Doing Research in India Can Be a Dangerous Activity

A doctoral student doing fieldwork in an adivasi village narrates how she was picked up and detained by the police in Chhattisgarh on suspicion of being a Maoist

While the government’s attacks on environmental and human rights activists have been in the news, as have its restrictions on foreign researchers, the situation of domestic researchers has gone unnoticed. Underfunded and even non-funded, time bound (universities now adhere to a strict four-year deadline for doctoral work), with limited library and internet resources compared to their foreign counterparts, Indian PhD students, especially those whose research involves fieldwork, are under severe stress in normal times. But for those of us who do research on environmental, adivasi or dalit issues, especially in ‘conflict areas’, a PhD can even end up being a life threatening exercise.

For the past year, I have been doing fieldwork in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh on the socio-economic conditions of the adivasis, especially their access to health and education. Ethnographic fieldwork requires living in an area for an extended period of time, and participating in the everyday life of the people. Of course, I knew that Bijapur was a ‘disturbed area’, which is precisely why I had taken every precaution of getting a letter from my supervisor, meeting district authorities and so on, to explain my research. My two small children have accompanied me to the field. After a year, I assumed that everyone knew who I was, but for the police, that is clearly not enough.

Detained by plainclothes man

On 18th June, 2015, I was visiting the Block Education Office at Aawapally in Bijapur, along with a young female friend from the village, when we were subjected to the most horrifying experience of our lives. A plainclothes man came from nowhere and held my arm, and asked me to come with him. I asked him to stop holding me and speak: ‘haath chhor ke baat kar’. He refused. When I asked why he was taking me, he tried to usher me into a white Bolero. I asked him again ‘why’? He then opened the car door and took out his rifle. It’s then that I understood I was being ‘picked-up’. He refused to talk and insisted I come to the police station. I turned around to see the whole road lined with the Chhattisgarh Armed Auxiliary Forces (CAAF), the special police officers (SPOs) who had been disbanded by the Supreme Court in 2011 and reappointed under a new name by the Chhattisgarh government. Since it was the weekly market day at Awapalli, I insisted on walking through the village rather than sit in the car. I wanted the message that we were being picked up to reach the village; I was desperately worried also about my children who were waiting for me to return.

Once at the police station, it was a ‘tamasha’: all the policemen and CRPF personnel had come to see whom the police had caught – “dreaded, wanted Maoists from Aawapally market place!” I kept on asking them to let me talk to the Bijapur Police Headquarters (HQ) or to the Additional Superintendent of Police (Addl. SP), with whom I had had a long discussion before coming to the village. I told the Awapally police that I was a PhD scholar from Delhi, but they were not interested in even looking at my identity card or letters, or in listening to anything I said. The girl with me was so terrorised that she kept quiet throughout.

Identity not good enough

The sub inspector who had picked us up was busy preparing papers and reports. The police went to make calls to the police control room, but did not allow me to talk to anyone. My own mobile phone was not working because there is no signal in the area; the government of Chhattisgarh has installed jammers in certain areas since 2010. After two hours of detention, the police finally deigned to look at my ID. They took my picture and sent a copy of that and my student ID to the Police HQ in Bijapur. We kept waiting as the three policemen (whose names were not disclosed to us), went off to have lunch and their afternoon siesta. The last bus from Bijapur to Awapalli is at 5 pm – if a message didn’t come then, we didn’t know what would happen.

As we sat there, I thought of how ordinary villagers were treated. Villagers often described how they (both men and women) were harassed by the police when they visited the market, or if they happened to bump into the ‘area domination teams’ of the police and paramilitary out on combing operations. I would listen to them and jot their voices down, but today, it was coming home to me like never before.

After four hours in the police station, two young girls walked into the sitting area; the girls looked familiar to me, though I had never talked to them before. They came close to us and my companion started talking to them in Gondi; they knew each other. We finally felt a little relieved. It turned out that they were female SPOs who had been asked to come from Basaguda “to identify two suspected women the Aawapally police had nabbed”. The male CAAFs/SPOs kept on telling them to be careful as we were very aggressive and we could hurt them. The four of us laughed at this. But still we were on the other side of the fence and I just wished that the police would talk.

I kept getting up and asking the police what they were planning to do. I asked what procedures they were following. But ‘procedure’ here is simply whatever the police decide to say and do. Despite seeing my ID, the only thing that the SI said was “we still do not have enough proof whether what you are saying is true’. I did not know how else I could prove my identity. In fact, one of the police admitted that a villager from Basaguda had identified me as someone living there with two small children. But that was still not enough evidence for the police.

Fear of a staged encounter?

By 4.30pm I was informed that the police HQ in Bijapur had summoned us. It was then that I was told that I would be sent to Bijapur alone with the police on a motorbike, while other policemen would follow. My companion would be sent back to the village. It is this moment of horror, which I am still unable to overcome. Was I being arrested? Was I being charged? What if an encounter would be staged? What if I was going to be planted in a situation and a crime story staged? How then would I be able to explain any further? They had just killed a student from Osmania University, and a growing Maoist-student nexus would make a perfect story. I insisted that both my friend and I, along with the lady CAAFs, be sent together, following the proper procedure.

Suddenly, while the police was discussing who all would be going to Bijapur, one of the policemen suddenly announced, “It was a grave mistake and misunderstanding that took place today. You can go”. I didn’t ask any more questions; I just grabbed my friend, thanked the police and walked out of the police station. I was relieved, exhausted, traumatized, harassed, pained, all simultaneously. I wondered whether my friend too was feeling the same. The SI who was outside arranging our transport to Bijapur was astonished to see us walk out. We recovered a little, after a local villager gave us tea, and then left for the village. My young daughter later told me she thought I would never come back.

The rule of law in certain parts of Chhattisgarh is arbitrary, or rather, non-existent. If something like this could happen to me, with my ID, letters and contacts, imagine what the ordinary villager who is picked up faces. I hope more scholars and journalists and ordinary citizens visit these areas to understand for themselves how villagers are treated on an everyday basis. My experience has certainly left me scarred. But if the police thought it would shake my resolve in going back to the village and continuing with my research, they could not have been more wrong.

Vani Xaxa is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi

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