“You Want Us to Hand Over the Place to the Naxalites”: Nandini Sundar Recounts Her Interactions With Security Officials in Bastar

26 November, 2016

On 8 November 2016, the web publication The Wire reported that Nandini Sundar, a professor of sociology at Delhi University, along with 19 other academics, students and activists, had been charged by the Chhattisgarh Police with the murder of Shamnath Baghel, an Adivasi man. Baghel had been murdered a few days earlier, on 4 November, near his home in the Tongpal area, about 450 kilometres from Raipur. The inspector general of police in Bastar, SRP Kalluri, said that Baghel’s wife had accused Sundar and the others of murdering her husband. Baghel, news reports stated, had been leading a movement against the Maoist ultras in his village, and had lodged a complaint against Sundar and other scholars and activists in May 2016, alleging that the latter were inciting tribal people to oppose the government and encouraging them to support the ultras instead. At the time, The Wire reported, Sundar and the others had strongly contested the charges, and had alleged that the complaint was fabricated by the police in an effort intimidate the scholars and activists working in the region.

Sundar has worked extensively in Bastar, and has spent nearly two decades studying and conducting fieldwork in the conflict-prone region. She was one of the petitioners in a public interest litigation filed in the Supreme Court in 2007, against Salwa Judum, a state-sponsored anti-Maoist organisation. In 2011, the Supreme Court banned the Salwa Judum.

Sundar refuted the FIR as well, saying the charges were “patently absurd.” “This is clearly part of IG Kalluri’s attempt to intimidate and harass journalists, lawyers, researchers, political leaders and human rights activists who have exposed the reign of fake encounters, gang rapes etc. that are going on in Bastar,” she said. On 11 November, the news channel NDTV reported that Baghel’s wife, Vimla, denied having given any names to the police. On 14 November, the newspaper Hindustan Timesreported that villagers in Nama, Baghel’s village, had rejected the claim that Sundar had instigated the murder. They said their opposition was not to Sundar but to the Maoist insurgents. Villagers told Hindustan Times that during her visit, Sundar had identified herself as a member of a civil-rights group and advised them to steer clear of both the Maoists and the police. Kalluri, HT reported, dismissed the villagers’ claims. “In any case, we don’t care a damn about what you write,” he told the paper.

In the following extract from her book, The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar, which was released in October 2016, Sundar recounts her various interactions with the security officials in Bastar. She writes that many security officials functioned under an assumption that she sided with the Maoist rebels, and were unhappy with her opposition to the Judum. Sundar describes how she was often viewed as an adversary, and how many officers, including Kalluri, continually chose to portray themselves as victims of misrepresentation by left activists.

The whole system is driven by distrust—the police distrust people, the people distrust the police, there is distrust within the system.
-SP in Chhattisgarh, 2015

The police stations in Bastar are so heavily fortified—with barbed wire, sandbags and turrets from which guns peep out through small chinks—that they resemble a force under siege rather than one set up to solve any local disputes that villagers may have, which is the routine work of policing. There are apocryphal stories of policemen who, finding themselves left out of the station by accident at night, are unable to get back in. Add to this the CRPF camps which have come up—which are equally ringed with concertina wire – and the overriding image of Bastar now is miles of forest interspersed with miles of barbed wire. In one village, the CRPF camp with its check post barriers was bang in the middle of the village, so anyone going from one hamlet to another had to go through the check post. While the forest roads are empty, except for the occasional cowherd or villager collecting mahua, there are now increasingly lines of CRPF men stretched out along the highways, monitoring road construction work and hiding behind trees along “sensitive stretches.” Despite this overwhelming presence, Maoist posters mysteriously appear on trees, telling the police to go back home, or informing the villagers about some renegade who has surrendered.

Inevitably, many of my conversations with the police—even when I have tried to have a “neutral” academic discussion—have been coloured by their perception of me as an adversary.

My main encounter with senior police officers or retired army personnel has been in air-conditioned rooms at panel discussions organised by security think tanks, where I am always trotted in as the “alternative view.” I am usually the sole woman. Another site, though a less common one, has been in the studios of television channels where my co-panellist was often the retired policeman Prakash Singh, well known for his public interest litigation (PIL) on police autonomy and a strong supporter of the Salwa Judum. The police narrative is quite standard: it is first a law and order problem and then a socio-economic one. Eventually, it doesn’t matter that the socio-economic problem is never addressed so long as they get more resources to enforce law and order. Over time, even this narrative of development has stopped. “Unless the cancer is cured,” one police officer asked me indignantly at a police academy talk in Hyderabad, “how can there be any development?”

This pattern is echoed in interactions with senior officials in many spheres of governance. If one expresses doubts over the way land is being acquired, one is described as being “against development,” “not wanting technology,” “keeping adivasis in museums,” even “not wanting cellphones” for them. If I say that I think cellphones are an excellent example of appropriate technology that has transformed people’s lives, they look surprised—as if I had suddenly chosen a swastika over a red flag. Security experts bring up the question of Maoist financing, and talk of the need to choke off the taxes they levy.

But when I point out that the problem goes much deeper because police and politicians also levy “taxes” on every business in the area, they pretend I had never spoken.

In more private meetings, some officials claim that they used to be sympathetic to the Naxalites as youth, till they saw the light and cleared the civil service exams, the holy grail of all middle-class Indians. In 2005, a former senior officer in Raipur, who compared the Judum to the Vietnamese forces driving out the occupation army (here Maoists) from their land, proudly showed us his novel on Naxalites.

His blog, complete with a photo of his long greasy hair framing his square face in the best traditions of Odia romanticism, tells us:

In spite of many challenging administrative assignments, Shri X is totally committed to the world of creativity. ‘My commitment to creativity,’ says X ‘has strengthened my administrative convictions for justice and fair play’… Shri X has come out with his novel in English, ‘The Revolutionary’ written against the backdrop of terror and extremist violence. The story relates to two close friends who seek to change the world in favour of peace and non-violence. In spite of the extremist threat, they go ahead with their non-violent agenda. While one of the friends dies in the hands of the extremists, the other one resolves to go ahead with his anti-terror campaign in memory of his dear friend.

It is hard not to see shades of [a] peaceful, Gandhian Salwa Judum in its pages.

Initially, in public at these seminars, the police insisted the Judum was a spontaneous movement—at best, some would grudgingly concede that “it was a good idea, but wrongly implemented,” admitting it was a police idea in the first place. Or they insisted that the role of the police was only to “provide security” to the Judum processions, as if there was nothing odd in the police providing security to people while they were burning, looting and killing.

In 2007, I met a senior official (SO) in the Naxalite Cell of the Ministry of Home Affairs:

Me: This violence that is happening in places like Rani Bodli [where Naxalites attacked an SPO camp] is mainly because of the Salwa Judum.

SO: From this statement I can tell you are biased. You have no objectivity. Basically you want us to hand over the place to Naxalites, and take a decision that on 31 March 2007, we handed over Dantewada to them. You can say that people are in the Salwa Judum camps involuntarily to socialites in Delhi but you can’t tell me that—I have spent a lot of time talking to people and I know they have come on their own. If I want I will take my own team of people whom I consider objective—I can take good sociologists like Yogendra Singh [a senior sociologist who had retired from Jawaharlal Nehru University].

Me: If there is nothing to hide, why not allow camps to be more open? How come even journalists are reporting that people are not there voluntarily?

SO: People are scared. Naxalites send advance parties to scout the place.

Me: There are reports of villages being burnt.

SO: That is new data for me, but I can theoretically imagine that if so many people are there, they will be out of control. But I have been telling the Chhattisgarh police that they must appoint more police to supervise SPOs.

If one were to give them the benefit of the doubt, senior police officers helicoptering in from Delhi were likely to be exposed only to SPOs or Judum leaders, who convinced them that people were fleeing from the Maoists. But, in fact, almost all of them did know what was actually going on, even if all they were willing to concede was that “some excesses may be happening.” In particular, the dismissive responses of senior officials at both the state and centre, and their eminent legal counsel before the Supreme Court, showed they simply didn’t care. In 2012, I interviewed a top security adviser on the sidelines of a conference in Australia, where distance and retirement enabled him to talk: “When it [Salwa Judum] got out of hand, people realised that it was not a good strategy but because critics like you were taking it up, government had to defend it. Governments cannot easily publicly acknowledge their mistake.”

Over time, especially after the Supreme Court ban on the Salwa Judum in 2011, several thinking police officers owned it had gone wrong. For instance, in 2013, the same official who accused me of being biased and denied villagers were coerced—now softened and in a different posting—organised a “dialogue” in the Institute of Social Sciences, where he invited several civil society representatives.

His successor in the home ministry, however, chose the occasion to hector us, saying that civil society must tell the Maoists to give up arms, as if we had much say in the matter. Like X, DGP Viswaranjan, grandson of the progressive poet Firaq Gorakhpuri, sought to portray himself as a literary man. He too appeared to mellow after retirement. When I interviewed him in June 2014, he sought to ascribe the Salwa Judum to his predecessor:

“I didn’t believe that civilians could be used to dismantle Naxals but Rathore was convinced it would spread and Naxals would be driven out.”

In service, however, Viswaranjan did everything possible to defend the Salwa Judum. Writing in the Pioneer on 5 September 2008, Viswaranjan claimed that the Salwa Judum was subject to Goebbelsian propaganda: “It is nearly two years since the Polit Bureau [sic] of CPI (Maoist) resolved to isolate Salwa Judum at all levels so that it can be crushed. The network continues its stepped up pressure tactics at every level. It petitioned the Supreme Court through Nandini Sunder and historian Ramchandra Guha [sic] to ban Salwa Judum.” After we challenged this description of us as Maoist stooges, he responded plaintively that policemen were mere “Sudras” compared to powerful Brahminical forces like us.

Police officers in general, and not just Viswaranjan, are steeped in victimology—they like to portray themselves as misunderstood and misrepresented by a powerful network of left activists. Some also like to see themselves as messiahs, saving the nation from the

Naxalites, even if it means breaking several laws and every norm of the Constitution in the process. SRP Kalluri epitomises the way these two aspects are often blended, the quintessential bully who claims persecution:

Composite forces strike again in Bijapur district recovering a dead body of a uniformed male Maoist along with a 12 bore rifle, a bharmar, some tiffin bombs and naxal dump… The tally of Maoist bodies recovered this month has thus become 16 with no loss to Security forces… Fighting Maoism is an arduous and uphill task. But Bastar Police along with CPMF’s [Central Paramilitary Forces] is highly committed to accomplish this what once appeared to be an impossible task. We face lot of criticism, negativity, complaints, cases, writs, bad publicity and foul mouthing by forces that are antithetical to the unity and integrity of our nation and those who want to wreck our Internal security. We at Bastar Police very well understand these forces. We reaffirm our faith and commitment to free Bastar from the shackles of Maoism.

SRP Kalluri, IG Bastar, Whatsapp message, November 2015

I had less opportunity to interview policemen at lower ranks, but they were more varied in their attitudes than the senior ones. They were less sanguine that the government would triumph and less certain about the wisdom of the fight. A co-passenger on a bus ride to Sukma in 2007 told me that his life had been miserable, and he had left the district force to become a shikshakarmi, a contract schoolteacher. Excerpts from our conversation:

Ex-policeman: The force looks attractive from the outside, but it’s not what you think it is. We had to patrol for days, sometimes five or six days at a stretch, eating whatever we got, without bathing, till our clothes and shoes stuck to our skin. It’s not the fault of the police—it was the Judum people who burnt the houses. There were constant encounters. In three months last summer we shot 60–70 people on patrol in Bijapur.

Me: Were all these Naxalites?

Ex-policeman: Of course not. None of them were Naxalites. Sometimes an SPO would point out someone and tell us to shoot, sometimes we shot simply because the villager was running away and refused to stop when we called out. We called out in whichever language we knew—Telugu, Hindi, but the villagers didn’t understand.

Me: Did you record these deaths somewhere?

Ex-policeman: [Sounding shocked] Our jobs would be in trouble if we did. We left the bodies in the jungles. We recorded it as an encounter only if someone was actually wearing a uniform or carrying a weapon. I personally never killed anyone, but if by chance my bullet hit anyone in an encounter, I hate to think of it.

Some police and CRPF personnel I have met have even been sympathetic to our litigation, saying it was needed to check human rights abuses. But by far the majority have been unsmiling, unhelpful and hostile, determined to save their backs and advance their careers, regardless of the costs to the people and the place. This attitude is transmitted early on in training. One young recruit from Uttar Pradesh who I met near Jagdalpur, where he had come with his group to mine sand from the Indrawati, sounded indignant that one could even think the locals had any more right to the place than he had: “It all belongs to the government,” he declared.

For the more seasoned ones, each day that passes is a relief. In many areas, the police have begun to wear civilian clothes when they venture out to the haat, leaving behind the uniforms that earlier gave them so much authority.

This is an extract from The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar, written by Nandini Sundar and published by Juggernaut Books.