In what is being seen as a vindictive attack against human rights defenders by the Chhattisgarh (CG) police, many public intellectuals and political activists came out in support of New Delhi-based academics Nandini Sundar and Archana Prasad, and political activists Vineet Tiwari and Sanjay Parate. The four, along with Maoists, have been named as accused in the murder of a tribal villager, Shamnath Baghel, in Nama village of the Adivasi-dominated Bastar region of Chhattisgarh.
They alleged that the FIR looks like a clear case of vendetta politics against those who have been trying to highlight the excesses of the security forces in the name of containing Maoists. Most civil society members The Wire spoke to said the innumerable reported incidents of police violence on adivasis in Bastar have taken a toll on regular life in the central Indian state. Thus, the police, who have allegedly been spearheading the human rights violations cannot be seen as a neutral party in the case and that is reason enough to quash the case or hand over the case to the courts.
Activists who are familiar with developments in Bastar in the last few years said that there is a strong possibility that the Bastar police, under the aegis of the controversial inspector-general of police (IG), Bastar range, S.R.P. Kalluri – accused by many activists of brazen human rights violations that include murder, fake encounters, sexual violence etc. – has bullied Baghel’s wife to file the FIR.
Sanjay Parate, the CG state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and one of the accused persons in the FIR told The Wire, “I see the FIR against me and others as a continuation of a series of attacks on democratic rights and free speech. The Bharatiya Janata Party has waged a war on all democratic tenets of India. People who are talking about the welfare of adivasis, who visit them occasionally, are being shunted out systematically. The Bastar police has branded us as Naxalites only because we visited a few Adivasi villages to enquire about police excesses there. They are framing false charges against human rights defenders and political activists.”
“When we went to this concerned village, Nama, we found that villagers had formed a troupe of around 200-300 villagers to contain Maoist violence. They kept guard at night. They complained to us that despite various requests to the police to open a camp in the village, the police did not pay any heed. So they formed a group called called Tangiya (axe). When we enquired further, we came to know that police camps existed only in those areas where mining activities are going on or there is a possibility of mining. The police camps are there to prevent Adivasi resistance against private mining activities. In Nama, since there is no mining, there is no police camp. The villagers were left at the mercy of Maoists,” said Parate.
“After the murder of Baghel, the police found an opportunity to frame us in a ridiculous way just because we visited the village. His wife is clearly being manipulated. It seems unbelievable to me that with her limited exposure and education, she has mentioned our individual names clearly in the FIR. We were in the village only for a few hours. The charges in the FIR just escapes any form of reason,” he added.
The four accused persons were members of a fact-finding team which had visited Bastar in May and had come out with a damning report against both the Bastar police and Maoists while highlighting the pitiable plight of the adivasis who they thought are caught in the war between the police and the Maoists.
Since then, the police, on different occasions, have tried to corner them, especially Sundar and Prasad, by pressing different charges against them. Soon after the team filed its fact-finding report, the Bastar police, in an unusual move, had written to the vice-chancellors of Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University where Sundar and Prasad are faculty members, that it is conducting an enquiry against them after it received a complaint from villagers stating that they tried to instigate them against police. In October, the police and security forces in Chhattisgarh took on an overtly political role and burnt effigies of activists, petitioners and a journalist, including Sundar.
It may be noted that Sundar has been highlighting state abuses in CG for many years. She was also one of the petitioners in the case which led to the Supreme Court banning the state-sponsored vigilante group Salwa Judum in 2011. More recently, her intervention in the Supreme Court, along with some others, led the CBI to accept that it has filed a charge sheet against the security forces and armed auxilliary forces for burning down three villages in Bastar and attacking human rights activist Swami Agnivesh and his convoy when he tried to visit these villages in 2011.
Earlier this year, the journalist Malini Subramaniam and the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JLAG) were forced to leave Bastar after a series of attacks by vigilante groups, allegedly patronised by Kalluri, against them. Similarly, regional journalists have found themselves under attack by police for reporting human rights violations in CG. The police framing false charges against activists, journalists, and defenders of human rights is a topic that has gained much currency in public debates and discussions in CG.
Therefore, most civil society members saw the FIR against Sundar and others as yet another way of police to intimidate its critics.
Here is what some of the members with whom The Wire spoke to said.
Kavita Krishnan – polit bureau member of CPI (ML-Liberation), who had visited CG as a member of a fact-finding team to enquire into state abuses.
The clear thing is that Nandini Sundar was the one whose petition in the Supreme Court resulted in the strictures against Salwa Judum. Now because of her efforts and that of her team which had visited Bastar a few months ago, several fake encounters were exposed. Now because of her efforts the CG police’s involvement in burning of villages has also been exposed. So police retaliated first by burning effigies of these people and now by filing charges of murder. This is a fit case for the Supreme Court and human rights commissions to defend the human rights defenders. Who is going to defend the rights of human rights defenders? That is the real question.
Bela Bhatia – Bastar-based researcher
The situation in Bastar is getting worse day by day. The police have been systematically targeting these public intellectuals and political activists since the time they wrote a fact-finding report on the repressive state machinery. Time and again, we have pointed out the state government’s complicity in turning CG into a police state. Senior officials have been defending the Bastar police despite a series of accusations against it. You see the police defying all constitutional principles. Where they should be arresting people on suspicion, one finds that such civilians have been killed. This is increasingly becoming the case. It is a completely undemocratic state of affairs. A cloud of fear has been hovering around Bastar for many years now. Unless the police stop abusing its power and the Maoists put a hold to indiscriminate killings, the situation in Bastar cannot improve.
Sadanand Menon – senior arts, culture, and political commentator
“It is high time to revise the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Code of Criminal Procedure (CRPC) to include certain kind of new clauses which will include murder of logic, murder of democracy, murder of reason. In that case, all these police officials should be charged with these particular crimes. They are making a mockery of the rule of law. Since the citizen has no initiative on all this, one just hopes that the courts will come out with rulings that will once and for all close this chapter of impunity enjoyed by the police.
My own hunch is that in states like Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, CG, and Odisha, the police have a complete upper hand. It is pathetic that citizens do not react to this kind of bureaucracy and state administration that takes law into its own hands. This is going to lead to all sorts of drastic consequences. We need to stop the administration from going completely rogue like this.
From the chain of events in CG, the question that rises uppermost in one’s mind is that who is going to police the police? They seem to have a total run of the country – dictating who is going to do what, who is to speak what, what film should one see. When the police itself goes lawless and illegal, we are sure to find ourselves in a deficit democracy.
E.A.S. Sarma – retired bureaucrat and one of the litigants in the Salwa Judum case
Chhattisgarh government is yet to implement the landmark police reforms ordered by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the famous Prakash Singh vs Union of India case. It shows how the state has been reluctant to make its police force apolitical and accountable.
In 2007, the state had enacted a new law to amend the “colonial” Indian Police Act of 1861. However, some of the provisions of the new Act are more “colonial” in nature as they have reduced the accountability of the police to the magistracy. This has hurt the public interest. In a democratic system like ours, we cannot afford to have a police force that lacks public accountability.
While I do not know the facts of the case filed against Nandini Sundar and others, I can say with confidence that she and several other activists like her have always stood for safeguarding the interests of the adivasis and questioning human rights violations. Apparently, such a stance on her part and on the part of the other activists is not to the liking of the rulers of Chhattisgarh. Harassing activists working for the adivasis is a highly regressive approach and it erodes the credibility of the Chhattisgarh government.
Sanjay Hegde prominent lawyer
In an FIR, you can say anything. The real question is does the allegation in the FIR amount to anything? The person who was killed was an anti-Naxal killed by a Naxal. There is no direct involvement of Nandini Sundar, Archana Prasad, Vineet Tiwari, and Sanjay Parate. There can’t be. There is no incitement of violence. None of the facts stated in the FIR constitute the ingredients of murder. It is obviously a tool of harassment. The remedy, of course, is to move the high court and seek a quashing of the FIR under section 482.
Manish Kunjam – Communist Party of India leader based in Sukma, Bastar. A well-known critic of IG Kalluri, Kunjam was attacked at a press conference recently by police-backed vigilante groups
I am both surprised and scared that such a FIR can also be filed. People who were not present at the site have been named. They had gone to the village only once for a fact-finding report published five months before. This is a clear case of the police backlash against them because these are the same activists who exposed the role of police in burning down Tadmetla, Morpalli, and Timapuram (names of the villages) in 2011. The police has become so lawless that it is openly engaging in vendetta politics.
Kalluri is acting with criminal impunity and the Raman Singh government has to be held accountable for giving a free hand to him. All the seven superintendent of police (SP) of Bastar have absolutely no standing in front of Kalluri. Bastar is being run by his whims.
Vrinda Grover – prominent human rights lawyer
What we are seeing is a rogue state, a rogue senior police officer. There are many instances in which serious charges of abusing authority have been levelled against Kalluri. He has been accused of causing very grave harm to ordinary people. Those who are highlighting and bringing this to the attention of Supreme Court or National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) are now being attacked.
All sorts of vigilante groups are being set up in Bastar. This has been a continuing pattern for some time now. And because no institution is intervening consistently to stop Kalluri and hold him accountable for these abuses, there is a serious situation where you have a rogue IG of police.
The state government has been completely silent on the charges against Kalluri. It has the power to transfer him, at least till the enquiry is pending, but it has not done so. Therefore, we are led to believe that the government is complicit in the police crimes. When the prime minister visited CG recently, IG Kalluri was one of the few men who was specially taken by top officials to meet him. The government and the administration are emboldening him. If the IG of police is allowed to burn effigies of citizens, how can the state government not be complicit?
The NHRC had sent its investigation team to look into incidents of sexual violence committed by the CG police. The report was submitted earlier this year. The matter is not being brought up.
Therefore, it is important for our public institutions like courts to promptly intervene to ensure the proper functioning of democracy. The delay in response only emboldens the authorities who are misusing their power.
Statement by students of Delhi School of Economics
Note: Nandini Sundar is married to one of the founding editors of The Wire.