New Delhi: Taking note of the perverse ways in which the Chhattisgarh government has tried to intimidate academics, journalists, lawyers and adversarial political activists in the past few months, the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have asked the state’s chief minister, Raman Singh, to bring such excesses to a halt.
Both CPI and CPI (M)’s general secretaries – S. Sudhakar Reddy and Sitaram Yechury, respectively – have alleged in letters they have written to Singh that the state police has been vengefully harassing and implicating academics, journalists and activists in false cases over the last few months for their role in exposing large-scale human rights violations in Bastar. Reddy copied the letter to the Union minister of home affairs, Rajnath Singh, too.
The past few months have seen continuing attempts by the Chattisgarh government to silence all critical voices coming out of Bastar. Journalists have been threatened for reporting fake surrenders and arrests in the region. Lawyers who defended adivasis charged with false cases have been pressurised by the state administration to leave Bastar. Scholars researching the Bastar conflict have also been under attack for pointing fingers at the state government’s abuse of power in southern Chhattisgarh.
Clampdown on civil liberties
Many human rights and cultural groups have been protesting the blatant misuse of administrative power by the state government and have registered their alarm at the unprecedented clampdown on civil liberties in the state. In such a context, the Left parties’ open political intervention in the matter happens to be a first, given that many other political parties, despite being critical of the Chhattisgarh government’s approach, have chosen to remain silent about the escalating nature of human rights abuses in the state.
The trigger for this demand by the two main Left parties is the state government’s persistent effort to implicate two university professors and a few leftist leaders on charges of inciting Bastar’s adivasis against the state police and administration. Bastar superintendent of police R.N. Dash, on May 25, had written to the vice-chancellors of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Delhi University (DU), saying that based on the complaints from people of three Bastar villages – Kumakoleng, Nama and Sountar – a probe has been ordered against JNU professor Archana Prasad and DU’s Nandini Sundar for supposedly asking the villagers to support Maoists and resist the state machinery.
In fact, the two professors – both well known human rights activists – along with CPI (M)’s Chattisgarh state secretary Sanjay Parate and CPI’s Vineet Tiwari, had visited Bastar from May 12 to 16 in order to enquire into the conditions of villagers caught in the conflict between the state and Maoists. During the visit, the team found the villagers had been living in constant fear of both the Maoists and the state machinery.
The findings of the delegation
In its fact-finding report, the team noted that the state police had been patronising many militant groups that functioned as the banned Salwa Judum and which assisted the state to displace villagers for potential mining in the area. During the course of its investigation in four districts in Bastar, the team also found that the villagers live in constant fear of both Maoists and the state’s armed forces deployed there. It also found evidence of fake ‘surrenders’ and ‘encounters’ spearheaded by the state police in some of the villages.
The findings of the report, quite naturally, rubbed the state government the wrong way. It led to many human rights activists accusing the state government of being complicit in crimes against villagers. Since the time the team returned from Bastar, the state police have been alleging, on record, that the four members of the fact-finding group sympathised with Maoists. However, they have failed to provide any evidence for the charges. Bastar district collector Amit Kataria went to the extent of posting the villagers’ complaints on his Facebook page without verification. The state home minister Ram Sewak Paikra, too, branded the academics ‘anti-national.’
Objections by leftist parties
The letters written by the Left parties take strong objection to these actions taken by the state government. “I am writing to express my deep anxiety at the false charges that the Chhattisgarh police is drumming up against a visiting delegation comprised of CPI and CPM members, and professors from Delhi University and JNU… the Chhattisgarh police are falsely claiming that the delegation instigated villagers against police and threatened them into supporting Maoists. They have produced what is self-evidently a fake complaint in the names of the villagers, and also organised rallies with Samajik Ekta Manch type vigilantes in front of the Darbha thana demanding that an FIR be registered against the group,” CPI general secretary S. Sudhakar Reddy wrote in his letter to Raman Singh.
He added: “The understanding that all those, who are not with police, are pro-naxalites is utter nonsense. Why are the police so touchy about anybody visiting Bastar and enquiring about the atrocities of police and Naxalites over there? Why should people believe only police version? Chhattisgarh is a part of India.”
In similar vein, CPI (M)’s general secretary Sitaram Yechury wrote: “I need not to remind you that we as a registered and recognised national political party have both constitutional and legal right to visit any part of the country which includes the state of Chattisgarh to interact with the people in order to understand their problems and also to organise them to raise their demands. This delegation visited Nama Kamakoleng and some other villages where people are living through the conflict between the state and Maoists. People complained of harassment both by police and Maoists and told about their problems and miseries. However, the local police later on produced a fake complaint in the name of villagers claiming that the delegation instigated the villagers and asked them to support the Maoists.”
“Intimidating political opponents will not help to solve the Maoist problem. What needs to be done is the political isolation of Maoists for which the full play of democracy is an essential pre-requisite. Therefore, all political parties must be allowed to conduct their legitimate political activities in the Bastar region without any fear and journalists must be allowed to report truthfully the ground realities. Can I hope that you will instruct the Bastar police and administration not to harass and falsely implicate activists of opposition parties, journalists and others,” he said.
Repeated intimidation by the state government
Extra-legal proceedings and systematic smear campaigns by the state government have drawn the attention of scholars and human rights advocates many times in the past. Nandini Sundar, a sociologist who has been researching the state for decades and whose PIL in the Supreme Court led to the banning of the state terror group Salwa Judum in 2011, has been a prominent adversarial voice in Bastar.
The Raman Singh government’s attempts to malign her and other activists are not new. However, this time, the state has gone to the extent of threatening to file criminal charges against the delegation, based on manufactured complaints, which demonstrates the enormous impunity this government enjoys under the BJP-led central government.
This is despite the fact that many newspapers have already reported that no such complaint was registered by the villagers. A report in The Indian Express said: “Villagers deny either filing the police complaint or being part of any protest. While they did not agree with everything the activists said, they say ‘nobody told them to join the Maoists.’” The report added: “Shown a copy of the police complaint, Nama villagers did not identify any names as their own…”
The attack on the Left and other independent activists in Bastar continues unabated. On 31 May, 2016 the police organised an allegedly fake protest rally against CPI leader and former Sukma MLA Manish Kunjam who had organised a meeting with the displaced adivasis of Lohandiguda village in Jagdalpur. This village was the site of the proposed Tata Steel Plant which got canned later. However, the land acquired by the state government for the project has not been returned to the displaced villagers. Kunjam, with the villagers, has been demanding the return of the acquired lands for long but has had to continuously face protests from the state police because of such actions. “The local thanedaar with around 20-25 people started to shout slogans against us and tried to disrupt our peaceful meeting. All of them were from outside. No one recognised them. The police’s claim that villagers agitated against my anti-development approach is nonsense. The police has been staging such fake protests for a long time but it does not bother me. I will continue to do my work here,” Kunjam told The Wire.
The suppression of civil liberties in conflict zones, and the clampdown on all those reporting it has taken gigantic proportions in the past two decades. The act of the Left parties in raising their collective voice against this disquieting trend is welcome, but whether this will be enough to make both the state and central governments answerable remains to be seen.
Note: This article has been modified to include Manish Kunjam’s statement.