Bastar tribals rush for photo IDs ‘to stay alive’

By Sujeet Kumar

Dantewada (Chhattisgarh), Nov 9 Panic-stricken tribals in Chhattisgarh’s restive Bastar region have been desperately knocking on the doors of photo studios. They believe they will be branded as Maoists and killed by the security forces unless they can produce photo identity cards.
While police dismiss their fears as completely unfounded, the tribals are taking no chances, what with the BSF and ITBP joining the state police and CRPF in the past week for a renewed offensive against the rebels.
Arjun Singh, who runs a photo studio in the Sukma block of Dantewada district, some 450 km south of here, told IANS: “Speculation is rife that police will wipe out local people by branding them as Maoists or Maoist sympathisers if tribals fail to produce photo I-card.”
He claimed that in the 10-12 days, some 40-50 tribals had been approaching him on a daily basis to get photos clicked.
Worried residents of hundreds of villages have been travelling several kilometres a day on foot to reach photo studios in the hope of making photo I-cards.
Manish Kunjam, president of the All India Adivasi Mahasabha, told IANS: “The entire interior population under Bastar’s 12 assembly constituencies is highly scared and panicking at reports appearing in the media that police will storm into villages soon to eliminate Maoists and also kill local people by branding them as Maoists.
“That’s why people are rushing to get photo I-cards to produce before the police force, hoping their lives will be spared then.”
The Mahasabha is known as an umbrella group of tribal organisations. Kunjam, a former legislator of the Communist Party of India, is based in Dantewada district.
The rumour comes against the backdrop of a fresh assault in the rebel-dominated interiors of the state’s 40,000 sq km Bastar area. It has been a Maoist-hotbed since the late 1980s.
A top police official in the Bastar range said he was fully aware of this development. “It looks like the sudden rush by tribal people for a photo I-card from private people or groups is a tactic by Maoists. There is no question of police doing anything to people on the basis of whether or not they have photo I-cards,” T.J. Longkumer, Bastar’s inspector general of police, told IANS.
He said superintendents of police (SPs) in five Bastar districts - Bijapur, Dantewada, Narayanpur, Kanker and Bastar - had been asked to appeal to and convince people that “no one need run scared about the anti-Maoist offensive.
“Even those families that don’t have any I-card - voter I-card or bank or post-office pass books - should not worry at all, they will not be targeted. The forces will hit only the guerillas and their hideouts,” he said.
Officials at the police headquarters in state capital Raipur say the Bastar region is home to some 10,000 Maoist militants.
At least 1,500 people have been killed in the state since 2004 in Maoist-related violence, with more than 90 percent casualties reported from the Bastar region.