'17 people were killed in cold blood’

Face to Face:  Ajit Jogi, first Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh

Akash Bisht Delhi

Ajit Jogi was the first chief minister of Chhattisgarh. Representing the Marwahi Scheduled Tribe, Jogi wields a certain clout among senior politicians across the spectrum.A gold medalist from Maulana Azad College of Technology in Bhopal, Jogi is a mechanical engineer who also worked briefly as a lecturer at the Government Engineering College, Raipur. During his days of teaching, he was selected in the Indian Police Service (IPS). He also got shortlisted for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Later, he became the Collector of Raipur. In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi convinced him to retire from IAS and join politics. With the support of Arjun Singh,Jogi was nominated to Rajya Sabha where he enjoyed two consecutive terms. After the death of Rajiv Gandhi, Jogi managed to get in the good books of Sonia Gandhi and senior Congressmen. He was appointed as the party’s spokesperson. On April 20, 2004, Jogi met with a car accident; he has been on a wheelchair since then. However, he continues to be in active politics. Distraught by the recent incident where 17 tribals were killed by security forces, Jogi gave a passionate speech in the Chhattisgarh assembly that apparently had many MLAs in tears. Hardnews caught up with Ajit Jogi to discuss human rights in his state, the hounding of tribals, Maoists,and political dimensions of the conflict unfolding in the dense forests of Chhattisgarh.

Home Minister P Chidambram recently praised the security forces for the operation that killed 17 people in Chhattisgarh. How do you see that?

Yes, he did that, but he rendered an apology after he was informed about what had happened.  Everyone knows that these were innocent people. Till date, it has never happened that Naxals have left dead bodies of their cadre at ground zero. Never before has it happened that 17 of their people were killed and their bodies have been left behind. This suggests that these were ‘ordinary’ tribals.

What will happen now?

Nothing will happen. They have initiated a judicial enquiry that would only show a way of how things should be done in future. They will not do anything.  The judicial enquiry is an eyewash. The British started this trend of judicial enquiry. Whenever any untowardly incident happened that involved Gandhi, Nehru and others, British would merely appoint a judge to look into the matter. You and me have no say in any of these enquiries. It usually takes a long time to start the process and once it starts police would force some 100-200 people to make fake confessions. The process would take four to five years and by then the issue would be forgotten.

 

So what happens to the human rights of tribals in Chhattisgarh?

They are being sandwiched between the Naxalites and security forces. More than 900 villages were abandoned and close to 70,000 people were living in camps run by State-sponsored outfits like Salwa Judum. India’s human rights record as far as tribals are concerned is shameful. Take the recent incident wherein 17 people were killed by security forces in cold blood in Sarkeguda. They killed innocent children. One of those killed was a 15-year-old boy Madkam Ramvilas. He was a brilliant student and his English was far better than most of the people. When someone saw his notebook, they were shocked to see usage of words like thou, thee and thy that are no longer used in modern English language. He was one of the brilliant students who had been selected by the same state government to visit Vishakhapatnam. Can such a brilliant child be a Naxalite?

 One of the persons killed in the incident was branded as a hardcore Naxalite and police claimed that he had run away from jail following a jailbreak. It is a fact that he had indeed run away from jail with 300 other people. When this boy was taken to jail he was 12; now he is 15. He came to his village in 2009 and since then he has been living in this village. Meanwhile, he got married, had two kids. If he was a hardcore Naxal then would he have lived in this village which is just 3km from the nearest police station? If he was such a dreaded Naxalite, then why didn’t the police arrest him all these years? Another 12-year-old girl, Saraswati, was also shot dead. Was she a Naxalite?

 

It is being alleged that the Special Police Officers (SPOs) recruited for Salwa Judum are still working with the state government and carrying out their sinister agenda?

 To keep Salwa Judum alive is in the interest of the BJP government. No one benefitted from Salwa Judum, including tribals, Naxals, Congress or anyone else. It was BJP that benefitted immensely from the militant organization. More than 70,000 people were confined to these camps under the gaze of police. The government is using these people to their own electoral advantage. Their votes are cast without their consent; this is the reason the BJP does so well in these tribal areas. The government has kind of intoxicated such outfits with the power to kill anyone at will. Now, they settle their personal disputes by killing their rivals and declaring them as Naxals. They were not formally recruited, had no formal training, the government just gave them guns. Then came the Supreme Court order that declared Salwa Judum as illegal and unconstitutional. After the verdict, the outfit was disbanded, but Chhattisgarh government recruited them in the police as constables. This gesture had an impact and most of these men became hardcore loyalists of Raman Singh. Earlier they were paid Rs 1,500 as stipend, but now they are being paid Rs 15,000. Now they have no work except for killing people. They also used to flex muscles during elections. They use guns to get votes for their master. No one is paying heed to these ramifications.

 

Do you see an end to this conflict?

It has to end because there is no place for change through violence in a democratic country. Maoists want to take over power by using violence and this is impossible in a large country like India. Fidel Castro must have done it in Cuba and so have others in smaller countries in Latin America. But in a vast country like India that has a 1.2 billion population, this is unachievable.

 What about negotiations?

They are very important. The Maoists  must also be looking for some sort of solution. Who would prefer roaming in these jungles for 20 years? Even Maoists must have got fed up with this constant struggle for survival. It is not easy to survive in these jungles for 20 years. Indeed, we should welcome anyone who is willing to negotiate. Swami Agnivesh wants to mediate, but he is not being entertained. You don’t have anyone who can talk to Naxals on your behalf and these individuals should have the support of Naxalites as well.

What is your assessment of their presence in Chhatisgarh?

They control entire South Bastar and in north they are active in Narayanpur, Abhujmaad, Dhamtari and Orcha. Every district in Chhattisgarh has considerable Naxal influence and it is only growing with passing time. They are now gaining popularity in areas that were out of bounds all this while.   

How are they managing this?

If I blame Raman Singh then people will say that I am doing politics. But I have reasons to back my claim. In the 2003 and 2008 elections, while rest of Chhattisgarh recorded average voter turnout, it was opposite in Naxal areas where polling booths recorded massive turnouts. Areas where voter turnout should not have exceeded 20 per cent, recorded 75 per cent polling. This is despite the fact that Naxals had issued threats of killing anyone who goes to vote. This bogus voting allowed BJP to win 10 out 11 seats in the state. These numbers make a huge difference in Chhattisgarh that has only 90 assembly seats. How can Congress make up in such a situation?  Sarkeguda, a Naxal hotbed, recorded 85 per cent polling. The locals informed me that none of them voted in any of the elections.

We want free and fair elections. We want independent agencies to monitor polling and record videos of the proceedings. The monitoring agency should be independent, or else Raman Singh will try to influence them.  

What about central welfare schemes like MGNREGS in Naxal areas?

These schemes will only benefit the people if they were properly implemented.  Everything is done on paper. Accordingly, work has been done, payments made and names of non-existent people have been added.  But how does one inspect these sites? I can’t go there, neither can Jairam Ramesh, to see the progress of these projects. So, no one knows what is happening on the ground. Surprisingly, these schemes are helping Naxalites in getting stronger. There is a clear formula in these areas. If there is a project worth Rs 1,00,000 then Rs 50,000 would go to them and politicians, government officials and contractors would share the rest. If you don’t pay them then they will not let you build anything. Not even on paper. The entire money that the government is spending is being used by Naxals to buy AK-47 and SLRs.

 

Experts say that Naxalism has become weak in other states, but it has shown immense growth in Chhattisgarh. How do you explain this?

 If they go and kill 17 innocent people like they did in Sarkeguda then what do you expect tribals to do? They killed 17 people in cold blood; won’t their family members want to avenge their deaths? If they don’t become Naxalites, then what else would they do?

 

Do you think that the Centre should interfere in this?

How can the Centre do that? You will have to change the Constitution. Law and order is a state subject and if we try to do that they will raise the question of the federal structure of India. We will have to think of new strategies. Look at how Rajshekhar Reddy brought an end to these issues. Look at how it ended in Nepal.  People say Reddy did it with negotiations, but it was social development that did the trick for him. Maraiguda is a classic example of how it can be done. Half of this village is in Andhra, half in Chhattisgarh. The Andhra part of the village has water pipelines, school, hospital, while our part of Maraiguda has only Naxals. The contrast is for all to see.

Are you suggesting that YSR’s model should be adopted by states facing similar issues?

Yes. He did amazing development work in areas that had a Naxal problem. He built roads in no time while Raman Singh says that they don’t allow us to build roads. What is the use of his being in power if he can’t build roads? Use security forces and ensure that roads are built.

Locals believe that Naxals are better for them as they don’t kill innocent people like security forces do. It is not that Naxals are not killing people, they kill informers and that too in a very barbaric manner. People believe that Naxals are better suited for them than us.

Why is there so much distrust between the people and the government?

The socio-economic development of the tribals is of great significance. If we can give them education, health facilities, land, then we can win them over. On the contrary, the state hospitals in these areas. Some of them were established 60 years ago.

The state government says that since no one wants to go and work in these areas, they have decided to stop their functioning. Now, they have been turned into CRPF camps. Whatever development took place in the last 100 years has been reduced to zero by the BJP government. There are no gram sewaks, teachers, nurses, doctors, roads and bridges in these areas.  

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2012