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Scholar-activists- Hounded In Bastarville

Taking on scholar-activists, the police send out this message: all is fair in the war on Maoists.
NOT A JOKE
Anthropologist Nandini Sundar was accused in a murder case
PHOTOGAPH BY SANJAY RAWAT

The Chhattisgarh Police desc­ribe its “Mission 2016 Bastar” as an “aggressive, multi-pronged strategy to combat Maoism in its various manifestations”. One of these “manifestations”, to pol­ice eyes, is moving the Supreme Court against atrocities on tribals by security for­ces during counter-insurgency operations. Delhi University professor Nandini Sundar, who has aut­hored Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar, 1854-1996and The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar, recently had to approach the apex court for relief in a case of conspiracy to murder against her, JNU professor Archana Prasad and four others. The bench directed the police to refrain from pursuing the frivolous litigation after the Chhattisgarh government adm­itted in court that it did not have a case against them. Additional soli­citor general Tushar Mehta gave an undertaking that the state police would neither arrest nor continue with investigations against them and the bench made a four-week warning mandatory in case the police were to proceed against them.

The Chhattisgarh police had lodged an FIR against Sundar, Prasad and the others for being accomplices to and instigating the murder of an “anti-Naxal activist” Sha­mnath Baghel. The police claimed they acted on a complaint made by Baghel’s wife and testimonies of others from his village in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. This was followed by news of the alleged complainants, including the slain man’s wife, clearly denying they had filed any complaint against Sundar and others.

The FIR alleged that Sundar and the others had gone undercover to hold a meeting in the village sometime around May, where they asked people to support the outlawed CPI (Maoist). Baghel is said to have protested then and, in October, he was killed by Maoists. “The state government shouldn’t have filed this case,” says Sanjay Hegde, senior advocate. “The witnesses denied the statements used in the FIR, rendering it false. The police often become a law unto themselves, using the power of recording an FIR by involving all and sundry, including those they see as opponents.”

“There has always been a focus on probing the activities of academics and activists because many of them would be in the ‘urban Maoist’ network. But, there were strict instructions to not file cases unless a very senior officer had closely scrutinised the charges and weighed the evidence properly,” says a bureaucrat, earlier in charge of the Naxal division of the Union home min­istry. “That’s because many of them are high-profile persons with genuine ­motives and interests.”

Having worked as a researcher and written extensively about Bastar, its people and the conflict in the region, Sundar, along with former bureaucrat E.A.S. Sarma and historian Ramachandra Guha, had petitioned the Supreme Court to intervene in alleged massacres and mass displacement of tribals by the anti-­Naxal militia Salwa Judum, formed in 2005 by Congress leader Mahendra Karma, who was eventually killed by Maoists on May 25, 2013. At its peak, the Judum had mobilised at least 3,000 tribals, who were called SPOs (special police officers) and drew flak for several alleged instances of murder, rape, torture, arson and pillage in which they targeted tribals who would not join them, marking them as Maoist sympathisers. The Maoists also sought vengeance, labelling many as police informers or Judum supporters and killing them.

Acting on the PIL by Sundar and others, the Supreme Court declared the Judum’s activities illegal in July 2011 and directed the state to disband the SPOs. Earlier, in March that year, the petitioners had drawn the court’s attention to a five-day police operation in which the security personnel had allegedly set fire to a large number of tribal houses in three villages, including Tadmetla. The apex court ordered a CBI probe into the incident.

Five years later, on October 21, 2016, the CBI filed its first chargesheet, charging seven constables for arson, while not going into the role of the senior officers in charge of the operation and dismissing allegations of rape and assault. In fact, instead of lodging a fresh FIR, the CBI had drawn up its chargesheet on the FIR lodged by the very pol­ice officer who led the operation.

The Chhattisgarh Police had lodged an FIR against Nandini Sundar and five ­others, accusing them of ­involvement in the murder of an ‘anti-Naxal’ activist.
On October 23, Bastar inspector-­general (IG) of police S.R.P. Kalluri, acc­epted responsibility for “whatever happened during the operations”. As the then special superintendent of police, he had deployed the forces, he claimed, because the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was breathing down his neck to probe previous instances of human rights violations.

The next day, the auxiliary forces personnel (comprising former SPOs) burnt effigies of the petitioners and, two days later, Manish Kunjam, Sukma-based former MLA and national president of the Adivasi Mahasabha, who had filed another PIL against police and Judum atrocities, was attacked by a self-styled “anti-Naxal” vigilante group during a press conference. And, on November 5, Kalluri announced the lodging of the FIR against Sundar and others.

“It is very rare for trial courts to grant bail in murder cases,” says Hegde. “The Supreme Court has said that courts should order departmental and magi­sterial inquiry into such false cases, pending which the policeman should not be ­returned to duty.”

False cases against grassroots activists or local journalists is not a phenomenon unique to Chhattisgarh, but is seen in conflict zones across the country. That’s besides reports of allegedly police-­orchestrated social media campaigns against journalists who question extrajudicial killings and torture.

Last year, Outlook reported on the many cases filed against rights activist Dandapani Mohanty and his son, Sangram, in Orissa. Mohanty, who had been a mediator between the Maoists and the state government in securing the release of Italian tourists and IAS officer R. Vineel Krishna from Maoist captivity, was charged with case after case and denied bail. His son, too, was jailed soon after he announced his int­ention to launch a new political party. The police claimed that some villagers had seen Sangram at some Maoist meetings where plans to blow up mobile towers and to attack the police were being discussed, but the villagers denied making such statements.

When the Supreme Court finally granted bail to the younger Mohanty, the Orissa police picked him up from the jail gate and re-arrested him in another case. He was released only after the apex court was informed the next day.

The NHRC, too, has taken suo motu cognisance of the Sundar case as well as frequent reports of alleged atrocities against human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, academics and other citizens in Chhattisgarh. On November 17, the NHRC summoned Kalluri and the chief secretary to appear before it and, “with all reports, to explain the allegations made against the police and administration in the media and by human rights defenders”. Soon after, Kalluri complained of chest pain and was admitted to a hospital in Visakhapatnam for treatment of coronary and kidney ailments. He has returned since and rejoined work, but didn’t ­respond to Outlook’s email queries and refused to comment on phone.

“The Supreme Court doesn’t have the administrative or infrastructural backup to enforce its orders. So it’s up to the government,” says Ramachandra Guha. “Chhattisgarh didn’t do much to implement the 2011 SC order on Salwa Judum.”

Veteran political commentator Prem Shankar Jha says, “They are trying to use ­police procedure as a weapon against civil society and democr­acy. By targeting somebody famous, who has app­roached the courts and is under their protection, they send out the message that anyone is fair game.”

Pointing out that Bastar’s remoteness lets many things go unreported, Guha says, “When we visited Bastar in 2006, Judum activists surrounded us and could well have murdered us. The same year, the then police chief Vishwa Ranjan called us Naxals in public. In no other state would you hear a senior police ­off­icer abusing intellectuals publicly. So, the case against Sundar is a culmination of years of lawless governance. Despite her family fearing for her life, she keeps returning to Bastar because of her commitment to the people. If a world-­renowned anthropologist is treated in this way, you can only imagine what local journalists have to face.”

As the year closes, Mission 2016 Bastar has claimed more than 150 lives, of whom 134 are alleged to be Maoists. And, at the time of the filling of this report, news reached the national capital that a team of lawyers and journalists had been arr­ested by the police en route to a fact-­finding mission in Bastar.http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/hounded-in-bastarville/298311

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Comment (1)

  1. K SHESHU BABU

    Activists and educational scholars have been facing harassment and torture since many years. Now, the frequency of arrests and tortures has spread to journalists and lawyers. This is undemocratic and SC has to issue stricter orders to curb such atrocities not only on the activists but also common people

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