How the Telangana Police is targeting Adivasi students, lawyers and activists

Since July this year, the Telangana Police has increasingly harassed and intimidated Adivasi activists, teachers, lawyers, and students, in an apparent effort to silence the voices fighting for Adivasi rights. These individuals include (left to right, top to bottom) Kanaka Venkatesh, Madavi Ramesh, Sidam Jangudev, Ganta Satyam, Chanda Maheshwar Rao, Suman Dabbakatala, Vedma Bhojju, Kursinga Venkatesh, Vivekanand Sidam, Soyam Chinayya, Athram Suguna and Athram Bhujanga Rao, and Ramanala Laxmaiah. Illustration by Sukruti Anah Staneley
27 December, 2020

Since July this year, the Telangana Police have been increasingly persecuting Adivasi residents in the state’s northern districts of Adilabad and Kumuram Bheem Asifabad. The police actions rose after Vishnu Warrier, the superintendent of police at Adilabad, released a list on 29 August of people accused of being “Maoist sympathisers.” Many of those named in the list are students and human-rights activists from Adivasi communities. Madvi Ramesh, a school teacher who has taken active part in various agitations for Adivasi rights, was named in the list. “The police has been unnecessarily framing Adivasi students,” Ramesh said. “For people like me who are in government job, we can manage. But what would the students do?”

Kumuram Bheem Asifabad was carved out of a larger Asifabad district in 2016. In recent months, students and activists from the two northern districts faced increase police intimidation, including charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. In fact, the incidents are not restricted to these two districts—Mulugu and Bhadradi Kothagudem, two eastern districts of the state, have also seen a rise in police hostilities against Adivasi locals. Simultaneously, while the police reported over ten encounter killings from multiple incidents of “exchange of fire” in the past two months, not a single person from the Telangana Police was injured, according to police press releases and news reports. The cases of harassment and intimidation of Adivasi activists, teachers, lawyers, and students in Adilabad appears to be part of the attempt by the Telangana government to shun the voices fighting for Adivasi rights.

The persecution began in July after the Telangana Police intensified combing operations in various parts of the state. On 17 July, Telangana’s director general of police, M Mahender Reddy, held a press conference in Kumuram Bheem Asifabad and said five members of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) were “spreading tension in Adivasi villages which are known for peace and tranquillity.” Reddy claimed that the group was led by Mailarepu Adellu, more commonly known as Bhaskar, who is a member of the Maoists’ Telangana state committee. A Telangana Today report noted that the five-member Maoist team’s presence in Adilabad had prompted the police to “deploy 60 police teams, including 25 special squads, to carry out intense combing operations in the forests to track down the ultras.”

Reddy held the press conference two days after a group of Maoists led by Bhaskar reportedly escaped after “exchange of fire” with the police in in Thokkuguda village of Kumuram Bheem Asifabad district. Warrier, the Adilabad superintendent, told the media that the Maoists had “opened fire at the police party which retaliated, following which they escaped.” Following this alleged escape, the police arrested Kova Vasanth Rao, a native of Thokkuguda, under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, the Arms Act and the UAPA for supplying food and shelter to the Maoists and helping them escape.

On 16 July, a Deccan Chronicle journalist Pilalamarri Srinivas reported that the villagers of Thokkuguda refuted the claim of exchange of fire and argued that “the police version was aimed at creating panic among the Adivasis and villagers.” Srinivas reported that according to the villagers, “one police party members fired in the air to terrify us on the night of July 14.” Kova Sattubai, Rao’s wife, told Srinivas that on the same night, a police party took their utensils to cook lunch for themselves and “asked the family to finish the leftover food.” Late that night, she added, another police party visited and knocked on their door. Sattubai said that due to the odd hour, there was a delay in opening the door, and the police concluded that they had helped the Maoists escape. She added that the police even took utensils from the house along with Rao, because of which they “do not have utensils to cook food,” any longer.

The incident represents the nature of combing operations across the Dandakaranya region, which includes parts of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra and Telangana , where security forces ask for food—and even loot it—from Adivasis’ houses, but frame them for supplying food to Maoists. Reflecting on the incident, the teacher Ramesh told me, “It is considered customary for Adivasis to give hospitality to whoever visits their house or village. One is offered tea/water regardless of who they are.”

The following month, Warrier released the list of Maoist sympathisers, which he claimed the police found in a diary left by the Maoist leader Bhaskar in Gundala village in Kumuram Bheem Asifabad. The state police did not mention the diary following the alleged exchange of fire between the Maoist group and the Telangana Police in July. Warrier had told the New Indian Express that “a few bags containing the outfit’s literature, uniforms, detonators, cordtex wires and some electronic gadgets were seized during the operation.” In fact, the police have never produced the diary in front of the media at all, and nor have they released a copy of the list of sympathisers in it.

Warrier said that the list based on the diary was released a month later because the police were examining it. “We have documentary evidence of accused persons and based on the evidence, we will take action,” he told me, referring to those identified as Maoist sympathisers. “That is [our] stand. But things are in sub-judice now and we believe in documentary evidences. We also have potential evidences and material recoveries. We don't have any doubt of mind or lack of clarity and we will prove it in the court, as per law.”

The list released by the police had ten names, which comprised predominantly Adivasi students and activists. Most of them are members of Adivasi Student Union and the Adivasi Hakkula Porata Samithi—more commonly known as Tudum Debba—an Adivasi-rights organisation in the state. “It is extremely unfortunate that young students are being targeted,” Ramesh, the school teacher and activist, told me. Over the past few months, many Adivasi students have been put under surveillance, and many are regularly called to the police station for their WhatsApp or Facebook status. “If the police continue to harass these youngsters, where will they go?” Ramesh asked. “When our revolutionaries Kumram Bheem and Birsa Munda fought for our rights—were they Maoists?”

The police list included Ramesh; Sidam Jangudev, a student pursuing a diploma in education who is the son of an Adiviasi leader from Adilabad’s Mathigadu village; Soyam Chinnaya, the BJP’s unit president of Asifabad’s Bejjur block; and Sidam Vivekanand, an Adivasi lawyer. Ironically, when Jangudev’s father, Sidam Shambhu, had died in July 2018, Warrier had attended the condolence meeting and reportedly said, “Shambhu’s endeavour for achieving Adivasi rights will never be forgotten.” He also gave Rs 10,000 to the family and assured police departments support to the family. Two years later, Warrier accused Jangudev of being a Maoist sympathiser, and four months after that, the police arrested the young man.

Chinnaiyah denied the allegations. “I joined the BJP in 2018, thinking it would give me some protection from the regular harassments,” he told me. “When they had already arrested me earlier on the similar false accusations, how can they again charge me for nothing?” He added, “Put as many cases as you want, I am ready to go to jail. When we are doing work for the welfare for our community, how can they implicate us for connection with Maoists.” Chinnaiyah said that he had told Warrier that “there is no fault of mine, I am innocent, how can my name be there?”

Vivekanand, a 28-year-old lawyer, is a first generation LLM graduate from Osmania University in Hyderabad. He is also a former member of the Adivasi Students Union, a student body raising the issues of Adivasis. Vivekanand told me that he had been framed by the police and that he was concerned about his future career and other students. He said that he has been under police surveillance since he was named in the list by the police in August. “The police is trying to create a situation that existed thirty years ago during peak of Maoist movement,” Vivekanand said. “The harassment and threats are tactics being used to create fear among the Adivasi youth.”

He told me that there were about 15–20 lawyers in the Telangana High Court who are accused under similar charges and that they were persecuted for fighting land-rights cases for Adivasis. “I have been talking about the land rights issue. I have been creating awareness among the Adivasi youth, that’s why they are targeting,” he said. “They know that if the Adivasi youth is aware they can’t harass a common person that is why the police is targeting activists working in tribal areas.” According to Vivekanand, the Telangana Police has a history of interfering over land issues when non-tribals occupy tribal land protected under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which gives special protections to tribal communities with respect to land rights. “Most of the non-tribals have been occupying tribal lands, about seventy to eighty percent tribal land has been occupied by non-tribals in Fifth Schedule regions of Telangana,” Vivek said.

He said that the day after the police released the list of alleged sympathisers, Vivek, Jangudev and Mahesh—three of the ten people named in the list—held a press meet at the Press Bhawan in Utnoor, a town in Adilabad, to address the accusations. According to an Adivasi activist present at Press Bhawan, who was named in the police list and spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, Warrier called him during the press meet, and abused him using profanities against his mother. “You think you are political leaders that you can talk like this about us?” the activist said Warrier asked him. After that call, the activist said, “many others who have been framed in the diary case did not say anything during the press meet out of fear.”

I asked Warrier about the accusations of the police harassing Adivasi activists in the district. “You can verify it with lots of other people here,” he told me. “We will not tell anything and those things are completely orchestrated statements. And here, if you randomly do a survey, you can ask and take your observation and write the report. Because that is how good we are doing policing.”

Another person on the list is Vedma Bojju, the state president of the Adivasi Students’ Union. Others named in the list include Ramanala Laxmaiah, Ganta Satyam, and Kursinga Venkatesh—all three of whom are Thudum Debba members—and Kadimetla Srinivas, a member of Telangana Vidyarthi Vedika in Kumuram Bheem Asifabad District. Out of the ten persons named in the list, three have subsequently been named in a recent FIR filed in Mulugu, and four persons were arrested, one of whom is still in jail.

By September, the Telangana Police began a series of encounter killings of alleged Maoists. On 3 September, Bhadradri Kothagudem police claimed to have killed a Maoist in an “encounter.” The district superintendent, Sunil Dutt, told the media, “At around 4.15 am on Thursday, during vehicle checking, a police party noticed two bike-borne men and tried to stop them.” Dutt said that the two men fired at the police while trying to make their escape, which prompted retaliation fire that killed one of them.

The next day, Azad, the divisional committee secretary of Bhadradri Kothagudem-East Godavari unit of the CPI (Maoist), identified the killed Maoist as Dudi Devalu. More commonly known as Shanker, Devalu was from Chhattisgarh’s Konta area, and served as an area committee member and a commander in Telangana. In a statement issued on 4 September, Azad alleged that Devalu had been arrested from a hospital the previous day, and accused the police of torturing him before killing him in the forests of Devarlagudem in Bhadradri Kothagudem’s Gundala block.

The Bhadradri Kothagudem police claimed to have killed two more members of CPI (Maoist), Kovvasi Chandu and Madakam Eithu, in another “exchange of fire” on 7 September. Following the incident, Jagan, a spokesperson for the CPI (Maoist) Telangana State Committee, issued a press release stating that the two were “unarmed” and alleged that they were arrested and killed by the police “under the guise of exchange of fire.” The CPI (Maoist) called for a one-day bandh and executed a landmine blast on an empty stretch to protest the alleged fake encounter. According to a report in The Week, the police said the incident took place on 7 September in Cherla at around 3 pm while patrolling the forest, after getting information that a Maoist party was moving in the region to “destroy public property and cause harm to life.”

In September, about 400 security personnel including greyhounds—a special anti-insurgency wing of the Andhra Pradesh and Telangana Police—were reportedly deployed for combing operations in Kumuram Bheem Asifabad district. On 18 September, the police killed two Maoists in the district—Chukkalu and Baji Rao—and claimed that the incident occurred during another “exchange of fire.” The Tribune reported that the security forces had spotted a Maoist group led by Bhaskar in the district’s Kadamba forest, asked him to surrender, and engaged in the exchange of fire for over an hour after the Maoists shot at them. The report by Telangana Today included a picture of policemen carrying the dead body of one of the Maoists, who was wearing civilian clothes. The spokesperson Jagan issued a statement on 25 September claiming that the two Maoists had been “picked up when they went to meet villagers in civilian clothes,” and were later killed in Kadamba forest. He added, “After catching the Maoists, the government killed them instead of sending them to prisons as per the laws.”

On 23 September, the Bhadradri Kothagudem police killed three suspected Maoists, including two women, during another alleged “exchange of fire” at Chennapuram forest. The police again claimed that several Maoists fired at the police when asked to surrender, and that the slain individuals were killed in response. The deceased persons, including two women, were identified by the police as Sodi Jogaiah, Madakam Mangi and Madakam Malli—all of them from the Koitur, or Gond, tribe. The Maoist party, however, only claimed Jogaiah to be a Maoist in the statement released on 25 September.

Following the encounter, Gaddam Laxman, the Telangana state president of a non-profit called the Civil Liberties Committee, filed a public-interest litigation in the Telangana High Court alleging that the encounter was “illegal.” Laxman pressed to register a case under section 302 of IPC which pertains to murder. On 24 September, the high court directed the state for “re-post-mortem examination” of the three persons and asked for the photographs and videographs of the second post-mortem to be submitted in a sealed cover.

“The court directed the police to conduct re post-mortem with forensic experts and directed the state to file the counter, but till today they haven’t filed the counter report,” V Raghunath, Laxman’s advocate, told me. “The police deliberately delayed visiting the villages that are in remote areas and by the time they reached there, bodies had already been cremated.” He said that the members of Civil Liberties Committee have not been allowed by the police to conduct fact finding and instead some activists have been detained by the police.

On 18 October, the Mulugu police claimed to have killed two more Maoists in “exchange of fire” during combing operation in Mangapet Mandal of the district. The Tribune reported that the encounter took place a week after six Maoists had killed Maduri Bheemeshwara Rao, a member of the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi who owns a fertiliser shop in Venkatapuram.

At least three activists from Adilabad told me on condition of anonymity that there have been several accounts where the police openly threatened to encounter Adivasi activists, but no one wished to discuss it in detail out of fear. Under these circumstances, the multiple accounts of encounters, claimed by the police to be incidents of “exchanges of fire,” raise several questions about the ground reality. Amid fear, as these activists prepare for their own legal battle, they have not even been able to visit the deceased members’ families and verify whether these accounts have been real.

In late October, the Tadvai police station in Telangana’s Mulugu district arrested four  individuals accusing them of being Maoist sympathisers—Dabbakatla Suman, Chanda Maheshwar Rao, Tatipamula Ramesh, and Sidam Jangudev, who was named in the list released by the police in August. Criminal procedure mandates that individuals must be produced before a court within 24 hours of being detained, but the four accused persons were presented before a magistrate only on 3 November.

The magistrate wrote in the order, “On enquiry the Accused A-1 to A-4 voluntarily stated in the presence of their counsel and police escort that the police illegally detained them on 28 October and after the press meet dated 2 November, they [were] produced before this court today to show the remand as within 24 hours.” On 3 December, the court granted conditional bail to all four. Two among them, Jangudev and Suman were released from jail on 7 December, and Ramesh was released on 16 December. Rao remains in jail due to other FIRs registered against him.

The four were arrested in a case registered by the Tadvai police against 21 people for offences under the UAPA, the Indian Penal Code and the Telangana Public Security Act. All four are university graduates and members of various students organisation. Three are from the Koitur tribe and are leaders of the Adivasi Students Organisation (Union), while Tatipamula Ramesh is from the Vadrangi community, classified as a backward class. The police claimed that the four individuals were collecting money for the “party fund” and encouraging the youngsters to join the Maoists. The police stated that the four were waiting to go to Chhattisgarh to hand over Maoist literature to the Maoist leaders—Haribhushan, Damodar, Kankanala Rajireddy and Mylarapu Adellu—who have also been named in the FIR.

However, it is a well-settled principle of law that the possession of Maoist literature is not a criminal offence. As recently as September, during a hearing in a special court of the National Investigation Agency, the Kerala high court granted bail to two persons accused under the UAPA. The court remarked, “Possession of literature and reading materials on Communist ideology, Maoism, class struggle etc doesn’t prove anything adverse to the accused. Being a Maoist is not (a) crime, though the political ideology of Maoists does not synchronise with our Constitutional polity.”

The Tadvai police station released a photo that showed the four arrested men with covered faces behind the police. In its case diary, a copy of which I have seen, the police listed 39 pieces of Maoist literature and pamphlets seized from the four men, though none of it was shown to the media. The diary further stated that “this is a case of criminal conspiracy, having in possessions of revolutionary literature, aiding and support given to outlawed CPI Maoists.” It also listed over fifty members of various civil-society organisations such as the Tudum Debba, the Adivasi Students Union, the Human Rights Forum, and the Civil Liberties Committee, identifying them as “frontal organizations” and accusing them of supporting the CPI (Maoist). Pertinently, in October last year, the Hyderabad police commissioner had named several of these organisations as Maoist fronts.

The FIR also names four government school teachers. Two of them, Athram Bhujanga Rao and Athram Suguna, are married to each other and office holders of the Human Rights Forum—an organisation founded by the human-rights activist K Balagopal in 1998—as its state vice-president and Adilabad district president, respectively. Suguna is also the president of Adivasi Mahila Sangham, which is affiliated to Thudum Debba. Bhujanga Rao has at multiple times tried to visit encounter sites for fact-finding missions but been denied permission by the police. The couple has been an active voice of resistance against the unjust policies of the government. Kanaka Venkateswar Rao, a third school teacher in the list, is HRF’s Kumuram Bheem Asifabad district president.

Warrier denied that the HRF activists were falsely implicated. “They are involved in this, as per Mulugu case, as per the confessions [of the arrested persons] and the documents and evidences the police has.” Warrier noted that there were lots of teachers in the district but only a few were named in the case, arguing that this indicated that it was not a false case. “Without any evidence, without any reason, we are not going to frame anybody,” he said. “We will go as per the procedure, as per the law. And with confidence we can go to the court.”

Sangram Singh Patil Ganapatrao, the superintendent of Mulugu police, claimed to be unaware of the UAPA case in which 21 people were booked. He said that cases have been registered for incidents of individuals “providing logistics to Maoists,” but said he did not know which specific case I was referring to. Ganapatrao added, “The network is through the Maoist affected area. Adilabad being one of the Maoist stronghold, they have their cadre there and the militias nexus has been supplying and giving logistic support.”

The ongoing violence also needs to be contextualized with the background that Telangana’s Adivasi regions are the only coal mining belt in the state, which is spread across Adilabad, Karimnagar, Khammam and Warangal. The belt is inhabited by the Gutti Koyas, a sub-group among the Koitur tribe. Gutti Koyas are among the most vulnerable groups in the region with no access to basic amenities provided under various government policies, since most of them are migrants to Telangana. In effect, they have become refugees in their own ancestral land. The Gutti Koya community, too, has been at the receiving end of increased police action in recent months.

In July, 80 Gutti Koya families were evicted from their land for a plantation drive under Telangana’s Haritha Haram programme, a state government initiative for large-scale tree plantation. On 29 August, the Mahamutharam police, in Telangana’s Jayashankar Bhupalpally district, arrested five Gutti Koya men, accusing them of supporting the Maoists. The police claimed to have seized “two detonators, two gelatin sticks, two steel boxes and ten pamphlets belonging to the outlawed Maoists.” However, similar to other instances, none of the recovered items were displayed before the media—instead, only the five accused men stood with their faces covered.

In 1981, over one hundred innocent Adivasis were killed in police firing in an incident that has come to be known as the Indravelli massacre. In response, NT Rama Rao, who was the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh at the time, conducted mass recruitment of Adivasis as teachers to prevent the community from joining Maoists after the brutal killings. Ironically, forty years later, the same school teachers are being framed as “Maoists” for their voices of dissent.

“The cases are fabricated and don't stand a chance in front of the court,” the school teacher Ramesh told me. “Why should I be scared if I have done nothing wrong?” He added, “How can Adivasis make sense of this injustice? Sometimes I cannot sleep at night thinking of this. It's as if the country doesn’t see us, that we tribals don’t exist.”