, jangal, jameen and depend mostly on the minor forest produce for their livelihood. Displacement, resettlement and the imposition to embrace agriculture as an occupation would not last.
Ramnath believes that the Adivasis are fighting for respect, dignity and trust. All of these, however, are missing in the Government’s relation with its vulnerable peoples. Not only is the State busy with a renewed drive to “clean” its own people by deploying more Police in already heavily militarized regions, it is also complicit when it comes to any Security Forces misconduct and giving them an unwarranted power over the Adivasis.
This, along with gross violation of rights and blatant disregard for relevant laws, is resulting in more violence and radicalization. In the meantime, Adivasis are paying the price as the State proceeds with impunity to a gradual transfer of lands away from the marginalized to the hands of corporations, real estate developers and mining mafia.