The registration of grave charges of murder and criminal conspiracy against respected academics and human rights defenders Nandini Sundar of Delhi University and Archana Prasad of JNU, and Sanjay Parate (Chhattisgarh CPI (M) state secretary), among others, is the latest chapter in a long ignoble saga of open police bullying of journalists, rights workers and dissenters in the troubled Bastar region.
They are charged with organising on the night of November 4 2016, the murder with sharp weapons of a tribal man Shamnath Baghel in his village Nama. The police claims that the murder was to avenge Baghel’s protests against Maoist violence in his village.
The charge has been rejected by Sundar as ‘absurd, bizarre and patently malafide’ , and as ‘fabricated’ and ‘a direct assault on our democratic polity’ which ‘indicates the growing trend of authoritarianism in the state’ by the CPI (M). This is the latest in a long roll-call of cases filed by the local police against those who tried to record the truth of what was happening in this troubled region.
Bastar is one of the most dispossessed enclaves of the country. Outsider settlers savagely dispossessed local tribal communities of their lands and forest produce, trapping them in cycles of debt.
Dispossession from their lands and forests continued in the hands of the ‘developmental state’, for roads, factories, mines and the so-called ‘scientific management of forests. This dispossession became even more acute with the advance of the neo-liberal state, as for-profit powerful companies grew impatient to extract the forest and mineral wealth of the lands occupied by indigenous tribal communities.
This ferocious, sustained and multi-armed oppression and dispossession led some tribal people to support and join far-left Maoist groups, who promised them justice and protection.
The state responded, not by addressing the massive injustices and exploitation, but by constructing this in the public discourse as a grave security challenge to the integrity of the nation. It unleashed what is not less than a civil war, with various arms of the state using every weapon in their arsenals. It is now standard drill for villages to be routinely raided and for villagers to be rounded up and detained for alleged Maoist sympathies. Some do support the Maoists against what they see as an oppressive state, whereas many of them are only by-standers and persons coerced into support.
Their predicament and insecurity was aggravated further, when the state encouraged armed vigilante groups of surrendered Maoists to turn upon their own people with rape, arson, intimidation and killings, silently or openly supported by the police. The Salwa Judum for four bloody years between 2005 and 2008, undertook mass burning of villages and forced the residents into camps, as well as unleashed massive killings and rapes. Although Salwa Judum is banned by the Supreme Court, new vigilante groups are being openly encouraged by the police administration.
The Maoists in the meanwhile have also splintered into rival factions, and often are riddled with violent rivalries and corruption. They enjoy some real support from oppressed tribal people, especially some young people, but are also known to resort to brutal intimidation, targeted killings of alleged ‘informers’, and periodic violent assaults on security forces, leading to the tragic loss of life of large numbers of usually junior members of the forces.
The ‘crime’ of Nandini Sundar and her colleagues has been that they have bravely both documented the recurring human rights violations of the security forces and vigilante groups propped up by the state; and challenged these in the country’s highest courts. It was Sundar’s petition in the Supreme Court that led it to ban the Salwa Judum. But especially since the IG Police (Bastar range) SRP Kalluri took charge, new vigilante formations like the Salwa Judum have surfaced. Baghel who was killed belonged to one such vigilante formation called Tangiya (meaning ‘axe’).
Caught in the unending cycles of violence of a security state and of militants of the extreme left, there seems no end to the suffering of the indigenous communities which have long inhabited the forested plateau and hills of Bastar. Attempts to silence independent and credible voices like those of Sundar and Prasad will only leave them even more isolated and hopeless.
(Writer is the author of Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India)