A note on the situation of ordinary adivasis in Bastar
SutatThe Bastar Division in South Chhattisgarh comprises today of seven districts – Kanker, Kondagaon, Narainpur, Bastar, Dantewada, Sukma and Bijapur. Sparsely populated, this area is home to many of the Adivasi tribes of Central India – the Gonds, Murias, Koyas, Halbas, Bhatras, Marias, Abujhmarias, Dorlas, Dhurvas etc. While richly endowed with minerals and lush forests, this region is also home to the most impoverished populations of tribals, with one of the highest rates of infant mortality, illiteracy, poverty and maternal deaths. South Bastar has had the presence of Naxalite groups since the 1980s, but the conflict has intensified in recent years, with the state embarking on heavily militarized counter-insurgency operations such as Salwa Judum and Operation Green Hunt. As the state pushes its military might to recapture its control over the territory and underlying resources of Bastar, vulnerable communities of Adivasis are threatened with arbitrary detentions, arrests, fabricated cases and fake encounters.
This year saw the change of government in Delhi, which was rapidly followed by an intensification of the State’s war against its own people in Central India.
Soon after the new government took position at the Centre, on June 7th, the Home Ministry announced an innocuous-sounding name change of its Anti-Naxal Unit to the Left Wing Extremism (LWE) Division. A far more substantive announcement that day was the sanctioning of an additional 10,000 paramilitary troops for Chhattisgarh’s war on Naxalism, now rechristened as Left Wing Extremism. On the same day, the Chhattisgarh state government announced a major reshuffle of its police officers, in which the SPs of all 3 districts of South Bastar (Dantewada, Sukma and Bijapur) were replaced, and police officer, SRP Kalluri, accused of numerous human rights violations, was made the Inspector General of Police (Bastar Range).
Two days later, on June 9th, the Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh met with Home Minister Rajnath Singh, and made several more demands for effectively combating Naxalism in Bastar – 26 new battalions of paramilitary forces, 21 additional choppers for troop movement, more UAVs, an Armed Forces Recruitment Training School, a commercial airport in Jagdalpur among others. The Chief Minister also sought relaxation of norms under the Forest Conservation Act for diversion of forest land in LWE areas, and in a move eerily reminiscent of SPO recruitment, asked the Centre for help in providing monthly stipends to over 4.75 lakh tribal youth, to wean them away from recruitment by Naxalites.
The Union Home Ministry responded the next day with its new “Get Tough” approach, indicating that the new government did not believe in talks, and would only concentrate of wiping out the LWEs. The Union government acceded to most of Chhattisgarh’s demands in principle, and decided to make Bastar the focus of its new all-out offensive against the Naxals. The Union followed up by granting Chhattisgarh two additional helicopters, 2 technical battalions (2000 men) comprising of engineers for carrying out construction projects; 1000 ITBP troops and 2 battalions of Naga IR battalions. Writes The Economic Times:
“With the additional deployments, Bastar is set to be the most-militarised zone in the entire country. With an area of 40,000 square kilometres, Bastar already has a deployment of 36 central battalions and 12 state police battalions.”
A Policy of Impunity for Police Officers
In September, Home Minister Rajnath Singh made a statement that police officials initiating action against Maoists should not worry about reactions from human rights bodies. This statement is reflected on the developments in Bastar wherein, Police officers like SRP Kalluri have been promoted as the IG of Bastar range despite a dark human rights record and a pending inquiry.
As SP of Surguja and Balrampur, Kalluri had been known for “encountering” Naxalites – many of them were later revealed as fake encounters by various human rights groups. In 2007, civil liberties groups across the country had taken up the case of Ledha Bai, a tribal woman in Balrampur, who had accused Kalluri of killing her husband first and raping her when she tried to get legal redress. In 2009-2010, Kalluri exhibited similar brutality when he was posted as senior SP in Dantewada. In March 2011, a group of SPOs and CRPF men had burned down the three villages of Tadmetla, Timmapuram and Morpalli in Chintagufa thana, killing three villagers, sexually abusing three women, burning over 300 houses and granaries in the three villages, allegedly under Kalluri’s orders. A public uproar ensued when details of this incident became known, following which a judicial enquiry into the incident was ordered and Kalluri was transferred out of the area, in order to ensure independence of this enquiry. The Tadmetla judicial inquiry is still underway, but Kalluri has been posted to the area again – and this time, at an even higher position as the Inspector General.
This policy of impunity violates the state’s responsibility to uphold rule of law and respect and fulfill human rights.
Systematic Human Rights Violations
The heavy deployment of forces in Bastar has meant continuous, round-the-clock search and patrol operations, frequent encounters (extra-judicial, summary and arbitrary killings), and a spiraling increase in the number of arrests and surrenders of alleged Naxals. In the month of July alone, the police claim to have made more than 200 arrests of alleged Naxals in Bastar. While only 22 surrenders of suspected Naxalites took place in Chhattisgarh in all of 2013, the six months from June to November this year have already seen the surrenders of more than 280 alleged Naxalites in the Bastar division alone.
It is doubtful that the Bastar police have suddenly turned very efficient, and it is more likely that the increased arrests and surrenders are a result of coercive measures adopted by them against ordinary Adivasi villagers. There have been reports that the state apparatus is pressurizing a lot of ordinary villagers to surrender. There also have been protests in various villages in Bastar on the issue of arrest of innocent people and illegal detentions in many cases.
Allegations of forcible surrenders, false implication and arrests of innocent villagers and extra-judicial killings have been leveled against the police by the state Congress leaders, CPI Leaders and AAP leaders. These allegations have been brushed away by the state police and government by carelessly labeling all the leaders who’ve raised these questions as Naxalite supporters who are trying to shield Naxalites.
Some of these are highlighted in the case studies below.
CASE STUDY 1 – The Jiram Valley Arrests and Surrenders: False Implication of Political Workers
On 25th August, the Bastar police and the NIA held a press conference in Jagdalpur, showcasing three masked “Naxals” allegedly involved in the Jiram valley attack on the Congress convoy last year, who had now surrendered before the authorities. These three, Chaitram, his wife Manjula and a woman called Rajni, hailing from the Kanker district of Bastar Division, were involved in many Naxalite operations, including the attack in Tadmetla which lead to the death of 76 CRPF men, claimed the police at the press conference. Direct questions to the three by reporters present were severely discouraged.
The very next day, on 26th August, Bhupesh Baghel, the president of the State Congress Committee, held a press conference in Raipur, accusing the Bastar police of shielding high placed police officers and instead, coercing innocent adivasis into fake surrenders for the Jiram valley attack. He claimed that the three so-called surrendered Naxals were actually ordinary villagers, and Chaitram’s wife Manjula was a cook in the village, with no connection with the Naxals.
Undeterred by such accusations, the Bastar police under the able guidance of IG SRP Kalluri, held another press conference on the same day in Jagdalpur, announcing that based on important information divulged by the three surrendered Naxals the previous day, they had nabbed two “dreaded Naxalites,” – a certain Sukhdev Nag and one Manjhiram Kashyap of Tongpal, who had also taken part in the Jiram Valley attack, and the police claimed that Sukhdev was the very person who had pulled the trigger on Mahendra Karma. At this press conference, the police described in great detail how the daring policemen had nabbed these two dangerous Naxalites who had been traveling on a motorcycle, and they had also recovered IEDs and Maoist pamphlets from them.
The next day, on the 27th of August, Manish Kunjam, veteran CPI leader and the president of the Adivasi Mahasabha, issued a press note challenging this version of the police. He claimed that the two arrested the previous day were actually activists of the CPI. Of these two, Sukhdev Nag was an elected member of the Janpad Panchayat, and Manjhiram Kashyap was the secretary of the Tahakwada branch of the CPI. Manish Kunjam revealed that the two had been asked by the police to report to the police station on the 25th of August – when they reported the first time, the in-charge was away and they were asked to return later. It is only when they had reported to the thana the second time, that the two were nabbed and then produced before the world as dreaded Naxal leaders. In a press conference later that week, it was highlighted that Manjhiram Kashyap had been badly injured in an accident several years ago, consequently he walks slowly with a pronounced limp – certainly not the image of an agile Naxalite who leads an operation in dense jungles and escapes soon after. And Sukhdev Nag had already been questioned by the NIA earlier, and let go since there was nothing to link him to the attack. But then, as we have come to realize, lack of evidence has never stopped the Chhattisgarh police from arresting people.
It should be noted that as of now (November 2014, three months after the press conference), both Manjhiram Kashyap and Sukhdev Nag are facing charges in the Jagdalpur court (district Bastar) on incidents surrounding the Jiram Valley attack (stocking of explosives etc.) – but the National Investigating Agency (NIA) – the premium investigating agency which is in-charge of the investigation in the Jiram Valley attack – has not yet taken them into remand or started any proceedings against them.
CASE STUDY 2 – The Extra-judicial Killings in Ramaram
There have been reports wherein the police have claimed that they have killed dreaded naxalites, but investigations in a few of these cases reveal that some of them are cases of extra-judicial killings of ordinary villagers. One such case happened in the village Ramaram in Sukma District.
On 29th August, soon after Manish Kunjam had denounced the Bastar IG for arresting innocent adivasis, the Aam Aadmi Party also held a press conference in Jagdalpur. The AAP raised questions about the encounters being reported by the Bastar police. In particular, the Bastar police had claimed that on 28thJuly in a joint operation with the CRPF in jungles close to Ramaram, they had killed 11 Naxalites, of which they were able to retrieve one body. But Soni Sori of the AAP reported in the press conference that a fact-finding conducted by the AAP had revealed that the security forces had surrounded the Ramaram village and shot indiscriminately into it, killing one sick woman who was in the process of rising from her bed to take cover from the gunfire. Her name was Adme Vetti and the villagers had prevented the security forces from taking her body away. But on the way back, the security forces had come across another boy from Pidmel village, Hidma Markam, who was in the jungle to graze his cattle. They had killed him in cold blood, dressed him up in battle fatigues and taken him along as their trophy Naxal. All these details have also been confirmed by an independent journalist for BBC Hindi in a BBC Hindi report of the incident.
CASE STUDY 3 – Hijacking democracy- interference with democratic processes
Nothing illustrates the impact of the new LWE policy on our fragile democracy better than the story of the bye-elections in Antagarh (Kanker).
After the sitting MLA from BJP, Vikram Usendi vacated the Antagarh assembly seat in Bastar Division for the Lok Sabha seat of Kanker, by-polls were scheduled for Sept 13. Fourteen candidates had filed their nominations, of which one was rejected. It was expected to be a close contest between the Congress candidate Manturam Pawar – who had lost the previous Assembly election by as few as 5000 votes – and the BJP candidate, Bhojraj Nag.
In a move that took everyone by surprise, Manturam Pawar withdrew his nomination on August 29th, (one day before the last date to withdraw candidature) and went missing immediately afterwards. While speculation was rife as to what had happened with him, the Congress Party Chief rushed to the constituency and declared that Congress was willing to support any other independent candidate for the seat. However, on the next day, all other independent candidates also withdrew their nominations, one by one, and also proceeded to go missing. At the end of that day, there were only two candidates still in the fray – the BJP candidate Bhojraj Nag, and an unknown candidate from the Ambedkarite Party of India, whom no one was able to reach, called Rupdhar Pudo.
Some insight into what had happened in those chaotic 48 hours emerged in the following days, when the Congress filed a complaint before the Election Commission claiming that candidates had been forced to withdraw by the BJP workers, who threatened to have them prosecuted as Naxalites under the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. Alleging the complicity of administration and police with the BJP, Pankaj Mahavar of Congress filed an affidavit before the Election Commission stating that Bhupesh Baghel, the President of Chhattisgarh State Congress Committee, had been placed under virtual house arrest in his hotel room after he had come to the district to meet with the six independent candidates who had gathered in Pankaj Mahavar’s house. He further stated that in the wee hours of the morning of the 30th August, police and BJP workers had barged into his house, rounded up the independent candidates and had taken them away to an undisclosed location. Later on that day, these independent candidates also withdrew their nominations.
When Rupdhar Pudo of the Ambedkarite Party surfaced a few days later, he told the media that he had gone into hiding to escape from BJP’s pressure to withdraw his candidature. While on the one hand, he was offered plum positions on compliance with BJP’s request, on the other, he was threatened with implication in Naxal-related offences if he defied it. “[T]hey said that if I did not take back my nomination, I would be charged with being a Naxalite. That they would make life difficult for me. This is not new; I have been threatened similarly in the past too. The charge is used very often against the tribals, who are then made to spend a number of years in jail,” Pudo told a journalist.
The Election Commission has refused to step in so far, and the constituency went to the polls as scheduled on the 13th of September. The results have been predictable – the BJP candidate has won by a whopping margin of over 53,000 votes.
What gets deeply ingrained by this whole episode is this: In a war zone, where security concerns become an excuse for impunity, democracy dies. The much cherished “ballot,” which was to provide the tribal with an alternative to the “bullet,” is still a distant dream for her. Elections fought in this manner will certainly not yield the kind of government that can look beyond fake arrests and opportunistic surrenders to draft a roadmap to any kind of justice or peace.
CASE STUDY 4 – Who listens to the Adivasi? The Case of Burgum villagers
On 6th August 2014, local media reported that 3 young adivasi men had been caught red-handed the previous day. According to the news report, the police party had been returning from a 3-day anti-Naxal operation conducted in the villages of Nilvaya, Potali, Phoolpad etc. when they came across three members of the Jan Militia – Joga Mandavi, Pandu Mandavi and Rajaram Sori – planting explosives near the Revali canal.
A few weeks later, scores of villagers landed up at the door of the Dantewada collector with an entirely different story. They said that the three young men belonged to farming families of Pujaripara in Burgum panchayat, who had been working in the fields in the early morning of the 4th of August, along with other villagers. After a few hours, these three decided to take a bath in a waterhole next to their field, at which time, a huge posse of security people was spotted coming towards them from the direction of Nilvaya. All the villagers quickly vacated the fields to go back to the security of their homes – but the three young men, oblivious to the approaching forces, continued to bathe, and were nabbed thus by the security forces and forced to accompany them. The entire village witnessed the incident, and followed the security forces who took the men to the Aranpur police station. Yet, when the villagers approached the Aranpur Station House Officer for information about their young men, the SHO flatly refused all knowledge of them.
The entire village of around 150 people, including women and young children, spent the night of the 4th of August in the open, keeping vigil at the Aranpur Police Station. The next day, the sarpanch and up-sarpanch of the Burgum panchayat also arrived, only to be told once again by the police-station in-charge that he had no knowledge of the three youth. However, the very next day, the same Aranpur police station in-charge produced the three young men before the Dantewada magistrate as dreaded Naxalites, who had been caught with landmines next to the Rewali canal, 5 kms from the village of Pujaripara.
On 22nd September, 2014 the Pujaripara villagers came en masse to the Dantewada collector, demanding that he take note of this travesty of justice as the District Magistrate and the nodal officer of the NHRC. The collector met them with perfunctory assurances. The villagers also gave memoranda to the police with their story demanding that the police investigation also takes account of the villagers’ version of how and when the three men were picked up, but the police too turned a deaf ear.
The villagers wished to submit affidavits before the Investigating Officer, insisting that their version also be recorded in the chargesheets. However, as a painful reminder of how the lopsided court system works against adivasi villagers, the notaries of Dantewada court refused to notarize the villagers’ affidavits. At first, the notaries explained that they usually do not notarize affidavits on such sensitive issues for Gondi-speaking deponents – since these, the notaries claimed, are unreliable witnesses, and the notaries are often hauled up before courts for taking incorrect testimonies. But when the villagers insisted, the notaries used the excuse that government-issued photo–IDs were needed for notarizing their papers – and the ration cards, or the sarpanch-issued photo IDs that most of the villagers were carrying were not sufficient to satisfy the notaries’ zeal for authenticity. Eventually, the villagers had no option but to send plain, un-notarized letters to the Investigating Officer.
A few days after the villagers had come to Dantewada demanding justice for their young men, 400-500 CRPF and police forces again went to the Burgum village and camped there for 4 days, where they beat up 17 people, including an 80 year old woman, ransacked houses, stole hens, watches and other valuable material. The police abused the villagers for talking to the media and going to the Collector, and specifically sought out the up-sarpanch who had led the villagers’ representation before the Collector, and cautioned them against creating more trouble.
On 31st October, the charge-sheets were finally presented against the three young men. As expected, the only witnesses listed are those from the police. As expected, the villagers’ testimony has found no place in the investigation that has taken place so far.
CASE STUDY 5 – Collateral Property –The wife as surety for the husband
On 20th November 2014, a woman from Badegurba village of Sukma district, Madvi Sukdi, was picked up by the police in broad daylight from her house. She is the wife of Madvi Ayata, a local village level representative (Janpad Sadasya) and a popular village level activist with the Bharatiya Janata Party. For unspecified reasons, the police had been harassing Ayata for a while, calling him for interrogation into the police station, pressuring him to surrender to unknown crimes as a Naxalite. That day also, the police had again come for him in two Boleros and four motorcycles. Not finding him in the house, they decided to take his wife instead – at 3:30 in the afternoon, in front of the entire village.
The villagers and her family waited to hear from Sukdi for a whole day, and then they went to the local police station of Kukanar, demanding knowledge of her whereabouts. According to newspaper reports, around 500 villagers surrounded the police station that day. Lawyers from Jagdalpur also contacted the Superintendent of Police of Sukma, but the SP denied all knowledge of the incident, stating that there was no one by that name detained or arrested in any of the police stations in his district. Interestingly, he also suggested that should the family require more information, her husband should contact him directly to register a complaint. Similarly, the villagers protesting at the Kukanar police station were also given the misinformation by the local police that only the husband could come forward and register a missing person’s complaint for his wife.
On the next day, the 22nd of November, about 6000 villagers along with Aam Admi Party leader Soni Sori continued the gherao and again demanded the release of Sukdi. On this day the mother-in-law of Sukdi filed missing person report to the police wherein she mentioned the details of the abduction of Sukdi from her house by armed police personnel. However, the police continued their stand that they had no hand in the abduction of the Sukdi. The SP once again informed the lawyers that the police had no information about the missing woman, but that he had taken cognizance of the missing persons report filed by the family. Meanwhile, Sukdi’s young child of 3-4 years was running a high fever due to malaria, and was refusing to take in all food and medication in the absence of his mother.
The villagers continued their vigil in the open outside the police station into the fourth day, their numbers growing daily. Soni Sori gave an interview to the press, directly challenging the police version of events and holding the IG Bastar Range of orchestrating the ‘surrender’ of innocent adivasis through such coercive measures. With the villagers getting more restive and impatient, and the police refusing to budge from their positions, the situation grew extremely tense.
Meanwhile, as news of the situation percolated the social media and the internet, several concerned citizens from different corners of India, international human rights organizations and journalists started contacting the Sukma authorities, seeking information on the detention of Sukdi. The combined pressure due to the continued presence of thousands of villagers and constant phone calls from the outside world led the police to suddenly “discover” Sukdi in the nearby village of Rokel that evening. The police stated Sukdi had herself fled from her village to Rokel, fearing the ‘masked’ abductors who had come in the Boleros and motorcycles. The police took her to the Sub Divisional Magistrate wherein she apparently repeated the police version in her testimony before the Magistrate. The police version also went on to malign the character of Sukdi’s husband by claiming that he had links with the naxals and there was a constant flow of suspicious people visiting the house.
Sukdi’s story of the ordeal is different. She states that she was picked up by the police on the 20th of November and then kept at a nearby security forces camp, and was constantly pressured to get her husband to surrender before the police as a Naxalite. As a sign of protest, Sukdi went on a hunger strike for her entire duration in the camp. After her release she has been re-united with her family but the situation continues to be grim with the police pressure on her husband to surrender mounting.
The five cases above illustrate the impact of the conflict and repression on lives of ordinary adivasis in Bastar. Arbitrary detentions, criminalization of large masses of people, intense militarization, fake encounters plague civic life in Bastar. But in the midst of all this, people are still resisting – through whatever means available – fighting elections, protesting arrests, moving the courts – but getting their voices heard is proving to be harder and harder.
General Secretary, Chhattisgarh Lok Swatantrya Sangathan.