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