Chhattisgarh is situated exactly where the heart of India would point to — a little towards the bottom right. About 500 kilometres south of Chhatisgarh’s capital Raipur, lies Silger, a village where about a month ago, bullets were fired by the police, and the dead were termed as the enemies of the state, something no democracy would let happen to their heart.
On Saturday, June 12, the chief minister of Chhattisgarh Bhupesh Baghel said during a virtual meeting that the Silger incident was unfortunate. The “unfortunate” incident the CM was talking about was the death of four people, three of whom were shot dead by the police, and a three-month pregnant woman died after getting injured in the stampede during the firing.
Among the killed were Uika Pandu, aged between 14 to 17 years, Kowasi Waga, who was about 45 years old, and Ursa Bhima, who was about 35 years old. The pregnant woman was 25-year-old Poonam Somli, who died four days later after she was injured in the stampede.
“There were five deaths. What was the mistake of the unborn child?” asks Kamal Shukla, a local journalist who has been covering Bastar for more than 30 years.
The virtual meeting in which Baghel was speaking soon turned to primarily being about the development of Bastar. The CM kept on reading about his schemes for long, say Sunita, Ragu and five other villagers from Silger who were present in the meeting. They were promised to meet the chief minister in person, the villagers say in a press note they released after the meeting. On June 8, a delegation of social activists including Bela Bhatia, Sanjay Parate and Alok Shukla had met CM Baghel and Chhattisgarh governor Anusuiya Uikey and raised the issues of tribals.
“When the chief minister could meet social activists, why did he choose a video call to meet we tribals who are losing their land and who have lost their family members to police bullets,” the press note by the villagers reads. The release goes on to emphasise that the movement against the Silger camp has not ended.
The villagers who coordinate the protests and present demand as a body named Moolwasi Bachao Manch(Save Natives Forum) have also released a poster saying that the protest will continue in Silger till June 27, and invites people to a public meeting in Sarkeguda on June 28.
On June 9, after a local activist Soni Sori and a few informal spokespersons announced that the mass movement was being called off, thousands of villagers could be seen returning to their homes in media reports. However, many villagers denied the claim that the protest had ended and claimed that people were still at the protest site, though in small numbers.
The mass movement, with thousands of protesting villagers, was triggered when the CRPF established a new camp in Silger that the villagers say was established against their permission.
What happened in Silger
Silger is a village in Sukma district that comes under Schedules Areas — areas that have a special governance mechanism to protect their predominant tribal population from the afflictions of ‘mainland’ people. Some of the key matters of governance such as reside with a village body named Gram Sabha with members from the local community. For example, no land acquisition or implementation of any social or economic development program can be implemented without the approval of Gram Sabha.
Villagers claim that the land, which was government lease land held by villagers for farming, was acquired by the CRPF camp without the approval of a Gram Sabha.
The camp was established at 3 am on the night of May 12, recalls 21-year-old Raghu Midyami, who lives in Silger. Later in the day, when some people from neighbouring villages visited Silger, they asked the villagers if they knew about the camp.
“No one in Silger knew about the camp. If you put it in the night, how would we know?” said Raghu. After being informed that their land has been captured by a camp, on May 13, about 40-50 villagers went to the camp to register their protest.
“We asked them Sir how did you establish your camp without telling us, without a Gram Sabha? At least you should have consulted us and seen what we had to say,” Raghu told Maktoob.
Raghu recalls that after five-seven minutes, the forces started beating the villagers and chased them off. 20-25 people were beaten badly during this, claims Raghu. When the villagers came back, they conducted a meeting with people from the neighbouring villages some of whom were also members of Panchayat. The villagers decided that they would struggle for their land. They agreed to peacefully protest the land occupation.
On 14th, villagers went to the camp again. They were about a thousand in numbers.
“We sat there demanding to talk to the forces. They started beating us and fired tear gas on us,” says Raghu.
As per an investigation report by social activist Bela Bhatia and economist Jean Drèze, who visited the mass protest, villagers kept gathering in thousands of numbers and police kept trying to disperse them by lathi-charge and tear gas. This went on from May 14 to May 16. The report is consistent with Raghu’s account of events.
On May 17, Raghu recalls, thousands of people from Silger and nearby villages gathered on the road around 9 am about two to three hundred metres away from the camp.
Soon, the police started lathi-charge again. As people were being beaten, a few villagers threw stones or whatever was lying there on the road. Following this, the forces opened fire. First, they fired tear canons and then they fired bullets. When the forces opened fire, the protestors were on the road in the middle and the forces were on both sides of the road.
Three protestors who were shot died on the spot. According to Raghu, about 18 people had bullet injuries. However, the investigation report by Bhatia and Dreze mentions that at least three had bullet injuries and 40 were injured in some way. People with serious injuries were taken to the district hospital.
The Police version
After the firing on May 17, police released a statement on May 20. In the statement the Inspector General of Police of Bastar range, Sudarraj P said that as per preliminary examination, the deceased people were linked to frontal outfits of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), but the police were still trying to verify the input. The IGP claimed that about 3,000 charged villagers were coming to remove the camp and they had bow-arrows, axes and other sharp-edged weapons.
To the police’s claim, Kamal Shukla, editor of a local news portal Bhumkal Samachar, says “they are saying that Naxalites were attacking in the guise of villagers, so they counter-fired killing three Naxalites” Shukla says, “Now, you tell me, they have developed such a gun that When they fire their LMG in the crowd of five thousand people, it directly hits the Naxalites.”
Shukla, who has been closely covering the protest and the shooting, says that the police paid 10 thousand each to the families of those killed along with their dead bodies. “What is this two-faced policy? Do you want to offer compensation to the Maoists?” asks Shukla.
Another local resident Lingesh Padam asks if there were Maoists, why wasn’t the police harmed. The police statement claimed that Naxals hiding in the guise of protesters had opened fire on the forces. The statement mentioned injuries caused to the security personnel but it did not mention any bullet injuries.
The statement by the IGP also claims that the police had convinced the villagers peacefully on the night of May 16, but the Maoists again sent them forcefully.
Shukla says, “even if Maoists had motivated them, but when they are sitting in a democratic manner without any arms, peacefully protesting and demanding their rights, they are not asking for something which is against democracy.”
Speaking to Maktoob, Shukla explains that the villagers were asking for their rights of a Gram Sabha which has been granted in the constitution.
According to Shukla, “If they were motivated by the Maoists to come and protest on the road, the government should have welcomed them. Because they came against the logic of Maoism.”
She thinks that if the police keep beating and shooting those who come to the protest peacefully, they are strengthening Maoism. Tribals oppressed by the police are potential cadres for Maoists, he believes.
According to Chhattisgarh Police, the CRPF camp was opened to facilitate Basaguda -Jagargunda road construction among other development projects.
The mass protest did not end after the police firing. Instead, the participants multiplied. Padam claims that on some days the number reached around 25,000. On May 19, when Bela Bhatia and Jean Dreze were going to Silger, they were stopped at the Cheramangi CRPF camp, about 40 kilometres away from the protest site, even though other people including journalists were allowed to go.
The reason they were given was required Covid-19 test despite both Bhatia and Dreze were vaccinated with both doses. When the activists tried to talk to injured people at Bijapur district hospital, they were asked to leave.
On May 23, the activists witnessed the protest site. “It was a remarkable display of unity and resolve, wholly peaceful,” they wrote in their investigation report. According to Bhatia and Dreze, the police also have been restrained and there was no attempt to disperse the crowd using lathi charge or other force.
On May 24, Villagers of Silger, with the help of the activists, submitted a formal complaint against the CRPF in the Jagargunda police station. The complaint demanded an FIR against the perpetrators for murder charges. The station in charge received the complaint and gave a receipt to the villagers after massive efforts. However, an FIR was not registered.
On May 24, media reports mentioned that Sukma collector Vineet Nandanwar had ordered a magisterial probe. However, the protests were ongoing.
On May 31, Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) called a bandh across Chhattisgarh and Garhchiroli, among the reasons of which, one was the Silger police firing.
On June 1, the Chhattisgarh government constituted a fact-finding committee of MLAs from the Bastar region and officials from the local administration. The committee was headed by Deepak Baij, MP of Bastar.
However, a report published in Dainik Bhaskar mentioned that Chhattisgarh Scheduled Tribe Commission wanted to investigate the matter and had already written to the district collectors and panchayat chiefs, but the government asked the commission to cancel its investigation. Following that the commission cancelled its visit. Not only that, the secretary of the commission H. K. Singh Uike was transferred to another related department.
On June 3, after 20 days of the protest and death of four villagers, the 9-member fact-finding committee met a team of 10 people representing the villagers, Indian Express reported. The meeting happened 50 metres from the protest site. The committee is to soon file its report.
On June 12, a team of villagers from Silger joined a virtual meeting with the CM Baghel after which, the villagers released a press note in which they listed their demands again. Their demands include removal of the camp and an FIR against the police firing. They also demanded an inquiry by a judicial commission among others.
Why no camp?
About the villagers’ apprehension of a CRPF camp other than the land occupation, Padam says, “they will frame us as Naxalites, slap us with charges and arrest us. They can even kill some of us.”
The grim worries of the villagers are not out of the thin air. On May 22, just five days after the police firing in Silger, an unarmed woman Midiam Masa was shot dead in police firing near a new CRPF camp in Tolevarti village of Sukma. Bhatia and Dreze mentioned in their investigation report that they learnt that Masa and two others were gathering mangoes when the CRPF appeared. They started running out of fear. Two escaped but Masa could not.
Sukma is one of the 90 districts in India which are known as the red corridor, the area with considerable Naxalite–Maoist insurgency. The insurgency has cost more than 12,000 lives over the last 20 years, among which more than 2,000 were troops that were sent to these areas by the government.
However, to the local tribal people of Bastar, police forces are no saviours. On June 28, 2012, the state police had killed 17 villagers in cold blood in a staged gunfight at Sarkeguda in Bijapur. A judicial enquiry commission found that the police’s allegation that those killed were Maoists had no evidence.
Another such horror was a government-deployed militia named Salwa Judum. The militia, that ran from 2005-2011 made of surrendered Naxalites and tribal villagers raped and murdered local tribal people other than pillaging and burning down houses. Human rights activists pointed out that Salwa Judum made the tribals even more vulnerable to Naxal attacks than they were before the militia existed. The counterinsurgency program, which ran under the BJP’s rule, was termed illegal by the Supreme Court and banned.
Shukla claims that any act of oppression against the villagers benefits the Maoists. “The last government oppressed lakhs of Maoists through Salwa Judum and Maoism has increased so much.” he says.
Talking about the police’s claim of killed protesters in Silger being Maoists, “ if you shoot the villagers calling them motivated by Maoists, you are definitely trying to make at least 2000 of 50,000 protesting people into Maoist cadres. The government is doing it itself. It is serving the Maoists with cadres.” Shukla adds.
Shukla highlights the key angle to the increasing presence of troops in tribal areas.
“All the governments are behind the resources such as Iron, Manganese, Bauxite and other minerals. There is Uranium as well in Bastar. They just want to exploit the mineral resources. More than half of Bastar is under lease process. So, when they talk of roads and camps in the name of development, they do it for the rich, not the tribals.”
Reports show that the government has been granting clearances of mining to companies, and the forest land, on which the tribals has a claim, as per allowed by the Forest Rights Act, is arbitrarily siphoned off rejecting tribals’ claims.