By Harsha Vadlamani
In 2005, the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh inaugurated a special counterinsurgency group made up of members of a tribal group known as the Muria. The force was called Salwa Judum, which translates as “Peace March” or “Purification Hunt” in Gondi, and was meant to help the state fight the Maoist insurgency.
The Salwa Judum had important advantages over other security forces: knowledge of Gondi (the language spoken by the Muria people), intimate knowledge of local conditions, familiarity with jungle tracks, and the ability to discern who was a Maoist sympathizer. Conferred with almost unlimited powers, Salwa Judum soon outgrew its mandate, becoming a much-feared force in the jungles of Chhattisgarh.
As the fighting wore on, many Muria sought new homeland. They walked through the thick jungles for days and crossed into the Khammam district of Telangana State. Once in Khammam, the Muria cleared large patches of reserve forest to settle and grow crops. This did not go over well with the local government, which began destroying their settlements by setting them on fire and using brute force to drive the Muria away.
In 2011, the Supreme Court of India disbanded the Salwa Judum, deeming it an illegal and unconstitutional force. Several NGOs have since facilitated the Muria’s transition back to their original villages, but most of them opted to remain in limbo in Khamman. The memories of home were too painful and the conflict there is still raging on.
HARSHA VADLAMANI is an independent documentary photographer based out of Hyderabad, India.