In February this year, hundreds of villagers walked silently with bags of rice and utensils slung over their shoulders. They left behind deserted villages with a few stray cattle, old women and lactating mothers. Men, women and children in small groups trudged swiftly southwards on the deserted bus route, all headed in one direction – away from Dantewada district in southern Chhattisgarh, perhaps never to return to their ancestral village.
The exodus of Gothi Koyas, an indigenous tribe, from southern Chhattisgarh is not new. Ever since the region exploded as an epicentre of the undeclared war between armed Naxalites and security forces, thousands of them have been forcibly displaced, numerous others tortured and killed. There are estimates that in the last five years, close to one lakh of the hill people have fled from 644 villages in Chhattisgarh, many surviving on ants and leaves in the jungles. Several reports point to 30,000-50, 000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) moving away from Dantewada and Bijapur, the two conflict-ridden districts of southern Chhattisgarh, to Khammam and Warangal in northern Andhra Pradesh (AP), with which the troubled state has a long border. Another 30,000 or so have escaped to the adjoining states of Maharashtra and Orissa.
What is of great concern, though, is that largescale exodus from Chhattisgarh continues even today. On one single day, February 13, Murali, an activist with the Hyderabad-based Human Rights Forum, counted 500 adivasis crossing the border from Dantewada to Cherla village in Khammam. He visited the remote villages of Pujarikanker and Gunjapali in Dantewada, evading security forces by travelling on a motor bike through dirt tracks and jungles. "The villages are completely empty of young and able-bodied men and women," he says.
Traditionally, during the lean agricultural season between October and May, villagers from Chhattisgarh have always migrated to neighbouring states where they worked in fields of chilli, tobacco and cotton. But the armed conflict in their native villages has transformed drastically the nature of migration.
Among the major players in this human saga is the Salwa Judum, the precursor to Operation Green Hunt – the massive offensive by security forces to smoke out Naxalites from their base camps in the forests. Since June 2005 – when it was formed with recruits from among the local villagers with the sole purpose of eliminating the Naxalites and their tribal supporters – the Salwa Judum, a state-supported vigilante force, has wreaked havoc on the lives of the Gothi Koyas. Thousands of the adivasis were hunted out of their homes, their villages burnt down; hundreds more were captured, tortured or killed. Not that men in the Salwa Judum and their families haven’t faced repercussions, which have been quick and equally barbaric. Dozens have been murdered in fierce reprisals, some of whom were just innocents caught in the crossfire.
But for the Gothi Koyas there is no peace. The more they try to escape the conflict and evade involvement, the more they find themselves sucked into it. It doesn’t help that AP security forces view them with total distrust and fear, suspecting them to be Naxalite supporters since they form the social base of rebels in Chhattisgarh. And even as the Khammam district administration pleads that the displaced tribals are a drain on its resources, a burden that has been passed on by Chhattisgarh, the AP administration is bent upon making life miserable for the suffering lot. The police have slapped criminal cases against them, placed them under strict surveillance and have ordered them to report regularly to the local thana. "We have a strong suspicion that Maoists will slip out with groups of Gothi Koyas migrating from Chattisgarh," says SP, Khammam, Anil Misra. "We keep a close check on them so that they do not provide shelter and support to the Maoists."
Tragic as it may be, it is clear that even in the land the Gothi Koyas have adopted for now, they are an unwanted, persecuted group. "It’s a ticklish issue," admits the district collector of Khammam , Usha Rani. "The burden of the responsibility of Gothi Koyas cannot be shifted to us in AP. The Chhattisgarh government should take greater interest in them so that they are not forced to migrate. Otherwise, they will refuse to return and there will be tension with the locals in AP over land and employment."
Says Ramesh Kalaghatgi, additional principal chief conservator of forests, Khammam: "The migration of Gothi Koyas is unique because it is a result of social unrest. But they are viewed here as suspects and as a potential law and order problem."
The tribals, unlike in Chhattisgarh, are not recognised as a scheduled tribe (ST) in AP. This effectively denies them the protection over land and natural resources enjoyed by STs of nine states under the Fifth Schedule. The predicament of the displaced Gothi Koyas becomes even more apparent in their remote habitations in the jungles where they are making fervent efforts to make a new home and rebuild their lives. Terapadu, like other settlements in the jungle, consists of 11 huts in the Bison Hills, 2-3 km from the main road. The semblance of normal village life is visible with the cremation mound erected in the outskirts of the settlement and a small vegetable patch closer to the huts. As one inches closer, one can see a flurry of activity with adivasis in colourful clothes carrying food in utensils or lugging a live chicken.
But under this veneer of merriment there is tangible nervousness. Understandably, the Gothi Koyas are reticent about their life in Chhattisgarh, or even in AP, and it is with difficulty that their experience can be stitched together. Almost every family here has lost a relative, a brother or father, mother or niece in the conflict back home. Reed-like Marvir Maliya, the patel (village head) of Kollai in Chhattisgarh, who claims he once owned 120 acres of land and cattle, gets vocal and agitated as he recounts his past. He lost two sons and an uncle to alleged Maoist attacks, but in Terapadu the police still have branded him a Naxalite and beat him up earlier on the suspicion that he was sheltering the rebels. Ironically, when he appealed to the police to take action against Maoists for allegedly burning down huts in their settlement, the police remained mute spectators. "Who are we, really? I wonder," says Maliya. "We are accused and tortured by the police for helping Maoists. But when we appeal to the police to take action against them, they remain silent."
While there is close coordination and monitoring between the security forces of AP and Chhattisgarh to contain insurgency, there is no interaction or even contact between the civil administrations of the two states to alleviate sufferings of the IDPs. The habitations at Terapadu, Kuthur or Chalampadum in Khammam are devoid of any basic amenities – no drinking water, no schools, no medical service. The tribals buy poor quality, broken rice whenever they can afford it. Women look frail, malnourished and anaemic. Diarrhoea and scabies are widespread among children.
Following adverse reports by the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, the administration has started providing some of these habitations mid-day meals and nutrition for pregnant mothers. Doctors, supported by local NGOs, visit them and organise medical camps on a rotational basis, but the reach is limited compared to the need. And, as usual, the NGOs which have provided humanitarian aid to the IDPs and helped a few hundred return to their ancestral village – a measure that should have been taken up by the local administration – are accused by the police of being Naxalite sympathisers.
There are often forest fires here that devour a little more of the tiny spaces the Gothi Koyas have managed for themselves. And sometime the rising smoke shows no signs of the flames abating.
Rajashri Dasgupta, TOI Crest, Mar 20, 2010