“Last year, some District Reserve Guards came to the village and caught me. They started questioning me and asked me to tell them where the Naxalites were hiding. They made me walk around for two days in the forest. I was physically abused several times and then finally left in the forest,” said Smita (name changed), who has been protesting against the alleged influx of security forces in Chhattisgarh's Bijapur.
Smita is one of the thousands of villagers who have been protesting in various districts of Chhattisgarh against camps of security forces being set up across villages.
Like Smita's village, protests against camps of security forces and several development projects of the state and central governments are underway in villages across Bastar, Bijapur, Sukma, and other districts of Chhattisgarh alleging exploitation, abuse, and injustice by security personnel.
The protests began to escalate after the security forces allegedly killed three villagers in Silger, Bijapur in May 2021 while they were protesting against an upcoming police camp in the village, spreading to other naxal-affected areas.
While the leaders of the ruling Congress feel that tribals have been misguided and the police officials suspect Maoists to be behind these protests, the tribals protesting deny both.
In Bastar, seven new camps were opened by various paramilitary forces in 2018, 10 camps were opened in 2019 and 16 new camps were opened last year.
What Happened in Silger?
In May 2021, the security forces set up a camp in Silger village located in the bordering area of Sukma and Bijapur districts. The camp wasn’t spotted by the tribals in the forest initially. However, on 12 May 2021, when the villagers were en route to a local Bazar, they located a police camp, out of nowhere.
The villagers then marched to the camp demanding that the police remove the camp. Following a denial by the police to do so, thousands gathered from nearby villages to protest near the camp site.
On 17 May, the security forces allegedly opened fire on the gathering, killing three on the spot. A pregnant woman was also reported dead due to the stampede that followed.
Agitations all Across Bastar
The most recent of protests in Bastar began in Kanker dsitrict where thousands of tribals are still protesting against the proposed bridge over ‘Bechghat’ and tourist hub in Sitram.
Tribals from the interiors of the Abujhmad area have also come out to take part in the Kanker protest. The villagers from hundreds of villages inside the Abujhmad area of Chhattisgarh came out to protest and have camped near the Kotari river since 6 December 2021.
“There is no one to listen to us. It’s so cold and we are sitting here beside a river protesting for the things that we don’t want. People have come from nearly 300 villages to protest against these so-called development programmes, which are being carried out without our consent.”Maini Kachlam, Sarpanch of Kandadi village in Kanker district
Another protester Gajju Padda while talking to The Quint said: “The issue of the protest is that nobody listens to us. We don’t want a security camp, we have seen what they do to the tribals in Bastar. Haven’t you witnessed what happened in Silger?”
“As for the bridge and tourist hubs we don’t want these as well. Once they establish a tourist place our Gods will be disturbed and we won’t allow that,” he voiced fiercely.
Protests are also underway in Pusnar and Burji villages in Bijapur district against the upcoming security force camps in the far interiors since 5 October 2021. The protesters said that if their demands are not met the numbers will increase to thousands in the near future.
Indefinite protests have been taking place in Singaram and Gompad under the Konta area of the Sukma district of Chhattisgarh since November 2021. Protesting the encounters that happened in 2008 and 2015, thousands of villagers are agitating and protesting to demand for a separate investigation of the incidents.
In October 2021, hundreds of villagers started protesting in the Kodaknar area of Abujhmad against various state initiatives. The villagers consider the dense bamboo forests in Tadonar of Abujhmad area as their place of worship. The bamboo here is used to make the flagstick of God, which is installed in the Jatra called Dev Dang.
The proposed road widening project from the district headquarters to Abujhmad’s Kutul (Maoist’s capital) is being heavily opposed.
Hundreds of villagers gathered in Kasturmeta village and reached the Dev Bamboo forest site in Kodkanar to protest in October 2021. A delegation of villagers of Abujhmad also came to the district headquarters and submitted a memorandum to the district administration demanding not to cut the Dev bamboo forest in October 2021.
What Are the Tribals Demanding?
Villages like Singaram, Gompad, and Pusnar of Bijapur and Silger, Sarkeguda, Edsemeta in Sukma are currently the buzz grounds in Bastar. Bastar is brimming with protests ranging from seeking inquiry into police encounters to state-sponsored developmental projects.
Ram Singh Kadti who hails from Bijapur and is involved in one of the protests, said:
"On 15 July, we had gone from Tamodi village to Nilawaya village of Dantewada to take bullocks to our relatives for plowing our fields. They were bringing the bull when the DRG jawans came there at three o'clock in the afternoon and they caught three of our men, killed them and labelled them Maoists later."
Tribals have on many occasions alleged rapes, extra-judicial killings, and police oppression in Bastar. One such alleged police encounter that happened in 2012 in which 17 were killed and branded Maoists was later countered by the judicial commission's report on the incident in 2019.
The report said that those killed by the police forces in Sarkeguda were not Maoists.
“The protests in Bastar have stemmed from a long history of state oppression, brutal killings in the name of fighting Maoists, rapes, torture among other things and the people no longer are ready to be silent.”Protesting student in Silger
What Does the Government Say?
Chhattisgarh's Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel responding to The Quint said:
"As far as Bastar is concerned, Silger is the only place where protests happened. These protests were in opposition of a new defence camp. Throughout the process we have been in contact with the local tribals and elected representatives. A team of elected representatives and I have met all the stakeholders. I met the people from the area at the CM House. They are in favour of the camp because it marks social development in an area that has been off-limits for a long time. They requested more camps in the area. This will enable governance to reach every mile and it becomes evident why the camp is being opposed."
The police and state government, however, have reiterated on multiple occasions that camps are being set up to work as integrated development centres throughout Bastar.
"In the past, the local administration had organised special camps in the area for mainstream services like Aadhar and Ration Card. It had a significant turnout and expands the purview of last-mile outreach of services and amenities. To oppose this, the protest has come up, which is a politically motivated agitation sponsored by an outlawed outfit. We resolved all the issues raised and are now on the same terms, that is, the camp should go ahead as planned. I have requested the social activists to help us in getting the land identified so we can allot it to the tribals under FRA."Baghel
Tribal activists and local journalists say that Silger protest has reminded the people of Bastar that they can fight and fight strong. That is why one is seeing people coming out to protest for the atrocities committed years ago.
"Silger has become the pivotal point for protests in whole of Bastar. Young students have brought this protest so far and have become an inspiration for the rest. The government must acknowledge the protest, initiate a dialogue if it wants to achieve any success in eradicating Naxalism from Bastar. If not, there are great chances that these young minds may be pulled away from believing in democracy and that will worsen the situation in Bastar."A local journalist