Condemn attack on tribal rights activists and continuing erosion of the Rule of Law in Chhattisgarh

PUDR expresses its disquiet that Bastar Police has recorded an FIR on the basis of a complaint filed by wife of deceased Shamnath Baghel, of Nama village under Kumakoleng Gram Panchayat in Tongpal who was killed, on November 4th allegedly by the Maoists. The FIR recorded on November 5th   invoked Sections 302 (murder), 120B (criminal conspiracy), 147 (punishment for rioting), 148 (rioting armed with deadly weapon) and 149 (Unlawful assembly towards common object) of the IPC against twenty two persons, including Professor Nandini Sundar (Delhi University), Professor Archana Prasad (JNU), activists Vineet Tiwari, Sanjay Parate from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), two local activists, Manju Kawasi, Manglu Ram Karma and 16 others. According to a report, IG SRP Kalluri is said to have stated that a special team has been sent to Delhi for interrogation and arrest of suspects in the case and that sections 38 (2) and 39 (2) of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act have also been invoked. Since the scholars and activists mentioned were not present when the crime occurred on November 4th it is obvious that they are not charged as perpetrators. But they are somehow being involved after just a few hours stay in Nama village during their fact finding in May last.  Shamnath Baghel, was reportedly a leader of an anti-Naxal local group called the ‘Tangiya’(axe). In May 2016, when the fact finding team members named in the FIR had visited Nama village, the Chhattisgarh police claimed that the villagers including Baghel and members of Tangia group had complained that these scholars & activists were threatening them and coercing them to join the Maoists. The complaint was found to be baseless as members of Tangiya group told the media that none from the team asked them to join the Maoists and they were critiquing the use of force both by the police and the Maoists. They even refused to own the signatures on the police complaint against the scholars & activists (http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/activists-see-salwa-judum-link-locals-say-fed-up-of-naxals-2823749/). Now in a case of Homicide of Shamnath Baghel, with the names of the fact-finding team recorded in the FIR, a vindictive Bastar Police is enabled to persecute them.

The fact finding report of the team issued in May 2016  revealed several instances of fake encounters, rapes and arrests by police and security forces, beatings and IED blasts rampantly carried out by the police, including condemned use of violence by the Maoists. The team had also revealed that the police were holding Jan Jagran Abhiyans with villagers and evidently aiding the resurgence of armed militia of villagers similar to the earlier disbanded Salwa Judum, to counter the Maoists.

The sequence of events suggests an escalation, in which setting up vigilante groups, arming and mobilizing civilian populations, and silencing activists and journalists through embroiling them in cases are all part of a strategy. PUDR would like to remind that ‘truth is the first casualty of war’. And Bastar police have tried different ways to silence social activists, reporters, lawyers, political workers, public spirited scholars etc. through harassment and intimidation, physical assault and now the sword of criminal prosecution. By pressing charges against  reporters and arresting and torturing some of them, to ensure that crimes being committed by Government forces or their surrogates do not get reported, to now naming people in FIRs and demanding their appearance for interrogation with the threat of arrest hanging over them, it  is being taken to new heights. The implication is that the Government wants a ‘zone of silence’ around the war being waged in forest villages of Bastar; reminiscent of the ‘Salwa Judum’, from where only that information which Police provides should get reported. The spate of fake encounters, surrenders, criminal cases, burning of villages, rape and arrests are all the ground reality of war zone. By driving away lawyers, legal assistance was made difficult, incarceration of Adivasis longer, moving the court to get FIR recorded more time consuming, and future more uncertain. By dragging in the names of scholars and activists the circle of support and solidarity from outside is being constricted. This by a police force and government which was indicted by the Supreme Court in 2011, when they declared the state sponsored Salwa Judum, unconstitutional, and more recently the indictment by the CBI against the Chhattisgarh police in Tadmetla case, which continues to be heard in the Supreme Court, has shown them to be a brazenly lawless force. As part of this lawless trait on October 25th Bastar Police and Special Auxiliary Force personnel in uniform publicly burnt the effigies of several persons as their answer to the Supreme Court’s indictment. They went on to share the images of the burning effigies on social media.

Long history of crimes against the Adivasis and the relentless attempt to suppress the voices of reporters, lawyers, social and political activists points to how far the Government is willing to go to ensure that the ‘Dirty War’ they are waging against the Adivasis does not get exposed. That people receive no succor. We believe that the Chhattisgarh police and the state government are abetting the Police Raj as part of this policy to make their Mission 2016 “successful”. PUDR is alarmed that such incremental erosion of rights has led to a situation in Chhattisgarh where the voices of the people remain captive of a lawless Police Force who mocks the Judiciary when indicted, because Government condones the predatory behavior of its forces on the ground.   

PUDR expresses solidarity with the activists and academics named in the FIR. While we know that this absurd accusation will fall by the wayside, we cannot escape the all-encompassing character of the assault, the horrors inflicted on Adivasis, the thousands incarcerated, crimes committed on them going unpunished,  facing life squeezing criminal prosecution, denied the agency now even of public spirited groups and individuals to take up their cause. It is a reminder that a predatory war being waged against the Maoist led Adivasis and the civilian population is accompanied by persecution of conscientious citizenry of Bastar and people from outside.

Deepika Tandon and Moushumi Basu

Secretaries, PUDR

10th November 2016