Chhattisgarh: "More Depressing than Afghanistan"

There is an excellent story in the Christian Science Monitor on the ongoing conflict with the Naxalites in the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh.

The story is by Mark Sappenfield, who is also briefly interviewed by another reporter at the CSM. Sappenfield was recently in Afghanistan, but he found the mood in Chhattisgarh actually much more depressing:

War zones can take their toll on the outlook of civilians caught in the conflict. Staff writer Mark Sappenfield was only in Chhattisgarh, India, for 10 days, yet he struggled with the dark mental climate there. In India, fighting between Maoist insurgents and Indian security forces has gone on for three decades (see story). He found Chhattisgarh more depressing than Afghanistan.

"In Afghanistan, there remains a fierce pride and strength of will, " says Mark. "Perhaps these qualities cause their fair share of trouble, but they also produce an iron defiance in the face of the most terrible atrocities – an unyielding resolution to be unbowed."

"In the jungles of Dantewada district I saw a people utterly broken. Whereas Afghans looked you directly in the eye, chin resolute, the people at the refugee camp had all but conceded, slump-shouldered and speaking softly, staring at nothing." (link)

The depression amongst villagers is caused partly by displacement: the intensifying conflict has resulted in thousands of tribals coming out of the forest (where the Naxalites operate) to live in government-run camps. The camps aren't run very well (malnutrition is rampant), and life for many of the people living there seems to have drifted into a kind of limbo: they can't go home until the fighting ends, and there is no sign of that happening anytime soon. Meanwhile, their entire way of life has been disrupted.

Along similar lines, check out this YouTube video by Neil Katz, an independent reporter who went to one of the camps in Chhattisgarh, and put together an informative video story on it. One of the issues that comes up in both Katz's YouTube video and the CSM story is the controversial role played by the Salwa Judum, a government-backed "peace" movement composed of tribals against the Naxalites. But it's possible that some of the actions of the Salwa Judum -- particularly the clearing of tribal villages, and the resettlement of tribals in camps -- have actually exacerbated the problem. Also, it's not clear how "peaceful" this peace movement actually is. In the CSM article linked to above, Salwa Judum head Mahendra Karma talks about the organization as a "Gandhian peace movement." But elsewhere he has called for tribal youth to be trained and armed to fight the Naxalites as a kind of paramilitary force. In my view, this would be a dangerous development.

(I did an earlier post on Maoists/Naxalites here)