New Delhi, April 20: The Supreme Court has expressed concern over growing human rights violations in Chhattisgarh, a Maoist hotbed, with the Centre and rights activists blaming each other for the state’s volatile atmosphere.

Journalists, lawyers and civil rights activists have reported being targeted and hounded out of Bastar district after being branded Maoist sympathisers. Tribal activist Soni Sori, who had protested against an alleged fake encounter, had her face burnt with a chemical in February.

“We want to know what is happening in the state. This type of reaction should not be there. People are to be given protection by the state government,” a bench of Justices V. Gopala Gowda and Arun Misra told solicitor general Ranjit Kumar during the hearing of a petition on alleged fake encounter deaths.

Kumar stoutly defended the security forces, saying hundreds of them have been killed in Maoist ambushes.

Senior counsel Colin Gonzalves, appearing for families of victims, complained that in several alleged extra-judicial killings, police were not registering even the mandatory FIRs.

“Both are not good. This is not done… in a situation like this what should be done?” the bench asked.

The court was dealing with a petition filed by Himanshu Kumar and certain other tribals whose families were allegedly massacred in 2009 by security personnel in collusion with the now disbanded Salwa Judum, an anti-Maoist militia propped up by the state. The Salwa Judum stood disbanded after the apex court in July 2011 declared it an unlawful organisation.

Himanshu and the others in their petition alleged that 19 innocent tribals were massacred at Singram village on January 8, 2009. Again on March 18, 2009, three tribals were killed by security forces inside a Salwa Judum camp in front of their wives.

Gonzalves told the court that till date, even the formal FIR has not been registered and urged it to constitute a special investigation team (SIT) to probe the killings.

The petitioners have submitted that since the CBI too is under the Centre, they want an independent SIT to hold the probe. The solicitor general submitted that he had no objection.

The court then asked Kumar and Gonzalves to give a list of officers mutually acceptable to both parties for constituting such a team. It listed the matter for further hearing after four weeks.

Human rights organisation Amnesty International said journalists and human rights defenders in Bastar have been at the receiving end of abuses by both the security forces and the Maoists.

Local journalists Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag have been in judicial custody since July and September 2015, respectively, on charges of having links with Maoists. Santosh, who has faced repeated police harassment in the past, is booked under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, both of which violate international human rights law and standards. Two journalists – Prabhat Singh and Deepak Jaiswal, working as contributors to national media organisations – were arrested last month on the same charges.

Journalists in Chhattisgarh have been protesting against what they say is growing police harassment and a deteriorating work environment, especially in Bastar. In December 2015, chief minister Raman Singh met protesting journalists and reportedly acknowledged the challenges they faced. He also proposed to set up a committee to look into issues faced by them.

Amnesty has pointed out that journalists in Chhattisgarh have been targeted by Maoists, too, in the past. It said that in December 2013, journalist Sai Reddy was killed allegedly by Maoists who suspected him to be working with the police. Another journalist, Nemi Chand Jain, was found dead under mysterious circumstances in Sukma district in February 2013. In 2011, two journalists, Umesh Rajput and Sushil Pathak, were killed in Chhattisgarh.