April 04, 2020
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Bringing Out An Old Ghost

An attempt is on to revive the vigilantism of the Salwa Judum, which the SC curbed

Bringing Out An Old Ghost
Tribhuvan Tiwari
Bringing Out An Old Ghost

What Was The Salwa Judum

  • Small, peaceful anti-Maoist protest began in April 2005
  • Mahendra Karma and associates made it larger
  • State supported and Centre funded the movement
  • Thousands were displaced
  • Judum was engaged in fighting rebels
  • Atrocities by SPOs, Koya commandos


The View Of The Apex court

  • Disbanding of armed civilian vigilante group called SPOs
  • Central government to stop funding use of SPOs
  • Disarming of civilians
  • Chhattisgarh to provide security to former SPOs
  • Investigation into all illegalities and violations by Koya commandos
  • No further use of SPOs in any form or name


What Is Happening Now

  • SPOs inducted into police as ‘auxili­ary force’ of sahayak arakshaks
  • Paid less than half of constables’ salaries, have no definite role
  • Cannot return home for fear of reprisal by Maoist rebels
  • Karma’s son Chhavindra proposing similar movement—Vikas Sangharsh Samiti. Supported by Bastar IG Kalluri.
  • Dwindling political support for Karmas


In July 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the Chhattisgarh government’s large-scale induction of villagers as special police officers (SPOs) in the fight against Maoist rebels was illegal and unconstitutional. The state government was defiant: it reclassified the SPOs into an ‘auxiliary force’ through an ordinance, justifying this as imperative in the battle against the rebels. Four years on, no one is convinced.

Not even the SPOs themselves, who have many litanies of mistreatment. Their salaries have gone up four-fold, but are still less than half of what a regular constable gets. And of course, these auxiliary recruits get none of the social security benefits of a government job. They complain they have nothing much to do either; they while away the time, drink, occasionally get unruly.

Muriam Narayan, 43, short and bow-legged, wears faded combat fati­gues and a vest. Footwear is rubber flip-flops. Seek­ing relief from the 48° C heat, he sits in the shade of a mahua tree near the bazaar in Avapalli village, Bijapur district. Rifle against his chest, he wipes the sweat with his headscarf. In a while, two others in similar attire join him.

It’s noon, but this band of sahayak arakshaks (formerly SPOs) of the auxiliary force is drunk on handia, the local rice beer. Wistfully, they look across at some regular constables, dressed in crisp uniforms and ankle-length boots and wielding better weapons, who have come shopping for rations. In a while, Muriam and his mates will trudge to a nearby police station, deposit their weapons and go home to their mud huts at a Salwa Judum camp.

Muriam regrets joining the Salwa Judum some ten years ago. His family survives on his salary of Rs 9,000, though they have 20 arable acres in his native Murdanda village. But there’s no going back. When the government dragged him into the Judum, the Maoists had warned all those who joined up against returning. Now, if he wants to go back, he has to quit the job. He leaves the dilemma unresolved—like many other sahayak arakshaks, caught between the state and the rebels.

Kalluri, in fatigues, with Chhavin­dra (extreme left) and Deepak Karma (right).

The Salwa Judum initiative—one of the worst examples of pitting tribals against tribals, endorsing vigilante justice, and forcing untrained villagers to pick up guns to fight rebels who were recruiting from the same tribespeople—was sustained by a symbiotic consortium of the state, politicians, police and forest department officials and contractors and businessmen whose activities had been curbed by Maoists. The fight against the rebels affected 900 villages—some 77,000 people. And it soon deteriorated into a fog of vendetta, fake encounters, fake surrenders, the skulduggery of informants and double agents, and atrocities perpetrated by both sides.

Now, tribals say, Maoist influence is on the wane. Off and on, the rebels send word seeking recruits. But hardly anyone pays heed. The villagers just want to be left alone. But there’s a move afoot to revive the vigilante movement. For it’s profitable to keep the Maoist bogey alive: for there are funds to be had and spent with little accountability.

Muriam, in his flip-flops, will remain the exposed pawn in this deadly game. So will some 7,000 others like him.

The origins of the Salwa Judum movement—a cruelly ironic euphemism if there was one, it means ‘peace march’—lie in some hamlets near Kutru panchayat, Bijapur, in Bastar zone. In 2005, the people here revolted against the rebels, who had moved in from Andhra Pradesh in the early 1980s under the banner of the People’s War Group and declared these areas as “liberated” from the Indian state. They had redistributed land and put an end to the menace of bent police and forest department officials. Perhaps it was the forced recruitments to rebel ranks after the merger of left-wing extremist groups into the CPI-Maoist in September 2004, but resentment against the rebels had been growing and found expression in peaceful protests.

The sons of the slain Mahendra Karma, who set up the Salwa Judum, are seeking to revive the group under another name.

This was the opportunity Salwa Judum founder Mahendra Karma—who died in the 2013 Darbha valley ambush by rebels that wiped out the state Congress leadership—had been looking for. Originally a communist leader, he had been recruited into the Congress by Ajit Jogi, former Congress chief minister of the state, in the late 1990s. Jogi says Karma had thrice tried to push a vigilante movement. In the early 1990s, he had started the Jan Jagran Abhiyan, gathering the support of contractors and businessmen. The Maoists dealt several blows and ended this. When Chhattisgarh was created in 2000, Karma was to become a minister in Jogi’s cabinet. “He would frequently bring up the idea of an anti-Naxal movement. But I stopped him, for I knew villagers would get murdered by the Naxals,” says Jogi.

Then, in 2005, when the protests began in Kutru, Karma rushed to the Centre. “Only Digvijay Singh and I opposed it at a high-level meeting. P. Chidambaram favoured Karma’s idea and PM Manm­o­han Singh gave in to him,” says Jogi.

Thus began, on June 5, 2005, Karma’s orchestration of one of the most lurid conflicts: civilians supported by the state’s BJP government and funded by the Centre’s UPA government fighting left-wing extremists on ground zero. Karma became so powe­rful that he’d order about administrators and police officers. There were forced recruitments, BJP workers joined the movement, and anarchy followed. The contractors and businessmen  continued to encourage Karma. After all, they stood to gain.

A bare-torsoed Muriam outside his hut.

The Maoists hit back, of course, seeking bloody retribution against villagers who took up guns against them. Karma pulled out of Bijapur and moved closer home to Dantewada. Large-scale displacements forced villagers out. After years of playing cat-and-mouse with the rebels, Karma was killed on May 25, 2013, in the Darbha ambush..

Things have changed now, as Karma’s sons Deepak and Chhavindra speak of a revival of the anti-Maoist movement, called the Vikas Sangharsh Samiti. (It was to be launched on the senior Karma’s second death anniversary this year.) The Maoists have changed tack: trying to win over villagers, they allow some ‘development’—essentially roads, schools and healthcare centres—for which contractors pay a negotiable 5-10 per cent ‘tax’ to the reb­els. Another change is that central forces are being deployed in larger numbers against the insurgents, unlike during the Judum days. Besides, with the Supreme Court having declared the appointments to the old Judum unconstitutional, the mechanism for recruiting to the Samiti and keeping it going will have to be different from that used earlier.

Says former Chhattisgarh director-general of police (DGP) Vishwa Ranjan, “We did it under the Police Act, which allows such inductions. They (SPOs) were supposed to guard the camps housing villagers displaced by the Maoist-state conflict.” He justifies this arrangement, saying cops who knew the terrain were required. Also, he says, it’s the appointment of SPOs that has been held invalid, not the Police Act itself; he’d wanted to go in appeal to a constitution bench of the SC, but the government did not.

As for the violations, he lays it at the door of S.R.P. Kalluri, another ips officer. As SP, Balrampur district in northeast Chhattisgarh, Kalluri had had some success in counter-insurgency. Ranjan says he had wanted to keep Kalluri out of Bastar, fearing excesses, but CM Raman Singh had had him posted in Dantewada. He says Kalluri banded together some good fighters from among the SPOs, some surrendered guerrillas and some police officers to create the so-called Koya commandos, who Rajan says were responsible for many violations.

But Kalluri is as excited as ever about reviving a Salwa Judum-like force. The Maoists’ response to the call of Karma’s sons was brutal: they killed two of the brothers’ relatives on May 25, Karma senior’s death anniversary. At the press conference for the anniversary, Chh­avindra was subdued—he said the launch of the movement was postponed but failed to explain what it was aimed at achieving. But Kalluri took over and waxed enthusiastic.

The big question is: with the poor and ugly record of the Salwa Judum fiasco, is such a revival wise, especially when security forces aren’t being deployed in full measure? The tragedy is that people are being killed in the fight between two purported people’s movements.

By Ushinor Majumdar in Bijapur, Dantewada and Jagdalpur

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