The controversial policeman’s tenure as Bastar IG unleashed a reign of terror on some of India’s most marginalised. So why do we want future journalists to learn from him?
Inviting S.R.P. Kalluri, ex-inspector general (IG) of police in Bastar (June 2014-February 2017), to speak at a journalism seminar at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), Delhi, on May 20 has caused outrage among those who see Kalluri as responsible for a ‘reign of terror’ unleashed in Bastar during his tenure. Protesters inside and outside the IIMC gate included former and current students of the institute, while 50 alumni signed a letter to IIMC director K.G. Suresh, questioning the propriety of inviting the controversial police officer. The seminar was on ‘Vartaman Pariprekshya mein Rashtriya Patrikarita (The Current State of National Journalism: Media and Myth)’.
IIMC, which many see as India’s premier institute for training journalists, allowed its campus to be used as the venue for the seminar, which was organised by a shadowy entity called ‘Media Scan’. At a session titled ‘Rewriting history – necessity or conspiracy?,’ Kalluri spoke “on the issue of the deprived classes,” in seeming contradiction to charges that he has presided over a regime of torture and false encounters that has terrorised countless adivasis. His invitation to IIMC jars with the jailing of journalists on patently false charges and threats against many others for their reluctance to accept police stories of Maoist encounters and surrenders at face value. This hounding of respected journalists, academics and human rights activists makes Kalluri’s invitation to IIMC, just three months after he was transferred from Bastar when his role in abuses was questioned by the National Human Rights Commission, distinctly odd.
Kalluri was SSP in Dantewada district in 2010-11, a period in which the burning of Tadmetla village occurred during a police operation (March 2011), and Kodopi Lingaram, who was one of those who had reported the Tadmetla atrocity, and his aunt Soni Sori were arrested in September-October, under false charges, with Kalluri even labelling Kodopi the “second in command” of the Maoists at one point. Re-appointed IG in 2014, it seems Kalluri was given a free hand to escalate the offensive against the Maoists. Apart from numerous ‘encounters’ and ‘surrenders’, this involved a propaganda war, in which extreme pressures were brought to bear on those who questioned his – often extremely far-fetched – version of events.
‘Surrenders’ and intimidation
Somaru Nag is an Adivasi journalist who was arrested on July 16, 2015, on a fake charge of acting as a lookout for Maoists. He was released on July 21, 2016 by order of the Chhattisgarh high court, with evidence that his confession was extracted under torture. Other journalists who have suffered acutely under Kalluri include Santosh Yadav, Prabhat Singh (after he posed searching questions to Kalluri on April 22, 2017 about an ‘encounter’ and published an article questioning the police version), Deepak Jaiswal, Kamal Shukla, Alok Prakash Putul and Malini Subramaniam. Reportedly, Kalluri at one point said to Shukla, “Either leave journalism, or leave Bastar”. In response to a movement among Bastar journalists for a law to protect them, Kalluri announced formation of a group called Bastar Division Journalists’ Association, in December 2015. Yadav, like Nag, has said he was subjected to torture in jail. A report by a fact-finding team of the Editors Guild of India on attacks on the media in Bastar found evidence of gross intimidation of all journalists in Bastar, with the exception of only those who were close to the police and published what the police told them to.
The atrocities in Tadmetla have been investigated by the CBI under orders from the Supreme Court. The CBI found the police prima facie guilty of three murders and three rapes as well as the burning and looting of Adivasi homes. When Swami Agnivesh visited the area to bring relief, SPOs (Adivasis employed as special police officers) mobbed him and Kalluri himself dissuaded R. Prasanna, collector of Dantewada, from visiting affected villagers. In its October 2016 order, the Supreme Court asked the Chhattisgarh government to restrain the police and recommended it hold peace talks with the Maoists, as the Colombian government has done with the FARC.
Responding to the October 2016 order of the Supreme Court in an unprecedented act of symbolic violence, the police in Bastar burnt effigies of Sundar, Bela Bhatia, Manish Kunjam and Himanshu Kumar, who had highlighted police excesses, while Kalluri maintained that the Tadmetla houses had caught fire on their own or in cross-fire (contradicting the first police version that Maoists had done it). Soon after, Sundar, Archana Prasad and nine others were accused of inciting Maoists to murder Shamnath Baghel on November 4, 2016.
This followed reporting in February 2017 on the extensive false encounters and false surrenders of Maoists that have taken place under Kalluri, whose superior officer R.K. Vij was suddenly transferred (in January 2016) after rejecting 200 out of 800 recent Maoist ‘surrenders’ in Bastar that Kalluri had overseen.
The police case against Sundar and others in the Baghel case moved up another notch in May 2017. After the Maoist attack in the Sukma district on April 24, 2017 that killed 26 CRPF men, several members of nearby villages have been arrested and framed as Maoists. One of these was Podiyam Panda, who was taken by police on May 3. Sundar wrote about his case on May 14, highlighting how he has stood up to the Maoists, as well as to the police, reporting rapes they committed and their burning of Tadmetla. It is clear that Panda tried to maintain neutrality between the two sides, implementing the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and other state schemes. Once he saved the lives of seven CRPF jawans, pleading for them with Maoists who had captured them. Then on May 17, the police told a section of the media that Panda had made a ‘confession’ to being a conduit for numerous meetings and messages between Maoist leaders and their ‘urban supporters’, and had taken part in at least 19 Maoist attacks. There is strong evidence that this was a false confession, extracted under torture. Although he denied this at the Bilaspur high court on May 22, it was clear that this was because he was being kept in police custody and threatened, against Supreme Court guidelines.
One reason that Sundar and specific journalists have been targeted is apparently because of their writings about fake surrenders. Subramaniam and Supriya Sharma are among those who have reported the ludicrous details of some of the ‘surrenders’ that Kalluri masterminded, with innocent villagers forced into making false confessions to avoid long jail sentences or being shot. Similar blatantly false ‘surrenders’ of Maoists have been documented from Malkangiri in Odisha and from Jharkhand.
On May 1, 2017, a false surrender in Odisha shocked many people in India and abroad. This was when 20-year-old Kuni Sikaka was arrested from a remote Dongria village and told to surrender as a Maoist; otherwise she would be jailed for at least 12 years. When her husband, Jugli Pusika, came to Rayagada police station, they were both made to ‘surrender’ as Maoists on May 3, though as he and his father Dadhi Pusika have insisted that they are not Maoists but members of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, which – to widespread outrage – the Union home ministry recently declared was guided by the Maoists. Dongria villagers in Niyamgiri have succeeded in stopping plans for mining bauxite on their sacred mountain masterminded by Vedanta. The Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti movement has worked democratically, through gram sabhas and elections the Maoists wanted boycotted, and the attempt to depict it as Maoist is clearly an attempt to divert attention from a legitimate movement oriented towards preserving an ancient symbiosis between a pristine environment and the tribal culture that has preserved it. Kuni says the Rayagada SP threatened her with 12-15 years in jail if she didn’t ‘surrender as a Maoist’. The Dongrias’ democratic ‘No’ to mining, and their status as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, are under threat by a police policy of terror tactics.
Kalluri is therefore not alone in the false-surrender policy. Yet he also appears to have masterminded more than his fair share of false encounters, in which innocent Adivasis, as well as unarmed Maoists, have been killed, with these deaths staged afterwards as shootouts.
The first documented case seems to be the killing of Ramesh Nagesia, a Maoist leader whose wife Ledha Bai apparently induced him to surrender to Kalluri on May 28, 2006, when the latter was SP of Sarguja district, in north Chhattisgarh. Ramesh was beaten before being shot in cold blood in front of his wife, who has alleged in testimony that Kalluri later raped her at Shankargarh police station in front of her parents, allegedly ordering her gangrape over several days. Ledha Bai issued a statement alleging rape by Kalluri, but was forced to withdraw her case against him and has been missing ever since. Kalluri was awarded the President’s Medal for Meritorious Service in 2013. Evidence on numerous cases of sexual violence committed by the police while Kalluri was IG in Bastar is collected in Bearing Witness: Sexual Violence in South Chhattisgarh by WSS (Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression), summarising a situation where “The repeated use of sexual violence by the State as a means of repression and torture, in order to humiliate and terrorise people and curb dissent…. has come to be inextricably linked with the maintenance of law and order and the preservation of “national security”.”
Among many false encounters while Kalluri was IG, the killing of Zareena follows a similar pattern to Nagesia’s death. Zareena was apparently a Maoist who was staying unarmed at her home village in January 2016 when her partner Kiran, a Maoist commander who had surrendered some months before, came with the police to facilitate her surrender. Instead of arresting her though, she was taken away and killed.
Before this, three innocent boys, Dudhi Bhima, Sodhi Moya and Vetti Lachchu, were killed by police in an ‘encounter’ in Arlampalli village on November 3, 2015. Police waylaid them when they were going for a drink, catching and beating one, shooting him dead when he tried to run away, making the other two carry his body to Pollampalli police station and apparently killing them on the way, terming them all Maoists. A similar incident, verified on a fact-finding visit by the All India People’s Forum, was the killing of two girls, Siriyam Pojje and Manjam Shanti, in Pallamagdu village of Sukma on January 31, 2016 – similarly innocent young Adivasis, killed and branded as Maoists.
Another killing under Kalluri’s watch that particularly sparked public outrage was that of a 16-year-old girl, Madkam Hidme, on June 13, 2016. Though she was not a Maoist, the police took her from her home and allegedly raped her before killing her in cold blood, and dressing her in a Maoist uniform. As in other cases, Kalluri insisted she was a Maoist and that this was a genuine encounter.
An adolescent deaf boy in Bijapur district, Somaru Pottam, was killed by the police on December 16, 2016, after being beaten and interrogated in front of his fellow villagers, his body again dressed in a Maoist uniform. A fact-finding team of seven people from Telangana that came to investigate this case was arrested on Christmas Day (by the Telangana police, who handed them over to Chhattisgarh police, who then claimed they were arrested in Chhattisgarh). The Telangana team was charged, absurdly, with changing currency notes on behalf of Maoists and remains in custody. An attempt was also made to implicate activists with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group , including Shalini Gera, in the case.
Such encounter killings are not unique to Bastar, of course. The Supreme Court judgement on over 1,500 false encounters in Manipur, which has insisted that these should be properly investigated and considered as extra-judicial killings, and recent books such as Landscapes of Fear: Understanding Impunity in India, Blood on my Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters and many other accounts, from Punjab, Gujarat, West Bengal, Assam and other states have revealed a cynical system in which fake encounters are routine, involving promotion-by-body-count, and surrenders of militants are repeatedly falsified.
Recently Rajnish Rai, IG of the CRPF North East Sector, called for an enquiry into an encounter in Chirang district of Assam on March 30, 2017, that was almost certainly false, in which the CRPF and other forces took part, claiming to have killed two Bodo militants in an encounter. In reality, it seems, according to witnesses, that they had arrested the victims from a house and staged the encounter. As Rai says, custodial killings and false encounters are “worse than insurgency/militancy”, because they are perpetrated by servants of the state, who are supposed to be upholding the law, not subverting it; security forces do not have the right to kill even the most dastardly of criminals or militants in cold blood. Such actions are “a cure worse than the disease” and represent “a dangerous deterioration and degradation of institutional processes”.
What seemed unique to Bastar – the formation of Salwa Judum and similar vigilante groups, armed by the police – is now being copied in other Maoist-affected states. Although banned in Chhattisgarh, SPOs still operate in the state in apparent violation of the Supreme Court order, with ‘Agni’ formed as well as a new manifestation of the Jan Jagran Abhiyan (the precursor to Salwa Judum) in 2016. Abuses by the police and SPOs in Bastar have gone in waves since 2005. Kalluri’s tenure as IG obviously marked another escalation in abuses, and the National Human Rights Commission issued a landmark order on January 7, 2017 holding the Chhattisgarh government responsible for the egregious violation of human rights in Bastar. It was clearly pressure from the NHRC that got Kalluri transferred in early February.
Post Kalluri, his reign continues
Succeeding him in the position of IG, Bastar, P. Sunder Raj went out of his way to assure journalists “that no mediapersons will be harassed and no hindrance of any sort will be created in their work”. However, the custodial ‘confession’ of Panda, which the police claim is proof of Sundar and Bhatia’s alleged involvement with the Maoists, call this into question.
The truth about every new incident remains hard to corroborate. For instance, just days before Kalluri appeared at IIMC, between 11 and 13 May, 16 houses were burnt in Rayagundem village, near the recent Sukma attack. Police say Maoists did it and that two of the houses belonged to SPO families, while a Maoist spokesman’s claim that police did it is supported by local villagers and journalists, who said police attacked and looted the village before setting houses on fire.
Is there any chance that the Chhattisgarh or central governments might follow Colombia’s model, as the Supreme Court has suggested, and initiate peace talks with Maoists? The killing of Azad in a false encounter in mid-2010, when he was apparently negotiating for peace, which happened under P. Chidambaram’s watch as Union home minister, makes this a formidable task. With cops like Kalluri in charge, is the only strategy for dealing with the Maoists one of extermination? If we are ever to witness a return to democracy and peace in tribal areas, don’t we need some kind of truth and reconciliation commission? If the police commit horrendous atrocities with impunity, where is the rule of law? Isn’t it time for a real and honest rethinking within the Indian state about the way forward on social and economic policies involving Adivasi people in Maoist-affected areas, ensuring that they are seen as equal rather than second class citizens, whose lives are dispensable? On issues such as ensuring fair prices for forest produce and suppression of the liquor and timber mafias which the Maoists have fought for, could there even be lessons to be learnt?
A journalist’s place
Internationally, as in India, we live in an age of false or fake news and fake news about fake news, about the war in Syria for example, just as in Bastar. Is fake news basically ‘paid for news’, by ‘embedded journalists’, who relay stories given them by corporate sources, security forces or intelligence agencies? Are human rights activists really silent when Maoists commit atrocities, as is often alleged? Does neutrality or objectivity in journalism mean giving out the version wished for by government sources (‘BBC neutrality’) or does it mean daring to question government, as well as Maoist, versions of events, speaking truth to power? In this sense, should good journalists never take sides? Or when truth seems to become a casualty, is it a journalist’s duty to make a stand for truth and for those suffering abuse of power?
Students at IIMC were encouraged to ask such questions by Amit Sengupta, an experienced journalist who taught there from October 2013 until March 2016, when he resigned after receiving an order transferring him away from the Delhi campus signed by Anurag Misra, an Indian Information Service officer who was serving on special duty at IIMC. As Sengupta said after his resignation, journalistic neutrality and critical thinking has been discouraged at IIMC, with increasing influence from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
Similarly, what is neutrality within the police or other security forces? Should an official’s priority always be obedience to superiors or should service to the people and human values come first? Varsha Dongre is a prison officer in Chhattisgarh recently suspended for exposing torture and sexual abuse of Adivasi women in state jails.
Objectivity is supposed to be the aim in journalism, as in academia, law enforcement and human rights. Is it true that some human rights activists have a pro-Maoist bias? Surely most, as Sundar has said, always criticise Maoist as well as police atrocities. Hasn’t India’s reputation been damaged by the likes of Kalluri, with the country dropping to number 133 out of 180 countries in the world index on press freedom?
Is it appropriate to invite a police officer faced with charges of gross human rights violations against some of the most marginalised people in the country? What lessons does this teach students of journalism?
It seems that while some IIMC students protested outside, most of those at the seminar greeted Kalluri as a conquering hero. As for what he said in there, he portrayed most tribals as ‘innocent’ – “They are peace-loving people. They derive happiness from limited resources. They don’t even know Maoism and they have never chosen to side with them.” If most Adivasis are innocent, why did the police under Kalluri’s command kill and frame so many as Maoists?
On his own role as a senior officer, trying to counteract “irresponsible journalism and activism,” he said “we are trying to bring out a true perception of Bastar, which is being portrayed in a wrong way by a handful of people…. In Bastar, the human rights brigade, NGOs…all are doing dhanda (business). I am not saying all NGOs are sold out, but a section of them (are)…. Security forces are there to protect the villagers; they have not done anything. Nothing can be proved (against police)…. Maoists have no ideology and are a bunch of criminals in Bastar…. Tribal people are living in dilemma, and the security forces try to protect them…. Since 2000, Maoists have killed nearly 2,000 tribal people…” On social activists bringing complaints against the police, he said, “They are a bunch of criminals who don’t want to see India develop. Social activism has become a business.”
It is important to realise that Kalluri is not acting alone. In a sense, he seems to be placing the police into a particular role that follows the wishes of corporate and government entities and personalities. What seems particularly dangerous is that the police strategy against the Maoists, which apparently includes enmeshing countless innocent Adivasis in false encounters and false surrenders, is driving policy in one of India’s most culturally-sensitive areas.
The oppression in Bastar, compounded by the inversion of truth and media manipulation there, follows a particular pattern that can be traced back to Operation Phoenix in the Vietnam war, when tens of thousands of civilians were picked up by US-led security forces and systematically tortured and killed. Some worked for the the Vietcong or sympathised with the aim of resistance to the Americans. Many were innocent. But all were labelled Vietcong, just as innocent Adivasis and those sometimes sympathetic to Maoists are all being tortured and killed with the justification of labelling them as Maoists. Following the American model of CIA control over mainstream media, is a similar control exercised in India by police and intelligence agents?
Journalists and others who do highlight abuses by the police are not silent on abuses by the Maoists and truly try to maintain neutrality in a situation where neither side wants to allow this. Although the US lost the Vietnam war, Operation Phoenix serves as the model for ‘black operations’ in the war on terror, including the propaganda war against whistleblowers and journalists who try to bring out real information; and it serves as a model for fake encounters and false news in India too.
In a recent study at the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism in Oxford University, entitled Guns and Protests: Media coverage of the conflicts in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, Sharma shows how reporting on the Maoist conflict in Chhattisgarh has emphasised violence over peaceful protests against enforced ‘development’, especially by mining companies whose quest for natural resources are damaging and threatening Bastar’s unique environment and tribal cultures on a massive scale.
Kalluri’s invitation to one of India’s premier institutes of journalism raises vital questions on objectivity in journalism. At a time when paid news has become so widespread, what stories we choose to bring out and how we portray events demands careful reflection. When security concerns start to dictate policy and truth gets distorted, is the role of the journalist to bolster police actions or speak truth impartially to power?
When Adivasis, even now, continue to express the ancient wisdom of their culture, showing us an economy that is sustainable in the long term and politics in an indigenous model of democracy, should the police be ‘above the law’, facilitating the corporate land grabs and accelerating Adivasis’ dispossession from their resources in the name of ‘development’, or should they uphold the law impartially?
“The screening committee of the Chhattisgarh government has found that 97% of the ‘surrenders’ in 2015-16 were not of Naxal cadre and therefore do not qualify as surrenders.” False surrenders and encounters undermine the social fabric of democracy, where remaining an active citizen often involves speaking up about injustices. Shouldn’t journalism involve asking the sort of questions that will help keep democracy healthy? How long will a system of repression and lying drive the agenda in Bastar? How long before Adivasis are allowed a neutral space of equality before the law, guaranteed by the security forces and the ’third estate’ of journalists?
Felix Padel is a freelance anthropologist and Malvika Gupta is a research scholar at Delhi University.
Note: Nandini Sundar is married to one of the founding editors of The Wire