By Medha Chaturvedi
The Indian Supreme Court declared the Salwa Judum movement (peace militia in Gondi) unconstitutional, rapping the government for arming civilians to combat a resistive insurgency. Was the Salwa Judum constitutional? Why was it formed, and organized? Were their cadres, designated as ‘Special Police Officers’ adequately trained and educated in the legal process on counter-insurgency? What is their future?
The government claims that under the Indian Police Act, 1861, it has the right to raise auxiliary forces in insurgency-affected areas. While pushing for immediate disarmament, the court noted that other than disaster relief and traffic regulation duties, the SPOs cannot perform any active policing duties.
The Court also took cognizance of the importance of socio-economic factors in an insurgency, criticizing the development model followed by the government, noting that “violent agitator politics, and armed rebellion in many pockets of India have intimate linkages to socio-economic circumstances, endemic inequalities, and a corrupt social and state order that preys on such inequalities has been well recognized. In fact the Union of India has been repeatedly warned of the linkages.”
Another criticism levied was the lack of education of these SPOs, who primarily belong to tribal backgrounds, raising questions of their informed consent and understanding of possible consequences in counter-insurgency operations.
The Salwa Judum movement was formed in 2005 by repressed tribals in the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh escaping forced Naxalite conscription. The government later adopted them as a ‘force-multiplier’, to gain ground-level human intelligence in its counter-Naxal operations. In 2008, they were armed and given the status of Special Police Officers and Koya commandos. However, their qualification and weapons training was minimal.
Such a tactic is flawed for it abdicates the state’s official machinery in security responsibility and creates rifts in the rights and privileges of its citizens. By creating artificial militias which are motivated by financial considerations, the state reduced human lives to mere financial fractions where commandos were paid INR 3000 monthly, while interestingly, in comparison the Naxals paid their cadre INR3500 per month.
What next for Salwa Judum?
Twin problems lie ahead for the movement. With the groups being disarmed and disbanded, they will become sitting ducks for reprisal attacks, and the depleted security set-up in Chhattisgarh with even official paramilitary forces having widespread vacancies will result in a worsened security environment. Also, several of the Salwa Judum commandos have taken over the role of local warlords and may not easily give up arms. The government, in such a situation, will end up fighting two entities in a place where fighting one is proving to be very difficult.
Former DG BSF EN Rammohan welcomed the SC judgment, calling it “a sensible judgment because the SC has asked the government to examine the root causes of Naxalism and address them rather than fighting it in active combat.” This view was echoed by Professor Nandini Sundar, one of the petitioners in the case.
A three-pronged development model needs to be put in place in the Red Corridor to deplete the Naxal support base. The following measures could be implemented by both centre and state to address the root causes before taking law and order measures:
- Land Ceiling: A ceiling limit on land holdings needs to be strictly implemented to ensure that the indigenous populations of the area are not exploited. The glaring disparities in land holding patterns which have led to inequalities and frustration among the rural population of the state need immediate redressal.
- Forest and Tribal Rights: Though legislations like the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 exist on paper, their implementation is abysmal. The questionable leasing out of tribal land by the government for mining activities also highlights the urgent need to make the indigenous population bigger stakeholders in the profits accrued out of activities on their land. An added measure would be to bring the forest administration under the Panchayati Raj (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 which provides for extending provisions of Part IX of the Constitution (Panchayati Raj) to the Scheduled Areas.
- Strengthening the PDS and Central Welfare Schemes: There is a need to address the allocation-implementation gap in central welfare schemes in the area. The implementation record of central schemes like MGNREGA, PMGSY, Indira Awas Yojana, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Rajiv Gandhi Vikas Yojana, among others, is the poorest in the country, which has contributed to the area’s marginalization.
The Centre would be filing a review petition in the case, since this ruling could have an adverse impact on SPOs functioning in other states, including Jammu and Kashmir, Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur. While, state-sponsored vigilantism is in itself a contradiction, the government’s bid to validate it despite judicial strictures reiterates this oxymoron. Salwa Judum was a quick and effective solution, for when it started, the insurgency was swelling with mass recruitment. However, since then, Naxalism has turned into guerilla warfare and, the government strategy remains where it was. The government must understand that what worked then, will not work now.
Research Officer, IPCS
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