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Kartam Surya's reign

Rogue policemen and vigilantes backed by the State now ignore even government officers in India's tribal heart. This will crush the Maoists? Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Sep 14, 2011 14:39 IST
Samar Halarnkar

For a poor boy from the dark heart of tribal India, constable Kartam Surya has done well. An 8th class pass from the village of Misma in South Bastar’s Dantewada district — in the so-called Maoist 'liberated zone' in Chhattisgarh — 26-year-old Surya makes sure he gives his father, a marginal farmer scratching a living from the land, enough money to live in peace and comfort.

"Surya is a good son I suppose, but innocents have had to pay for his family's comforts," a local official who knows the constable and his family told me.

Accused of rape, intimidation and other sundry violence against villagers, Surya and three 'special police officers' (SPO) — semi-official vigilantes who assist the regular police in informing on or hunting down Maoists — have been declared absconders by the South Bastar Sessions Court since November 2009. Surya should have been suspended from service, arrested and tried.

Not only does Surya continue to, well, serve, but he lives in the local police barracks and was bold enough last week to lead a mob that stopped official deliveries of emergency food supplies to three villages where 300 homes had been burnt, three women sexually assaulted and at least two men murdered. It isn't clear who was responsible for the atrocities, but an anti-Maoist operation was underway, and if men like Surya have something to hide, the implication is the attackers were security forces or the anti-Maoist vigilantes they nurture.

The three villages — Tadmetla, Timapur and Morpalli — are out of bounds not just for the media but anyone who wants to investigate what happened there between March 11 and 15. This unofficial ban includes government officials who have not joined the intimidate-the-people school of anti-Maoist operations — as then Dantewada district collector R Prasanna found when he tried sending those relief supplies; as additional superintendent of police DS Marawi found when he unsuccessfully tried to get his colleagues to register a case against the SPOs and vigilantes who attacked social activist Swami Agnivesh and reporters headed for the three villages.

"The procedure is that police should register a case on the basis of my report," Marawi told the Indian Express after identifying more than 40 attackers, mostly from the state-armed, supposedly extinct Salwa Judum ('peace march' in the tribal Gondi language). As this article went to press, the police had, reluctantly, agreed to register the complaint.

The reasons for the reluctance rest with his superior, and until five days ago Dantewada's police chief SRP Kalluri who called the attacks on the three villages "Maoist propaganda", the latest in bizarre, intimidatory behaviour. In January, he gained international attention when he accused aid agencies Médecins Sans Frontières and the Red Cross of helping the Maoists; his boss had to quickly issue a retraction. Under Kalluri's watch, noted economist and National Advisory Council member Jean Dreze was once attacked while leading a march to ensure rural employment guarantees, and Nandini Sundar, a Delhi University professor and Infosys national award winner, had to face vigilantes armed with AK-47s. Sundar cannot now visit Dantewada.

Kalluri was transferred out of Dantewada after the attack on Agnivesh, who was cleared by chief minister Raman Singh to visit the area. This strengthens accusations that many police and vigilantes have gone rogue, like 'absconding' constable Surya and his rape-accused colleague Kichche Nanda, who was once Kalluri's bodyguard.

Formerly an SPO, Surya is a Koya commando, specialised police recruited from among surrendered Maoists or tribals affected by Maoist violence. The irony, said the man who knows him, is that Surya was once an "andarwala" or one from inside the forest, a Maoist. They kicked him out when he started extorting money from villages.

Surya's rise and the blatant disregard that men like him show of the law indicate how Chhattisgarh — with tacit support from Delhi — has suspended democracy for its own citizens in its battle with the Maoists and is even willing to punish officials who try to do the right thing.

When police chief Kalluri was moved out of Dantewada, so too was his IAS counterpart and antithesis, collector Prasanna, who had ordered an inquiry into the attack on the three villages. "There could be no greater injustice than this," a local official, requesting anonymity, told me. "It sends a wrong message to those in the villages who are intimidated by both the Maoists and the state and to all of us who had been encouraged by Prasanna to speed up development." Prasanna had reopened two roads, shut for the greater part of a decade, into Dantewada's Maoist-dominated interiors. He restarted a hospital and schools, shut for five years, in Chintalnar (where 76 paramilitary soldiers were killed in a Maoist ambush last year) and nearby Chintagufa. Prasanna also hoped to reopen about 50 schools in his efforts to reestablish civil administration in Dantewada.

In equating Prasanna with Kalluri, chief minister Singh could not have sent a worse signal to those in his administration willing to brave the Maoists and work for Chhattisgarh's tribals, some of India's poorest and most illiterate people. Singh, a soft-spoken, well-regarded administrator, appears to have quietly condoned over the last six years the random killings and burning of villages and intimidation.

The Centre is unlikely to intervene, and there has been little progress in the Supreme Court, which for three years has been hearing a public interest litigation filed by Sundar, the writer Ramachandra Guha and others, asking that Chhattisgarh compensate and rehabilitate victims of the conflict (regardless of whether the perpetrators were Maoists or the state) and at least register complaints. As the experience of officer Marawi shows, even this basic procedure is hard for anyone — as long as the reign of those like Kartam Surya continues.