Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam
"My sons weren't Naxalites. The police killed them, falsely claiming they were Naxalites," said Shanti, who lost two of her sons in a fake encounter in Bastar's Sarkeguda village in 2012.
Shanti was among the thousands of Adivasis from Chhattisgarh's Bastar region who travelled several miles – and for several days – to Sarkeguda in May 2021 to register their protest against decades of injustice against them. Despite the area being a COVID-19 containment zone, this was one of the biggest mass movements that the region had seen in recent times.
What Triggered the Mass Movement of the Adivasis?
While the setting up of an army camp on the tribal land in the Silger village along the Bijapur-Sukma border triggered the Adivasi community, in reality, the mass movement was a culmination of simmering anger among them against the security forces who they blame for snatching away their right to live a normal life.
In the last few months, there has been a palpable tension between the security forces and Adivasis over the setting up of security camps in Bastar – the epicentre of the violent Naxal movement. In some places, there is a security camp at almost every 5 km.
In May 2021, another such camp came up in Silger village, 5 km from Jonaguda where just a month ago in April 2021, a deadly ambush had seen 22 security personnel being killed at the hands of the Naxalites.
The setting up of a camp in Bastar follows a playbook – security forces set up the camp silently in the wee hours, villagers oppose these camps through peaceful protests, police lathi-charge them to disperse the protest, and even arrest them and declare them to be Maoist cadre.
So, why did Silger's protest gain national attention?
The answer to this critical question lies in the incident that unfolded on 17 May 2021, the fourth day of the Silger protest, when hundreds of villagers from nearby villages had gathered outside the police camp. The police open fire on unarmed tribals, killing three.
These killings fuelled the unrest in the entire region.
Human Side of the Protest
Adivasis' struggle focuses on the human cost of the anti-Naxal operation.
"They (police) forcefully took our father from our home and killed him in the forest claiming he was a Naxalite. I have come so far to register my protest... after walking for seven days."Markam Rambabu, Lost Father in 'Fake' Encounter
"First, my husband was killed by the police. Then, my elder son was also killed. And they have put my younger son in the Dantewada jail. It's been five years. My elder son was returning with the cows after ploughing the fields. He was surrounded on his way and killed. He didn't work for the Naxalites. Who will take care of me? I am living with my daughter-in-law and a little granddaughter. We take care of each other."Mangli, Lost Husband, Elder Son in 'Fake' Encounter
"Every time we see men in uniform, we fear for our men. We fear we might not see one of us again. I have four children. How do you think life is going to treat them? Who will take care of them?"Janki, Lost Husband in Sarkeguda 'Fake' Encounter 2012
Why Is Bastar Marred by This Travesty
For decades now, Bastar has witnessed security forces being pumped into its heavy forests and hilly areas in the State's war against the Naxalites.
In 2005, as part of their anti-insurgency operation, the government formed Salwa Judum. The militia comprised thousands of untrained Adivasis, many of them children, who were provided training and weapons by the government. Salwa Judum soon became increasingly violent, leading to human rights violations and lakhs of deaths and displacements.
The Supreme Court outlawed Salwa Judum due to a rise in human rights abuses. However, 10 years later, Adivasis are still the real victims – caught between the security forces and the Naxalites.
Although lower than previous years, 2020 saw 241 Naxalite attacks despite the pandemic. The year also saw 84 'encounters'.
But there is no record of innocent deaths caused by police excesses in lieu of terminating Naxalites.
Why Is Bastar Dotted By So Many Police Camps?
The contentious security camps are ostensibly needed to aid road construction in Bastar because Maoists have frequently targeted road construction activities – and even abducted contractors and workers. However, once the purpose of providing security cover to road construction activities is served, not all these camps are withdrawn.
Central Reserve Police Force, Border Security Force, and Indo-Tibetan Border Police, among other armed forces, have deployed multiple companies across Bastar. These paramilitary camps station at least 200 security personnel on an average, making the police-civilian ratio in these short stretches among the highest in the country.
These camps are designed to work as integrated development centres for the villages of Bastar. To provide any kind of facility, we have to first improve the mobility. Hence, we need roads for the safety of people and the infrastructure security camps are being set up. We are facing Maoist-motivated protests from the villages – and because we are infiltrating in their core zones, Maoists are responding under heavy pressure. They are losing their hold in the region.P Sundarraj, Bastar IG
But due to their bitter experiences with the security camps, villagers call them sites of surveillance and violence. Their opposition to the construction of roads is mainly tied up with their resistance to these camps.
"It is true that the government will want to bring development. But is it not wrong that ordinary farmers and villagers are abducted and arrested for no reason? People do not want camps and roads here. We just want hospitals and schools," said a young tribal, Santosh Kumar Kartami.
Bastar's Youth Promise Change
The fear against security forces has passed down to generations with many young Adivasis echoing the sentiments of their elders. Adivasi youths have formed Moolwasi Bachao Manch to mobilise other Adivasis and spread awareness about their issue.
All the youngsters here are students. They moved away from their studies after the pandemic. Students in cities are continuing their studies but Adivasi students returned to their villages in the lockdown. Now, being at home, these students are witnessing how police is harassing us in the name of patrolling. We youngsters have understood that we must voice up against this.Kawasi Dularam, Tarrem, Bastar