The Police in Chhattisgarh May be Intimidating Journalists Through a New Vigilante Organisation

On the day that Malini Subramaniam, an independent journalist, was attempting to file a First Information Report against those who had pelted stones at her house, RN Dash, the superintendent of police of Bastar, was travelling with SRP Kalluri, the inspector general of Bastar, Manish Parakh, one of the men that Subramaniam had named in her complaint and other leaders from the Samajik Ekta Manch. They had gone for a rally in Koleng. 01_mediafreedominChhattisgarh_Vantage_The Caravan_15 Febryuary 2016
17 February, 2016

At around 2.30 am on 8 February 2016, Malini Subramaniam, an independent journalist who writes for the news website from Bastar in Chhattisgarh, heard the sound of a metal object hitting her house. In the morning, she discovered that her house had been vandalised. Large stones were strewn across the porch of her house, and the rear window of her car was shattered. This attack was not an isolated event. This sequence of events had first been set in motion on 10 January, when 20 men had visited Subramaniam’s home at 8 pm in the evening. Manish Parakah, the secretary of Bharatiya Janata Party’s Yuva Morcha, and Sampat Jha, a member of the Congress in Jagdalpur were a part of this group. The men identified themselves as members of Samajik Ekta Manch, an organisation in Jagdalpur that was recently founded by local businessmen and political leaders. The forum, according to its members, was formed to “counter Naxalism in Bastar and support the police in its work.”

Once the men were inside Subramaniam’s house, they wasted little time in interrogating her about her whereabouts and expressing their distaste for her stories on Scroll. This conversation was followed by a visit at 11 pm from the police personnel of the area, led by the city superintendent Umesh Kashyap. The team claimed to have come for a “routine verification,” but did not explain why the process could not be conducted the next morning. Over the course of the month, the police returned to Subramaniam’s house again, even though she had submitted the requisite documents at the police station.

On 14 January, a few days after the Samajik Ekta Manch’s first visit to Subramaniam’s house, the organisation featured in an unusual report in Eenadu India, a vernacular newspaper. The report stated: “There will be a unique event on 16 January in which the police band party will, for the first time, play songs for a wedding. The baraat will leave from the local police station for Hata Ground. The Bastar Samajik Ekta Manch will be present from the bride’s side and the police family will be there from the groom’s side.” The bride, Kosi Markam, who is also known as Shanti, and groom Podiyami Lakshman, were allegedly former Maoists who had surrendered themselves to the police in September 2015. Both of them had fallen in love, and were, according to the state police, feared members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). In an unprecedented gesture of goodwill, the police had decided to not just bless this union, but also organise the wedding.

The police did not have to bear this responsibility alone. The Samajik Ekta Manch was happy to extend its support for the event. During the wedding, leaders from the Samajik Ekta Manch and Inspector General SRP Kalluri, the chief of police for Bastar range, sat on the stage, adorned with the pink turbans that are usually reserved for the bride and groom’s immediate families. Kalluri had, in fact, led the baraat—the groom’s procession—to the venue. The symbolic significance of the alliance between Kalluri and the Samajik Ekta Manch was hard to miss. The local journalists and activists I spoke to said that Kalluri’s association with the vigilante organisation was not limited to such gestures. According to Lalit Surjan, the Chhattisgarh-based chief editor of Deshbandhu group of publications, there is a “nagging doubt” that the Samajik Ekta Manch and its activities are “orchestrated” by Kalluri. This sentiment was echoed by the Congress Party at a press conference in Delhi that was held day before yesterday. At this event, the party alleged that the "Chhatisgarh government, administration and police are using organizations like ‘Samajik Ekta Manch’ as instruments of oppression against adivasis and journalists."

Last month, the police in Bastar presided over and organised the wedding of Kosi Markam and Podiyami Lakshman. Both of them were allegedly former Maoists who had surrendered themselves to the police in September 2015. {{name}}

On 22 December 2015, the Samajik Ekta Manch had organised a Dhhikkar or a condemnation rally against Maoists in Jagdalpur. This was the organisation’s first public appearance, attended by a large crowd. The Hindi daily Nai Duniya reported that hundreds of people had reached the rally before its scheduled time. News reports also stated that RN Dash, the police superintendent of Bastar, attended the demonstration with Kamalochan Kashyap, the police superintendent of Dantewada district. According to a journalist who was there, Kalluri was present too. He reportedly said that the rally “increased the confidence” of the police force. While this was the first instance in which the Samajik Ekta Manch and Kalluri explicitly expressed their support for each other,it was not the only one. Since then, the leaders of the organisation have been spotted with the chief of police of Bastar at several public events.

Towards the end of January this year, Kalluri hosted a lunch at his official residence. This lunch was attended by Parakh, Jha and Subba Rao, three of the most prominent faces of the Samajik Ekta Manch. Pictures from the event were shared on Aatank Mukt Bastar 2—Terrorism Free Bastar 2—a group on the instant messaging platform WhatsApp. After the lunch, some members sent messages on this comparing Kalluri to Ram and Maoist supporters to Ravan. One message proclaimed, “Bastar IG Shree Kalluri ne swayam parosa naashta shaheedo’n ke parivaarwaalo’n ko.—The Bastar IG, Kalluri himself, served food to the family members of the martyrs [victims of Maoist violence].”

But Kalluri’s rein in Bastar does not befit the legacy his supporters have claimed for him. In March 2011, he was transferred from his post as the senior superintendent of police of Dantewada district. This transfer was preceded by an attack on the convoy of social activist Swami Agnivesh that was allegedly orchestrated by Chhattisgarh Special Police Officers—local youth recruited to assist the security forces in Anti-Maoist operations—and members of the Salwa Judum, the state-sponsored Anti-Maoist organisation that the Supreme Court banned in 2011. Agnivesh was on his way to three villages in Dantewada that had allegedly been burnt down by the police earlier that month. Later, when he deposed before a commission that was holding an inquiry into the police rampage, Agnivesh alleged, “Kalluri was the mastermind behind the attack on me.”

Kalluri has also been accused of the custodial rape of a woman whose husband was reportedly shot by the police forces, in 2006. According to a March 2011 report in the Times of India titled, ‘Predator, protector: A thin khaki line?’ by Supriya Sharma, who is now the news editor at Scroll, Kalluri’s tenure as the SSP of Dantewada “coincided with a string of horror stories” of police brutality. The report stated that Kalluri accused organisations such as the International Red Cross, and Médecins Sans Frontières of abetting Maoists. Sharma also quoted a letter that AB Bardhan, the Communist Party of India leader who passed away last year, had sent to the prime minister in November 2010. Bardhan had written, “this notorious police officer is intimidating and torturing innocent tribals and ultimately pushing them to the fold of the Maoists.”

During the wedding, leaders from the Samajik Ekta Manch and Inspector General SRP Kalluri, the chief of police for Bastar range, sat on the stage, adorned with the pink turbans that are usually reserved for the bride and groom’s immediate families. {{name}}

Two years later, in January 2013, the government of India bestowed Kalluri with a police medal for meritorious service. By June 2014, he was back in Bastar, with more powers and a larger area under his jurisdiction. He had been promoted to the post of the inspector general for Bastar range—which includes Bastar, Dantewada, Narayanpur, Kondagaon, Sukma, Bijapur and Kanker districts in south Chhattisgarh. Several activists protested Kalluri’s elevation, but to no avail. During his deposition before the commission, Agnivesh, referring to the police atrocities in Dantewada, also said, “Between 11 March and 16 March, 2011, the security forces committed arson, rapes and murders at Tarmetla, Timmapuram and Morpalli, in which Mr Kalluri is one of the accused. His presence in Bastar jeopardises the fairness and objectivity of the two inquiries into the attacks.”

Six months after Kalluri took over, a story inThe Indian Express noted that 377 alleged Maoists had reportedly surrendered in Bastar. Before Kalluri became the IG, the seven districts of Bastar had seen only 29 Maoist surrenders between January 2012 and May 2014. According to the report, a scrutiny of the police records and meetings with the “surrendered Maoists” revealed that at least 270 of the 377 were ordinary villagers or routine criminals who did not meet the criteria to be termed surrendered Maoists. On 20 August 2014, the report further noted, the home department of Chhattisgarh sent a letter to the director general of police AN Upadhyay and all police superintendents, telling them to focus on “the surrender of important cadres instead of lower-rung cadres.” Kalluri was quoted in the report as having said that he was “not concerned about the eligibility criteria or the surrender policy.”

More recently, on 4 February 2016, Nandini Sundar a sociology professor at Delhi University and an expert on the anti-Moist conflict, wrote an account of her recent visit to Bastar that was published on the news website The Wire. According to Sundar, at least 32 of the 70 who had “surrendered” on 24 December 2015 at Chintalnar were ordinary villagers. The CPI (Maoist) has regularly questioned such surrenders as well, claiming that none of those people were its cadre members. The last such communiqué was issued on 5 February. The outfit appealed against “Kalluri’s false propaganda” and called for people in the region to rise against the excesses.

In her article, Sundar had noted, “What is clear is that the police is carrying out sweeping raids as collective punishment, and fitting villagers to pre-decided crimes.” She further wrote, “the security forces have been proudly putting out regular press releases of the number of Maoists they have killed along with photos of corpses. One of Kalluri’s most recent Whatsapp message to journalists says:

In Bastar range 23 bodies of Maoists have been recovered as part of ongoing Mission 2016 Bastar. Over past 3 months Bastar police has recovered 45 bodies of Maoists with no loss to security forces.

With one or two exceptions, most of the weapons recovered have been “bharmars”—country guns that can be recycled from encounter to encounter as evidence—wires and tiffin bombs, hardly the stuff of “fierce gun battles”.”

In the first phase of Salwa Judum, Sundar said, “The security forces would kill indiscriminately and leave the bodies to rot. Now, they proudly exhibit their kill.”

In the past few months, a spate of reports from Bastar has detailed the regularity with which officials from security forces loot the villages and sexually assault the women from these regions when they cross these areas during their Anti-Maoist operations. The police, in many such cases, refuses to file First Information Reports, leaving the victims with no legal recourse. Reports in the local and national media help in bringing such instances to light. These stories can help put pressure on the police and the rest of the security apparatus, forcing them confront their crimes.

Altercations between journalists and the police in this region have grown over the last year. In September 2015, a petition that was signed by 160 journalists and civil society members was sent to Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh; the Union Information and Broadcast Minister, Arun Jaitley; and the Union Tribal Affairs Minister, Jual Oram. The petition demanded the release of two local journalists, Somaru Nag and Santosh Yadav. Nag and Yadav had been arrested in July and September 2015, respectively and were reportedly tortured by the police. There was, the petition stated, little clarity on either the charges against them or the evidence that was used to frame these charges.

Isha Khandelwal, a human-rights lawyer who works with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group—a collective that was formed through the efforts of human rights activists, lawyers and academics in 2013—is representing Yadav. She told me that Yadav had been reporting on the conflict between the Maoists and the police. On 29 September 2015, he was called to the police station under the pretext of a meeting with Kalluri. He was arrested soon after. The petition to the chief minister, information and broadcast minister and the tribal affairs minister highlighted Nag’s case to frame the harassment that local lawyers and journalists continue to face in the state. It said:

Local lawyers and members of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties said that police had been harassing Santosh Yadav for several months now, ever since he began reporting on the conflict between the police and the Maoists. While the police personnel state that he had links with the Maoists, civil liberties activists allege that the police was pressurising Yadav to become an informer for them.

The arrests have only brought to the fore the extremely precarious condition of journalists reporting from these conflict areas, in particular journalists who live and work in rural areas. They face a Hobson's choice, and their reportage as well as their independence and their very safety, is severely compromised. In this situation, police arrests end up intimidating and silencing all independent voices.

The petition demanded the release of the two journalists, and “an investigation into the methods adopted by senior police official S.R.P. Kalluri, who has created an atmosphere of terror in the Bastar region, especially against the media.”

Emboldened, to no small degree by Kalluri, the police did not release the two journalists. Instead, it began intimidating others. Subrmanian was one such journalist. After she was first visited by members of the Samajik Ekta Manch, Subramaniam told me that the police harassed her on an almost daily basis. Officials would call her to the local station even though she had provided them with the documents they had asked for, and members from police force would visit her house, most often, after her field visits. The police also questioned her neighbours about her.

On 6 February, two nights before her house was pelted with stones, Subramaniam had gone to a village in Bastar to report on an alleged encounter killing by the police. Soon after this visit, a sloganeering group of men from the Samajik Ekta Manch, accompanied by Parakh and Jha, had proclaimed that she was displaying Bastar and its police officials in a poor light with her writing. These men, Subramaniam said, also told her neighbours to be cautious as of the “naxal supporters” in the area. She tried to call Dash, the superintendent, but her number seemed to have been blocked. He picked up when she called from another number, but disconnected the call as soon as she identified herself.

Sharma, Scroll’s news editor told me that after the mob left, some women from the neighbourhood came over to Subramaniam’s house. These women told her that members from the Samajik Ekta Manch had asked them to join the group in throwing stones at her house. This was the night on which unidentified people attacked Subramaniam’s house.

The next day, Subramaniam was shunted from station to station, but was unable to file an FIR despite going to the offices of the commissioner and the SP. The SP, Dash, was travelling with Parakh—one of the people Subramnian had identified from the sloganeering group in her complaint—Kalluri, and other leaders of the Samajik Ekta Manch for a rally in Koleng.

When I spoke to Parakh over the phone, he told me that no one from the Samajik Ekta Manch had attacked Subramaniam’s house. According to Parakh, they believed in expressing themselves through democratic means. He also denied that their slogans were aimed at Subramaniam. He said, “We were sloganeering against Naxalites in the area. If someone has a problem with us saying Naxalvaadi Murdabad—death to naxalism—what can we do?” Parakh told me that the Samajik Ekta Manch is a non-political organisation, the objective of which is to spread Jan Jaagran—popular uprising—against Maoists. He denied that Kalluri was behind the organisation, but made it a point to add, “Kalluri saab is doing great work.”

Subramaniam told me that the police filed an FIR in her case on 9 February, after she met the district collector. But the FIR was lodged against unknown “miscreants,” not the Samajik Ekta Manch members she had named in her complaint. Over the next few days, female officers visited Subramaniam’s house to record her statements, as wells as those of her neighbours as witnesses. Some of the women who had recorded their statements told Subramaniam that the investigating officer was threatening to charge them in the case. The officer told these women that her investigation indicated that a woman had thrown the stones at Subramaniam’s house. She threatened them by saying, “Mohalle se ek-ek aurat ko uthha le jayenge, naak mein ungli dale sach ugalwaenge—We will pick up each and every woman from the neighbourhood, and intimidate her into confessing to the crime.” These women were scared, and wanted to retract their statements.

Towards the end of January this year, Kalluri hosted a lunch at his official residence. This lunch was attended by Manish Parakh, Sampat Jha and Subba Rao, three of the most prominent faces of the Samajik Ekta Manch. {{name}}

On 10 February, Kalluri and his juniors went to meet Subramaniam at her house. By this time, the Editor’s Guild had released a statement to condemn the attack and the editorial team at Scroll had sent two letters to Raman Singh. Scroll’s editor had also handed over a third letter to Singh on 10 February, which ended with, “We hope you will address the threats to journalists in Bastar and ensure they can work freely and independently.” Kalluri and his colleagues assured Subramaniam that nothing of this sort would happen again, and that they would “take care of it.” Subramaniam said that she also told Kalluri about the investigating officer who was threatening the witnesses, and he responded by saying that he would “look into the matter.” He asked the local corporator to organise a “peace talk” between Subramaniam and the members from the Samajik Ekta Manch. “I felt relieved” after that, Subramaniam told me over the phone.

As Surjan wrote in a column titled,‘Naxalism: Journalist vs Police’ on 16 December 2015, Kalluri has a distinct way of engaging with the Maoist conflict. Unlike other senior officers, Kalluri, Surjan noted, sees the conflict as an “aar-paar ki ladai—a battle to the finish.” Surjan wrote that the government might have allowed Kalluri a free hand so that he could employ the techniques he had crafted in other parts of Bastar.

During our conversation, Surjan told me that that the Maoist movement is an important problem that needs to be solved, but the “vigilantism” of organisations such as the Samajik Ekta Manch is not the solution. “All the things that are happening are all orchestrated,” Surjan said, arguing that the Samajik Ekta Manch is “not spontaneous” when I asked him about Kalluri’s patronage of this organisation. “If we will have attacks like this, vigilantism will lead to an unfortunate situation.” He said referring to the attack on Subramaniam. “Democracy doesn’t work like this.”