Raipur: Residents of as many as 103 villages in Chhattisgarh’s Kanker district have launched an indefinite strike against two new Border Security Force (BSF) camps in the Maoist-affected area.
The protesters, camping at Koyalibeda in the Pakhanjur Nagar panchayat area since Wednesday, allege that the BSF camps have been built on sacred ancient tribal land — locally called Devasthals.
They are now demanding that police and the local administration pull down the two camps and restore their holy sites. The two camps have come up on the banks of the Mendaki river at Tumaraghat and Karkaghat areas of Koyalibeda.
Hemlal Markam, a resident of Koyalibeda village, told ThePrint that the camps were built on 29 November but the villagers only found out about them recently. He added that inhabitants of the over 100 villages celebrate an annual festival at the two Devasthals and also use them as a conduit for social gatherings.
Sahadeva Usendi, another protesting villager and member of tribal organisation Sarv Samaj Sangathan, told ThePrint that the two sites held special significance for the local residents.
“There used to be Devasthals at the site of the two BSF camps. Sahaja trees were planted there for worship and stones representing a number of tribal gods and goddesses were installed beneath the trees,” he said. “By the time the villagers found out about the BSF camps, the trees were already chopped off. The stones and the rice kept there for worship had also disappeared. All of this strikes at the root of local tribal faith.”
Police, however, denied the charges.
Kanker SP M.R. Ahire told ThePrint that no religious sites were damaged in the construction, adding that Maoists were behind the protests.
“There are no religious sites at the two camps. Their places of worship and kirtan are at a distance from the campsite,” he said. “The protest against the camps by a mob of villagers is being sponsored by Maoists. The Maoists are using these villagers as their shield. These people are being paid Rs 300-500 per day by the Maoists for taking part in the protests.”
Ahire said the camps will block the movement of Naxalites and strengthen the security network in the area. “Construction of roads and bridges that have been pending for so many years will accelerate due to the camps. The Maoists do not want completion of construction work at two major bridges, which will reduce the distance between Koyalibeda and Pankhajur by around 80 km,” he added.
Ahire also denied allegations that the BSF camps have been set up for the protection of any particular industry unit or mining area. “Neither any industry is going to be established here nor is there any plan to set up any big mining unit,” the SP said.
‘Will not budge until sites restored’
The protesters insist that they do not oppose the opening up of the BSF camps but are adamant that they should be moved.
“We have absolutely no problems with the BSF camp but the place where the camps have been established is the abode of tribal gods,” Lachhu Gavade, another protesting villager, told ThePrint.
The protesters said they submitted representations to Governor Anusuiya Uikey, the local administration and Antagarh MLA Anoop Nag of the Congress, but their pleas to shift the BSF camps have not been heard so far.
The protesting villagers have now readied themselves for a long haul and have assembled at the sit-in site with large amounts of ration and arrangements for beds.
“We are ready on all counts. The movement will continue until the BSF camps are removed. It won’t matter how much pressure the administration and the government applies,” Ramji Triveni, a villager from near Tumraghat, told ThePrint.
“Even before opening of these camps, the then SDM of Koyalibeda had full information about the Devasthals,” Triveni alleged. “He had also apologised for destroying our places of worship but he refused to shift the camps elsewhere. Our shrines could have been saved from destruction had he wished so.”
Kanker district collector Chandan Kumar, however told ThePrint that the talks between the SDM Koyalibeda and the protesters was meant to break the ice.
“Efforts are being made to settle the issue as a majority of villagers agree that the BSF camps are meant for their good. Those protesting are mainly doing it to please Maoists for fear of being killed by them,” he said. It’s well known that Maoist activities have prevented construction of the proposed bridges in the area. With BSF camps, Maoists are bound to be on the run. They have made the villagers as their cover. Moreover, for now, the camps are temporary in nature.”