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BackYou are here: NewsIndia Channel 4 Report--Indian Winter: Maoist Rebels in Chhattisgarh


Channel 4 Report--Indian Winter: Maoist Rebels in Chhattisgarh

Nick Paton Walsh, Channel 4 News

A series of murders, looting, and rapes by a government-backed militia have targeted impoverished tribal people in some of India's most mineral-rich areas, according to witnesses and testimony gathered by Channel 4 News as part of a month-long investigation.

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The tribal communities in the rural province of Chhattisgarh have been frequently targeted - homes burned, possessions stolen, and people often indiscriminately killed - by groups of armed men who victims claim are under government control. These groups target a communist insurgency active in about half of India, known as the Naxalites.

One of the most harrowing accounts is of an attack against a two-year-old boy called Suresh, three of whose fingers were cut off by the militia. They came to his village - Gompad - in October looking for Naxalites militants. At first they poked the child with rifle butts and sticks, according to some witness accounts, in front of his mother.

When she failed to give them information on the Naxalites, they then reportedly cut off her one of her breasts and then stabbed her to death.

Suresh had begun crying incessantly, irritating the militiamen. They placed him on his mother's chest in a bid to stop him crying, but then - a witness and relatives told us - they cut off the three fingers from his left hand. The child's great grandmother told one of our cameramen: "They stabbed his grandparents and aunt and after that they put this child on his mother's chest so that he wouldn't cry. Then they chopped his fingers off." Suresh has, since our cameras filmed him in the jungle about five weeks ago, been taken into police custody where he now remains.

While the Naxalites are often rurally based militants who are also accused of atrocities against government forces and their sympathisers, they claim to represent the interests of the poor in a struggle against the onward march of industry in India's mineral rich provinces.

The conflict between state forces and these insurgents has raged for decades, yet recently peaked when the government launched an offensive last year, which they announced two weeks ago would be renewed in the coming months. The Indian government has denied these allegations repeatedly in the past, but declined to comment on our investigation despite repeated requests.

The Channel 4 News investigation will also broadcast the first pictures of the village of Tetemadugu, razed by militia two months ago. The images show about half the houses in the village burned to the ground. One resident from the village told us that he witnessed the murder of four people in the village by the government backed militia.

Another survivor, who has asked to be called only Madke in fear of reprisals, told us how she was raped. "Two people caught me and they took to me the jungle and they raped me, and left me there. "They covered my mouth with their hands so I don't make a noise. Whilst they were burning the houses I fled."

A number of pro-government groups are operative in the areas where these attacks took place, although victims are often unclear who their assailants are as actual police, paramilitaries known as special police officers, and militiamen all dress in the same civilian clothes. But witnesses often refer to their assailants as "police" or as belonging to a militia funded by the government called the "Salwa Judum". These militia have also set up a series of camps into which the tribal people of areas affected by years of violence have been herded.

The government says this is to protect them from Naxalite violence, although some inhabitants we have spoken to complain their relatives have been murdered by the insurgency; once inside the camps the Naxalites consider them government sympathisers.

The Indian government has described the Naxalite insurgency as its number one internal threat. In the past few months it has rushed in thousands more troops into the Chhattisgarh area.

The government has also - according to local journalists - restricted the movement of the press in the area, leading to the claim that the campaign against the insurgency involves brutalities the state seeks to keep quiet.

Some activists claim the campaign is also aimed at removing ancient tribal people from their land, beneath which often sits large deposits of minerals such as coal and iron ore.

One activist, Himanshu Kumar, described a campaign intended to displace and terrify local communities, which the government vehemently denies. He said: "Reports we are getting from the villages say some 70,000 people have fled to neighbouring states and more than this are hiding in the jungles, and forest. They're scared, they should be scared. That is the motivation of the operation, not just shooting the insurgents."

Arundhati Roy, the novelist who is a passionate advocate against the crackdown in these tribal areas, told Channel 4 News that the counterinsurgency was an "atrocity" against the "poorest people" of India. "You've burned their villages. You have thousands living off the forest", she said. "It's a kind of structural atrocity. It's not about chopping up people or bombing them but a structural attack on the most vulnerable people of the country. It's displacement on a scale thats huge."

She added that she believed the crackdown was linked to the Indian state's appetite for minerals. "If you look at a map of India now: the forest, the minerals, the tribals; are all sitting on top of each other. So to get at the minerals you have to get rid of the tribals and the forest."

The Indian Authorities did not respond when we put these allegations to them, but have previously insisted they only target terrorists.

January 24, 2010