The long shadow of Salwa Judum: Bhupesh Baghel govt fears tribal killing will hit rehab plan


The death of one of the members of that delegation, just 20 days later, may have effectively sabotaged the rehabilitation programme. It has also again raised the ghost of Salwa Judum – a controversial force comprising many former Maoists, which had the support of both the Congress and BJP till it was declared illegal on July 6, 2011.

Salwa Judum (meaning Peace March) was mobilised in 2005 by the late Congress leader Mahendra Karma and deployed in parts of Chhattisgarh, that was at the time ruled by the BJP. Its supporters called it a “spontaneous uprising” of tribals against Maoist violence in Bastar. However, by the time the force was banned by the Supreme Court in 2011, it had acquired a bloody and controversial reputation. The state government allegedly supplied arms and tacit support to the Judum, which turned into a vigilante group, recruiting poorly trained youth as “Koya Commandos”, or “SPOs (Special Police Officers)”. Many of the volunteers were former Maoists.

Even as many of them were killed in anti-Maoist operations, the Judum itself faced allegations of forcibly entering and burning villages and sexual assault. With Maoists hitting back, countless families moved into camps for Salwa Judum set up by the government. In many villages in Bastar’s forests, people were trapped between either staying put and being declared a Maoist, or moving into the Salwa Judum camps. Thousands left their homes to escape both. In 2013, Karma was assassinated in a deadly Maoist attack that also wiped out the top Congress leadership in the state.

The bipartisan support to the Salwa Judum was clear in that while the force operated extensively under the Raman Singh-led BJP Chhattisgarh government, the Central agencies that helped it fell under the jurisdiction of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government in Delhi. Manmohan Singh had described Naxalism as the single biggest internal threat in the country.

After the Salwa Judum ran into controversies, the Congress tried to distance itself from it. However, even under the Bhupesh Baghel government, there has been no let-up in drives similar to Salwa Judum where local youths or surrendered militia are pushed into combat with Maoists, mostly without any training. Bastar continues to house many Salwa Judum camps.

Lately, the Congress has been worried about the ground lost since 2018 by the party in the Bastar region. One internal survey is said to have predicted that the party will do badly in most of the nine seats in Bastar in the 2023 Assembly elections, which are less than 18 months away.

The Congress does have a window to close the gap as the BJP rule is remembered here still for its heavy-handed measures, marked by widespread allegations of human rights violations. Apart from stray comments by leaders, and meetings such as a Chintan Shivir or a review session in Jagdalpur, the BJP has not made any major push here.

The Congress sees one way of winning back support in reaching out to the tribals, many of whom fled to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, It is doing so through forums such as the Sarva Adiwasi Samaj, outreach by its tribal leaders, and measures like getting the displaced tribals back to their homes.

To put the rehabilitation plan into action, officials have been working on a new grid of camps to house them, located near main roads, for safety. Officials said they had received applications from over a hundred families.

The murder of one of them in Sukma will hit this, admitted Shubhranshu Chaudhury from the New Peace Process organisation. It will also confirm the villagers’ worst nightmares about continuing retribution, revenge or just being caught in the crossfire.