Sukma (Chhattisgarh): The forests of Bastar are teeming with people while the villages are deserted. The Maoists walk the forests, keeping watch on the security forces, who have now taken to camping in the jungles, ostensibly to keep watch on the Maoists. The villagers themselves spend sleepless nights wondering which direction the forces will take and who they will attack next. Across Bijapur, Sukma and Narayanpur, people have taken to sleeping in the jungle at night or migrating en masse to Telangana to escape dawn raids and the mass round-ups. It is freezing in the open; no one can light fires for fear of being found, and the few blankets they possess are really no protection. Most cover themselves only with a thin cotton lungi. If they don’t die in an ‘encounter’, many will surely fall ill with the cold.
A university colleague and I visited Sukma district from January 23-26. On the morning of January 24, a handful of shivering villagers from Minpa village arrived. They said the security forces had surrounded their village at 6 am and picked up 41 men. The forces rounded up anyone they could lay their hands on, sometimes an entire family of father and sons, taking them to Chintagufa thana. Later that day we visited Minpa, recording the names of those arrested. The women had already gone to the thana to try and get them back; we joined them the next day pleading with the thanedar and the CRPF to let them go or tell the family members what they were being held for. The wives, daughters and mothers of the arrested men kept vigil outside the police station for days, sick with worry, crying, holding out their husband’s election cards as proof that they were not naxals. All that the police would say is that they had orders from above and were ‘investigating.’
At least three other men, Kawasi Nanda of Duled, Podiyam Sukka of Minpa, and Sanna of Karigundem had been picked up on January 21 from Chintagufa market where they were attending a cock fight.
Phone calls and a letter to the SP Sukma listing the men picked up and seeking their whereabouts yielded nothing. On January 29, however, the Bastar police under IG SRP Kalluri issued a press release claiming that on-going combing operations by the Cobras (Commando Battalion for Resolution Action), CRPF, District Reserve Guards (many former Special Police Officers) in ‘Naxal-infested’ Minpa on January 28 had resulted in the arrest of 12 men. Five were wanted for a firing on the police in June 2015, while another seven were implicated in a firing case from October 2014. Two days later, on February 1, the police put out a press release claiming another round of combing on January 31 had led to the arrest of 13 Naxals from Minpa, of whom six were responsible for firing on a poll party in 2014, and another six in a bomb blast of October 2015. Nineteen of those picked up are still in undeclared custody and will no doubt be produced at a suitable date and time, paraded as ‘inami Naxali’ (for whom there is a reward).
What is clear is that the police is carrying out sweeping raids as collective punishment, and fitting villagers to pre-decided crimes. They are charged with serious offences like rioting, possession of deadly weapons, attempt to murder, etc. Many will be in for years. Chhattisgarh has the highest rate of jail overcrowding – in 2013 this was 261% of capacity, in 2016 it will climb to even higher levels.
Killing sangham members
The security forces have been proudly putting out regular press releases of the number of Maoists they have killed along with photos of corpses. One of Kalluri’s most recent Whatsapp message to journalists says: “In Bastar range 23 bodies of Maoists have been recovered as part of ongoing Mission 2016 Bastar. Over past 3 months Bastar police has recovered 45 bodies of Maoists with no loss to security forces.” With one or two exceptions, most of the weapons recovered have been “bharmars” – country guns which can be recycled from encounter to encounter as evidence, wires, tiffin bombs, hardly the stuff of “fierce gun battles.”
In the first phase of Salwa Judum, which the Supreme Court banned in 2011, the security forces killed randomly and left the bodies to rot. Now they proudly announce their kill. For instance, on January 30, the police killed two women, Vanjam Shanti and Sariyam Pojje near Palamadgu village in Sukma. The police version is that while on combing operations, they found 2-3 children who were ostensibly standing sentry for the Maoists. They took them into custody. When these two women started to run and fell into a ditch, they shot them. There is no pretence even of firing in self defence. The local newspapers, which ordinarily report police claims without demur, have been skeptical, suggesting these were ordinary village women; certainly they were wearing sarees and not uniforms.
Both in the first phase of the Judum and now, the police are especially targeting sangham members – the unarmed village level workers who carry out the developmental activities of the Maoist parallel government or janatana sarkar, as compared to the dalams or armed squads, who carry out military operations. Indeed, this is the month for collective work – we saw several work gangs leveling the fields of the poorest villagers and building bunds. They told us that every year they take up 3-4 households to help. By this yardstick, everyone in this area is a member of the Maoist mass fronts. But now being a villager in a Maoist area is itself seen as a justification for killing or arrest; a crime for which there is no definition in any Indian law.
K.R. Pisda, the collector who presided over Salwa Judum-I had conceded in a plan he prepared that “the sangham member is just an ordinary villager who like others, does daily labour to feed himself and his family. They have neither a uniform like the Naxalites nor any arms.” A police team sent by the NHRC to investigate the Salwa Judum in 2008 on the Supreme Court’s orders also accepted that sangham members were different from Naxalites and noted “these villagers were specifically targeted when Salwa Judum was on the rise. The enquiry team has come across instances where some of these villagers were even killed (no criminal cases were, however, either reported or registered). Though the State has taken action against SPOs in some cases for violations like murder and attempt to murder, but these cases do not pertain to the violence let loose on innocent villagers during operations against Naxalites.”
In 2011, the Supreme Court had ordered that FIRs be registered in all such cases, but filing FIRs in Bastar is another story altogether. In 2014, the Supreme Court issued a strict set of guidelines in PUCL vs. State of Maharashtra to be followed in any ‘encounter’ including an independent investigation, but the Chhattisgarh police is beyond the Constitution and courts of this country.
Between October 19-24, 2015, 40 women of Peddagelur, Budgicheru and Gundam villages were sexually assaulted, beaten, and stripped by the security forces; two women were gang raped. On 12 January, six women from Kunna village in Sukma district were sexually assaulted and between 11 and 14 January, 13 women were gang raped in Belam Nendra village in Bijapur district. In all these cases, the rapes were accompanied by extreme physical and verbal abuse, and the looting of their homes.
Attempts by women activists to file FIRs in these cases have been met with delay and strong resistance. The FIR on the Nendra rapes was filed only on January 21, with the police refusing to record the names of those accused whom the women recognised. A gang of people led by Salwa Judum leader Madhukar Rao surrounded and threatened the rape survivors along with women activists both in Bijapur and in Jagdalpur, and warned them they could not enter Bijapur again.
While waiting outside Chintagufa thana, the police told us darkly that rape allegations were all a ploy by the Maoists to defame the security forces. Why else would they report the incident 10 days later, they said. Will someone explain precisely to whom the women are supposed to report rapes – the same police officers who carry them out or their seniors who supervise the combing operations and claim credit for fake encounters and fake surrenders? Nothing defames the police more than their unwillingness to punish those among them who commit crimes.
On our visit, we found that at least 32 of the 70 ‘surrenders’ by Maoists which were proudly announced by the Bastar police at Chintalnar on December 24, were ordinary villagers. At least two were police informers who fled to safety after the villagers discovered their activities. Even in the matter of fake surrenders, the police discriminated against adivasis, giving them only Rs. 1000 while the UP traders who ‘surrendered’ got 10,000. Where did the rest of the surrender money go and where are all these ‘surrendered’ Naxalites today?
Leave alone journalists, even senior police officers who disagree with the current police strategy headed by Bastar IG, SRP Kalluri, are being shunted out. Mr. RK Vij, Kalluri’s senior, and DG Naxal operations was moved after he questioned the validity of 200 out of the 800 surrenders the Bastar police claimed.
The return of the Judum
In 2011, the Supreme Court ordered:“The State of Chattisgarh shall take all appropriate measures to prevent the operation of any group, including but not limited to Salwa Judum and Koya Commandos, that in any manner or form seek to take law into private hands, act unconstitutionally or otherwise violate the human rights of any person.”
In the last one year, however, the Chhattisgarh government has made a concerted effort to revive the Salwa Judum under various names, such as Jan Jagran Abhiyan (the original name of the vigilante group before it was rechristened Salwa Judum), Vikas Sangharsh Samiti, Samajik Ekta Manch and Nagrik Ekta Manch. These groups hold large rallies organized by the police in which Salwa Judum leaders like P. Vijay, Soyam Mooka, Madhukar Rao and others play a prominent role. Several of them face charges of rape and other heinous offences, but are given full police patronage. Vijay was named in an FIR for assaulting Swami Agnivesh but five years on, the CBI is still to give its report on the incident to the Supreme Court. Most recently, these leaders burnt effigies of AAP leader Soni Sori and Bela Bhatia, social scientist and human rights activist, for taking up the rape cases. They have also threatened journalists Malini Subramanian, Kamal Shukla and others for questioning the police version of encounters and surrenders.
As research scholar, Vani Xaxa, put it, Bastar is a liberated zone in more ways than one, and the responsibility for this lies equally with the Maoists and the police; the former for setting up their own parallel state, and the latter for disregarding every aspect of the Indian Constitution. As for the Supreme Court, it has never been more disregarded and held in contempt than it is in Chhattisgarh.
Nandini Sundar is a professor of sociology at Delhi University