In Bastar's 'Shaheen Bagh', a Youth-Led Movement Quietly Perseveres

Every effort is being made to repress the mass movement and paint it as a front of the Maoists. But the peaceful protest against a CRPF camp shows no sign of letting up.

Silger (Chhattisgarh): Silger was like any other Koya village in Konta or Bijapur before it became the symbol of a non-violent struggle against security camps. 

The village has four hamlets, a sacred grove, fields that shade into forest, a Patel or headman and a Pujari or priest. Like other villages in the area, Silger found its life upturned by the Salwa Judum, a state sponsored vigilante movement against Maoists and villagers.

Among the hundreds of petitions submitted to the Supreme Court in 2007 in Kartam Joga vs Union of India, 2007, is one from Silger where they report that in 2006-2007, 10 houses in their village were burnt by the Judum, while in the neighbourhood, five villages and 127 houses were burnt and 10 people were killed.

The villagers fled for a couple of years to the fields and forests around. When conditions improved, they began to inhabit their homes again. The school in the village had been broken so children went far away to study till the COVID-19 lockdown happened. For the past two years, everyone has been at home. Online education is meaningless here where there is no connectivity.  

All this changed on the night of May 11, when overnight a CRPF camp was planted on their land.

For some years now, the administration has been making a concerted push to build roads through what it sees as Maoist strongholds in Sukma and Bijapur, establishing CRPF camps every few kilometres. The road connecting Dornapal in Sukma district through Jagargunda and Silger to Basaguda in Bijapur district is seen as the ultimate in wresting control. However, controlling Maoist territory is secondary to the whole enterprise.

As one policeman at the Silger camp told us, the aim is to transform the whole area so that it becomes like Delhi. 

Since I last visited pre-COVID, much of this road has been built – cutting short an arduous journey over muddy rutted tracks slashed by deep cuts, except for the stretch from Jagargunda to Silger. While a proper road is welcome – at least for travellers like me – whether the villagers really need a six-lane cutting through their village is a moot question. 

The environmental havoc the road has created is already starkly visible with stretches of forest cut and hillsides hacked to excavate earth for the road. A couple of them told me the road functioned like a bund stopping the water flowing on either side so apart from the road itself taking over agricultural land, fields on either side become waterlogged and unusable. It is like a machete cleaving through a living body. 

Silger roads.

Usurping private land for a security camp

The villagers say they only got to know the camp had come up when villagers from neighbouring Tarrem came to the Silger bazaar on the morning of May 12.

The field where the camp has come up belongs to three related families from Kopampara, a hamlet of Silger, and is separated from their homes by a stretch of forest. Korsa Bhime’s husband passed away some years ago and she now grows kosra (millets) on that ground. She also uses a portion of her land for drying mahua.

Another neighbour, Muchaki Joga, has lost some of his rice growing fields to the camp. In fact, during the Judum years, the family says, they lived on these fields because they were closer to the forest and would come into the village just to check on it.

The administration claims that this is revenue land and was covered by scrub jungle. But over a month later, the government has provided no records to contest the villagers’ claim, whereas producing official records would have been easy for the government.

The entire onus to prove their ownership is being put on the villagers – who are struggling to get the sarpanch, sachiv or panchayat secretary and patwari or land record keeper to visit them. 

Hand sketch of the camp and (right) Korsa Bhime. Photos: Nandini Sundar

Under the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) 1996, villagers in scheduled areas like Bastar have to be consulted before their land can be used for any purpose. But on May 12, when the villagers went to investigate, the CRPF jawans chased them away with lathis.

After the lathicharge, word went around to neighbouring villages and people rallied to help the Silger villagers talk to the camp authorities. From May 12 to May 17, the villagers repeatedly tried to get an answer from the CRPF as to how and why they had set up the camp there when the Tarrem camp was fewer than three kilometres away. However, every attempt at dialogue by the villagers was met with threats, lathi charges and tear gas. 

By May 17, approximately 15,000 people had gathered.

When they reached the camp, a presumably frightened CRPF fired in the air, and threw stones and tear gas. The villagers retreated, but by now were incensed as the camp authorities were simply not willing to talk. In turn, they started throwing stones. The only damage they caused, however, was to the windows of a vehicle.

At about 11.30 am when the villagers were about 100 metres from the camp, the CRPF started firing in earnest. Three male protesters – 14-year-old Uika Pandu of Timapuram, 30-year-old Kowasi Vagal of Satubayee and 35-year-old Ursa Bhima of Gundam were shot. Punem Somli, who was three months pregnant, fell in the stampede and died a few days later. About 40 people were also injured. 

After the firing, the villagers attempted to get the bodies back, but the CRPF threatened that they would shoot more of them, so they abandoned the idea. The CRPF then took the corpses to Bijapur and did a post mortem but the reports haven’t been given to the villagers yet. It took three days for them to get the bodies back and send them back to their respective villages. Later, when I tried to ask some CRPF men for their account of the firing, they all claimed to have been on leave that day. 

Also read: In Remote Bastar Village, a Young Man’s Body Is Preserved as Symbol of Quest for Justice

Human rights activist and lawyer Bela Bhatia, and Jean Dreze, the economist, set off for the village as soon as they got news of the firing. For three days, Bela recounted, the Bijapur administration would not let them proceed, repeatedly subjecting them to COVID tests, and virtually imprisoning them in the circuit house. Finally when they did escape and reach the village, they filed a police complaint in Jagargunda Police Station, under which Silger officially falls. Predictably, the police had already filed an FIR blaming the villagers, claiming that those who died were Naxalites. Equally predictably, the villagers have not been given a copy of the FIR. 

The villagers have put up a memorial to those who died, by the side of the road where the incident happened.

Silger Memorial. Photo: Nandini Sundar

Why the opposition to the Silger camp

Everyone I asked at the Silger dharna – both those from Silger village as well as from other villages – said they were opposed to camps because it inevitably led to harassment. I did come across a couple of villages elsewhere where people confessed they had asked for camps, but they said that this was out of desperation because it was better to be on one side than be accused by both sides of helping the other.

In some villages, they said the forces just go through and do nothing, but I heard of many instances of the District Reserve Guard (DRG) or armed auxiliaries and security forces looting chickens and other valuables. Many people had experience of someone in their village being shot in a fake encounter or raped, and arrests invariably increased. Silger is not the only place where people have been protesting against camps – just the most visible. The police have been tone deaf to people’s problems, attributing all protest to Maoist influence. 

In Silger, perhaps even more than the camp coming up suddenly and illegally, and that too on private land, it was the firing which really angered the villagers.

They had been protesting peacefully and simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights under PESA. Yet each time they were met with brutality. After this, the public decided to start a chakka jam on a stretch between Tarrem camp and Silger police station. For several days, food supplies to the Silger CRPF camp were cut off, with the security forces bringing the food in by surreptitious routes.

June 8 assembly and subsequent negotiations

On June 8, around 1 lakh people (organisers’ estimates) gathered for a general assembly. A group of activists under the umbrella of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (CBA) tried to reach the spot, but the administration instantly declared it a containment zone. The CBA activists returned to Raipur where they met the chief minister and governor. 

By now, a group of young people from several villages around had organised themselves on a platform called the Moolvasi Bachao Manch (MBM). The group consists of some 60 people from different villages, of whom 20 are in attendance at any given time. Their ages range from 17 to 22, and their educational qualification from Class 5 to Class 12-pass, but their wisdom is far beyond their age.

Several of them are waiting for their schools to reopen so that they can continue with their studies. They are scared of being singled out by the administration and one of their demands has been that the government should not engage in surveillance and targeting of MBM members. Yet, they are determined to carry on. They are conscious that they need to return home to help their parents with sowing now that the rains have started but leaving in the middle of the struggle is not an option either.

The government is convinced that the movement is run by Maoists, but they have no idea of the courage and the vision of the young people of Bastar.

Also read: When Process Is Punishment: Hidme Markam’s Activism and the Sketchy Cases Against Her

These youth were young when their parents fled their villages due to Salwa Judum. They remember this as a time of great privation and distress, but are determined that come what may, unlike their parents, they will not flee, but fight for their rights. There is a sense of outrage and astonishment that the government should behave so lawlessly with its young educated population, when in school they are constantly instructed on the need to obey the law. 

Like the CBA, the MBM members also asked for a meeting with the Chief Minister to present their demands, but there seems to be some confusion on what happened thereafter.

The MBM members said that while the general assembly had ended, the chakka jam was continuing. However, following activist Soni Sori’s statement to the media, it was reported that the movement had been called off. The MBM members had to cool their heels in Bijapur for a couple of days and were granted only a video conference after that. In that video conference, the Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel diverted attention away from the Silger camp and firing to more general issues of development. Although this was a minor breakthrough – till then the Congress party as well as state government had been maintaining a studious silence on the whole issue – it amounted to nothing. 

The government deployed Gondwana Samaj activist Telam Boraiya to convince the villagers that they would be better off with a camp. He told the owners of the land on which the camp stands that they would get alternative land and the camp is temporary. As of now, they are still with the MBM and the movement, but in a dilemma about whether this is the right thing for them personally. This is so especially since they cannot cultivate the land neighbouring the camp as long as the standoff between the villagers and the CRPF continues. 

On June 13, when the MBM members returned to report on their meeting with the chief minister, they were not allowed to talk to the villagers and everyone was driven away from the chakka jam. After that, the public moved to Silger village, where they go daily to protest peacefully against the camp at a distance of some 100 metres. 

The Silger dharna. Photo: Nandini Sundar

But the camp authorities will not leave them in peace. For instance, on June 24, the CRPF beat up villagers from Raskali who were returning home from the Silger dharna. The MBM complained, but the CRPF denied it.

The government has not agreed to the demand for a judicial enquiry. Instead it has ordered a magisterial enquiry. The SDM came on June 23 but with no warning and none of the victims’ families were present. The MBM has asked him to return on July 11 when they can ensure everyone’s presence. 

The dharna

The dharna site at Silger hums with cheerful activity. Small groups have come from villages across the region to join the dharna and set up camp in yellow and blue tarpaulin tents in Kopampara of Silger as well as in some of the neighbouring villages like Tarrem and Gelur. 

This is an amazingly well organised and entirely peaceful struggle.

The Moolvasi Bachao Manch youngsters have divided various tasks amongst themselves. For instance, one person looks after supplies, another organises communication and videos – he taught me several features on my own phone – and another provides medicines to the villagers who come to attend.

The girls said that several of them have learnt first aid from the mitanins or village health workers and Medicin Sans Frontier which has been working in the area since the Judum began, but whenever they try and stock up on basic medicines for their villages, the police suspect them of supplying to Maoists. They have instructed the chemists to only provide limited quantities. 

The incoming villagers bring their own rice but are also given rice and some other basic provisions by the Manch. The MBM has devised a system of getting rations against the PDS cards of households in Silger and surrounding villages. Since they cultivate their own rice, they have not been drawing that much from the PDS so far. 

In the evening, the youth played volleyball. By 8 pm everyone was dancing on the road, moving their feet in and out, their hands clasped around each other’s backs. The night was dark, a roadside tree was lit by fireflies, and two opposing semi circles took up each other’s refrain. They sang about the need to shut down the Silger camp, the people who had been killed in the firing, about Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register and how they were the moolvasis who had looked after the land.

They sang songs about Modi and demonetisation, as well as wedding songs, and other local tunes. In other villages too, I have seen youth dance at night, their songs drawing both on local traditions and the Maoist repertoire they have grown up with. 

Children playing. Photos: Nandini Sundar

The sarpanch visits after 17 years

The MBM had invited the sarpanch to come to the village to demand some answers from him. 

After the Judum, many sarpanches had abandoned their villages and lived in Judum camps. Since the Maoists made the villagers boycott elections, they filed their nomination papers unopposed, or were elected by other villagers who had fled to Judum camps. Panchayat schemes were developed and implemented on paper, with the sarpanch and administration both happy. 

Korsa Sannu, the Silger sarpanch, had not visited the village in 17 years.

He had joined the Judum and become a petty BJP leader and is living in Dornapal. He was named in the CBI chargesheet for the attack on Swami Agnivesh in March 2011, though he claimed to me he was in Cuttack when that happened. He is a smooth well-fed man and came accompanied by a huge police contingent, as well as two representatives of the Adivasi Sarv Samaj, an umbrella organisation of Adivasi communities. 

Korsa Sannu, the Silger sarpanch, meets villagers. Photo: Nandini Sundar

The villagers sat in a large circle, some perched on the ruins of a memorial to fallen Maoists that the security forces had demolished. At first there was an awkward silence. Then the villagers began to speak.

The police had told the villagers that they had paid the sarpanch for his permission to set up camp. Sannu stoutly denied the charges, summoning the thanadar to testify on his behalf that no money had been paid. I was later informed by one of his relatives that the CRPF had inspected his hamlet, Patel para for a reconnaissance so clearly there was some prior collaboration between the police and Sannu.

Interestingly, Sannu did not offer his own empty land to the CRPF to set up camp. Sannu claimed that even though he did not come to the village, he knew everyone and helped them whenever they came to Dornapal. This may not be entirely untrue – the visiting Sarva Samaj activists said his Judum activities were now irrelevant, and the villagers too seem to have reconciled with him.

The sarpanch calls on the thanedar for support. Photo: Nandini Sundar.

The MBM youth were firm but very polite with him – they pointed out that they had taken a personal risk in inviting him, in the face of a Maoist threat, and that he should stand with them. However, he did not take up their request to stay the night in the village or attend the Sarkeguda memorial meeting on June 28.  As soon as he could, he scooted off with his police escort. 

The MBM youth also tried to contact their MLA, Kawasi Lakhma, to ask him to stand with them, but he cut the phone and later refused to take the call. The big difference between this movement and the Maoist movement is not just its peaceful open nature, but their demand for accountability from the state and their elected representatives. By contrast, the Maoists here have historically boycotted elections and set themselves up as a parallel state. 

One of the demands of the Silger movement is for schools and health centres instead of camps. The Patel remarked ironically on how the school in the village was demolished by Madkam Bhima of Jonaguda when he was a Maoist on the grounds that the security forces would stay in it. Subsequently, Bhima became one of the most notorious SPOs in the region, and was charged by the CBI with burning Tadmetla and Timapuram.

The same government which uses the Maoist demolition of schools as an excuse to not provide schools in the region has no qualms about using the very men who demolished the schools. It doesn’t matter what you did, it matters who you are with. 

Marching to Sarkeguda

At the June 8 assembly, a decision was taken to mark on June 28 the anniversary of the Sarkeguda firing when 17 villagers, including children, were shot dead by the CRPF at night. A judicial enquiry under Justice V.K. Agarwal found the CRPF guilty. The Congress government, which raised the Sarkeguda issue before coming to power, has been sitting on the report and refusing to take action. In popular imagination, both the Sarkeguda firing and the Silger deaths are fused powerfully as symbols of injustice. 

Pen or log-god, Chinna Markam, and crowds. Photo: Nandini Sundar

On the morning of June 27, six tractor loads of people arrived from the Konta area, singing and shouting slogans against the Silger camp. There was some worry as to whether they would be able to go back if the rains fell, because the rivers would be difficult to cross. Many thousands of others had walked, for over 2-3 days. Everybody was carrying a load – rice, vessels, and even bundles of firewood. From Dalla village, came the Pen or log-god, Chinna Markam, with his bells and feathers and his bearers blowing deeply on their bell metal conches.

Around 1 pm, the procession set off from Silger to Sarkeguda. Certain people are designated to lead the slogans – which were directed against the camps, and demanding schools. I asked them why they wasted their breath shouting slogans when no police were present but was told it was to keep their own spirits up. 

‘Containment’ zone. Photo: Nandini Sundar.

At Silger camp, we were stopped by a sign saying ‘containment zone: do not enter’ pinned to the third layer of concertina wire. The wire stretched across the road into the forests on either side. Three cattle have died and 17 injured as they get caught in the barbed wire. When I told one of the CRPF men they should compensate the villagers, he replied indifferently saying the cattle would get used to it and stop crossing. The police was out in full battle gear with shields, and a tank which they parked just inside the wire. 

Police with shields. Photo: Nandini Sundar

Bela Bhatia, who had come at the request of the MBM youth, tried to intercede with the police to let the procession go, but they were adamant that they would not. Containment zones appear to come into and go out of existence only when people have to be prevented from organising.

Just a day later, on June 29, when Kawasi Lakhma, Congress Minister came to Bijapur there were large crowds to congratulate him on becoming industry minister. COVID apparently didn’t matter then. In any case, the lockdown was to end on July 1

The tehsildar and thanadar demanded that the organisers apply for permission to go to Sarkeguda. The MBM youth asked why they should apply for permission when the CRPF had not asked the villagers permission to set up camp. They also asked why they should apply in writing for anything when the government was refused to give them any records – the FIR, the post-mortem reports, the patwari map or any assurance that their demands would be listened to. Fair enough. Four hours later, however, as it was getting dark, both sides compromised.

The SDM came to the site and said he would give them permission to proceed if they gave him a written application, which they did. They are scared, however, that those who signed the application will be hounded later. 

The line of people to Sarkeguda. Photo: Nandini Sundar

A long line of people – stretching several kilometres – then wound their way to Sarkeguda, reaching at 10 pm or later. It had started raining by then. The police were still resistant to having them walk on the road – the road ostensibly being built for their benefit – with one policeman saying they should take the side cuts through the fields, so as not to violate COVID restrictions. 

Sarkeguda, June 28, 2021

What does a festival for justice look like? It looks like the Sarkeguda event where the MBM youth had erected a beautiful stage next to a recently built memorial for the 17 Sarkeguda martyrs. It looks like the dances that were performed by troupes from different blocks, the two minutes silence to the victims of Sarkeguda and Silger, and the respects paid to their memorial. It looks like the thousands (12-15,000) of villagers who sat patiently in the sun and listened and watched and shouted slogans. 

The Silger memorial and dance performance. Photos: Vishnu Tiwari

The demands of the movement are entirely constitutional – that under PESA, the gram sabha in every village be consulted before anything is put up on village land. At the district level the CRPF should consult a committee of village representatives before setting up camps. They want a high-level and time-bound judicial enquiry into the establishment of the Silger camp and the firing of June 17. They want schools and hospitals and not camps. They want dialogue not arrests. 

Peaceful protesters wait at camp. Photo: Vishnu Tiwari

Yet every effort is being made to repress this mass youth led movement, and paint it as a front of the Maoists.

A CBA team made it to the venue with difficulty while the Communist Party of India (CPI) was stopped from coming. One can only hope that unlike in the anti-CAA protests of Shaheen Bagh, these youthful idealistic protestors who believe in the power of non-violent struggle are not crushed. The Congress government in Chhattisgarh needs to choose their side – democracy or autocracy.