Walking in Their Shoes
It is said that the only way to really understand an individual’s plight is to ‘walk in her shoes’. Understanding the circumstances of the men, women, and children who have been victimized and displaced from their homes by Maoist and government-backed violence is not as simple. Nevertheless, if we see ourselves as members of a global community, as connected through beliefs or as disconnected through privilege, it is our duty to see the world from the eyes of those who lie on the other end of the spectrum.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 600,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are present in the Indian subcontinent1. Similar to refugees, IDPs are forced to flee their homes due to various social and political pressures. They leave all that is familiar because their lives are in danger. Unlike refugees, IDPs do not cross international borders. Instead, they stay in the country that holds their perpetrators. Similar to refugees, IDPs face hunger, disease, and human rights violations even after their displacement. Unlike refugees, the international community is not legally obliged to protect them. There are at least fifty-two countries harboring IDPs. The United Nations does not provide humanitarian assistance or protection to seven amongst these fifty-two. India is one of these seven.
Amongst India’s IDPs, the tribals face a difficult journey. This journey begins in a village. The tribal might have been a farmer like Sodi Masaiah from the Bejji village in Chattisgarh whose annual harvest consisted of rice, oilseed, and green gram. On a fateful October night, Masaiah’s life changed forever.
The Salwa Judum attacked our village in the middle of the night. They shot dead four men. All the houses in the village were burnt down. Salwa Judum men also rounded up all the cattle, chicken and the goats and had a feast in the middle of the village. What they didn’t eat, they shot dead. Masaiah lived close to the forest, and hence managed to escape to the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh after two days of walking on foot. Upon returning to his village to check on his home, he found both his house and his stored grain reduced to ashes. His only option was to work for Rs 25 a day2. One might view his escape from Salwa Judum as fortunate. Then again, a winter with no blankets, no clothes other than the ones you are wearing, and no stable source of income isn’t exactly lucky.
Shyamal Pojama from the village of Koras is suffering a similar fate. She heard about Andhra Pradesh through relatives that went there years ago. Now, Pojama has joined the ranks of the displaced who remain without land, without a home, and without a future. “The Naxals are safe, the Salwa Judum is safe. We are the only ones dying in the middle,” exclaims Pojama.
There is no national or state policy in place for the protection of IDPs in India. The Andhra Pradesh government agrees that such a policy is needed. This acknowledgement is the extent of their support. It is estimated that 30,000-50,000 IDPs are living in the reserve forest areas of the Khammam and Warangal districts of Andhra Pradesh since June 20054. In a desperate attempt to rebuild their lives, the tribals construct log huts, only to be told such hamlets are illegal. Prakash* lives in Kuthooru, a settlement for IDPs. His testimonial bears witness to the apathy of forest officials in their methods to evict the IDPs from their shelters:
One of the villagers had saved 5,000 rupees (roughly US$125) and they burned that also. When they were about to burn everything, we begged them to at least allow us to take our food grains and money but they beat us more and set everything on fire. They also took away our poultry, goats, and cattle … We had no where to go and so every time our huts were burned, we used to stay under the trees over here. One time they came during the monsoons-we stayed under the trees for three days because we could not go out and get help. The nearest help is 14 kilometers away. So we starved for three days.4 In 2007, the residents of Kuthoori, with the help of local non-governmental organizations, appealed to the Andhra Pradesh High Court to intervene after such burnings occurred repeatedly. The Court directed forest officials to stop demolishing and setting ablaze the huts of the petitioners. Despite this order, the forest officials demolished the Kuthooru hamlet in April 2008 for the ninth or tenth time4.
Such actions beg the simple question: Why? Why are the IDPs treated so inhumanely? Are they not citizens of the same country? Are state lines strong enough to justify the rejection of relief? K. Bhaskar, the sub-collector of the Khammam district, provides his perspective on why the displaced tribals were not entitled to ration cards that were available for the poor to avail themselves of food grain subsidies.
[T]he stated policy is not to give ration cards. Ration cards — the state government is giving the subsidy — why should our state subsidize people coming from another state?… There is also a law and order, and security issue. Not many [displaced persons] are really displaced. There are many Naxal elements. Under the guise of displacement they [displaced persons] are helping Naxalites. So we do not want to encourage it [settling in Andhra Pradesh].
Such an admission exposes an inherent fear of Maoist violence. A similar fear plagues the IDPs themselves with regards to the other inflictors of violence, the Salwa Judum. Some claim to have seen Judum members on the Andhra Pradesh side of the border, and fear being taken away by them. A senior police official from Andhra Pradesh, however, believes the Salwa Judum won’t hurt the tribals. “Salwa Judum [members] are law abiding people who are with the government. They are the people who rebelled against the Maoists. They are welcome anywhere at any time.”4 The IDPs disagree.
Sodi Masaiah and Shyamal Pojama managed to escape from the clutches of Salwa Judum. Their struggles are not reported by mainstream media, while smaller publications like Tehelka are slowly bringing attention to their challenges. Even less evident is the condition of those who remain within the control of the Judum; once their villages are burned and pillaged, many tribals are coerced into makeshift camps set up by the Chattisgarh government. Government data claims there are twenty-four official camps housing more than 47,000 residents (no statistics are available for unofficial camps). In 2007, the District Collector of Dantewada issued a memorandum listing the advantages of such camps. He claimed that “[f]ree residence, free food, free health care, security, education for children, anganwadi [government-run early childhood care and education centre], clean drinking water, electricity, adult literacy centres, training, daily employment at employment centres,” are being provided to displaced persons. Human Rights Watch discovered this couldn’t be further from the truth.
With barbed wire separating them from their fields and forests, the tribals are forced to sit idle, deprived of basic health and nutritional services. Tribals are compelled to make their own huts; the government’s contribution is merely a tin sheet, used for roofing. In some camps, there is one health worker for a thousand residents. With no clear food distribution plan or income generation schemes in sight, many tribals yearn to return to their villages, but cannot do so due to fear of Naxalite violence. The Maoists have planted landmines in the interior areas, making for a risky return back to the villages. Human Rights Watch documented the sentiments of those who would rather stay at the camps than face the wrath of the Naxals.
If I go to the village, they [Naxalites] will beat me, so I don’t want to go.
We prefer it in the camp and don’t want to go back to our village now because we are scared of Naxalites attacking the village. Naxalites did not come before, but they will now.
We told the police that they should also come and live with us otherwise we will not go because we are scared of Naxalites
However, some displaced tribals in the Khammam district speak fondly of the Naxalities in their pre-Salwa Judum days. Desa is one such individual:
The Naxalites actually redistributed land equally among us. They did several development related work in our villages like building water storage facilities and also had many schools in every village. They had mobile health teams who would travel across villages and serve people with ailments free of cost. We had no problems regarding landlords etc since we were our own landlords. We never had any problems living there prior to the birth of Salwa Judum. The birth of Salwa Judum was also the birth of all our misery.5 In the journey of a displaced tribal, hardship prevails. It is a journey taken unwillingly, out of despair and desperation. Few have ventured into this troubled heartland to bring out the stories of its oppressed thousands. Yet through those that dared to venture into unknown territory, we catch a glimpse of unresolved conflict. The Agriculture and Social Development Society (ASDS) is a non-governmental organization and a partner of ActionAID that has been working in Khammam to address the issues of malnutrition and lack of education amongst the tribals. Additionally, ASDS works with the government to implement Residential Bridge Courses that aim to raise the level of education.
Another activist is Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian and a member of Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA). Through VCA, he spent eighteen years working with tribals by providing them access to food and healthcare, and by providing them with an outlet to document atrocities committed by Salwa Judum and the Maoists. His Ashram was recently demolished by police forces#, but that hasn’t prevented him from speaking up against fake encounters and other tragic realities of Operation Green Hunt, the government’s paramilitary offensive against the Naxalites.6
Then, of course, there is Binayak Sen, the pediatrician and activist who has been punished with life imprisonment for speaking out against the draconian laws that justify killing innocents in the name of national security.7
Along with working on the rehabilitation of the tribals, such individuals and organizations face the added obstacle of a cultural divide that incites some tribals to turn against each other: Salwa Judum camp residents see those that have relocated to the villages as pro-Salwa Judum. These village residents in turn perceive the camps’ inhabitants as pro-Naxalite. A villager from the Jangla camp articulately expressed this sentiment:
People living here [in the camp] have become enemies of people living there [in the village]. This happened after Salwa Judum started. Before Salwa Judum, we were living together — we used to go to the market together and celebrate festivals together. Now we can’t do any of that. If we see each other, we will beat or even kill each other.4 The condition of the IDPs deserves more attention than it is currently getting. Since the mainstream media is silent on the issue, it is up to us, civil society, to educate ourselves. So read, question, criticize, and analyze. On your next trip to India, visit the settlements, talk to officials, talk to non-profits, and talk to your family. Most importantly, arm yourself with knowledge and perspective. After all, the only way to really understand an individual’s plight is to ‘walk in her shoes.’
* Name is a pseudonym
# On May 17, 2009, Himanshu Kumar’s VCA was demolished by para-military forces. The government claimed the building had to be razed to the ground because it was an encroachment on forest land. Thus, the State condemned an advocate of non-violence who had brought government programmes of health, watershed development, and sanitation to the neglected jungles of the country.
References 1. “Internal Displacement. Global Overview of Trends and Developments in 2006. Norwegian Refugee Council, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre 2. http://www.tehelka.com/story_main43.asp?filename=Ne130210JT06.asp 3. http://www.tehelka.com/story_main43.asp?filename=Ne130210JT08.asp 4. “Being Neutral is Our Crime” Government, Vigilante, and Naxalite Abuses in India’s Chattisgarh State. Human Rights Watch 2008 5. Site Visit Report from Association for India’s Development (need hyperlink for this) 6. http://www.tehelka.com/story_main43.asp?filename=Ne160110life_behind.asp 7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binayak_Sen