On February 9, the eve of Bhumkal Diwas, Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel paid fulsome tributes to Gundadhur, the Adivasi icon who led the Bhumkal Revolt of 1910.

As historian Hira Lal Shukla writes in History of the People of Bastar, the “unexpected uprising” that year against the British government’s oppressive practices – forced labour, high taxes, liquor monopolies, forest alienation – had united all Adivasi communities in the region. The police swiftly crushed the revolt, killing 21 rebels, injuring 100, and arresting many others, but Gundadhur remained elusive, Nandini Sundar notes in Subalterns and Sovereigns.

More than a century later, Gundadhur remains in the public memory as a “symbol of tribal consciousness”, the chief minister said, adding that “his sacrifice will always give courage to the tribals to raise their voice against exploitation”.

Baghel’s statement could not have resonated louder in Bastar. On February 10, about 6,000 people gathered in Silger village in Sukma district to do exactly that – raise their voice against state repression.

The young women were part of a cultural troupe that had travelled a long distance to participate in the Bhumkal Day celebrations in Silger. Photo: Sakhi

Since May 2021, Silger has been at the centre of a massive protest. It began with its Adivasi residents opposing a paramilitary camp that had sprung up overnight in the village. After three protestors were killed in police firing, it escalated into a larger movement against militarisation in the region, giving birth to a new, youth-led organisation called the Mulwasi Bachao Manch, or platform to save the original inhabitants.

Over the past nine months, hundreds of thousands of people from the four districts of South Bastar – Bijapur, Sukma, Dantewada and Narayanpur – have defied police blockades to visit Silger and participate in the protest.

In February, the village decided to stage a three-day commemoration of the Bhumkal revolt, with sports activities, film screenings, song and dance. The commemoration was to conclude on February 11, with a three-kilometre rally to Tarrem village in adjoining Bijapur district. But Chhattisgarh police did not allow that to happen.

The movement that has emerged out of the Silger protest is seeing large-scale participation of the youth. Photo: Sakhi

Dozens of uniformed men with weapons stood behind barbed wire, a short distance from Silger, blocking the rallyists. Rajesh Chand, the station house officer of Tarrem police station, told them: “You won’t be allowed to step beyond this.”

Raghu Midiam, one of the young leaders of the Mulwasi Bachao Manch, pointed out that they had formally informed the police about the rally the previous day. Chand responded: “You may have informed, but you did not get the permission to take out the rally.”

The tehsildar of Usur, Dukaluram Dhruw, tried to persuade the gathering to abandon the march and return to their village to celebrate Bhumkal Diwas.

But the young men and women, dressed in traditional Adivasi attire, broke out into a song: “Suno jawanon, pyare sathiyon, zara Bharat ke itihaas ko dekho re” – young people, dear friends, listen to the history of India. But the police officer asked them to stop the performance, taking objection to what he called “revolutionary songs”.

Intense arguments followed. Eventually, the protestors were forced to return. As they headed back to Silger, their slogans demanding the closure of paramilitary camps and punishment to personnel responsible for civilian deaths and the abuse of Adivasi women, rang louder and stronger.

The rallyists did not fail to point out the contrast between the chief minister’s words and the police’s actions on the ground.

“We are still living in colonial times of 1910,” said 17-year-old Rakesh Markam, who had travelled 15 km from Burgicheru village, with 60 other young boys and girls, to participate in the Bhumkal Diwas commemoration. “Even today our land and forest are forcibly taken away from us and when we challenge this, there is no hesitation in killing us.”

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'We will bear the sticks and the bullets, but we won't give up on our land,' said the young protestors. Video: Sakhi

The blockade

One of the reasons the nine-month-old Silger agitation has become a watershed moment in the conflict between Bastar’s Adivasis and security forces is the large-scale involvement of young people.

Most of the leaders of the Mulwasi Bachao Manch are aged between 17 to 28 years. Many of them are still in high school and college, or have recently passed out.

Raghu Midiam, for instance, is 22. He passed out of Class 12 from a government school in Konta town in 2021 and is fluent and expressive in both Gondi, his native language, and Hindi, the official language of Chhattisgarh. Explaining why young people were protesting, he said: “Such killings have continued for decades now, regardless of which party is forming the government.”

The ability of the young leaders to communicate in Hindi has enabled them to clearly state their demands in their negotiations with government officials, said Soni Sori, the Adivasi activist who is a former school teacher.

But this effectiveness has come at a price: in January, eight of the nine key leaders of the Mulwasi Bachao Manch were charged in Maoist-related cases.. The same month, five of them and four supporters were detained from a bus, under the pretext of coronavirus testing, while they were on the way to meet the Governor.

The police have alleged that the youth participation in the Silger protests is not a spontaneous outburst of anger against the establishment of the security camps. They claim that the Maoists were successful in mobilising young students who had returned home in 2020 after their schools and colleges were shut down during the coronavirus-induced lockdown.

In Bastar, a large section of Adivasi children live away from their villages to study in government-run residential schools and colleges. Ordinarily, they wouldn’t spend more than a month or two at home every year, but the lockdown meant they were in the village for an extended period.

However, leaders like Raghu Midiam, Dularam Kowasi, Gajen Mandavi and others rubbish the police claim. “It is true the lockdown forced us to remain in villages,” said 20-year-old Dularam Kowasi, “but this only meant that we were witness to the atrocities committed against our own people.”

These young boys had trekked over 15 km to come to Silger to participate in the Bhumkal Diwas commemoration. Photo: Sakhi

Either the police arrest the leaders slapping false cases against them, like they did in the case of 28-year-old Madkam Hidme, an Adivasi activist, or they kill them and declare them to be Maoists, Gajen Mandavi said. Arrested in March last year, Hidme continues to languish in prison.

In May, the government had set up an inquiry into the police firing at Silger, promising a report within six months. But nine months later, there are no signs of it.

Raghu Midiam pointed out that much like the previous investigations ordered into police firing – the 2012 Sarkeguda episode in which 17 villagers, including six minors, were killed; the 2013 incident of Edesmeta village that left eight villagers including four children, dead; the 2019 incident of Tadballa where 10 villagers, including eight minors, were killed – the Silger inquiry appeared to be fading into inconsequential oblivion.

“But we will continue to remind the government of its responsibilities and demand justice,” he said. The government’s silence, he added, would only lead to the number of protestors swelling further.

The resourcefulness of the young

Indeed, the Bhumkal Diwas celebrations had brought a fresh crop of young people to Silger.

Nineteen-year-old Gangi had come from a village in Bijapur’s Pamed block, 22 km from Silger, to volunteer with the Manch. The Class 12 passout said, with a laugh, “I have become a part of the Mulwasi Bachao Manch only recently, so do not ask me deep questions.”

Asked whether she had come to Silger of her own volition, she shot back: “Who would compel me?”

But why were young people opposing the building of roads, I asked, when the government claims they usher in development. “We are not opposed to roads,” she said, “but these wide roads usher only security camps.”

“Where are the schools, anganwadi centres and hospitals that the government promises?” she demanded.

She added that by flooding the area with security forces that had made it difficult for people to roam around freely, the government had failed to respect the connection that Adivasis have with the forests.

The Bhumkal celebrations in Silger were marked by song and dance. Photo: Sakhi

Not all young people who had come to Silger had been to school, though.

Inside a makeshift hut, on the morning of February 10, 17-year-old Muke Madkam and 19-year-old Sarita Mandavi were hurriedly getting ready to join the march in their traditional attire. They were part of a cultural troupe of young teenage girls from villages around Kishtaram, a village in Konta block. None of them had attended school. “If our village had schools, we would have attended it, but instead we have a thana,” said Mandavi.

The village schools in the Kishtaram area had been moved out to Maraiguda, 50 km away, in the heydey of the Salwa Judum, an anti-Maoist vigilante movement supported by the state. Over a decade and half later, most still haven’t resumed. The block education officer of Konta, SK Deep, blamed the coronavirus pandemic.

For health facilities, the residents of these villages usually rush to Bhadrachalam, 84 kms away, when the local traditional healer fails to cure them, the girls said.

“We want health and education facilities,” emphasised Mandavi. If not, there will be another Bhumkal, she declared.

As the day grew brighter, food began to be cooked for the gathering. A young man distributed onions, lentils and dried red chilies to different groups engaged in the cooking. “Families donate Rs 20-30 for such events, which are pooled together to purchase the ration,” he explained.

Some distance away, under a large shed, a young boy with a fashionable hairstyle, dressed in jeans, deftly handled a battery-operated printer. It churned out coloured prints of posters that were quickly stuck to sticks and handed over to the gathering crowd that was getting ready for the march.

How do they manage to support such equipment, I asked. “Villagers and even sarpanches have generously contributed to this,” he said, with a smile.

Is the Chhattisgarh government underestimating the Bastar youth?