Ashok Sodhi, a tribal from the remote village of Vedre in Bijapur district, was forced to leave his village three years ago after he was caught in the crosshairs of both the police and the Maoists.Just 17 years old then, Sodhi was suspected by both of being an informer and faced regular harassment. He was made to sit in the local police station for hours and questioned and faced similar treatment from the Maoists in his village.
As it became a routine affair, Sodhi, who studied till Class 10, decided to leave the village and now lives on the outskirts of Bijapur city. It has been three years and he hasn’t gone back to his village. After sometime, he called his old parents to stay with him while two of his elder sisters married in the same village and continue to live there.Leaving the village was not an easy decision for Sodhi and he still feels the pain, but he felt he had no choice. In fact, he still dreads being implicated in some case by the police or being targeted by the Naxals.
“I was picked up by police many times and questioned for hours as they suspected I was involved with the Maoists. Similarly, I was called by the Maoists and warned because they thought I was a police informer. I was clueless as to why they both thought so about me and did not know what to do when this became a routine affair. So, I decided to leave the village,” says Sodhi, who does odd labour jobs and works as a cook for a living.
This is not the story of Sodhi alone. There are thousands of youngsters like him who face a similar situation. In many villages in the Maoist-affected Bastar region, one finds only old people living; most of the youngsters have migrated out of fear.“There is a clear trend of migration from tribal areas and youths are leaving their villages to live in cities because of injustice done to them,” says Alok Shukla of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Aandolan.
Sarva Adivasi Samaj, a tribal welfare organisation, echoes similar views and says that tribal youths face the wrath of both police and Maoists because of which they are forced to leave their villages and work as labourers in nearby cities and towns.The government has also recognised the problem. There are several schools and hostels run with funds from both Central and state governments to accommodate children from Maoist affected areas.
The 2018 report of the United Nations on ‘Children and Armed Conflict’ also expresses concern that children continue to be affected by incidents of violence between armed groups and the government, particularly in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and in Jammu and Kashmir. The UN continued to receive reports of recruitment and use of children for perpetrating violence, including by the Naxalites, particularly in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
Kamal Nag (name changed) left his village at the age of 13. His parents feared for his life as there were several incidents of Maoists recruiting children.“I came to live in Dantewada and started working in a hotel. My parents still live in the village but I rarely visit them. I feel sad that they are old and I cannot be with them. We have agricultural land in the village; they don’t want to leave that and come and live with me in the city,” he said.
Activists say the conflict between State’s development goals and tribal rights is often the reason for people being harassed by government authorities.While the villages in the vicinity of towns and cities in Bastar have benefitted from development schemes as they have roads, water and electricity, many villages deep inside the forests are still devoid of electricity and road connectivity.
“There was no road connectivity, so villagers decided to clean some part of the jungle and make a temporary road. Immediately, they were all put behind bars by police for destroying reserve forest. The government is continuously destroying forests by giving land to industrialists for setting up big projects. But if the people who have been living here for ages cut a few trees, they are put behind bars. This is the kind of torture tribal people face regularly, but still they don’t protest and just want to live in harmony with nature,” said Prakash Thakur of Sarva Adivasi Samaj.
Chhattisgarh has 7.6 per cent of country’s total tribal population. Of the 29 reserved seats in the state, 12 are in Bastar.The issue of mass exodus of tribals from Bastar to nearby areas in Andhra Pradesh in search of jobs has been politically exploited by both the BJP and the Congress. However, both the parties have failed to provide a solution while the tribals continue to bear the brunt of the battle between the Maoists and the security forces.