Villagers from Basaguda returning to their homes after spending three years as Internally Displaced Persons. They had just passed a CRPF outpost as this picture was taken.
The Supreme Court had asked petitioners who challenged the legality of the Salwa Judum to submit a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for the Internally Displaced Persons of South Bastar. The same petitions have listed over 129 villages where killings have allegedly taken place, and in many cases, the FIRs haven’t even been registered by the police. On the 6th of May, 2010, the Supreme Court denied the proposal to set up a monitoring committee to overlook the registration of complaints, yet it has given the state of Chhattisgarh, four weeks to respond to the demands of the petitioners to set-up an independent monitoring committee to overlook rehabilitation and compensation.
Meanwhile, the village of Basaguda that was rehabilitated by private citizens in 2009 has survived the trials and tribulations of reclaiming itself in a district torn by war.
‘Basaguda! Basaguda! Basaguda!’ – The cry rang out at Jagdalpur bus station, on the 13th of April, 2010. Yet in 2006, the village of Basaguda had been wiped off the earth.
A Salwa Judum camp and a CRPF outpost looked across the bridge over Talpedu river, that led to Basaguda that no one had crossed since 2006. Beyond the bridge was unofficial ‘Maoist territory’, according to officials. It was just one of the official 644 villages that were empty, where there was arson and looting, murder and mayhem.
On the 5th of March, 2006, four villagers were killed by the Maoists with axes and hatchets yet it would be a simplification to believe that that was the only reason the village was empty.
On the 6th of April 2009, ten days after the village of Basaguda was rehabilitated with the help of local NGOs and activists, armed with the recommendations of the Supreme Court, a few villagers complained that their story was being misreported in the local press. It was common knowledge that the Maoists had killed four people yet the villagers wanted the world to know the whole complex truth. They collectively wrote a letter to the editors of all local newspapers, detailing a long history of brutality, violence and retribution – causes and effects and causes, ad infinitum.
“We, the villagers of Basaguda make a sworn statement that we have been misrepresented by the Press, regarding the reasons why we left our village in 2006. Navbharat Times and many other newspapers have printed that the villagers of Basaguda left their village due to the Naxalite forces, whereas we have not committed this to any of the newspapers.
On the 5th of December, 2005, the workforce of Salwa Judum and the CRPF visited Basaguda and stuck posters that said that a Salwa Judum meeting is going to be held at Avapalli on the 1st of January, 2006, and if the villagers do not turn up, they shall be called Naxalites. We attended the meeting on the 1st of January 2006. We were told that, if those who are members of the Sangam (village-level Naxalite groups) do not surrender right away, all of us will be killed. Nine of the villagers who were not members of the Sangam were forcefully made to admit that they were members of the Sangam. After this, we stayed till the meeting ended and came back to our village. After some days, on the 21st of February 2006, the Salwa Judum workforce came to Basaguda and asked us to deliver a speech against the Naxalites, and those who would not, would be deemed as a Naxalite.
Two days later, villagers from (names withheld) were made to carry out a rally at Lingagiri, Korsaguda, Sarkeguda, Mallepalli, Borguda, where many houses were burnt, people were beaten and many women were raped. Out of rage, a few days after the rally, the Naxalites came to Basaguda on the fifth of March, 2006 at 9pm. They attacked the villagers and killed four people. The villagers then went to the police station to file a report, and after the post-mortem of the deceased, they returned back across the river. Meanwhile, the Salwa Judum and CRPF came and beat us, grabbed us from our necks and took us to the camps on the other side of the river, where we were kept for two months, and the mistreatment continued.
Suddenly, around this time, some 100m away from the CRPF, there was a bomb explosion. Though none of the Salwa Judum and CRPF suffered any casualties, they still brought the villagers out of their houses, and beat people till they were unconscious. They also verbally abused the women and warned us that if they don’t inform them about the movements of the Naxalites, they would unclothe the women, and put everyone in jail.
Villagers who were injured in this bomb explosion were Savaragiro Ramanna, Sarke Chandreya, S.G. Shreenivas, Panke Dinesh, Sarke Venkateshwar, S.G. Raj, S.G. Chinn, and Erragalla Lakshmaiya who died a few days later even after receiving medical care. Inspite of all of this, some people were still living in the village, and on June 2006, the C.R.P.F. and the Salwa Judum workforce re-entered the village and caught three villagers and accused them of being Naxalites. They also started to threaten villagers, claiming that we did not inform them about the recent movements of some armed Naxalites who were passing by. We told them that we did not see any armed Naxalites, so they arrested three villagers, who were Paslet Krushnarao, Hanumant Rao and Dapka Babulal. The police then took them to the jungle and asked them to run. The captives fearing they would be shot if they’d run, did not run and pleaded that they were innocent. They were later freed, instead of being taken to the Police Station. Due to all these problems, all the villagers of Basaguda left the village.
On the 28th of March, 2009, the villagers of Basaguda block – the Mahars, Telgas, Murias, Muslims, Halbas, Kunbis and Kalars started returning to their homes after three years living as IDPs in Salwa Judum Camps, in the towns of Avapalli and Bijapur in small rented rooms, and in Cherla in Andhra Pradesh.
For the first time in three years, the villagers of Basaguda crossed the bridge over the Talpedu river as a CRPF sentry with a LMG looked on.
The villagers returned home to find their homes vandalized and looted. All the doors had been ripped out, the roofs had collapsed, and a majority of homes had been burnt down and were nothing but cinders. There was no electricity, numerous handpumps weren’t working, pathways were blocked by uncontrolled growth of vegetation, and there was Maoist graffiti calling for voter boycott over the walls that were still standing, while on one wall, ‘Naxali chorr’ (Naxalites are thieves) was scribbled with black charcoal.
People were cheerful yet they were wary, as they rummaged through the remains of their lives. They were too many memories of violence in Basaguda block – four villagers in Boreguda were also killed by the Salwa Judum, three more were killed at Maharpara by the Maoists and there are no certain estimates of how many were killed when the Salwa Judum held its rally in the ‘interior’ villages. Those were the days when every village expected an attack, and villagers slept en masse in one large home or in a ‘para’ or village that they believed was safe. Such was the case of the villagers of Lingagiri who slept in Pathanpara – the village of the Muslims, believing it would be safe. Yet there was no safety. And it was just a fragile hope that it would be safe in 2009, as they were rehabilitated.
Home Is Where The War Is
Basanti Motiram of the village of Lingagiri in Basaguda block. Her husband was allegedly murdered by the Salwa Judum.
Basaguda was the third village to have been given a second chance at history – the first being Nendra in Dantewada district that was rehabilitated in 2008 and the other being Lingagiri that was rehabilitated eight days before Basaguda, two kilometres away. All were rehabilitated by the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram and NGOs from Andhra Pradesh, that provided relief materials, mediation with government officials. The recent rehabilitation plan that has been submitted to the Supreme Court calls for not just the freedom of villagers to return home but that ‘the village community as a whole has to be rehabilitated and restored as a functioning unit, with all necessary infrastructural provisions.’ The village of Basaguda had none of that. They were dependent on the NGO for not just provisions but also for a sense of security.
VCA volunteers would live amongst the villagers and voice their every grievance and requirement from the government. The villagers of Basaguda who returned home had no food nor shelter, and would sleep en masse under a banyan tree in the middle of the village. By day, they would work together to clean their village, clearing pathways, and reconstruct their homes, one home at a time. They were entirely dependent on relief, and the idea was that they’d remain dependant, until agriculture and government services could be jump started again.
Yet the government was not forthcoming. Not only did the government not act on the recommendations of the Supreme Court, they directly thwarted efforts to provide relief when they confiscated 15 quintals of rice that was meant for the villagers of Basaguda block. They would only release the rice some five days later after activists and the owner of the vehicle were made to appear in the Bijapur Sessions Court. 35 kilograms of cooking oil that was a part of that relief material disappeared from the van kept in the police station.
Apart from that, they repaired one handpump in Basaguda block. And for the first five weeks, their presence was just negligible. So when bus services to Basaguda resumed through initiation of the government over a month ago, a year after the rehabilitation, it was a sign that things had changed a long way. The resumption of the bus services wasn’t something that anyone took for granted.
Basaguda used to be a thriving market that drew traders from Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, yet women needed to walk 17 kms to Avapalli to bring back ration that was supposed to reach the camp across Basaguda. Rice that every family was entitled to at Rs.3 per kg was available at Rs.10 per kg at Avapalli (it was being siphoned off by corrupt traders). Even children who lived in the Salwa Judum camp across Basaguda had to walk 17 kms to get school.
The road itself was treacherous. It had seen six IED blasts, mostly targeting civilian vehicles in the long years of terror and counter terror since the inception of the Salwa Judum. The bombs were allegedly built by a man the police refer to as an ‘angutachap’. And to prevent Maoist ambushes, there was irregular felling of trees for 100 metres across, on both sides of the 48km road from Bijapur to Basaguda.
Today, two daily buses go to Basaguda. The markets are running again, NREGA work has started through initiation of the administration and the villagers of the entire block are self-sufficient.
Down The Barrel Of The Gun
Samtul Janki at her home in Basaguda. Her husband was killed by the Maoists in 2000, while her uncle was killed on the day of the raid in 2006.
Four days after the villagers of Basaguda were rehabilitated, it had become evident that their safety entirely depended on how the villagers in the ‘interiors’ would react. It also came to light that there were Maoists from Andhra Pradesh present in the group that attacked them, and many villagers described it as an execution more than an attack. Nevertheless, relatives of the murdered still chose to return, such as Samtul Janki whose husband was killed by the Maoists in 2000, and her uncle who was killed during the 2006 raid on her village.
None of the men of her family had returned initially, it was just her and her daughters. Interestingly, none of the men of Pathanpara felt it was safe to return to their village either, no matter how much their wives or mothers tried to convince them. Sofia Begum whose husband was beaten by both the Maoists and Salwa Judum on different occasions had no luck convincing her husband to return with her and she went back to Avapalli after salvaging what she could of her home.
Of course, it wasn’t entirely safe for men because many of them were under suspicion by the Maoists. As it is, there were many SPOs from Basaguda block.
The same SPOs would still go along and intimidate villagers of Lingagiri just a few days after they returned to their villages. According to the Maoists, many SPOs themselves were involved in the burning of the villages in the interior areas of Basaguda. But again, ‘Naxali ghatna se bachne ke liya SPO banna hi tha.’ (to survive Maoist attacks, I had to become a SPO.) Said one young teenager who was an SPO in Basaguda police station. Another one, Suresh from Dharmapuram village in Basaguda block would be killed by the Maoists in May, 2009.
None of the families of SPOs returned to Basaguda. And when the Sarpanch of Hirapur, Punem Hoonga who had implicit ties with the Salwa Judum was killed in June 2009, the entire village of Hirapur left their village, cursing the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram who failed to protect him from the Maoists. VCA volunteer Kopa Kunjam would eventually be arrested for his murder in December even as he attempted to save him from the Maoists. This was Kopa Kunjam’s only failure, overlooking the entire fact that the reason Basaguda stands right now, is because he had gone into every village that was attacked by the Salwa Judum rally in 2006, convincing them that the villagers of Basaguda had nothing to do with the attack.
‘We can deal with them,’ One villager of Basaguda points towards the police station and the Salwa Judum camp, ‘But we’re afraid of them.’ he pointed towards the jungle.
At one point, just a month after they were rehabilitated, a few ‘andarwale’ had called a villager from Basaguda into the jungle and interrogated him about how many policemen were in the police station. The villager claimed he didn’t know much and he was left unharmed after that. Yet that incident spooked the whole village and it was all they could talk about. They remembered in 2006, how they were beaten for not ‘informing the police’ about the movements of the Maoists, and if they do, then what would the Maoists do to them?
The local cadre would eventually arrive, inquire and issue threats, insinuating that ‘tum salle Salwa Judum ka chaawal kha rahe ho’ – the rice was actually bought with the funds acquired through NGOs but no one tried showing the receipts to a bunch of illiterate angry tribals with axes whose houses were burnt down by the Salwa Judum.
Then a few months later, Raju, an area commander, and Apparao, a Dalam commander would eventually arrive and interrogate the VCA human shield volunteers, of their intentions, their employers, their histories and whether they’re police spies. A volunteer explained that he is apolitical and neutral and is only going to help people rebuild their lives, and work to communicate the villagers needs with the government.
‘Tum log hamara ladayi khatam kar doge,’ ‘(You will destroy our struggle),’ One of them said, ‘Tum log janta ko sarkar ke godh mein dal dongey.) (You will just put these people into the lap of the government.)
Finally, a top Politburo member would voice his assent with the rehabilitation process and promise that the Maoists wouldn’t hinder the rehabilitation process nor harass the VCA volunteers. A few days later, two VCA volunteers were beaten and robbed by local Maoist cadre.
Peace is fragile when chaos is king.
At one point, I remember sitting with a group of villagers from Basaguda, and I asked them the one question that was on my mind the entire time, ‘What would you do if the Maoists attack your village again, or if the Salwa Judum burns it down again?’
‘We will never leave.’ – was an instant unanimous response, ‘We know, there is nothing else out there for us, we will have to die here.’
As it is, the villagers of Basaguda have endured hell and exile. And there are limits to human endurance.