Outsiders vs patriotic voices: The new lines in Bastar

As the Chhattisgarh Police launches a strong push into this Naxal stronghold, there have been other casualties: journalists and activists told to leave and a spike in alleged police excesses.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Updated: March 6, 2016 12:30 pm
naxalites, new line bastar, bastar naxalites, chhatisgarh naxals, bastar naxals, naxalites, chhatisgarh police, naxalism, chhatisgarh naxalism, Leftist insurgency, District Reserve Group, sunday story, naxalism sunday story, india news, nation news “We don’t care about national media. We work with the media in Bastar, that sits with us, eats with us, and comes in helicopters with us,” says IG S R Kalluri

Chhattisgarh Home Secretary B V R Subrahmanyam sees the police’s renewed push in Bastar as “constantly breaking own records”. Inspector General (Bastar Range) S R Kalluri describes it as “a turning point”. For NGOs, activists and journalists on the other side of this all-out operation though, it is an open drive against “outsiders”. With differentiation made between them and — that now-familiar qualifier — “patriotic voices”.

One of the most steadfast bastions of Naxalism in the country, and one of the few remaining places where Leftist insurgency continues to hold sway, Bastar is seeing an upswing in police operations, involving not just more boots on the ground but deployment of surrendered Naxals in greater numbers than ever before.

If in 2015, 46 bodies of alleged Naxalites were recovered by the Chhattisgarh Police, the number has already reached 21 by February 20 this year. “In the last six months, since the rains have ended, there have been 56 Naxal deaths in encounters. This is a record in itself. We begin to count these numbers from September 1, 2015, since in the rains, operations are slow given the conditions in the forests. Since we started again in earnest, we are breaking our own records all the time and pushing them back. In November, there was a record, and then in January (23 Naxals killed), that record was broken,” Subrahmanyam says.

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At present, over 600 personnel of the District Reserve Group (DRG), which comprises surrendered Naxals, are deployed in districts across Bastar. Nearly every recent operation has had DRG teams accompanying the state police or paramilitary forces. In the Budget for 2015, the state government had accounted for 600 more DRG posts and in February this year, these posts were sanctioned.

At the centre of it all is the controversial Kalluri, accused of being involved in attacks by security forces on three villages in Dantewada when he was SSP, Bastar, during which the forces allegedly burnt homes and killed five persons.

If that tenure was volatile, his term as Inspector General of Bastar range only seems to have taken it up a notch. Weeks before a corrosive grease-like liquid was rubbed on her face in an attack, AAP leader and tribal activist Soni Sori had attempted to file a complaint against the IG, accusing him of instigating people against her, but no FIR was registered. Soni now alleges that even when she was attacked by three unknown men near her hometown of Geedam, she was warned “not to speak against the IG, and let the issue of the Madum encounter go”.

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In the days leading up to her attack, Sori had raised the issue of an alleged encounter in Sulenga village in the Madum area of Bastar district, where the police claimed they had killed a 40-year-old Naxal identified as Hidma, who had a Rs 1 lakh reward on his head. Hidma’s family by her side, Sori alleged that Hidma was an innocent farmer, a father of seven, who was asked by the force to show them the way into the jungle.

CaptureNewly appointed Special DG, Anti Naxal Operations, D M Awasthi, says he “personally does not feel Bastar has become a police state”. “SPs have been asked to rein in anti-social elements and ensure safety and security of all citizens in the light of recent events,” he says.

While his emphasis on “security of all citizens” followed Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group members and a journalist leaving Bastar allegedly under police pressure and the attack on Sori, Awasthi is unequivocal about operational successes. “It is very clear that we are doing very well and the force is being used efficiently. In large pockets, we have pushed the Naxals back. On the encounter in Madum, we enquired and our forces have said that the allegations of it being fake are not true. We are still looking into it, but there is a set precedent for a magisterial inquiry and anybody can go to court,” he says.

Much of this confidence stems from a shrinking over the past few years of the area dominated by Naxals. In Chhattisgarh’s bloody history, districts such as Rajnandgaon, Kondagaon and Kanker were considered dens, but the resistance there is now much weaker. “By 2017, save for small incidents, we want to bring an end to Naxal violence in districts such as Kanker, Kondagaon and even Jagdalpur,” says a senior officer.

Officers such as Subrahmanyam talk of “advances made in North and East Bastar, the effects of which are now being seen in South Bastar”. One of the reasons for these ‘successes’ is better road connectivity and increased telecom connectivity — 73 new mobile towers have been put up in Bastar, connecting areas deep inside the forests. Each of these towers is either inside or right next to a police or paramilitary camp.

Close attention is also being paid to the building of specific roads crucial to anti-Naxal operations. Twenty-nine of these projects have been identified by the civil administration, nine of them in Sukma. Of the 29, four have been completed, 13 are in progress, while three are yet to be tendered. Of 1,218 km of roads in the most difficult terrains, so far 481 km have been built.

However, opinion is uniform on the primary reason, in terms of operations, for the success: the DRG. “The turning point has been our use of the DRG. The surrendered Naxal cadres know the jungles, it is in their DNA. They never lose that and we are now using that to our advantage,” says Kalluri.

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Many of the members who are part of the DRG have had stints at military training schools in the Northeast. Three batches of DRG personnel, 300 in each batch, were sent to the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School, where they underwent training for four weeks each.

Officials say these cadres are often bigger assets in the jungles than paramilitary forces. “A CRPF jawan comes to Chhattisgarh for three years, and treats this as a posting, and he will go away after that. These cadres are from here, come from these villages themselves. They have commitment, and want to end Naxalism so that they can go back to their villages,” Kalluri says.
Another senior officer talks about their immense “flexibility” when it comes to combat situations. “Well-trained forces follow standard operating procedures. These surrendered cadres don’t follow rules, and thus are better equipped in the jungles. For instance, if a CPRF team has mapped out a way of going in and coming out, and if they get ambushed somewhere, it is the DRG that can tell them what jungle paths to take. They speak the local language too. Apart from this is their obvious local intelligence in identifying Naxal networks in the villages.”

Critics of the police point out that the concept of using surrendered Naxals as instruments of the state is modelled on the now-banned Salwa Judum. In 2011, the Supreme Court, while holding the Judum illegal, had indicted the state for arming civilians to fight Maoists. But the administration argues that the DRG are not vigilantes, but surrendered Naxals subsumed in the police system through formal channels and training. “The state has to incentivise surrenders by promising jobs and one of those avenues is the police. When they are brought into the system, it is undeniable that they are assets in operations. Unlike the SPOs, those in the DRG are full police officers, with the same accountability as anyone else, and thus the state is fully responsible for their actions,” says an officer.

However, for most surrendered Maoists, working with the police isn’t really a matter of choice. Kiran, who was once the Malangir area committee commander for the Naxals, says, “When I left, I was tired of life in the jungles, and wanted normalcy. So now I have a roof over my head on most days. But in terms of a job, the only option was to join the police. I help them with my knowledge of the terrain. Pehchanta hoon logo ko andar (I know the people inside). There are several operations in a month.”

But many of these operations have been followed by alleged police excesses, with NGOs accusing DRG cadres of often being at the centre of these acts. In November, women in villages around Pedagellur in Bijapur who alleged sexual assault by security forces said the men spoke in Gondi and were surrendered cadres.

Many of the ‘surrender’ numbers, in fact, don’t stand up to official scrutiny. The State Intelligence Bureau has rejected many of these cases because they don’t qualify under “the surrender policy of the state government”. The real story, however, lies in the comparison from 2014 onwards, when the present police dispensation in Bastar took over. In 2013, out of 39 applications, 28 were cleared, while in 2012, 23 out of 39 were cleared. Cut to 2014, when the present IG took over, and the year saw the police claiming 421 surrenders, 316 out of which were rejected by the panel. In 2015, out of 327 cases, 91 have been rejected, 36 approved, with the rest still pending clearance. In late January, R K Vij, the former ADG, Anti Naxal Operations, who rejected the surrender applications en masse, was transferred.

For the first time, however, the allegations of assault in rural areas by forces or their men have been accompanied by “hounding out” of activists from urban centres.

Late at night on February 17, Isha Khandelwal and Shalini Gera of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group were told that that they could no longer live and work out of a flat in Jagdalpur, the Bastar district headquarters, that had served as their home for two and a half years. Given that their work involved fighting cases for tribals in south Chhattisgarh, and that they routinely faced accusations of being involved with Maoists, it had never been easy. But this time was different.

“We stayed through all that, but this time, they attacked those close to us. Our landlord (Pravin Baghel) was asked to come to the police station late at night, and sent home at 2 in the morning. Police seized his vehicle, his only source of income as a cab driver, and told him to evict us. We understand he had no options. So we had to leave,” says Khandelwal.

The same day they were told to clear out, Scroll.in contributor Malini Subramaniam was handed an eviction letter. The modus operandi was the same: her landlord had been called to the police station and she was given a notice. She left the same day, the Legal Aid Group followed two days later.

Bastar Collector Amit Kataria admits the “checks on landlords” were carried out on his orders. “This was a routine check that happens everywhere in the country. My office issued orders that all papers and identities of tenants across Jagdalpur must be checked. There was a routine form that had to be filled out by landlords. When the Legal Aid team came to meet me, this is exactly what I told them. I conveyed to them that this wasn’t about them personally, and there is no question of intimidation,” he says.

SP R N Das denied seizing the vehicle of Baghel, the landlord of the flat that housed the Legal Aid Group. “Nowadays police get dragged into everything. Police have no role in this. More than 200 cars are seized every day. How can I be expected to keep track of all?” he says.

Yet, the allegations of intimidation go beyond eviction notices. On February 7, a group called the Samajik Ekta Manch held a demonstration outside Subramaniam’s home, where she lived with her daughter, shouting slogans of “Naxal samarthak murdabad”, “Naxal samarthak Bastar chodo” and “Bharat Mata ki jai”.

“They took objection to my reports and warned me not to tarnish the image of the police. Hours later, around 2.30 am, I heard a motorcycle enter my neighbourhood. Stones were thrown and the rear window of my car was shattered,” says Subramaniam. It took two days for the police to register a report and Subramaniam alleges that women in her neighbourhood gave witness statements against her complaint.

Kalluri says he visited Subramaniam and the Legal Aid Group, assuring them of a fair investigation and their safety, “after he got a call from someone he respects greatly”. Subramaniam claims that despite these assurances, the pressure continued, with the police allegedly detaining her domestic help, putting her through several hours of interrogation, and accusing her of throwing stones at her house.

Critics of the police administration in Bastar speak of the Samajik Ekta Manch as being part of the process of “intimidation”, with the connection between the manch and police undeniable, they say. The two have been known to jointly organise the wedding of at least one surrendered couple.

Manish Parikh, local BJP leader and member of the Samajik Ekta Manch, says intent is what matters. “We are not from one organisation or party. There are lawyers, journalists, political people from different parties who believe that Bastar has had enough of Naxal violence. Naxals destroy schools, roads, all sources of employment. Our job is to tell people of their activities, in a peaceful, democratic manner. We do not and have not indulged in violence. We even met Malini Subramaniam and, maybe she should correct her work a little, but there was no violence. Now tell me, if I am holding a jan jagran in a colony, and shouting slogans against Naxalism, why is it that someone should have a problem? We did not throw any stones, but we have been attacked needlessly,” says Parikh.

Asked about their connections with the police, he says, “I want you to write this: we believe that the police, Mr Kalluri, Raman Singh and Narendra Modi are doing a great job. And that in 2016, we will rid the area of Naxals. Bastar ka aadmi jag gaya hai (The people of Bastar have woken up), but we don’t need someone from outside telling us what to do.”

It is this narrative of insiders versus outsiders that is playing out across Bastar, often aided and abetted by the police leadership. At a press conference in Raipur on February 20, Kalluri, facing a volley of questions on the eviction of Subramaniam and the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, said there was “great anger” within the Jagdalpur Bar Association, which had passed a resolution against “these lawyers from outside”, and that there was even the possibility of a “law and order problem”.

The president of the Jagdalpur Bar Association, Ashutosh Dwivedi, says there was no fresh notice, but a reiteration of earlier directions issued by them. “Nothing personal against whom you are talking about was passed. We received complaints in August, September that lawyers from outside were arguing cases and even telling clients that local lawyers don’t know their law, which is against professional ethics. Put that aside, a lawyer who practises here must either be registered with the local Bar or the Chhattisgarh High Court. They can only argue through a local lawyer. Now, when I get a complaint that we are unsure of the credentials of these lawyers, the Bar only issued a notice to its own lawyers who are working with those from outside, that either you take responsibility for their eligibility to practise law or withdraw your names from their cases within 10 days. The Legal Aid Group challenged this in the Bar Council and said that we had personally stopped them from arguing. In February, the Bar was notified, through a petition by 150 lawyers that the earlier notice was not being followed, and we issued directions again,” he says.

Journalists are also under watch, as admitted by the administration itself. At the same February 20 press conference, Kalluri repeatedly said that in Raipur, over 300 km from Bastar, journalists gave him “negative vibes” and went on to say, “We don’t care about the national media. You have a different way of looking at things. We work with the media in Bastar, that sits with us, eats with us, and comes in helicopters with us.”

Days later, BBC Hindi correspondent Alok Putul wrote a piece detailing how he was told by both the IG and SP in Bastar that they only had time “for patriotic journalists”.

Kamal Shukla, president of the Patrakar Suraksha Kanoon Sanyukt Samiti and a vocal police critic, says, “All of this is happening because of this declared Mission 2016, where they want to rid the area of Naxals. Under that, there are fake encounters, fake surrenders of innocent tribals and any journalist speaking out is either being bought or silenced. Two journalists, Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag, are in jail on false cases, and those who report independently are being threatened. Anybody with them is called a patriot. This same pattern is playing out with lawyers too,” he says.

The Bastar police had arrested Yadav and Nag late last year on allegations of being involved with Maoists. Yadav’s arrest occurred on a day when villagers of Badrimau had travelled to the nearest police station of Darbha, after being told that doing so would result in the police freeing five men picked up from the village. They, however, walked into an event that was painted as a village “giving up Maoism and asking for police protection”.

Yadav, who was known to the villagers, allegedly took issue with senior police officers, including Kalluri. Within hours, he was arrested. The arrests had caused an uproar among journalists.

The larger worry is that this may go beyond intimidation, and be an attempt to cut lines of communication to Bastar. Journalists Yadav, Subramaniam and the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group were liaison points for most people from “outside” who sought to critically examine the work of the administration in Bastar. That door is slowly, forcibly being shut.

Far away from Bastar, in the quiet halls of the Police Headquarters in Raipur, there is much dissent and dissatisfaction. A senior police officer tells The Sunday Express, “Their numbers of encounters, surrenders and arrests may be high, but there is grave doubt regarding their veracity. Look at what weapons they recover with each encounter. It is always a country-made weapon or something minor. There is also little understanding of Naxalism as a political problem. If you pick up a villager and label him a Naxal, the Maoists then use it for their own propaganda through their political wing. We are giving them the right to say, ‘Look at how police are mistreating you’. If anybody believes that these high numbers show that Naxalism is weakening, they are fooling themselves, and most importantly, young police officers are being taught the wrong things,” the officer says.