In Dantewada, poor fight poor in a dehumanising war

The Times of India,

Supriya Sharma, TNN | Mar 24, 2011, 02.56am IST

DANTEWADA: A day after the media reported alleged arson and assault by special police officers in three villages of Dantewada, the two officers who represent the government in the district spoke in divergent voices. 

Dantewada Superintendent of Police SRP Kalluri dismissed the allegations as 'Maoist propaganda', while district collector R Prasanna readied food trucks to be sent to the villages. 

Newspaper images from the villages showed men and women staring at the charred ashes of their homes, food grains, belongings and lives. "What will we eat this year? All our grain is lost," former sarpanch Nupo Muta was quoted in Patrika, a hindi daily. The paper reported 300 homes had been torched, five men killed and three women sexually assaulted. 

"An inquiry will take place within a month. But we will provide immediate relief tomorrow itself. 25,000 rupees to each family, along with essential items like rice, dal, utensils, tarpaulin for shelter," said Prasanna. 

The three villages – Tadmetla, Morepalli and Teemapur – lie deep inside Konta block of Dantewada, an area controlled by the Maoists. 

Between 2005-2007, villages here witnessed intense and savage clashes between Salwa Judum and the Maoists. 

Salwa Judum is translated as 'peace march' by some and as 'purification hunt' by others. This dichotomy of definition extends to accounts of how it began and what followed. 

Judum supporters claim it was a spontaneous upsurge by adivasis -- fed up of Maoist diktats, they declared rebellion, moving out of their villages, to escape the wrath of rebels. 

But critics allege it was a government backed militia that launched brutal attacks on villages, forcing thousands to abandon their homes, in a 'scorched earth' strategy, aimed at exposing rebel hideouts and cutting their supplies. 

Whatever be the truth, either way, the clashes of those years left the area brutally ruptured. 

Thousands moved to refugee camps along NH 221. Others stayed back – but found themselves abandoned by the government, as schools, health centres, anganwadis, every wing of the civil administration folded up in the villages. 

Last October, the state government informed the Supreme Court that Salwa Judum no longer exists. But this week, the rampage came as a reminder of its enduring legacy. 

"Those who live in the villages are Maoists, or their supporters," declared a young policeman outside Chintagufa camp, where this correspondent was detained, on way to Tadmetla village to investigate allegations of arson and assualt by the police. 

Chintagufa is just 12 kilometres short of Tadmetla. Three months ago, jawans of 105 battalion moved to the camp, replacing the battered 62 battalion that lost 76 jawans in a Maoist ambush near Tadmetla last year. 

"If people of these villages supported the government, they would have moved out to the camps on the highway," the policeman continued. "They are no different from Maoists," he said, partly as a primer addressed to the newly arrived CRPF jawans, partly as a tirade meant for this correspondent. 

"Last week, we lost three of our men, two are koyas, they too are adivasis. Those who talk of human rights, why don't they go and meet their widows and families? Why don't journalists take pictures of this memorial to our martyrs?," he said, pointing to a granite stone, etched with the names of 12 policemen killed in an encounter in Minpa village in 2009. 

"We come from poor families too. I earn 12,000 rupees, of which nearly half goes towards insurance. And yet when I get killed, my family will get just a pittance". 

The policeman refused to identify himself, but his views were vehement. It was evident from his rant that young men like him, stuck in hostile territory, found it hard to be sympathetic to villagers who they believe host their opponents – or join them. 

This worldview perhaps accomodates the use of brute force against the people of this area as part of 'action' against the Maoists. 

But a CRPF jawan spoke up, to challenge the policeman. "If someone came to your village with a gun, would you not follow their orders?," he asked. 

Turning to this correspondent, he said, "In 20 years of service, I have not seen an area worse than this, and believe me I have seen a lot of this country. This area does not need more violence. It needs good work". 

In the silence that followed his rejoinder, two school girls walked past the camp, holding their bags and books, quietly headed in the direction of the ashramshala, or residential school, a few metres away. 

The Chintagufa school is one of the first to be restarted in the area after five years. District collector R Prasanna has said he wants to re-start 50 schools this year as part of his attempts to restore civil administration in Konta block. 

For now, children of nearly 300 villages have no choice but to live and study away from home, in poorly furnished and tightly packed dormitories. 

Earlier this month, in one such dormitory in Sukma town, this correspondent met a group of boy students of standard 11 and 12, who came from villages near Tadmetla. 

The boys spoke of their dreams for the future. "I want a job. But not in the police, nor as an adhikari or government officer. They are targetted by Maoists," said a 17 year old. "It's better to be a teacher or health worker". 

His classmate added, "There are no facilities in the village. Even getting food rations is tough. But my family does not want to leave. My father says we are farmers, what would we do away from our land?" 

But at Chintagufa camp, the young police officer was unshakeable in his views. "These people are farmers during the day and Maoists at night," he said. 

With a determined look, he stood his ground, legs parted and hands folded – till a helicopter appeared on the horizon. 

Looking up, turning restless, he explained, "I hope it lands. I need to go to Dantewada for my BA exams. I wanted to study science and get a good job, but my parents had no money to send me to college. I come from the border area with Orissa. There is no irrigation for our fields and we barely manage to survive". 

In Dantewada, the poor fight the poor, the violence dehumanising both, as well as all those stuck in between.