Sreelatha Menon: A homecoming in Bastar

21 07 2008
Sreelatha Menon: A homecoming in Bastar
Sreelatha Menon / New Delhi July 20, 2008, 0:26 IST

The collector of Dantewada has agreed to give 10 quintals of paddy seed to restart farming in Nendra. Nendra is a village in Konta block in Dantewada district in Chhattisgarh which has been lying deserted for the last three years after multiple attacks by the government-backed anti-Naxal militia, the Salwa Judum, and the police. The collector’s gesture was in reciprocation of a rehabilitation effort by an NGO called Vanvasi Chetna Ashram to facilitate homecoming for the villagers who were living either in jungles fearing reprisals from the Salwa Judum and the police, or in neighbouring villages of Andhra Pradesh. Some of them are in camps set up by the state government.

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The effort started this month, with 11 members of the ashram turning into a human shield and escorting the fugitive tribals to their village and staying with them.

There has been little support from the police. There were firings on the villagers. The first incident made them run for their lives to their familiar hideouts in the jungles.

Two boys, Madkam Bheem and Vetti Pojja, both about 16 years old, were caught this week while returning from the markets in the villages of Andhra Pradesh and are currently in Dantewada jail.

The police fired in the village a second time this week. But this time, the villagers did not flee and the police returned without harming anyone.

Himanshu Kumar, who has been running the ashram for the last 16 years in the Bastar area, says more villages are seeking their human shields to revive life in the abandoned hamlets.

People who have fled from about 25 villages are meeting in Nendra to extend the human shield initiative to their villages.

The human shield members, who took with them 15 quintals of paddy and a lot of clothes for the 100 families returning to Nendra, are currently helping the people cultivate their abandoned fields.

The collector’s gesture was to support this effort.

The Supreme Court ruled recently that the government of Chhattisgarh was acting in an illegal and unconstitutional way in arming civilians to fight the Naxalites. A report of the Planning Commission seconded this and said that Salwa Judum was a terrible mistake and had no place in a democratic and free country.

The Planning Commission report on Salwa Judum and Naxalites was presented yesterday before the home ministry’s task force.

What will take the powers-to-be to change their mind and understand that people have to live in their homes and cannot be held fugitives in their own country?

The human shield initiative is, meanwhile, preparing to leave for another deserted village, Vechapad, in Bhairamgadh block in Bastar’s Bijapur district. Himanshu Kumar says he has informed the police but they are asking them to wait saying an operation was going on there.

What is the guarantee that people returning from the Salwa Judum camps, usually identified with the atrocities attributed to the Salwa Judum, would be let off by the Naxalites and the people hiding in the jungles?

Himanshu Kumar says he has been speaking to the villagers outside the camps and they say there is no danger from them. He says Naxalites are also promising that they will not make reprisal attacks on the villagers and the SPOs if they come home.

At a time the government is introspecting about the Salwa Judum and does not know what to do with the Naxalites, the worst thing it can do is to sever ties with the civil society. It can begin by looking at activists like Himanshu Kumar and Binayak Sen as just that rather than conspirators against it, and instead use jails and police against criminals rather than activists.