“My father was an ordinary villager. He was not a Maoist. The police are spreading lies after they have killed my father. We never saw him getting involved with any Maoists or accompanying them. He was a normal villager who lived a normal life,” lamented Kawasi Nandu, son of Kawasi Waga, who was allegedly killed in police firing at a protest site in the Bijapur-Sukma border, Chhattisgarh.
Villagers from nearby had gathered in thousands to protest against a new police camp in Silger, Sukma district, that became operational last week. On Friday, 14 May, a little ruckus was reported as the police tried to end the protests using force. But the protests continued. On Monday, 17 May, however, they opened fire, killing three villagers on the spot and injuring as many as 18 others.
“We want roads, we want schools, we want healthcare, but we don’t want police camps. Once they open the camp, tribal lives will be turned upside down. We will be tortured, put in jails under false pretences, and we don’t want this kind of development,” said a protesting villager.
Refuting the claims of police opening fire, Inspector General, Bastar range, P Sundarraj said, “The entire protest was staged by Maoists because we are driving deeper into their strongholds. They forced the villagers to return to the protest site on Monday, after we got them to understand the importance of a police camp and the benefits they would get. The Maoists took advantage of the large numbers, to attack the camp. In reaction, we also opened fire, and three people lost their lives in the crossfire.”
Silger comes under Tarrem police station in Bijapur district – and is a Maoist stronghold. The protest site against the Silger police camp is in close vicinity of last month’s attack when 22 CRPF and state police personnel were killed and over 30 sustained injuries in the ambush set up by the Maoists.
District police along with CRPF, STF, and District Reserve Guards (local force consisting of surrendered Maoists and local youth) launched a massive operation on the intelligence input about Maoist Commander Hidma when they were ambushed and attacked.
'Villagers Branded as Maoists in Chhattisgarh'
Kawasi Nandu is a student of Class 7, studying in one of the government-sponsored Porta Cabins at Basaguda, Bijapur. He is uncertain of his education – and his future now – as he would be expected to run the house after his father’s demise.
According to the police, Maoists who were hiding under the garb of innocent villagers, hijacked the protest and attacked the camp, following which the police retaliated with the firing.
They were able to convince the villagers and got them to return on Sunday, 16 May, evening, but the Maoists forced them to come back the next morning on Monday.
Instances of police killing innocent villagers under the pretext of Maoist operations are not new.
On 28 June 2012, a joint team of CRPF and Chhattisgarh police gunned down 17 villagers, stating that they were killed in crossfire between the Maoists and the police. However, the villagers maintained that they had assembled for a village meeting on a local festival ‘Beej Pandum’.
In December 2019, state-appointed judicial commission’s report into the Sarkeguda killings in June 2012 said that there is no evidence that the deceased were Maoists. It goes on to say that there has been “manipulation in probe” post-event.
In another encounter that took place in 2013 in the Edesmetta village of the Bastar region, the role of the police is being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation by the order of the apex court. Villagers alleged that they were celebrating their annual summer festival when a team of Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) launched an attack on the villagers, killing eight innocent people.
“We have six among us who are missing. Three villagers – Uika Pandu from village Teemapura, Bheema Kursam from village Gundam, and Kawasi Waga from village Sudwa – who have been killed. Eighteen more are injured with many sustaining bullet injuries. Our only fault is that we don’t want a police camp in our area,” said Madvi Rahul, a villager.
“The problem of Bastar is not that of law and order, instead it’s about a multi-pronged failure of government’s development policies. The increasing number of police camps are not only an evidence of the increasing oppression tribals face but also help in creating a sense of divide and fear among the tribals of Bastar. Instead of building police camps, the government must take the tribals in confidence, work for their socio-economic betterment if they desire any change in the area,” averred Alok Shukla, activist and convener of Chhattisgarh Bachao Aandolan (CBA), a pressure group.
Locals fear that these camps will become the focal point for police oppression against innocent villagers.
“It has been only five days since the camp opened and we have been protesting since the start, and look what they did in the first five days. We know for sure that in the near future we will be booked for Maoist links and will be put in jail. They want to build camps, make us surrender as Maoists when we are not, and destroy our culture,” said Nandaram Markam, a protesting villager.
“The police and the administration are not able to win the trust of locals. They should first provide them basic facilities before setting up any kind of police camps. Unless the police wins their trust, the villagers will not get out of Maoist’s pressure and help the police. In an unplanned and force-dominant plan to eradicate Maoists, we are killing innocent villagers in the process,” said a local journalist, requesting anonymity.
Why Tribals Are Against Police Camps
Protests against police camps are not new in Maoist-infested Bastar. Over 60 camps have been opened in the Bastar Division in the last five years. The initiative to set up police camps started in 2016 when state police was able to establish 14 camps throughout Chhattisgarh.
In the last year, nearly 20 state police camps have been set up in the Bastar Division. These include Chhattisgarh police, India Reserve Battalion, and CRPF camps.
The main objective of these police camps in a conflict zone is to establish a connection between the government and the locals. Another objective is to provide access to various government-sponsored schemes and policies including, public distribution systems, aanganwadi centres, healthcare, education, infrastructure, among others.
However, locals say police use these camps to trouble innocent villagers and books them under false charges.
“We would be troubled for Maoists links, put in jail or asked to surrender in the name of anti-Naxal operations. We have already been tortured a lot and this camp will only add to our pathetic state,” said a villager.
“Police camps are not bad, but their history has been highly questionable. Various instances of police oppression and cases of falsely accusing villagers of Maoists links have been reported and this has set the mood negative for the police camps,” said Soni Sori, a teacher-turned-activist.
“The governments should focus on providing the tribals with the basic amenities to live before thinking of opening any new camps. A lot of promises and little to no outcome on the actual upliftment of the tribals has been a regular result of these camps,” she added.
Vishnukant Tiwari is an independent journalist based out of Chhattisgarh. He covers Social, Stigma, Maoists, Political among other themes. He can be found on Twitter here.
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