Gonds and Madia Gonds tribals of the Dandkaranya forests have preserved and worshipped the forest for centuries as their god but in last few decades, these jungles - in the name of development projects and Naxalism - have become highly militarised and have destroyed the atmosphere of this once peaceful area.
Dandkaranya is spread over states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Though predominantly peaceful, the seeds of unrest were sown with the killing of Pravir Chandra Bhanjdeo, the King of Bastar, by the police under the rule of the then Congress government of undivided Madhya Pradesh in 1966.
It led to a tribal uprising not only in the Bastar but also in the other tribal areas of Maharashtra and present-day Jharkhand. To calm down the uprising, the government of undivided Madhya Pradesh appointed Dr Brahma Dev Sharma as the first collector of undivided Bastar who for his entire life worked for tribal rights.
A report of Ministry of Tribal Affairs (2004) states that tribal population of India comprises only 8 per cent of the total population of which more than half is displaced.
Powerless in own home
In the present scenario, the situation has become even worse. Development projects and militarisation is going hand in hand and has forced displacement of tribals in central India.
Many tribals, because of continuous atrocities chose the path of violence to preserve their forest which is their source of living.
To pacify the tribals of Bastar, Sharma put a ban on mining leases given to corporate companies and distributed land to the landless.
He helped in introducing PESA (Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act 1996) for the well-being of tribals. The act provided self-rule authority to the tribals and gave them power over their resources.
Unfortunately, the proper implementation doesn’t happen most of the time due to the unholy nexus between government and mining companies. Disregard of PESA largely led to militarisation here.
According to a report by BD Sharma in his capacity as Commissioner of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in 1980, tribals were restricted from using their resources of the jungle and were facing encroachment.
Government’s neglect and alienation from the mainstream gave a chance to left wing revolutionaries to increase their presence in tribal areas. With the revolt of Naxalbari in West Bengal in the late sixties, the term Naxalism became a common word and gradually made inroads into the tribal areas of Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
Naxalism made deep inroads into the tribal districts of Andhra Pradesh (1960s), Bihar (1970s) and areas of undivided Madhya Pradesh, eastern Maharashtra and Orissa (1980s).
According to Sundar Raj P, DIG, South Bastar range, Naxalism is the only reason behind the militarisation of tribal areas. He said, “Para military and other state forces are deployed because of Naxal activities in tribal areas. Naxals are causing a big hindrance in the development projects being implemented in tribal areas of Bastar or for that matter any other Naxal infested tribal areas. Local tribals are getting sandwiched between Naxalites and state forces. Complete abolition of Naxals from such area will stop militarisation.”
Arun Ferriera, a Mumbai-based human rights lawyer who was imprisoned and later acquitted for his alleged Naxal links, said, “The past years have seen an increased militarisation of tribal areas. This is because these areas have vast resources of mineral ore and the only obstacle to their exploitation by big corporates is the resistance of the local people i.e. the tribals.
The State governments of Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have signed numerous MoUs with corporates for this exploitation. Bastar itself has a proportion of one soldier for every 31 civilians - way higher than the country’s average of one police for 761 civilians.”
The Gadchiroli case
The present scenario in Gadchiroli in eastern Maharashtra has all the potential of making it yet another Chhattisgarh, the hot spot of Naxal activities especially after the movement of Salva Judum (which means purification Hunt in Gondi language).
According to media reports, the Judum militia has led to the displacement of 1 lakh people and committed murder, rapes, loot and arson in various villages of Bastar. The movement was later banned by Supreme Court in 2011. Tribals of Gadchiroli are facing the problem of proposed mining in Surjagad mountain ranges which also is considered the shrine of their god Thakur Dev. Around 40 villages of Surjagad ranges will vanish if mining takes place at the site.
Mining companies like Lloyds Metals and Energy and JSW Ispat want to carry out iron ore mining in the area.
According to tribals, CRPF and police camps have been established to facilitate mining at Surjagad.
Lalsu Soma Nagoti, a tribal rights activist, said, “Out of 70 villages in Surjagad, 60 have voted against mining in Gram Sabha. But it seems nobody cares about Gram Sabha because a new mining site has been proposed for Korchi block.”
Nagoti who visited Geneva last month and represented India in UN sponsored Indigenous fellowship programme, told Sakal Times, “The police have started troubling people who are raising their voice against mining. They are detaining men and women at police station and assaulting them without any reason, which has created an atmosphere of tension in the area.”
Ramdas Jarathe, a local tribal, said, “More than 1,000 CRPF jawans have been posted here to keep an eye on us. State police and CRPF are also establishing camps at various other villages in the periphery of Surjagad to destroy our movement. They will make this place worse than Bastar.”