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Pratyush Deep

17 years of exile: Chhattisgarh’s displaced Adivasis lack basic rights in AP and Telangana

Madkam Sambhu* was 18 years old when the Salwa Judum’s reign of terror began in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar. Sambhu was in Class 12, staying in a government hostel for Adivasi students in Bijapur since his village, Sawnad, was located far away, 15 km deep within the forest.

“It was terrifying,” he recalled. “They were killing and beating people, burning down entire villages in the name of fighting Maoists.”

Sambhu fled. 

Around 17 years after the events of that year, he met Newslaundry at a remote hamlet in Telangana’s Mulugu district. He’s one of thousands driven out of his home by the Salwa Judum, a state-sponsored, counterinsurgency militia that began in the Maoist-dominated district of Bastar. In 2005, the Judum had free reign over parts of the district – murdering, raping and burning down entire villages. Some Adivasis still live in camps in Bastar, others like Sambhu slipped over the state’s borders to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

And here they’ve remained. 

Along the Godavari river, from Mulugu and Bhadradri Kothegodem and Khammam in Telangana to West Godavari and East Godavari in Andhra Pradesh, the two states are home to approximately 55,000 Adivasis originally from Chhattisgarh. Their reasons to be here vary – exile, escape, employment – but since 2005, they’ve all found their way to one of 315 villages dotting these districts. 

Living in thatched huts with tiled roofs, often deep inside forests or just on the periphery, these Adivasis are known as Gutti Koya in local parlance. Most settlements lack basic facilities like water, electricity, schools and hospitals; one village often relies on a single borewell or stream for drinking water. 

Some have made their peace with their new lives but for others, it’s a long wait to return home.

Their existence is also fraught. Newslaundry met around 30 displaced Adivasis across the two states. Denied tribal status and called “outsiders” in their new homes, they live in fear of eviction. They don’t possess documents for the land they cultivate. Additionally, many fled their villages due to violence either from Maoists or the Judum, and they now live in fear of retribution. 

They also share a healthy distrust of the media and state administration, several of them speaking only on condition of anonymity.

“Please don’t reveal my identity,” one said. “There is still fear from both sides – police and Maoist.”

Migration for employment and escape

The first wave of temporary migration began in the late 1950s, when Adivasis from Chhattisgarh went to undivided Andhra Pradesh for seasonal agricultural labour. While there’s no data on numbers, Adivasis would cross the borders every January, staying for a period of four months to cultivate tobacco and chillies. 

Others came in search of land, hoping to find more than their 10-odd acres of land back home. While there are no specific numbers, a senior official with the tribal welfare department in Telangana said “five to 10 percent” of the Gutti Koya population migrated to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana for “economic reasons”.

Chintalpad village in Bhadradri Kothagudem is one of these early settlements. Locals say the village sprung up in the late 1990s comprising just 12 Adivasi families from Chhattisgarh. The Adivasis are forest-dwellers, engaging in Podu cultivation – a slash and burn form of agriculture that has often brought them in conflict with forest officials.

Chintalpad village in Bhadadri Kothegudam, Telangana.

Then came 2005.

“Judum was basically a fight against the people,” said Manish Kunjam, a CPI leader and former MLA from Chhattisgarh’s Sukma. “The special police officers, appointed during the Salwa Judum period from surrendered Maoists, spread a reign of brutality and massacred many. They burned down villages, killed anyone they found in the jungle, harassed and raped women – many other crimes that I cannot say.”

Newslaundry met Kunjam near his home in Sukma. Kunjam became a leading voice in the campaign against the Judum. In 2007, he filed a petition in the apex court holding the Judum accountable for “over 500 murders, 99 rapes and 103 acts of arson”.

After the formation of the Judum, Kunjam said, the Maoists became “even more powerful”, forming committees in every village and insisting that villagers could not even “leave their villages without taking permission”. 

“The Maoists also killed many innocents,” he said heavily, referring to Maoist operations against security forces during that period. “But in this whole saga, Adivasis were the worst sufferers. A lot of innocent Adivasis who were killed during that period had nothing to do with the police or Maoists.”

He added, “I just want to remove the memory of that period…The recollection of those incidents still sends chills down my spine.”

Sambhu was among those affected. He said members of the Judum interrogated his hostel mates as to which village they were originally from. “If your village did not join Judum, you were their target,” he said. “They were beating and torturing students.”

Terrified, Sambhu packed his belongings and left for his village and started to help his family in the field. “My plan was to return to the hostel once the situation improves. However, things started to turn worse.” 

Sambhu’s village Sawnad was “burned down” several times by the Judum between 2006 and 2007. “We would live in the forest for days due to fear of Salwa Judum,” he said. “They would come and we’d all run into the forest, afraid of getting killed. They would then burn the houses and take away our livestock.” 

He added, “Who would like to live in such a situation?”

So, he moved into a relief camp where he bided time until mid-2007, when he decided it was time to cross the border.

Sambhu set off with three others, walking for four days to reach present-day Telangana by foot, their journey taking them over hills, forests and rivers.

“We walked 40 to 50 km a day,” said Vattem Satish, Sambhu’s fellow traveller who was aged 17 at the time. “We slept only when we found water bodies. There were a lot of people like us but very little contact between us – we still don’t know who went where.”

Sambhu settled in his present hamlet in Telangana 16 years ago. He asked that it not be named, since he’s still worried about any possible retribution.

The village that Sambhu now lives in, in Mulugu district in Telangana.
An Adivasi settlement in Jalagalavancha, Mulugu district.

Escape to Andhra 

While Sambhu’s story revolved around his fear of the Judum, Madkam Deva’s journey was the opposite.

In 2005, Deva was 20 years old. His village of Pedaburkel was located 15 km deep in the forests of Jagargunda, Chhattisgarh. Notably, his village was a Maoist stronghold where, as he said, “even police did not dare to come”.

Daily life was soaked in fear and suspicion. “Both sides, Maoist and Judum, were killing each other,” he said. “If you got arrested and later released, the Maoists would doubt you, assuming you signed a compromise to get released. And if Maoists came to your home, the Judum would target you for being an informer.”

He added, “That’s how we, the Adivasis, were at the receiving end of this war between the state and the Maoist.”

In early 2007, Deva said, Salwa Judum members told his village they were in danger. “They told us the government has ordered the killing of all Maoists and that if we don’t join the Judum, we may get killed in the crossfire too,” said Deva, now 35. “So, we moved into a Judum camp.” 

At the camp, Deva recalled villagers being trained on how to use weapons to fight Maoists. “But we did not like it so we refused,” he added quickly. “Other tasks involved keeping an eye on neighbouring villages to track the activities of Naxalites. But Naxalites also set traps and ambushed Judum people. Both sides were killing each other. Nothing was certain and anybody could get killed anytime, anywhere.”

Camp life didn’t suit them for other reasons too. “What could we Adivasis do in a camp?” he pointed out. “We belong to the forest.” 

So, Deva decided to leave. His brother, who had been with him in the camp, had already left, heading for Malungur in Telangana, so Deva thought it was time for him to go too. “I went to Palnad in Dantewada on foot with some security personnel,” he said. “From there, I took a bus to Bhadrachalam.” And from Bhadrachalam, which is a town by the Godavari river in Telangana, he headed to Malungur.

But Deva’s ordeal wasn’t over. Days later, two villagers from Pedaburkel arrived, telling him they were going to “take him back”.  “They said I should return to the village and live there peacefully,” Deva told Newslaundry.  

Back home, he was “grilled” by a village-level Maoist committee, asking why he “ran away” to Andhra and what he had been doing at a Judum camp. The committee seemed satisfied with his responses but insisted he remain in Pedaburkel.

Deva was worried. “There were rumours I would be eliminated,” he said, a familiar fate for thousands of Adivasis who are suspected to be “informers”. So, he packed up his belongings yet again. 

“My friends told me, ‘Jinda rahega toh kahi par bhi ji legi, yha tera khatra hai,’” he recalled. If you are alive, you will be able to live anywhere in the world. There is danger for you here. 

These words haunted him as he slipped out of Pedaburkel early on May 24, 2007. Deva rode his bicycle for eight hours without break until he reached the Andhra border at noon. He took a bus to Bhadrachalam and then another to Malungur. 

“That was it,” he said. “Since then, I have never returned home.”

By 2008, several of his family members had joined him in Telangana. The family now lives in Devayagoom village located in Krishnasagar gram panchayat near Bhadrachalam, where Deva is now a farmer.

‘Encroachment’ and afforestation 

In Telangana’s Khammam district, Dr SK Haneef runs an NGO, Sitara Association, that works for health, education, culture and tribal rights of Adivasis. He said the migrant Adivasis from Chhattisgarh share commonalities with local Adivasis in Andhra and Telangana – both belong to the broad Koya tribe.

“So, when thousands of Adivasis flocked to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana after 2005, the local Koyas initially helped them settle and used them to clear forest land and work as cheap agricultural labour in their fields,” he explained. Over time, these displaced Adivasis set up their own villages on forest land and cleared forest land for cultivation. 

While there were approximately 35 Gutti Koya villages in both states before 2005, this shot up to 315 after 2005, when Adivasis fled the Salwa Judum terror. The senior tribal affairs official said “about 90 percent” of Gutti Koya Adivasis arrived after 2005.

Take Chintalpad village for instance, the early settlement described earlier. From 12 Gutti Koya families in the 1990s, it’s now home to at least 60 such families, according to village pradhan Mariam Sunil. 

Cultivation by Gutti Koyas inside a forest in Mulugu district.
Adivasis in Jalagalavancha in Mulugu district.

But not all of these families were fleeing the Judum. “Many people had come to stay in our village,” said villager Kattam Kosa of 2005. “Most of them stayed temporarily and later shifted out to establish separate habitats in neighbouring areas.”

The Gutti Koyas predominantly engage in Podu cultivation, which brings them against forest officials. “The problem is their rapid expansion, encroaching on forest land,” said a forest official in Bhadradri Kothagudem on condition of anonymity. “No local tribes live inside the forest like the Gutti Koyas. We cannot allow anyone to make their home so deep in the forest.”

In Bhadradri Kothagudem, three lakh acres of forest land has allegedly been lost to “encroachers”, according to officials with the Telangana forest department. “If encroachment continues at this scale, there will be no forest land left in the district in the next 10 years,” the official said.

Barely 10 percent of this “encroachment” is by Gutti Koyas, the rest being by locals. Yet it’s the displaced Adivasis, none of whom possess documents for their land, who are in the line of fire. 

Some of them told Newslaundry they’re targeted because locals, who also encroach just like them, “have an edge as this place belongs to them”, as one Adivasi put it. “But if we say something,” he added, “we are tagged as outsiders and face harassment from forest officials.”

Since 2015, the Telangana forest department has carried out afforestation drives under its flagship Haritha Haram initiative, hoping to increase the state’s 24 percent tree cover to 33 percent. However, the initiative has allegedly left many Gutti Koyas landless. Some lost portions of their land, others claimed they lost nearly 100 acres – their land taken over by forest officials to plant trees.

Displaced Adivasis told Newslaundry they are forced to move from farming to daily wage work in fields or rice mills. One of them in Telangana’s Mulugu said, “Earlier, the forest department would demolish or burn our huts to push us out of the forest. Now, they’ve started taking our land for plantation.” 

The matter even reached the Telangana High Court in 2018, based on a petition filed by some of the Adivasis. While the court restrained the administration from “destroying huts and dwelling units and other structures” of the displaced Adivasis, the court also told the Gutti Koyas their cultivation should not include “felling any trees or altering physical features of the land”.

Satish, who fled his village in Chhattisgarh with Sambhu, alleged he had lost “around 10 acres of land” to afforestation. 

Satish is originally from Kocholi village in Bijapur district, Chhattisgarh. He was in school when the Salwa Judum terror began in 2005. “Word spread that those who are studying will get a job with the police. The Maoists felt this would be a problem for them,” Satish said. “They beat us mercilessly while our hands were tied behind our backs. The police also targeted us, saying we would become Maoists. It was a hell of a life.”

Satish crossed the border with Sambhu and two others. He had set his sights on the capital city of Hyderabad and made it his home in 2006. In Hyderabad, Satish used to work as a construction worker, while his brothers were in their native village in Chhattisgarh.  Three years later, he got word that his fellow villagers had settled in Motlagudam in Mulugu. 

“Farming was still not my priority. I was planning to set up a shop in Cherla [Telangana],” Satish said. “But soon I was told by some villagers that this would not be good and I could be a target of the Maoists.”

Target why? “Because of my mobile!” he said. “I had a mobile phone at the time. They saw me speaking on it. It made them think I would use it to inform the police about their movements.”

Satish abandoned his plans and joined his fellow villagers to clear forest land for cultivation in Motlagudam in Mulugu district. It took him three years to clear 10 acres of land, he said. And eight years later, the land was seized by the forest department. 

“For a whole year, I got up in the morning, went to work, and came back home at night only,” said a dejected Satish. “I lost all of it in a jiffy.” He now only has half an acre of land left but has no motivation to cultivate it. “What will I do with this?” he asked.  

But a forest official in Bhadradri Kothagudem maintains the afforestation drive has been “quite peaceful”, and that the department has “recovered” 45,000 acres of land since 2015. “We made them understand ‘give us some and keep some for you’,” the official said. “That worked really well.”

No land, no tribal status

There are two major unresolved issues faced by the displaced Adivasis. The first pertains to their land, the second to their tribal status.

In November, the Telangana government began a survey to determine forest land rights to tribals under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The act gives tribals and “traditional forest dwellers” the right to forest land if they’ve settled in these parts before December 13, 2005.

The survey took place in 3,041 villages in 37 mandals across 28 districts of the state, including Gutti Koya settlements. Many Gutti Koyas were hopeful of getting patta, or land deeds, for their land.

But on November 22, a forest officer was killed in Bendalapadu in Bhadradri Kothagudem district when trying to evict Gotti Koya tribals of Errabodu hamlet for allegedly grazing cattle on forest land. Forest officials went on protest, demanding justice and the eviction of the Gotti Koyas. 

Bendalapadu, where a forest officer was killed in November.

The local gram panchayat also passed a resolution on November 26 excommunicating Gutti Koyas from Errabodu over the killing, even saying the community members should be sent back to Chhattisgarh. The Telangana High Court intervened on December 5 and quashed the resolution.

But for the displaced Adivasis, the damage has been done. “Earlier, I was hopeful of getting patta for our land after the official surveyed our village,” said Deva. “But the killing has finished all hope.”

Madkam Sunil, pradhan of Chintalpad, said, “If somebody has done something wrong, does that mean the whole community is criminal? We all condemn the killing. Punish the culprit. But is it right to punish the whole community for one person’s actions?”

However, officials from the tribal welfare department of the Telangana government said the murder and survey were two different issues and would have no impact on land rights. 

Which brings us to the second issue – of tribal status.

“No Gutti Koyas will get land rights,” an official told Newslaundry. “They are not considered tribals in Telangana. Please understand, the Forest Rights Act is meant for tribals who have been historically neglected.”

The displaced Adivasis are recognised as scheduled tribes in Chhattisgarh. But Gutti Koyas have no ST status in Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh or Telangana – possibly because the nomenclature is unofficial, a local term.

“We are not really aware of this term called Gutti Koya. It was a local name given to our people in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. In our revenue record, you will find we are being named as Muria or Maria and in some cases, Gond,” Kunjam said. 

Notably, Muria or Maria is not a notified tribe in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh which leads to the problem of them not being recognized as Schedule Tribe in these two states, he explained.

“Because of this, they are not being able to take the benefits under FRA as FRA clearly says in case of non-tribals one has to provide evidence of their holding over the land 75 years prior to December 2005. They went there after 2005, it is not possible for them to produce documents of 75 years,” he added.

Bugga Ramanadham, a local Koya leader and state executive member of the Adivasi Employees’ Union, said this is unfair.

“Gutti Koyas belong to the same Koya tribe with which the local tribal population of Telangana identifies,” he said. “They are recognised as a tribe in Chhattisgarh. The officials calling them Gutti Koya is a wrong interpretation. The boundaries of state are decided by the governments, not by tribes.”

*Names changed to protect identities.

This is part one of a three-part series.

Newslaundry is a reader-supported, ad-free, independent news outlet based out of New Delhi. Support their journalism, here.

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