Love him or hate him, but you cannot ignore S R P Kalluri, the Inspector General of Police for the Bastar Range in South Chhattisgarh.
His supporters, including juniors in the force and Bastar’s professionals, see him as a man ‘on mission’ to eliminate the armed Maoist insurgency. He is credited with weaning away tribals from the rebels, ‘empowering’ locals to speak out against violence, and with infrastructure development.
His critics, including some seniors in the police force, activists and journalists, see in him an authoritarian figure out to stifle dissent. He is accused of human rights violations, attacking civil liberties and sponsoring vigilante groups. In recent weeks, journalists have been arrested and activists asking uncomfortable questions have been hounded out.
But both sides agree that Kalluri has changed the rules of the game in the battle against the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in Bastar. HT pieced together the man and his mode of operation. Most interlocutors preferred to remain anonymous since they were not authorized to speak to the media or because of security sensitivities. Kalluri did not participate in the story.
Kalluri’s five principles
A 1994 batch Indian Police Service officer, Kalluri is originally from Andhra Pradesh. He opted for the Chhattisgarh cadre when the state was carved out in 2000 from Madhya Pradesh. Kalluri’s claim to fame was that as SP in northern Chhattisgarh, he is perceived to have weakened the Maoist insurgency.
Kalluri was subsequently posted as SSP to Bastar’s Dantewada, where he was accused of human rights violations. But the period also enabled him to develop a familiarity with the region and build an independent network of informants.
A short and stout man, Kalluri was posted back as IG of the range in June 2014. In most of Bastar’s seven districts, a new team of police officials took over. The Maoists had just massacred top Congress leaders during the election campaign in Bastar; there was deep underlying anger across the state’s political spectrum. And the government told Kalluri, according to some of his aides, that he would have a free hand. “Most bureaucrats play safe. Kalluri takes responsibility in risky situations. We had to give him a chance.” says a top Raipur bureaucrat. He is supposed to have the backing of the state DGP, and possibly some influential figures in the Home Ministry.
His juniors credit Kalluri with a complex strategy that rests on five pillars – surrender, arrests, encounters, development, and ‘empowering people’. To implement this, he has given his SPs a free hand. But Kalluri closely supervises progress, operations, force movements, keeps track of events 24/7, and coordinates between the district teams.
The surrender strategy
According to a police official, the IG has told his team, “We cannot kill all Naxalites. And that should not be our aim. Our aim has to be to get them on our side. They will bring local intelligence, and that will increase our ability. Focus on surrenders, surrenders, and surrenders.”
To enable surrenders, the Bastar police have adopted a carrot and stick policy. An Assistant Superintendent of Police in a severely affected district told HT, “The message is simple. Join us, we will pay you, get you a job, and protect you. We even organized a wedding of surrendered rebels to show the good life that awaits people. And if you don’t, be prepared for pressure, arrests, and even death.”
Figures show a spike in surrenders.
But critics allege that to shore up numbers, the police forcibly picks up innocent adivasis, and force them to concede they were with the Maoists and surrender. “This is only to impress Home Ministry. Half these people have nothing to do with Naxalites,” says a local journalist. Others allege that the scheme has become a pretext to accommodate police informers. Even senior police officials have pointed out that the surrender policy should focus on top Maoists commanders, and not villagers.
Santosh Singh, ASP of Sukma District, responds, “The criticism is based on a mistaken assumption that only armed and hardcore Naxals are Naxals. We are focusing on breaking their logistical support, including those who give them food, shelter, and alert them to police movement. Such people may seem like just ordinary villagers, but they are as important.”
Another police official claims that any Indian scheme gets abused. “There may well be some who have no role. But the big picture is that these surrenders have given us strong local intelligence channels.” Most ex-Maoists are incorporated in the District Reserve Guard; they aid operations by providing domain knowledge of local terrain, individuals, and movements.
This local intelligence is then used for arrests, operations in relatively inaccessible areas, and encounters. This is happening in the backdrop of a strong security build-up. In Sukma itself, there are 70 companies of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), besides a 2000-strong local police force.
‘Road equals state’
Kalluri has placed premium on road construction. Contractors earlier fled because of Maoist threats. But contractors are now given security, construction equipment is guarded. The fact that there is a CRPF company stationed every few kilometers helps.
“Road is equal to the state. It enables us to reach people quickly. It enables people to reach towns, access opportunities and get wider exposure. As our road connectivity grows, the Naxalites will go on the back-foot,” says Kalyan Elasala, ASP of Bijapur.
Among Kalluri’s most controversial moves is to encourage the formation of anti-Maoist citizen groups. He places premium on propaganda and psychological warfare, and these groups play a part in building public opinion in favour of the state. Outfits like Samajaik Ekta Manch and Atank Mukt Bastar have clear government sanction as they organize rallies against rebels, and attempt to silence critics.
And this is where the story gets complicated.
In a complex conflict zone, the security establishment is often more powerful than the civilian administration. The fact that Kalluri has a relatively ‘free hand’ from Raipur makes him even more powerful than other IGs. But when you run counter-insurgency operations, questions will prop up.
Many, including in the police force, have doubted the credibility of Kalluri’s surrender policy. Women networks have highlighted allegations of rape of adivasi women during operations. Lawyers have taken up cases of many arrested adivasis, claiming they are innocent. Human rights activists have pointed to fake encounters. Long standing experts of the region like academic Nandini Sundar have warned against moves to bring back the Salwa Judum – state sponsored armed vigilantes – in other forms.
Other analysts argue that the state’s unalloyed aggression may lead to a blowback. A journalist says, “He is inciting conflict among and between adivasis; among journalists; among lawyers. Manufacturing polarisation is dangerous.” Opposition politicians of the Congress have claimed that state actions are alienating people further.
And all of this serves as a check on Kalluri’s power. It results in uncomfortable questions. It results in the arrival of members of constitutional bodies, and outside press to Bastar. And it has led to calls for his transfer.
He does not like it. And the perception is he has sanctioned going after dissenters.
A journalist recalls that at a Dantewada press conference, Prabhat Singh – another reporter – asked Kalluri why he was getting confused between the name of a surrendered rebel and a village head repeatedly. Kalluri later confronted Singh and told him, according to an eyewitness account, “You are Prabhat. I know you. You improve or else.” Prabhat was later arrested on what many consider frivolous charges.
Three other journalists are in prison. An independent reporter with scroll.in, Malini Subramaniam, has had to leave Jagdalpur. So has a legal aid group. Academic-activist Bela Bhatia has had to face harassment from police-backed citizen groups. The Editors Guild of India, based on a field visit, has said that all journalists in Bastar face fear and pressure.
Manish Kunjam is one of Bastar’s most fearless political activists, who has questioned both the state and the Naxal violence. In the past, he has challenged Kalluri. Kunjam says, “The police, it seems, is fighting for real this time. There is pressure on the Naxals. But these incidents have dented the police image. Kalluri should have prevented it.” Whether Kalluri will open up his operations to greater public scrutiny rather than further clamp down on dissent will be his key test.