Saturday, September 8, 2007

Salwa Judum: A State's response to Maoist Terror

A year ago, the State of Chattisgarh in Central India seemed to me to be a peaceful state. Rich in minerals and a huge tribal population. Little did I know that the political situation in this State would turn out to be one of the most dreaded this country ever witnessed.

In May 2007, I had the good fortune of hearing Nandini Sinder speak at the India International Centre. She spoke about the armed conflict in the state of Chattisgarh and the ill fated consequences of forming the Salwa Judum.

Salwa Judum (translates as "peace mission") is a civil militia formed by the people to resist the Maoist violence. It was formed in 2005, to bring the area dominated by Naxalites under control .The Salwa Judum was alleged by some communist sympathisers to be a government backed organisation that it was supported by the Chhattisgarh government. Even now, the State of Chattisgarh supplies the force with guns, ammunition and basic supplies.

While she did speak of the social consequences of the movement and its impact on political governance, briefly touching upon that, I would like to emphasize its character as non- international armed conflict. What was proposed by the State to be a Counter insurgency program has now resulted in a mass humanitarian situation. In Dec 2006, more than 80 % of the residents in Dante wada distrcit of Chattisgarh were victims of the conflict between the Salwa Judum and the Maoist forces. The atrocities committed are horrifying. Apart from the rapes and indigenous torture techniques, young children are joining the forces and creating a menace of child soldiers in the State.

In the first three months of 2007, more than 280 civilians were killed as a result of the clashes and 60-70 armed personnel killed from each side. more than 48,000 tribals have been displaced from their homes with no basic facilities, education and medical needs.

From a legal point of view, this is in clear violation of the II Protocol of the fourth Geneva Conventions. Protocol II relates to the protection of victims in Non- International Armed Conflict. India, sadly is not amongst the 167 states that have signed this protocol. However, it does have a duty under International customary law not to sponsor such activities. Salwa Judum is a classic example of a situation where the State lets go of its responsibility to protect and 'out sources' it. It then results in a situation of power without responsibility into whose hands the responsibility is devolved. Such usage of power leads to rash consequences on the Rule of Law and democracy.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated earlier that the Naxalite problem is one of the biggest problems the country is facing. But does the above justify the formation of a private army by the State itself? Nandini Sunder and Ramchandra Guha did file a PIL in the Supreme Court in late May and here's what happenned;

A Bench of Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and Justice R.V. Raveendran issued the notice on the petition filed by Nandini Sundar, Ramachandra Guha and E.A.S. Sarma, after hearing senior counsel T.R. Andhyarujina, who brought to the notice of the court the killings and atrocities committed by the `Salwa Judum' in the guise of countering the naxal movement.

Initially the Bench asked counsel that when the Central Government in its assessment to control naxalites menace permitted local restraint groups to be armed, "should the court interfere in such a policy. You must understand that naxalites go on killing innocent people in villages. The police are not coming to the rescue of these people. What is wrong in arming the local people to counter the naxal menace."

It is but astonishing to notice that way the Court has reacted to this issue. It did however issue a notice to the Chattisgarh Government to give an answer for the atrocities that are committed. The 'atrocities being committed' are only a part of the problem in Chattisgarh. The Court did not seem to take note of the devolution of constitutional responsibilities and stuck to the age old line taken in Kartar Singh v. Union of India, that the situation calls for such action and is thus valid. The non- interference and concern shown by the judiciary towards such issues is disturbing to think of.

State sponsored armed conflict is one of the worst forms of humanitarian disasters. The Constitution of India puts a duty on the State to protect its people and in my opinion, the formation of the Salwa Judum is unconstitutional as it devolves this very primitive responsibility of the State. Not surprisingly the State of Chattisgarh is not showing any reactions to the situations prevailing in the State, however it is a shame that the Centre is not asking a reply for the same. The State has kept away from a situation that has gone out of its control.

Till the last few months, this conflict had'nt attracted much attention. It is only of late, that I see regular articles in News papers and Magazine related to the issue. The matter has gone out of control and all we can do now is to wait and see the course that it takes.


Some articles on the issue are here;

1) The Backlash - PS Tripathi

2) When State makes war on its own people - A PUCL Report

3) Salwa Judum and International Humanitarian Law - S Varadarajan (The Hindu, 8th September 2007, Editorial)

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