Salwa judum in Manipur: Eyes Wide Open

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 28, Dated July 19, 2008

Two Manipuri villages rethink on their decision to have their own Salva Judum after a visit to Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district

THE METHODS and premises of the Salva Judum — Chhattisgarh’s controversial civilian mobilisation against the state’s Naxals — remain bitterly contested, but analysing the pros and cons of the strategy represents far more than mere academic interest in insurgency-riddled Manipur. After a series of militant attacks, two villages here — Heirok in Thoubal district and Chajing Konjeng Leikai in Imphal West district — decided this year to ask the government for permission to bear arms against the ultras. With the Union Home Ministry granting consent, the state government decided to create 500 Special Police Officer (SPO) posts from the two villages, 300 from Heirok and 200 from Chajing.

However, even as the prospective SPOs were preparing to enrol for training, a team of concerned village elders and state human rights activists managed last month to visit Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district on invitation from the New Delhi-based Campaign for Justice and Peace in Chhattisgarh. “We wanted to familiarise ourselves with the ground reality that has emerged there due to the induction of SPOs into the ongoing armed conflict, and to learn lessons for Manipur,” says Mandir Singh, a member of the Joint Action Committee (JAC), formed to muster SPOs from the two villages. What the team saw in Dantewada appears to have been a revelation. After a series of meetings with a range of stakeholders — from representatives of the National Human Rights Commission to police personnel and Salva Judum activists — the group found itself in two minds over what it had previously assumed were the benefits of the Salva Judum model.

Recruited in the main from among Chhattisgarh’s large tribal population, the SPOs receive a rudimentary training in the use of fire-arms, after which they are issued .303 rifles and may receive an honorarium of Rs 1,500 per month. While the ‘movement’ reportedly spread like the proverbial wild fire, the harm it has wreaked has affected the tribals worst of all. Countless allegations of human rights abuses have been brought against the SPOs, but they themselves have become the Naxals’ enemy number one. “Attack and counter attack, gripping fear and insecurity have placed the 644 villages where the Salwa Judum is active in a virtual state of siege. The entire social structure has collapsed in these villages,” says Babloo Loitongbam of Human Rights Alert, an Imphal-based NGO.

He also points out that while the Chhattisgarh SPOs function as a parallel police force, they don’t enjoy equivalent protection. Hated by the Naxals, they can neither return to their fields nor can they venture out to find other work. As Loitongbam says, “There is no mechanism to redress their grievances. The government passes the buck to the Central government, which in turn passes it back to the state.”

As for those who did not join the Salva Judum, they became labelled Naxal sympathisers, targeted by the State. In Chhattisgarh’s highly-polarised political environment, these villagers had nowhere to turn and eventually joined the ranks of the Naxals en-masse.

The original objective of driving away or at least weakening the Naxals has not been achieved. Instead, the state government has come under severe criticism from human rights groups and from the Supreme Court for its support to the Salva Judum. If the PIL presently lodged in the Supreme Court against excesses by the Salva Judum comes to its logical conclusion, many SPOs will face criminal prosecution.

At present there are some 2,000 SPOs in Bijapur district and some 20,000 in Dantewada district.

LIKE CHHATTISGARH, Manipur too, has a long history of violent armed conflict with at least 17 known rebel groups operating in the state, amid a large number of smaller outfits of which there is no exact count. Anger against the Indian government has, over the years, become focused around the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958. Agitations for its repeal have periodically sent tremors through the national headlines in ways that little about life in the Northeast sadly ever does.

Says Loitongbam, “We would like to share this lesson from Chhattisgarh with policy makers and civil society in Manipur in the hope that it will help in evolving a more informed discussion and a more mature position on the question of arming civilians in Manipur.”

After its Chhattisgarh visit, the team returned with the feeling that arming civilians in Manipur would undoubtedly cause a serious dent in the insurgents’ claim of public support. This, in turn, would become the precise reason for the rebels to strike back at the civilians with brutal vengeance.

The training of the 300 youths of Heirok village has already started. But the villagers of Chajing Konjeng Leikai, where recruitment had as yet to start, have now approached the Superintendent of Police with video clippings of their trip to Chhattisgarh. As Maipak says, “As members of the JAC, it is our duty to take the views of the villagers to the government. Our villagers are apprehensive now after seeing the state of affairs in Chhattisgarh. We are simple folk and we just want peace. We don’t want to antagonise either the government or the militants.”

With the lines between combatants and non-combatants becoming increasingly blurred, large-scale human casualty in such situations is almost a certainty. And, in a militancy- ravaged state like Manipur, the political dividend to be reaped by such means can only come at a very heavy price.