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Chhattisgarh: Traumas of Adivasi Women in Dantewada

The Salwa Judum campaign in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh has led to the wanton "militarisation"  of  society over there. A fact-finding team set up by the Committee Against Violence on Women toured this war zone and found that adivasi women have not only been forcibly dislocated and robbed of their belongings, but have been sexually abused and tortured.


Traumas of Adivasi Women in Dantewada

The Salwa Judum campaign in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh has led to the wanton “militarisation” of society over there. A fact-finding team set up by the Committee Against Violence on Women toured this war zone and found that adivasi women have not only been forcibly dislocated and robbed of their belongings, but have been sexually

abused and tortured.


s in all war zones, in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh too, adivasi women are facing multiple traumas of forcible dislocation and survival at the mercy of armed men. Only here, the army that has robbed them of their belongings, dislocated them, and continues to threaten and sexually exploit them, comprises their own people and their own government. The official figures of April/ May 2006 acknowledge that 45,958 persons from 644 villages were forced to live in 22 relief camps run by the state government. Alarmed at reports of sexual abuse of women in these camps, an all-India factfinding team set up by the Committee Against Violence on Women (CAVOW) visited Dantewada twice between September and November 2006. The members of the team were Ilina Sen, Sudha Bharadwaj, C Vanaja, Bela Bhatia, Shoma Sen, Ratnamala, Devi, Rinchin, Soma Mukherji, Devendra, and Sharmila Sarkar. Here is a summary of their findings.

The rise of the Salwa Judum (literally meaning purification hunt in Gondi, but generally billed as a campaign for peace) needs to be seen in the context of the longstanding Naxalite movement in this region, the rapid industrialisation of this mineral-rich area, the continuing poverty of its predominantly adivasi population, and their opposition to the acquisition of their lands for industrial projects. Officially described as a spontaneous peoples’ uprising against Maoist violence, Salwa Judum has over the past year enjoyed the patronage of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government, as well as sections of the Congress Party in the state, especially the leader of the opposition in the state assembly. The state police, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Indian Reserve Battalions (IRBs) of Naga and Mizo forces are all involved in the campaign. K P S Gill has been appointed special security advisor to the state government.

Forced Displacement

The essence of the Salwa Judum campaign is the forcible eviction of adivasis from their villages by the government, and their detention in “relief camps”. The commonest method of doing this was described by a sarpanch at Dornapal camp, who revealed that a meeting of all sarpanches of the block had been held by the administration, in which they had been instructed to convene meetings to bring all villagers to the camp by spreading the word that they would be attacked by Naxalites. Asked whether people are willingly living in camps to avoid Naxalites, one person said: “Who wants to stay in camps? What will happen to the ancestral lands of the people? It is not true that people are harassed by Naxalites. It is under pressure of Salwa Judum and the police that they are being forced to leave.” At the beginning of 2006, the government stopped public transport to the interior villages of Dantewada that reportedly had a Maoist presence.

The fact-finding team found, after speaking to women in these camps, that the thousands of villagers here have had to abandon their homes and fields. Many women stated that they wanted to return to their villages. They felt insecure in being separated from their communities. They have lost their entire livestock (cattle, pigs, hens, etc), stocks of grain and forest produce. The atmosphere of terror and suspicion that has been created has resulted in a large part of the district’s population having had no access to their land in the last year. Even ‘landa’ (fermented mixed grain), which is the staple food of the tribals of this region, is no longer available to the adivasis on a regular basis.

Initially, the government provided free rations to all the residents in the camps; today, this is being done only in the newer camps. The team was told that these rations were enough for only five days in the week, and for the sixth and seventh day of the week, hunger was the general situation of the people. No employment is being provided by the government and the camp inmates are dependent on occasional employment in the surrounding villages at a wage rate of Rs 20 per day. From these uncertain earnings they can purchase a mere 2 ‘paili’ (less than 5 kg) of rice per week per family from the PDS shops. It was amply clear to the team that these persons were undernourished and often malnourished.

Almost all the children the team saw at the Baangapal and Dornapal camps showed signs of malnutrition and had typically distended bellies. Parents at Baangapal had sent their school-going children to live in an ashram school several villages away, where they were provided with a midday meal, often their only meal in the day. It was obvious that their economic and nutritional status had deteriorated substantially. In the large Dornapal camp, the UNICEF has already identified hundreds of children suffering from Grade 4 malnutrition.

With many villagers having run away from the Baangapal camp, the special police officers (SPOs) are now guarding the camp. However, despite such forcible detention in the camps, the team found several camps on the Nelasnaar-Bedre road empty. For instance, villagers of Karkeli admitted that SPOs of their village had come several times to forcibly bring other villagers to the Karkeli camp, but they had run away every time and now the camp is empty. An anganwadi worker from Dornapal camp told the fact-finding team:

In February we were asked to submit our report to the centre in Konta. From the Konta centre itself , the Salwa Judum people and the CRPF directly brought us here. We came in the clothes we were wearing. We

Economic and Political Weekly January 27, 2007

purchased new ones when we got our salaries at the end of the month. I don’t like to stay here but I cannot go back. My mother is still in the village, but I haven’t seen her since February. Here we are constantly told that we should not go back to the village because of the Maoist threat. Either way we are left without a home. Who will take care of my mother? My son was forced to join as an SPO. He is 17 years old and he had to leave his studies because of this. I was not happy but there is nothing I can do. My whole family has been divided because of this. Since I was brought to the camp I was seen as Judum supporter by the Maoists and since my mother lives in the village she is seen as a Naxal sympathiser by the administration.

This sums up the trauma faced by most women in the camp.

Despite the villagers’ opposition, the team found the administration determined to make these “relief camps” permanent. From the temporary look of the tented structures that existed in 2005, today several camps are acquiring the look of resettlement colonies. In Baangapal and Karkeli the team was informed that each family in the camp had been given a sum of money (ranging from Rs 8,000 to Rs 15,000 per family) to construct houses. The uniformity of structures that have actually been built and the similar appearance of all camps on the road from Bijapur to Bedre, indicate that a larger level administrative planning was involved in the transformation of these relief camps. All the camps seem to have multiple hand pumps as a source of water, but no toilets were seen anywhere. Dornapal, the largest camp, which houses around 15,000 people, does not have a single toilet.

In a situation where land records are few and far between, the team fears this displacement might lead to irreversible losses of rights over land. This fear assumes urgency when viewed against the backdrop of allegations by villagers of Dantewada of fraudulent and coercive “consent” for giving over their land for new industrial projects.

A New Career Option

For many families in camps the income that adolescent children bring home as special police officers (SPOs) is the only livelihood option. Even this allowance (Rs 1,500 per month) in many cases is not paid on a regular basis. There are currently a total of 4,048 SPOs, of whom 299 are women. In Karkeli, a village of 60 households, 66 SPOs, including 11 women, have been recruited. Their conditions of work are disturbing. “They do not get any leave. They are made to work even at night, sleeping at the thanas. They are allowed to come home only to eat. Many of them have not been paid for months”, several mothers of SPOs told the fact-finding team in Dornapal. An anganwadi worker there, on condition of anonymity, admitted that there were cases of prostitution in the camp. The team found a large number of young girls, many of whom do not even appear to be 18, recruited as SPOs. At Baangapal, several of the SPOs were wearing skirts and blouses off duty, which, the Report observes, is significant in view of the societal norms in which post pubertal young women wear saris.

In all the thanas they visited – Nelasnaar, Bhairamgarh, Kutru, and Karkeli – the team found that inside their heavily barbed wire boundaries, the brick barracks of the SPOs (of men and women) surrounded the main police/ CRPF/SAF thana. Clearly the SPOs are being used as shields for the police.

Violence against Women

The team was told about sexual abuse and violence against women, by men in uniform in the course of the Salwa Judum’s forced evacuation of the villages, as well as within camps, but except for the women the team met in jail and Sonia, an anganwadi worker, the team was unable to personally verify these cases. The team however managed to put together from secondary sources and reports, a partial list of such victims; for many of these cases, the team received corroboration of the genuineness of the reported incidents. The list shows that 21 of these women had been killed, three of them after having had their breasts and genitals mutilated. 37 had been raped (23 of them gang-raped) or molested. Ten had been subjected to sexual violence in the camps, and four in police stations. The perpetrators of these acts were the Salwa Judum goons, SPOs, the CRPF and the Naga batallion.

The incident regarding Sonia took place during a notorious combing operation jointly undertaken by the Salwa Judum and the Naga forces through the forests and hills from Farsepal to Gangalur. In Sonia’s own words: “A batch of 15 from Naga battalion came to me and asked for drinking water. Then they asked me if the Naxalites visit the village. I said no, because it is the truth. They repeatedly asked me the question. While going back they slapped one person and asked the same question. He was frightened and said “Yes” They came back and beat me severely with lathis and rifle butts. They pulled me by my hair. They tied my leg with a rope and dragged me along the road. They made me lie on the ground and stamped me with boots. I was tortured like this for a long time.” The most telling evidence of such violence came from the boastful claims of young SPOs the team happened to meet while on their way to Karkeli. They bragged about their capacities to kill and murder, and to capture women “Naxalites” alive, and were hoping to be rewarded with a promotion to the regular police force.

The close presence to the camps of armed personnel (state police, CRPF, Naga and Mizo IRB) creates a classic situation in which these impoverished and distressed women could well be forced to provide “comfort” to the troops. The attitude of the armed personnel to women becomes clear from an incident that occurred when the newly arrived Mizo IRB was in transit to Dantewada. Billeted next to a girls’ NCC camp for one night, the brave jawans created panic and havoc by molesting a group of girl cadets. The matter had to be hushed up through political intervention at the highest level.

The team also received several reports, spoken in whispers during visits to camps, that mass marriages between men and women SPOs as well as between women SPOs and CRPF personnel had been “ordered” by the police administration. The report expresses concern at the risk to the women by the Naga and Mizo troops, who reportedly have a high prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS. Family members and eyewitnesses told the team of many deaths that have never been reported, which took place either by abduction by the police, or simply random firing at villagers fleeing from the paramilitary forces. Another form of violence is the large-scale arrest of adivasi women and their labelling as “Naxalites”. In Jagdalpur jail, out of a total of 68 female under trial inmates, 41 are booked on “Naxalite” cases alone. They are charged under sections 147, 148, and 149 (illegal acts committed by an armed unlawful assembly), sections 323, 341 and 307 (intimidation, illegal confinement or attempt to murder), sections of the Arms Act (possession of firearms) and sections

Economic and Political Weekly January 27, 2007 under the Explosives Act. However, interviews with some women in the jail (a few were just teenagers) indicate that they were arrested during rounding up of villagers by security forces and Salwa Judum goons “hunting for Naxalites”. The women, often breaking down, recounted how they were sexually humiliated during these raids. Two of them were taken to the thana and tied in ropes, after their saris were stripped of, only in their petticoat and blouse; another was tied to a pole in the thana and subjected to painful sexual abuse; even the presence of a police woman did not help.

Many of these unlettered women do not even know what offences they have been charged with. Too poor to afford a lawyer, they are at the mercy of court-appointed lawyers who do not bother even to meet them. Thus though they may eventually be acquitted, they face a long period of jail custody. Adivasi women have been sexually abused by those in authority as well as outsiders even before Salwa Judum began; but this campaign has not only made such abuse routine, it has also given it the form of sexual torture. The Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangham (KAMS), the women’s wing of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), has led many mass struggles of adivasi women here against traditionally humiliating customs (such as not being permitted to wear a blouse, and forced marriages) as well as for equal pay. These struggles have helped free adivasi women from their traditional subservient roles, provoking a backlash against them. The kind of sexual torture women here have been subjected to – with breasts being cut off and thighs assaulted with knives and rifle butts – finds parallels in the mutilation of Maoist women guerrillas in Andhra Pradesh, Muslim women in Gujarat in 2002, Manorama in Manipur, and most recently in Khairlanji, of dalit women by OBC men.

Media Silence

The media has ignored most of this violence against women by the Salwa Judum, and hence even in Chhattisgarh, few people know about it. N K Pillai, a senior journalist from Dantewada and a Communist Party of India sympathiser, complained to the team about the lack of freedom of the press. Different papers in Raipur carry reports with the by-line: “from our special correspondent” but the language and matter of all the reports are the same, indicating that the police have put out the story. He pointed out that in a predominantly tribal area, there is not a single journalist who is from a tribal background. To add to the silence, a menacing atmosphere has been created where every outsider is checked and frisked and treated with suspicion.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The team is strongly of the opinion that Salwa Judum and the wanton “militarisation” of society in Dantewada are not ways to solve the problems of underdevelopment and political dissent in the area. By administrative definition, Dantewada today is clearly divided into friendly and hostile territory. Anyone arrested in the course of any incident from a village that has not come to the camps is labelled a “Naxalite”. The division between the camps and villages is being deliberately created by the government. The recruitment of SPOs is tearing asunder the social fabric of adivasi life. The “militarisation” of adivasi society has rendered adivasi women vulnerable to sexual brutality as a means of enforcing submission. The interference of police and paramilitary in everyday life, akin almost to an army of occupation, is also imposing a patriarchal violence alien to adivasi culture.

The fact-finding team has recommended the following:

  • The state government must ensure that all adivasi villagers presently housed in so-called relief camps be settled back in their villages and that they are able to rebuild their economic life if necessary through employment provided directly by the government.
  • Forcible acquisition of lands or displacement from land amounts to the destruction of livelihoods of the adivasi people of Bastar and must be stopped forthwith.
  • All cases of atrocities on women, whether by police and paramilitary forces or by private gangs, reported from various sources, should be impartially investigated by an independent agency and the culprits punished.
  • The practice of ad hoc recruitments of SPOs and their use to shield regular police forces or as cannon fodder in counterinsurgency operations should cease. All recruitments should be made in the regular police forces ensuring their accountability to civil administration as well as their rights as personnel, particularly since women as SPOs are vulnerable to sexual abuse.
  • Women imprisoned during the last year in civil war like conditions must be provided effective legal aid.
  • The government should stop recruiting children as SPOs, and all such recruitment made so far should be disbanded. The children and indeed the entire people of Dantewada should be provided with nutrition, health, education and human security.
  • A process of enquiry by an independent agency should be initiated into the cases of deaths and missing persons that are reported.
  • In the circumstances of “militarisation” and violence (including sexual violence), the freedom of the press to report events including administrative and police action should be ensured.
  • The government should take serious cognisance of the danger of HIV/AIDS and other infections among the people of Dantewada that are directly attributable to its campaign of “militarisation”.
  • The government should reconsider and abandon its present model of development that is causing large-scale displacement and “marginalisation” of tribal people.
  • EPW


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