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Attack On Vanvasi Chetna Ashram
In Chhattisgarh

By Fact Finding Team

11 June, 2009

Interim Report of Fact-finding Team on Developments in Chhattisgarh

An all-India fact-finding team visited Chhattisgarh from May 29 to June 1, 2009 in the wake of certain disturbing developments in the State plagued by Maoist violence, state terror, the Salwa Judum campaign and attacks on voluntary organisations (even Gandhian bodies) by the powers that be. The team visited the site of the demolished Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA) at Kanwalnar near Dantewada and run by Himanshu Kumar, a noted Gandhian social activist working among the tribals in Dantewada and Bijapur districts of Bastar region. The demolition of the ashram took place on May 17, 2009. After the visit, the team met with the state Governor, E.S. Narasimhan, and the Superintendent of Police, Dantewada, Rahul Sharma, and submitted a Memorandum to them.

Apart from the government officials, the team, which did the fact finding from May 29 to May 31, met the Gandhian social activists running the VCA as well as Manish Kunjam, the former MLA of the CPI. The team members spoke to various people (villagers, civil society activists, and local media persons) in Kanwalnar, Lingagiri, Basaguda, Boraguda, Kamaram, Bijapur and Dantewada. All of them confirmed and acclaimed the constructive work that the VCA has been doing in the region for the last 17 years. The Governor assured that he would look into the points made in the Memorandum.

The Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA) was established in 1992 by Himanshu Kumar. He came down from Meerut (Uttar Pradesh) to the far-flung tribal region of Dantewada, where even government officials hate to be posted, as it is located around 1200 km away from Bhopal, the state capital of Madhya Pradesh, and 440 km from Raipur, the capital of the new state of Chhattisgarh.

The VCA started working on many aspects of empowerment of the poor adivasi of south Bastar with advocacy for rights and justice, especially for community health service, elementary education, natural resource management in the inaccessible areas that lack access to basic public services. Since 2005, the VCA has been involved in such work, which has occasionally invited wrath of both the State and the Naxalites.

Emergence of the Salwa Judum compelled the VCA to take up the cause of the adivasis being tortured, looted, violated and displaced from their hearths and homes. The VCA began providing legal aid and succour to the victims of Salwa Judum, security forces and Maoist violence. The VCA, which is the only voluntary organisation involved in developmental work in the area, rendered invaluable service by documenting instances of severe human rights violations and approaching the legal system for justice and redressal. Since most victims of violence were too traumatized and afraid to file complaints against the perpetrators, the VCA performed the crucial function of helping the victims file not only First Information Reports (FIRs) which are a necessary first step for delivering justice, but also assisted them throughout the long and arduous judicial process.

On the basis of the interactions with the local community and authorities, the fact finding team members strongly suspect that the vindictive attitude shown by the authorities in demolishing the Ashram, when the issue of its encroachment was pending in the court, stemmed from the fact that the VCA’s founder, Himanshu Kumar, had raised his voice against human rights violations in the fight against Maoists and opposed the Salwa Judum campaign that often targeted the hapless tribals. The VCA is perhaps the only community organization in the area engaged in resettlement and rehabilitation of displaced adivasis through individual and community support under very adverse conditions. It also needs to be noted that the VCA since its inception has been using peaceful means in all its activities and has always functioned within the constitutional provisions.

The VCA was also involved in highlighting the complicity of the state administration in several cases of extra-judicial killings -- including the Singavaram massacre, where 19 villagers were killed on January 8, 2009. What was initially presented by the State as a case of Maoist insurgents being killed in an alleged “encounter” with the state security forces was later revealed by media persons and human rights organizations to be a staged killing of unarmed villagers. The VCA has been demanding transparency and accountability from the government on such incidents. It is significant to note that the SDM who carried out the demolition of the VCA premises, Mr. Ankit Anand, was also the one who conducted the magisterial inquiry in the Singavaram killings.

After visiting the villages of Basaguda and Lingagiri and talking to a number of villagers, the team members were convinced that the villagers relied on the VCA for carrying out the rehabilitation work by boosting their confidence, providing them the necessities and ensuring such facilities as public transport. The villagers told us that they never wished to leave their villages in the first place and were compelled to do so by the security forces and the Special Police Officers (SPOs). These villagers left their villages in 2006 and about 30 percent of them managed to come back recently with the help of the VCA.

A moving account of the State brutality was narrated by a young adivasi.

Gantal Raju, 30, his father Gantal Kanhaiya, his wife and his 20-year-old sister Sreedevi were at home at Lingagiri village on 29th December 2006 “when a group of CRPF and SPOs entered their village from jungle early in the morning. An elderly person from the village was going towards the jungle when he noticed some armed CRPF and SPOs approaching the village.” When they opened fire, he ran back towards his village and started telling villagers about the approaching security forces. As he was narrating what he saw to some of his neighbours, “these armed CRPF and SPOs started entering houses and dragging people out. They began beating up me mercilessly. When my father tried to object to that, they dragged him and started hitting him as well. When he still resisted and tried to argue that they were innocent villagers and not Naxalites, the men in uniform stabbed him right in front of his house. The barabaric act did not stop there. They beat up my mother and broke her thigh bones. They then dragged my sister by hair towards a pond in the nearby jungle where they raped her and finally killed her. Her body was found by us four days later. The CRPF and SPOs also robbed the family of all their belongings.” According to Gantal Raju, they were left with few rags they were putting on at that time.

It was during the same incident that Baby, Sreedevi’s close friend and a relative, gave birth to Aragu Ramadu in the forest after she ran with other villagers to escape the brutality of the security forces. When Baby gave birth to her child in the forests, she did not have any clothes other than she had put on. She and others with her did not have even a single hanky or towel with them. Baby and others fled to neighbouring Andhra and returned back recently after a gap of three years. Gantal Raju and his wife lived in Andhra with his father's sister for three years. Gantal Raju says that CRPF personnel once openly told him that they were the ones behind the incident and that they would kill him also some day. Ever since he has been fearing for his life.

A dominant impression that emerged after the visit was that the State is trying to use military means alone to address the problem of naxalism in Chhattisgarh. Anyone not with the State (read also Salwa Judum), runs the risk of being branded as a naxalite sympathizer. As a result, any dissent with the State and the middle ground space for civil society to function is eroding very fast. The authorities hinted at their special attempts to ‘reclaim’ the area under naxal influence. In the circumstances they do not want any NGO or voluntary organisation to operate in the region. Nothing explains this better than the demolition of and ashram run by Gandhian activists. This is totally unacceptable to civil society at large and is symptomatic of a dangerous trend that has the potential of ultimately destroying the fabric of our democracy.

The members of the fact-finding team were Magasaysay award winner social activist Dr Sandeep Pandey, Lucknow; President, Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), former MLA Janak Lal Thakur, Dalli-Rajhara; senior journalist and editor, Mainstream, Sumit Chakravartty, New Delhi; human rights lawyer and women’s rights activist, Advocate Kamayani Bali Mahabal, Mumbai; editor, Combat Law, Dr Harsh Dobhal, New Delhi; representatie of PUCL, Chhattisgarh, Vijendra, Raipur.

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