Three years, 42 camps: Chhattisgarh takes fight to Naxal hotbeds, sparks local distrust

A decisive push by the government to make inroads into Left-Wing Extremism districts has seen 42 security camps coming up across seven districts of Chhattisgarh in less than three years. While these have served to take the government and security forces to areas hitherto controlled by the Naxals, the spread of these camps has been met with distrust among villagers, leading to protests in at least three districts.

While only six new camps came up in 2019, 17 were opened in 2020, 13 in 2021 and six camps so far in 2022. With nine, Sukma district has seen the highest number of new camps over the last three years. Of the 42 new camps, more than 17 are being managed by the CRPF, 14 by the state police’s Chhattisgarh Armed Forces, one by the ITBP and the remaining by the BSF. Most camps are in areas that until recently were considered to be existing in a security and administrative vacuum.

According to security officials, since the first security camps came up in Bastar in the early 2000s, the strategy has remained more or less the same — of using these to gain ground and to help in area domination.

In 2020, acting on intelligence of a gathering of Naxals, a joint team of the District Reserve Guard, Special Task Force, and the CRPF’s CoBRA commandos were sent on an operation to Elmagunda in Sukma. On their way back, at Mimpa, the forces were ambushed by Maoists. But the closest camps were 15 km away, and 17 security personnel died in the attack. Two years later, camps have come up at both Minpa and Elmagunda, barely 5 km from each other —part of a pushback by the administration.

Several new camps have been set up in areas such as Dantewada’s Potakapalli and Tetam that were once considered Maoist hotbeds. With over 40,000 security personnel in just Bastar division and more troops coming in, police believe the fighting over the region is headed to a climactic finish — and that’s where the camps are coming in handy.

“We are pushing the Maoists out of their territories, boxing them in this grid of camps, making their movement difficult. It is a decisive fight. The enemy is desperate to regain the ground that we are snatching away from them,” a senior officer said.

While the administration and security personnel believe the camps have helped in area domination, working their way into people’s hearts has been tougher with tribals in at least three districts — Narayanpur, Bijapur and Kanker — protesting against the camps.

In December 2020, villagers protested against two BSF camps, in Tumaraghat and Karkaghat, in Kanker district’s Koyalibeda area. The point of contention was that the villagers claimed the BSF had set up camp on their devasthal — their sacred land. Despite the district administration willing to pay a fine for “violating” tribal customs, the protesters demanded that the two camps be removed. According to members of the Sarva Adivasi Samaj, police officers had earlier claimed that the camps were temporary shelters, meant only for 14 months. However, they continue to exist.

In May 2021, three people died when security personnel opened fire at a crowd protesting outside the CRPF’s Mokur camp in Bijapur’s Silger. The protesters alleged illegal occupation of their land. Police, however, maintained that the three who died were Maoist supporters and had mounted an attack on security personnel. For months after the firing, residents of Silger and nearby villages in the region had sat protesting outside the camp.

The state police says a camp usually translates into security forces gaining access to over 100 sq km. “Camps provide security for development works as well as ensure better monitoring of Maoist activities. The primary aim of these camps is to make the area more accessible and fill up the security vacuum. Only then can the administrative vacuum be filled,” the officer said.

According to the state government, in March this year, 57 Naxals across cadres surrendered, 37 were arrested and four were neutralised during operations.

The officers also admit that with camps pushing into newer territories, they have also been exposed to more attacks from Naxals – 21 security personnel were killed in Naxal attacks in 2019, 36 in 2020, 46 in 2021 and four as of March 21 this year.

A senior official said Maoists have always mobilised public opinion against security camps. “They try to build as much pressure as possible on the forces so that we can’t set up these camps. But once the villagers understand they are being provoked, once they start trusting the forces, the protest usually dies down,” the officer said.

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