The security forces in Bastar have embarked on a new and dangerous phase in the conflict with the Maoists.

The Government of Chhattisgarh and the centre are embarking on a very dangerous new phase in their war on the Maoists. Senior officials of the state police have initiated a new avatar of the Salwa Judum, thereby showing that they do not care a fig for the Supreme Court’s directions banning vigilante groups. The Maoists have stepped up their retaliatory violence, including the killing of informers. And on 30 March seven jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were blown up in a bomb blast organised by the Maoists.

Salwa Judum began life as the Jan Jagran Abhiyan, which involved the police assembling villagers at a predetermined place, and forcing them to inform on the sangham members or active Maoist sympathisers in their village. These sangham members were made to surrender and some of them were appointed as special police officers (SPOs), and then armed.

In the last few months the police have been carrying out Jan Jagran Abhiyans on a large scale. The state police and CRPF have been raiding villages and picking up men en masse. They are kept in police stations or CRPF camps for several days, before some of them are shown as arrested. Others are shown as having “surrendered” in grand ceremonies at which the Inspector General of Bastar Range, S R P Kalluri is the chief guest. Families of the arrested men who have come to look for them are roped in to provide numbers at these ceremonies. In the police version, these are spontaneous gatherings of the villagers determined to support the police and oppose the Maoists. For instance, a police press release on 5 February announcing surrenders claimed “over 5,000 tribal villagers have successfully participated in 11 sabhas organised as a part of a Janjagran Campaign, in which food was provided and civil action programmes were organised.”

Surrenders have spiked ever since Kalluri took charge in 2014. According to an investigative report by Ashutosh Bhardwaj in the Indian Express (8 December 2014):

From June 1–November 28, 2014, 377 alleged Maoists ‘surrendered’ in Bastar division, 155 in November alone. At least 270 of the 377 are actually ordinary villagers or routine criminals not eligible to be termed ‘surrendered Maoists’. Not one of the 377 surrendered with a weapon, and no one has got the postsurrender relief or rehabilitation. Over 80 per cent of those who surrendered continue living in their villages, the remaining ones in police camps. In contrast, in the two and a half years from January 2012 to May 2014, the seven districts of Bastar saw only 29 Maoist surrenders.

A follow-up report (6 March 2016) in the Indian Express by Dipankar Ghose notes that between 1 September 2015 and 29 February 2016, 420 alleged Maoists surrendered.

Some of those made to surrender join the District Reserve Group (DRG), the new version of the SPOs. The Supreme Court had banned the use of SPOs in counter-insurgency combat against the Maoists, not just because they were ill paid and badly trained and thus in greater danger of being killed, but because the composition of the force, consisting of victims of Naxalites and surrendered Naxalites, made them a danger to the villagers at large on whom they took out their personal frustrations. The DRG has the same composition, its members are paid less than the regular forces, and used extensively in combat. The only difference is that they have been given some training.

Equally worrying is the announcement of the formation of gram rakshak dals or village defence committees which have been disastrous for civil solidarity wherever they have been tried, in Nagaland or Kashmir. Sadhna News reported that on 21 March, a Jan Jagran Sabha was held in Chandragiri, Darbha block, attended by 3,000 villagers, the police and members of the Samajik Ekta Manch (SEM), a vigilante organisation, composed of urban upper-caste immigrant men. They resolved to set up an Adivasi Ekta Manch and form gram rakshak dals consisting of 10 men and 10 women which would patrol the villages and report on any Maoist activity to the police. It is only a matter of time before the gram rakshak dals are armed.

Killings have intensified exponentially. Under Mission 2016, the police claim to have killed 55 Maoists, with no loss to the security forces. The photos of the corpses circulated by the police, however, show very few wearing uniforms; most are clearly civilians. Few weapons other than bharmars or country guns and some detonator wires have been recovered. Three major instances of mass sexual assault and rape have been reported—in November 2015 in Peddagellur and neighbouring villages (40 assaulted, three gang rapes), in January 2016 in Kunna (six women raped) and Belam Nendra (13 women gang- raped). The rapes were accompanied by extreme violence and looting. The DRG are alleged to have been involved in these incidents.

In the meantime the police have been busy organising joint rallies with the SEM. They have taken no action when the SEM and its various offshoots have demonstrated against activists, lawyers and journalists, burnt their effigies, and defamed them through pamphlets and posters calling them Naxalites, and demanding that they leave Bastar. Instead, inspector general Kalluri reportedly claimed that journalist Malini Subramaniam, who was forced to leave Bastar, vandalised her own car to get national sympathy (Sadhna News, 22 March). In order to get lawyers from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid group and others out of Bastar, the police have targeted their landlords. Four journalists have been arrested in the last few months and others threatened for not being patriotic enough, by which they mean that these journalists have not reported only the police version. Aam Aadmi Party leader, Soni Sori, has been physically attacked.

It is time the security establishment realised that vigilantism has a way of rebounding on its sponsors and there is a limit to how much abuse the rule of law will take.

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