A day after the police fired in the air to disperse 500 villagers descending on a security camp in Dantewada district in Chhattisgarh to oppose it, the police on Wednesday claimed they held a “positive interaction” with those residing within the camp’s security perimeter.
“There is a remarkable change in the approach of the villagers of Potali. Women and children in particular turned up at the security camp and held a positive interaction with troops,” says Sundarraj P., Inspector General of Police (Bastar Range).
Carrying bows, arrows and axes, residents of Potali, 56 km from Dantewada and neighbouring villages on Tuesday confronted security personnel head-on to oppose the permanent security camp that was set up there on November 11. As the situation seemed to have spiralled out of control during discussions between villagers and the District Collector and the Superintendent of Police, the police fired blank rounds in the air to disperse the crowd.
Mr. Sundarraj claimed villagers were under duress to launch an agitation. “Maoists mobilised villagers to protest against the camp. They didn’t have any other option but to take part. Otherwise, they would be killed,” he says.
The camp is of strategic importance for the forces as it falls in the volatile Aranpur region, which forms a connecting corridor between the Darbha division and South Bastar division for Maoists, explains Mr. Sundarraj.
“That’s why Maoists are trying their best to derail our efforts in setting up a camp. It’ll be tough for their Malangir area committee to continue its activities once operations begin here,” he adds.
“The area is considered a Maoist bastion,” says Devhans Rathore, Sub-Divisional Officer of Police, Kirandul. “When the situation got tense on Tuesday, we fired eight-ten blank rounds which made villagers run helter-skelter.”
According to the police, the development of the region is the “main antidote for the Maoist menace”. Therefore, under the Trust-Development-Security model, the police plans to win over locals through credible and transparent policing, speed up road construction and rehabilitate Maoists willing to surrender.
However, Joga Poyam, vice-sarpanch of Potali, asserts the protest was independent and Maoists did not force them to take part. “Villagers are scared. They get caught in the crossfire between Maoists and security forces each time and bear the cost. Sometimes, when the police are unable to catch Maoists, they come for us.”
Tribal women, who practise the age-old tradition of fetching wood and leaves from forests, do not want to be harassed by troops, he says. “Resentment is simmering in the village. We’ll continue our agitation.”
On Wednesday, during discussions between neighbouring panchayats and security forces, villagers demanded they not be harassed or intimidated while going to fields, located as far as 5 km away in the hills, and markets.
“They told us they had not set up the camp on our land but government’s, and that they won’t trouble us,” says Mr. Poyam. “They agreed with us and want to part of the development process,” says Mr. Rathore. “We told them we’re there for their own safety. If they don’t do anything anti-social, we won’t trouble them. If they need anything, they can come to us. Our doors are open.”
‘When will militarisation come to an end?’
This being the fourth locals-led protest in a month against security camps in the Bastar region, Bela Bhatia, lawyer and social activist, believes that at the bottom of all of it lies the question: when will militarisation of the region come to an end?
“Aranpur station area is already notorious for numerous fake encounters,” claims Mr. Bhatia. “Now they are moving even closer to locals, and they don’t want the camp there because they have been at the receiving end of fake encounters, sexual assault and arbitrary arrests for years.”
Often, those living close to camps were arbitrarily stopped and questioned while going to fields and markets, she alleges.
Mr. Bhatia believes the District Reserve Guard (DRG), composed mainly of surrendered Maoists, is now at the forefront of the anti-Maoist strategy of the police, while paramilitaries have faded in the backdrop.
“Sometimes, they are deployed in areas where they were earlier active as Maoists. This helps them identify those who had attended meetings or given Maoists food back then. Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether these people still take part in such activities to the same extent or not,” she says.
It isn’t even unclear whether their participation in such activities is voluntary or not in the first place as villagers are not in a position to say no to Maoists, she adds. “These protests, as I see it, is also due to the fear of an increased presence of the DRG in the area.”
Mr. Sundarraj says typically a camp is set up by the DRG and the police. Later, if the situation warrants, paramilitaries can be moved in.