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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 26, June 13, 2009

Chhattisgarh Government’s Self-destructive Act

Saturday 13 June 2009, by Sandeep Pandey

Akin to George Bush in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attack who, while declaring his war on terror, proclaimed that if one is not on the side of US Government then one is with the terrorists, the Chhattisgarh Government thinks that if one is not with the Salwa Judum, the state sponsored tribal militant group meant to counter the Naxalites, then one would be considered a sympathiser of the Maoists. Binayak Sen paid the price for criticising the Salwa Judum. Now, it the turn of Himanshu Kumar. Encouraged by the recent success of the Sri Lankan Government against the LTTE, the local administration moved in three JCV machines and 500 police personnel on the morning of May 17, 2009, to finish off the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, the centre painstakingly created by Himanshu over the last 17 years in Kanwalnar village of Dantewada district.

Himanshu Kumar was presently engaged in a very important task of resettling tribals who had left their villages amidst violent confrontations between the Naxalites and Salwa Judum since 2005. Some of them were living in camps run by the Salwa Judum, under strict para-military supervision, and some of them had escaped to as far as neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. People of Lingagiri in Bijapur district have returned from Cherla in AP after three years. Similarly, people of nearby Basaguda have returned from a Salwa Judum camp across the river from their village, a river which nobody dare cross for the last three years due to fear of violence from both sides. The government-backed Salwa Judum wants people in camps, most of them on the roadside, but there is a Supreme Court directive that the government must help people resettle in their original villages. Around three lakh people were internally displaced during these violent years, of which 56,000 landed in the camps. But now their number has come down to less than half. More people yearn to return to their villages. The reason is simple. How long can one be dependent on government dole and live under armed security? Life has to start again in villages. That is where the agricultural fields and cattles are. Himanshu, who like the common people, is equidistant from both the Naxalites and Salwa Judum, was helping the people realise their dream of returning to normalcy. The government is certainly not in a position to undertake this perilous and arduous task at the moment.

The government, instead of being grateful to Himanshu, has been vindictive because Himanshu has been raising the cases of human rights violations of tribals by the security forces, SPOs—the 3500 adhoc tribal police force—and the Salwa Judum, the most recent being the killing of 19 innocent people in Singaram who were declared to be Naxalites in January, 2009, in a false encounter by the police. The government and the local administration were obviously not happy with him. They gave him a notice a day before the demolition to vacate the land, which they claimed the VCA was encroaching upon. The land was obtained by the VCA from the Gram Sabha based on a resolution in its favour. Even though it is a tribal area the government refused to recognise the right of the Gram Sabha.

The local administration claims that the provision of Schedule V doesn’t apply because the VCA was not engaged in ‘development’ activity but the ashram was in Himanshu’s personal use. There can be nothing more ludicrous than this. If the ashram was not engaged in development related activities then why was the government using the VCA to run its various programmes? The VCA is currently implementing a government community health scheme, the Mitanin programme and has in the recent past been involved in implementation of watershed management, water and sanitation and education programmes. Himanshu is on numerous government and administrative committees meant to oversee the implementation of these schemes. He is also on the legal service committee of the administration. If one visits the site of what was the VCA before the demolition one can find scatterd latrine seats, the government’s literacy material, health care material etc. amidst the debris. A legal case regarding the land is pending. The administration did not have the patience to wait for the judgment upon completion of hearing.

A question also arises as to why they did not just ask Himanshu to vacate the premises and seal the campus? Was it really necessary to demolish it? After all, public money was invested to create the ashram. The administration, whose record of deliverance so far as various government schemes are concerned is abysmally poor, has chosen to choke whatever little relief was reaching the people through the VCA. If one realises that the basic reason for the emergence of Naxalism is sheer poverty and backwardness of the area, the self-destructiveness of the government’s action becomes obvious.

Himanshu, with a Gandhian orientation and upbringing, represents the middle space between the Maoists and the government. He truly voices the people’s concerns. He is not in the game of asserting authority and control over the people and the land, like both the government and Naxalites are engaged in. That is his strength which allows him to work with the government and at the same time not antagonising the Naxalites. But, unfortunately, the government has decided that there is no democratic space for people like Himanshu. It prefers to use brutal ways like the Salwa Judum rather than the humanitarian methods of Himanshu. It may be able to suppress people’s feelings in the short run and show results to whosoever is pumping money to carry out the anti-Naxalite operations but will it solve the problem? Can the elimination of Prabhakaran be considered the end of Tamil aspiration for sovereignty?

But Himanshu is no Naxalite. He has decided to stay in Dantewada and rebuild his work. That, he thinks, would be the most fitting reply to the government’s vindictive action. He may have to make do without a comfortable seven-acre campus and operate out of some makeshift arragement. He has taken the demolition in stride. He thinks what the people have to face everyday at the hands of violent forces, both state and non-state, is far more painful than what he has to undergo presently. His undaunted spirit will keep the hope alive for people. Himanshu’s presence is necessary for peace to return to the area faster than it should.n

The author is a noted social activist who received the Magsaysay award some years ago but returned it on learning of the US Government’s involvement in the award. He headed a recent fact-finding team to explore the latest developments in Chhattisgarh including the demolition of the VCA near Dantewada.

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