"Being neutral is our biggest crime": Government, Vigilante, and Naxalite abuses in India's Chhattisgarh State
We often wonder what sins we committed
to be born at this time. Our lives are impossible. Naxalites come and threaten
us. They demand food and ask us to help them with information about police
movements. Then the police come. They beat us and ask us for information.
We are caught between these people. There is no way out.
- A resident of Errabore, a government-run camp, January 2008
In Chhattisgarh state in central India, a dramatic escalation of a little-known conflict since June 2005 has destroyed hundreds of villages and uprooted tens of thousands of people from their homes. Caught in a deadly tug-of-war between an armed Maoist movement on one side, and government security forces and a vigilante group called Salwa Judum on the other, civilians have suffered a host of human rights abuses, including killings, torture, and forced displacement.
The armed movement by Maoist groups often called Naxalites spans four decades and 13 states in India. They purport to defend the rights of the poor, especially the landless, dalits (so-called "untouchables"), and tribal communities. Their repeated armed attacks across a growing geographical area led Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2006 to describe the Naxalite movement as the "single biggest internal security challenge ever faced" by India.
Naxalites have maintained a strong presence in southern parts of Chhattisgarh since the 1980s. Although many indigenous tribal communities living in these areas support Naxalite interventions against economic exploitation, an escalating pattern of Naxalite abuses, including extortion of money and food, coerced recruitment of civilians, and killings of perceived police informants or "traitors," has gradually alienated many villagers.
In June 2005 popular protests against Naxalites in Bijapur district in southern Chhattisgarh sparked the creation of Salwa Judum, a state-supported vigilante group aimed at eliminating Naxalites. Salwa Judum's activities quickly spread to hundreds of villages in Bijapur and Dantewada districts in southern Chhattisgarh. With the active support of government security forces, Salwa Judum members conducted violent raids on hundreds of villages suspected of being pro-Naxalite, forcibly recruited civilians for its vigilante activities, and relocated tens of thousands of people to government-run Salwa Judum camps. They attacked villagers who refused to participate in Salwa Judum or left the camps.
Naxalites have retaliated against this aggressive government-supported campaign by attacking residents of Salwa Judum camps, and abducting and executing individuals they identified as Salwa Judum leaders or supporters, police informers, or camp residents appointed as auxiliary police.
Neither the government nor Naxalites leave any room for civilian neutrality. Seeking protection from one side leaves area inhabitants at risk of attack by the other. Local journalists and activists who have investigated or reported abuses by Salwa Judum and government security forces have been harassed and described as "Naxalite sympathizers" by the Chhattisgarh state government, and live in fear of arbitrary arrest under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005.
Even though some officials acknowledge that Salwa Judum's activities have exacerbated the violence, resulting in loss of civilian life and property, the Indian central and Chhattisgarh state governments have failed to prevent or stop these abuses or hold those responsible accountable. In April 2008 the Supreme Court of India ordered the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to investigate complaints of abuse.
While there is hope that the NHRC will conduct a thorough investigation of abuses by both sides, many analysts believe that unless the Indian central and state governments acknowledge and remedy their failure to uphold the rights of tribal communities, the Naxalite movement will continue to grow. The governments must immediately address the human rights and humanitarian catastrophe that has resulted from their policies in Chhattisgarh and hold all those responsible accountable.