Of Conflict, displacement and loss: Tales from an old Salwa Judum Camp

His suggestions were unfounded. There was nothing he could do to convince us. “Why would IG Kalluri inquire about us?” we asked him to his annoyance. He didn’t answer. He refused to look up, and scribbled away furiously in an old register at the counter. He overcharged his customers, and sometimes quarrelled with them over prices. We refused to pay him the extra charges. He seemed miffed with us for a while before storming into the restaurant. In the next few years, we seldom crossed paths with him. We never spoke to each other. Once, on a stormy evening two years later, we saw him arranging ledgers behind the counter.

Shiv Ram Prasad Kalluri was no ordinary man. One of Bastar’s most controversial figures, he was known by several names: the chief architect of some of the worst human rights abuses, alleged torture and police rampage, atrocities committed against tribal communities, activists, journalists and lawyers; the man who rattled the cages of those who lurked in the forests. Nonetheless, his presence left a devastating trail of violence along north and South Bastar. Under his reign, the number of surrenders, encounters and corpses piled high throughout the years.

We never met him. He never knew us.

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At a tea stall in Kasauli, one afternoon, as we gorged on pakodas and chai, a man in military fatigues once remarked, “Kalluri ji. Naam toh suna hi hoga aapne. Ye to Don hai Bastar ka. Now, there are cases filed against him. I wonder how they managed to do that!” His disbelief was shared by many. He was from Uttar Pradesh, and had served in the army for several years. The other jawans around him smirked, and turned away. We shared stories for a while. Some were short, some seemed unimportant. In misplaced silences and unspoken whispers, they revealed a lot more. They longed for home. “Been a while since I’ve seen my family,” he said before walking away to the camp.

“We don’t fear them,” quipped a soldier with pride when he spoke of covert operations. It was a different place, a different day. We spotted some of them returning from an operation near Bastanar. “Naxals don’t scare us,” he said taking a long sip from his kullad. His AK-47 rifle hung loosely from his right shoulder. At first, he seemed disinterested to talk to us. He spoke of home, of a place where his children would grow up, of streets where he seldom walked in the years that went by.

It was a long time before he and his companion walked away that we remembered where we were. All around us were scores of people, and yet there was a silence that crept into us. We didn’t fight it, not that day. Now and then, shadows of birds flitted across the ground. There we were stricken with an intense feeling of longing, of familiarity. In that moment, a tide of memories surged through us. In an old notebook, we found lines written all those years ago: we meet only to depart, and depart only to meet again. Structures we had none but homes we had in plenty. We thought of home again, of what it meant to us: two strangers in unknown lands.

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Tea and Snack stall outside Kasauli camp

***
The year was 2011. On March 11, at 2 am, around 200 SPOs, Koya commandos, 150 Central Reserve Police Force comprising largely of the CoBRA battalion from the Chintalnar Base Camp left towards Morpalli upon receiving information of an alleged arms factory functioning in the area. There was no factory here. Over the next few days, they headed towards Timmapuram and Tadmetla. Numerous accounts of what transpired in those days were released by human rights activists, journalists, lawyers as well as those villagers who recorded their testimonies seeking justice.

Young men and women were shot dead. Mothers were raped before their daughters. Houses were burnt down. Their poultry, pigs and ration supplies were stolen by the armed forces. That day, the skies were filled with ash and smoke. While fathers were brutally tortured, daughters were raped in the police station. No one forgot what happened. In charred walls and roofs, in vacant stares, in pleas that went unheard, in starvation deaths that followed the fire, in the long dark nights that followed the arson, they remembered.

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***

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Outside the lodge, a rattling of wheels gathered the attention of passersby in the narrow streets. Through the windows, a middle-aged woman glanced at the door looking for her toddler. In the adjacent courtyard, lay blue drums in a neat file. An old man rode his bicycle towards the alleys that led to the main road.

There were no names today. The papers were always filled with them: names and faces, traitors and patriots, people of this land, and those who weren’t. At the foothills of Marjum’s Patelpara where a soldier was martyred a fortnight ago, the District Reserve Force captured a ‘hardcore’ Maoist who was killed during the operation. A fierce police firing ensued from both sides killing one of the jawans. It was 4 am, and a group of 300 jawans in 13 groups were to leave for Marjum, that morning. Unknown to them, three armed groups led by a Naxal commander awaited the arrival of the troops.

According to the reports, the forces adopted the same method this time to trap the armed guerilla cadres. For three hours, they fired at each other. A while later, one of the Maoist cadres got killed. Sources then revealed that the ‘red’ army was led by Commander Deva. Some of them yelled into their ‘walkie-talkies’ instructing the others to fall back. The trap was laid, and this time they walked right into it. While the two groups stood their ground, many left to warn the others. There were rumours of the Maoist committee conducting meetings in Marjum after suffering a devastating defeat at the hands of the Indian army who hoped to capture the Katekalyan Area Committee. After the Malewada incident, the Marjum hills were turned into a safe zone. There were rumours of a senior Maoist leader from Maharashtra hiding in these jungles.

The dead cadre of the guerilla forces had Rs 7400 in his pocket. No one knew why. The police believed that the money was taken from villagers. Some said that the money did not belong with him, that there was no way he could carry it in his pockets on the day of the attack. “Sometimes, some of them are known to extort money from villagers. That way, they survive. They also use ration supplies sent to government schools for their meetings and gatherings in villages. These supplies belong to the enemy, they say. These are stories we hear. But we can’t say for sure. Those who know will never speak,” said a young woman we crossed paths with weeks later in Dantewada.

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***
There were no orderly structures flanked by towns here. Villages seemed far away. There’s a certain strangeness that roams these lands: the kinds one never gets accustomed too. Streaming through the dense woods were rays of the sun that made its scattered presence felt that noon. Amidst the smoky aroma of flaming firewood, familiar sights of mud houses and thatched roofs, where the intoxicating fragrance of mahua trees lingered in the air, there in the midst of farmlands, is where we first spotted concertina wires. A strange sight, it seemed to us; shards of grey cutting across the green.

It is said that those who live in Kasauli camp fled from their hamlets located deep in the forests of Abujhmarh. Some left willingly for they feared the forces and vigilante groups that had garnered momentum across the region. Some were coerced to flee and join the fight against insurgents. They all feared for their lives, nonetheless.

This was an old Salwa Judum camp. Over the next few months, we heard numerous accounts of what transpired in 2005 when the counter insurgency campaign was launched to eliminate the presence of Maoists from Bastar setting into motion a chain of events that had a catastrophic impact on the lives of those tribal communities residing here. The devastation lasted four years.

They lost their homes, their farmlands, and everything they called their own. They saw their homes burn, and their children tortured. A loss so grievous that the elders believe the conflict took away a part of themselves, that they learnt to survive in the shadows of their broken past. “Jo pahad ke pass reh rahe hain, woh na idhar ke na udhar ke ho gaye hain,” said Kalaram when we walked towards his house. We first spotted him standing across the road waving at us. “Since they refused to leave their villages and chose to live there, the police department assumes that they are helping Naxals. Since we chose to flee our ancestral villages and live in the camps, Naxals assume that we are helping the police. The adivasis are caught in the crossfire,” said the 31-year-old.

His skin was pale, far too pale. His eyes were dull, and his hair had shades of ochre and gold in them. “Anaemia,” whispered Akhilesh (name changed) one of our companions who accompanied us to Kasauli that day as we walked towards Kalaram’s farm. “I believe he suffers from severe anaemia. I am not sure what they call it. Is it sickle cell anaemia? It is pretty common here.”

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Kalaram Atami

Amidst a few clusters of banana plantation were mango trees that survived many summers. “I am organic farmer,” he declared with pride. He led us to a small concrete tank where he prepared the organic compost. Dried mahua flowers were scattered all across the pit that he dug himself. “I haven’t added kechua (earthworms) to it yet. We usually get them from the Vigyan Kendra. For now, I have filled it with cow dung and dried leaves. We have always prepared our fertilizer in this manner. First, we add a layer of organic waste, and then add mahua flowers, cow dung, etc. We continue making layers till the brim of the pit. The earthworms will feed on them and turn it into manure Here in Madia para, a while ago, I would cultivate my farms using chemical fertilizers. Ever since I understood the harmful effects of chemical farming, I have made a drastic change in my lifestyle. These particular bananas are stunted in growth. However, normally you’ll see each plant growing to great heights. I use the fertliser you saw in the pit to grow everything on my farm. But I don’t price my produce at a higher rate. Organic products don’t really have a good market here unlike the cities,” he said.

As we walked through his fields, he expressed his concern over plants drying up owing to severe heat, and lack of rainfall. So far, he has managed to grow bananas on seven acres of his farmland. “I used to grow different vegetables but because this year we didn’t receive much rainfall I was unable to grow anything else. Once the plants have dried, no amount of water can revive it. It becomes useless,” he explained as we walked to his home, “The situation here isn’t as dire as it is in some parts of the country. We can still live off the land and forest. We farm throughout the year. There are different kinds of wild fruits and vegetables that grow here. There are people who survive by selling mahua, tendu patta and mango alone. On your way here, you would have seen several fields of tendu leaves being prepared and kept ready in different plots. Everything is seasonal. During the lean agricultural months, some of us also work as labourers,” he said.

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Tendu leaves kept in a field near Kasauli

Across the farms, a bed of Mahua flowers were sprawled on a small mat in the courtyard. Kalaram’s brother greeted us with a warm smile. He looked after the shop near the school, and Kalaram took care of the fields. He picked up a flower petal and explained to us how they cleaned them. Once they are dry, they beat them vigorously with a wooden paddle. That separates the petals from the skin, he said. “The fallen petals are then used to make alcohol. We can sell this in the bazaar, and also make mahua (alcohol) and surram with it. Surram helps in improving haemoglobin levels. We adivasis consume it on a regular basis. You can also dry the flowers and put it in a big vessel with water and let it rest for two or three days. The waste can be used for many purposes,” he said.

Kalaram spoke of their past, of their ancestral identity. They were great hunters back then. However, things have changed. They have had to adapt to a different life in the camp since they fled their village. “We would love to live off the land, practise farming, and cultivate our own food. On the other hand, we are also chasing jobs and perhaps hoping our kids get better education,” he confided in us.

His firm belief in bringing about change through education is what led him to working with children. Akhilesh later told us that he left no stone unturned to gather children from remote villages and ensure that they go to school. “Ever since I finished my twelfth grade, my aim has been to divert the focus and attention of children from conflict towards education. War broke us. And, we already paid a heavy price. I will not let our children suffer the same fate. I was the first educated person from my village. Back in the day, none of the kids were interested in studying.  There were about 100 houses in my para,” he said.

They were five brothers. His father chose to send him to school. None of his siblings are educated. “If I didn’t want to go to school when I was young, I probably wouldn’t have had an education. In our culture, we don’t force anyone to do anything against their will no matter who you are. I kept switching schools one after the other. I went to six different schools in all. That’s how I managed to study till twelfth grade. Once I graduated high school, I found children doing household chores and playing all day in our para. They were barely interested in studying. There were no teachers at that time; no one who would be willing to come to our village,” he explained gesturing us to follow him to the backyard, “This was quite a backward area, back then. I decided to take it up as a challenge. We had left everything, and moved here. So, we had to do something that would enable us to move forward. I did a survey of the number of children residing in the area. Later, we got several kids who wanted to join us. It all happened here in Madia para. Most of us were unemployed and wanted to pursue jobs that would fetch us a decent pay.”

 

As a part of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Rajeev Gandhi Shiksha Mission), there were several conditions according to Kalaram that had to be fulfilled. If at least 20 to 30 students attend classes regularly, then the teacher would get paid. Anything below those numbers wouldn’t entail any payment. “Even then, we tried our best to teach as many children as possible. Many people came together. Many unemployed people joined hands with us. Eventually, when we realised we had enough children, we then had to start a place for them. For at least 6 months to 1 year, no one received any salary. Gradually, the officials of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan pondered over what could be done. We can’t go everywhere, inspect the area and conduct surveys,” he said.

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From 2009 to 2014, he continued to work with teachers in porta-cabins. He also worked with the Ekal-Vidyalaya (one-teacher schools) prior to that wherein schools destroyed by the Salwa Judum movement and were rendered defunct were run by teachers with as many students as possible. While the government promised to pay them dearly, they barely received any payment. These schools were then converted into bridge schools where students who had to drop out of schools owing to the conflict were trained to be capable enough to study and cope in a normal school. These schools too were then converted into porta-cabins.

“ Eventually, we had 500 teachers and 500 schools. So, then they decided to open one porta-cabin in one region. That way, all the students can be enrolled in such schools. Now, the situation of education has seen great improvement. You will find an educated child in almost every household. With education, people can try innovative methods and learn new techniques. However, an illiterate person will do what he can based on what he already has. He is unable to make informed decisions. If he needs something, he is unable to get it because he incapable of understanding what is necessary and what isn’t. Ek doosre ko dekhte dekhte aadmi ke andar ek parivartan aa jaata hai. Padhai se kai raaste khul jaate hain,” said Kalaram, “A lot has changed in 31 years. Earlier, we didn’t really have any development or progress in our region. Many of us are unaware and ignorant of what exists in the world outside ours. Here is where we took our first steps, and it is here where we will return upon our death. That’s all we know. There was nothing more that we required.”

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Something bothered him. We could tell. In a moment of silence, myriad thoughts ran across his mind. “Those who live in the jungles,” he said, his voice trailing off, “Those who acquired ancestral knowledge from their elders, who worshiped the forest and could tread into unknown paths without losing their way, they will survive. What about those who barely finish high school and return home? Most of our kids cannot afford to go to college nor do they have any skills to survive in the jungle. And, this is bothersome. We have created a lost generation. Those who managed to go all the way struggle to find jobs. They escaped war, and went to school. Makes me wonder at times if this was all worth it? Is this the development and progress that we were promised? Hum apne aapko kamzor mehsoos karte hain. When we were in the forests, we knew how to survive. Now, our children barely survive high school and are incapable of living in the forests. Gradually, we are forgetting everything: our old techniques, our ancestral knowledge. Purane reeti rivaj, purana sab kuch bhoolte ja rahe hain. Ab mobile ka duniya aa gaya, toh sab usi main vyast hain,” he said.

We wondered if they didn’t want it at all, if they did not wish for any development. Would they have then been happier practising their tribal lifestyle? We thought about tribal communities being forced to alter their way of living. “No,” he said firmly, “Not at all. We want development. We want to catch a glimpse of modern life too. We deserve it as much as those who live in the cities. We have to move forward with time. We are learning more about how we could make farming better, how we can sell our products, how we can get a decent education. Different people want different things. There are some who are more than happy to be living in the forest, and then there are others who wish to escape. May be a balance is what we need. We shouldn’t judge people for the choices they make or the desires they have.”

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***
He stopped teaching a year ago. Ten years is a long time, he said. He couldn’t do it anymore. It is in the farms that he found his happiness. He hopes to make people aware of the benefits of organic farming. “The more educated people we have in our village implies the more unemployed people we have. They are helpless and often feel that getting a job is perhaps their only way out. Some don’t want to farm anymore. There are many who have progressed in farming. Humare haat main kheti hai, toh kheti ko nahin pakdenge toh kya karenge. We should see what we can do with our lives. If we focus on what someone else is doing, then we will only get depressed. Your truth may be different from mine. One shouldn’t compare,” he said.

It was 15 years ago when he first heard about the Naxal movement. It never existed before that, he claimed but couldn’t say for certain. He was wrong. Ever since they made their presence felt here, things have changed for better or worse. Their lives didn’t remain the same. “I have never seen anything personally but I hear things. And, it bothers me. It shouldn’t happen to people like us. Both sides inflict pain on the adivasis: the military and the insurgents. I have nothing to gain or lose by speaking my mind with you. We were living peacefully until one day these groups showed up to save us. It’s strange isn’t it? It almost seems as if we are incapable of taking care of ourselves. Kisi bhi kshetra main aage nahin bad sakte hain hum. The villagers are always worried for themselves and their children,” he said whispering lest the others around him heard his concerns, “They have eyes and ears everywhere. We call them andar waale. Did you know that the Naxals have their own justice system? Yes, they call it jan adalat. Apparently, it happens only at night. Anyone who is found guilty is killed before the villagers. They are made to watch so they are aware of the consequences of crossing them. So, tell me are they here to fight for our rights? The army and the police, on the other hand, will go to any extent to gather evidence. We are either declared Naxal sympathisers or police informants. Adivasis are helpless.”

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In conversation, we discussed the presence of mining corporations in the region. The Naxals claimed they were starkly opposed to big mining projects undermining the existence of tribal communities in the region. For, most of these companies hoped to displace tribes in the name of developmental and mining projects. Years later, thousands of adivasis marched on the streets protesting against the development of an iron ore mine and fraudulent gram sabhas conducted by National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) in 2014 to manufacture fake consent. Two years ago, as we drove around Kirandul and Bacheli with one of our local points of contact, one afternoon, we heard rumours of the possibility of Adani Enterprises Limited (AEL) winning the bid to operate the mine. The news was confirmed in 2018.

At the CISF checkpost near Bailadila deposit no. 13, they raised slogans against the corporation, and performed their traditional songs and dance. Some carried bows and arrows, and others walked till they couldn’t anymore. Nandaraj hills is under siege, they said. Pattod Meta (deposit no. 13) was where their Lord Nandaraj’s wife resided. They forbade anyone who would desecrate their sacred lands. “These hills have names, you know. They aren’t mines or sectors or deposits. They belong to our Gods,” said a farmer to us, one afternoon, many years ago.

Their peaceful protest didn’t go unnoticed. The Chattisgarh government soon declared that all ongoing operations and mining activities (at Deposit no. 13) would be placed on a hold.

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***
Kalaram paused for a while lost in his own thoughts. His toes dug deeper into the mud as he looked on. While leaders of the Naxal movement ascertained that their fight was in favour of tribal welfare, the reality was far from what was portrayed. “In that case, they would only help us by standing up for us. If that had happened, then perhaps we could have understood better what they were fighting for. Sometimes I feel we are being used as pawns. The mining companies are still here, aren’t they? How come they are allowed to function in Bastar? The Naxals use villagers for their own benefit too. Why do they hurt us? They are able to eat only because villagers provide them with food and supplies. If the villagers support the government they get something in return, what have they given us? Unka koi lena dena nahin hai humse. Unki ladai shaasan se hai,” he said.

Perhaps it’s out of anger and helplessness, he remarked as we walked around his farm. Maybe that’s why people pick up guns and dedicate their life to revenge and violence, he pondered aloud.  “This could be one of the reasons for their existence,” he said rubbing the palms of his hands, “Maybe if the system or the society took care of people as their own, we wouldn’t be in this situation here. The Naxals want to establish their own government. And, with their own system of governance, they wish to ‘save’ us. A lot has changed in my village. Logon ke mann se vishwas uth gaya hai. Earlier, we would all be involved in each other’s life. Now, everyone looks at one another with suspicion. In the end, we are the ones who have to bear the brunt of the conflict. We have our young men and women on both sides who have picked up guns to fight their war. In the end, it’s the loss of human life that one never recovers from. We have to find a middle path. We have to find a way to make peace with one another. Mothers have lost sons on both sides. Till when will we accept bloodshed as our reality?”

***

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As we walked back to our car, he spoke of stories, of memories that he had long forgotten. It was chaos on the streets, he remarked. They would hear stories almost every other day. “Today, the Sarpanch was killed. Yesterday, it was someone’s husband. Tomorrow it will be your son. Why were they killing our loved ones? Why did we have to pay a price for their battle against the government? Salwa judum happened for a good reason. It was an attempt to weaken their hold on adivasis. People were fed up with them,” explained Kalaram, “But the movement took a different direction. A lot more people died. Adivasis were killed on both sides. Inki ladayi soch ki nahin kursi ki hai. Both sides want power. It’s a fight for dominance.  Perhaps, this was one of the reasons why they picked up guns to fight their battles. If they gathered together, and garnered support, there must be a reason. Maybe they felt defeated in life. Who knows?”

We walked back and forth in narrow alleys where flowers adorned the bamboo wattle-work fences. It was in the middle of a conversation when Kalaram was discussing how boats were rowed during the monsoons, where people got their own sticks to use them as paddles to cross the river, when the Indravathi swells during the rains and the donga sways beyond control, as he narrated stories of lands beyond the river gesturing at the skies, it was then we realised who he was.

His name was Kalaram Atami.

We had heard that name before: Atami. Somewhere in heaps of forgotten notes, amidst stories that kept us awake most nights, his name appeared on multiple occasions. One of the chief lieutenants of the Salwa Judum Movement, Chaitram Atami controlled  operations in Dantewada. “Agar Salwa Judum galat tha toh maan kar chaliye ki Bharat ki azadi ki ladayi bhi galat thi,” he once said, ten years ago.

Kalaram Atami was his nephew.

We hadn’t made the connection before. Across the tea stall, a few paces ahead, was Chaitram’s home. Armed guards stayed alert outside his door. As we left the heavily fortified Kasauli camp, we spotted men keeping a vigilant eye on the streets ahead. Save the swaying trees, nothing broke the silence on our way home, that afternoon…

[PS: Names and identities of ‘points of contact’ and ‘interpreters’ changed to protect their privacy.]

to be continued…)

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