In 2005, the state government of Chhattisgarh in central India raised an armed civilian vigilante group called Salwa Judum (Peace March or 'Purification Hunt' in Gondi) to complement the state and central security forces combating the Maoist insurgents in the state. Conferred with almost unlimited powers, Salwa Judum soon outgrew its mandate and became a much feared name in the jungles of Chhattisgarh.
Caught in the crossfire between the security forces- including the Salwa Judum, and the Maoists, many of the indigenous Muria tribals walked through thick jungles for days and crossed the border into the neighbouring state of Telangana, where they continue to be harassed by police and forest officials.
In 2011, the Supreme Court of India disbanded Salwa Judum terming it illegal and unconstitutional. Several NGOs have since facilitated the Murias’ transition back to their respective villages but most of them opted to stay back as the memories of home were too painful and the conflict had no resolution in sight.
A maize farm abutting a house in a Muria settlement at Balimera in Telangana’s Khammam district.
Khammam district in Telangana, which shares a long border with Chhattisgarh, has 16,000 internally displaced Murias living in 203 settlements on both sides of the Godavari River.
Women and children hang around before lunch under a huge banyan tree in Balimera.
Vanjam Aitamma leads her cattle for grazing in the forest at Lankapalli. Forests on both sides of the state border are very similar and abundant in Mahua, a tree around which the lives of Murias are centered.
A stream flows over the road that leads to Thatigonde, an interior settlement in the Khammam district of Telangana. The settlement, like many others, is cut off from the rest of the world during the monsoons as the streams are in full spate.
Taati Rudriah at his farm in Kondapuram.
Tellarayigudem, by virtue of being very close to a revenue village, has electricity and the Murias do not have to walk very far to fetch water from the hand pump.
A recently felled tree inside the forest at Balimera. The Murias clear large patches of the forest to build their settlements and farming, an act which doesn’t go down well with the forest officials.
A sick man rests during the day at Tellarayigudem.
Muchakki Ungi (left) threshes paddy in her house in Tellarayigudem.
In 2004 Madakam Lachmi’s 19-year-old brother and three others was shot dead by helicopter-borne Salwa Judum assialants while they were fishing at the village pond. Terrified by the incident, Lachmi and her mother moved with 50 other families from the village into the forest, where they lived for three years before migrating to Tellarayigudem.
All men in the age group of 16-40 years in Lankapalli have to report at the police outpost in Edugurrallapalli every week without fail. They are often forced to work without pay at the police outpost and subjected to beatings, but by not turning up at the police station for more two weeks they risk being labelled Maoists by the police.
A woman carries paddy seedlings to a field at the foot of a hill in Thatigonde. The agricultural practices of the Murias are quite rudimentary and the produce is barely sufficient for their own needs.
On January 23, 2012, Central Reserve Police Force personnel surrounded Nimmalagudem, on the Chhattisgarh side of the border and arrested Madvi Parvathi (22), who was married for five months and two months pregnant then, along with Kovasi Somidi (16). They were beaten with rifle butts and then dragged through the jungle for three days when they could no longer walk. She had been illegally detained for three months and suffered a miscarriage.
At Tellarayigudem, men return from working for a contractor in the forest during the day.
Soyam Chilakamma stands in front of her hut destroyed by forest officials, who she says even took away money and valuables, in Aalubavi. The villagers have since moved to a different plot of land near by which falls under another village limits.
A family fishes in a small stream in the forest around lunchtime near Balimera.
A Muria man carries water past a church in Ramachandrapuram, one of the early settlements in the region.
Soyam Lachimi in a temporary structure the family built in Kondapuram after forest oficials destroyed their hut in Aalubavi.
A young man in a contemplative mood at Thatigonde. Seven years after they began fleeing Salwa Judum and entered Andhra Pradesh, the Murias continue to live in a state of neglect and are denied all basic facilities and rights by the administration.