In March 2011, a group of Special Police officers (SPOs) and members of the anti-Maoist vigilante group, Salwa Judum, attacked the convoy of social activist Swami Agnivesh at Dornapal town in Sukma district, when he was trying to fetch help to three villages allegedly attacked and ransacked by security forces and SPOs. A Jagdalpur-based television news reporter who accompanied Swami Agnivesh that day recounted the horror many years later, when he was the bureau chief of a regional news channel. “A huge mob, armed with lathis, stones and traditional weapons, was marching towards us. Some of them were hiding AK-47s and SLRs. As the mob neared our convoy, stone throwing began. The mob was not even ready to listen to a senior police officer who was sitting inside the vehicle of Swami Agnivesh. I tried to film the attack with my small camera but soon realised that some of the protesters were coming after me with big stones. I can still feel the terror of that day. One of them carried a big stone and walked alongside me, abusing. I could see death in front of me but did not react and kept walking back slowly to our vehicles which were moving back towards Sukma. Luckily, he did not throw the stone and I managed to get into the vehicle and got back to Sukma.”
Such excesses were common during the heyday of Salwa Judum and they were well documented and reported by the English press, which led to petitions in the Supreme Court and the subsequent ban on Salwa Judum and SPOs in 2011.
In January this year, four Jagdalpur-based journalists were visibly worried when they told this correspondent in Raipur that the situation was “going from bad to worse. What used to happen in Dornapal, Bijapur and Karkeli during Judum days will now happen in major towns like Jagdalpur, Dantewada and Bijapur.”
When asked for reasons for the worry, one of them replied: “The entire Salwa Judum network, its leaders and SPOs have been given a new lease of life by some officers heading the Bastar police, and the former Judum guys are back with their self-proclaimed anti-Maoist armies under different names.”
The reporters’ fears came true in less than a month. A police team asked the freelance journalist and former head of the International Committee of Red Cross in Chhattisgarh Malini Subramaniam why she was visiting the forests and writing about tribal issues.
On February 7, a group of around 20 men gathered outside Malini Subramaniam’s house in Jagdalpur where she lived with her 14-year-old daughter. The group was furious over her reports regarding “fake” Maoist surrenders, “fake” encounters and “alleged” atrocities on tribal women by the security forces, and chanted slogans. Next day, her house was pelted with stones and her car was damaged. The police took two days to register a complaint. According to Chhattisgarh Home Minister Ajay Chandrakar, a complaint was registered against unknown assailants and investigation was on. The Home Minister used the words “unknown assailants” despite Malini Subramaniam identifying three people belonging to a self-proclaimed anti-Maoist vigilante group active in Jagdalpur, called the Samajik Ekta Manch (SEM), one of them a nephew of the local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA.
Soon after, in what appeared to be a coordinated move, the landlords of Malini Subramaniam and Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG), a team of lawyers providing free legal help to undertrials in Chhattisgarh, asked them to vacate their houses and forced them to leave Bastar, diminishing the last ray of hope for thousands of tribal people locked up in different overcrowded jails of Bastar. This was followed by an attack on tribal activist and Aam Aadmi Party leader Soni Sori with an acid-like substance on February 20. Some self-proclaimed journalists and leaders, close to senior police officers posted in Jagdalpur, formed various WhatsApp groups and began a scurrilous campaign against everyone raising the issue of alleged fake Maoist surrenders and alleged fake encounters. Those who questioned the police version were branded as Maoist sympathisers. Journalists and activists speaking out against the atrocities on Bastar’s tribal people were forcibly added to these WhatsApp groups and abused.
The self-proclaimed vigilantes were successful in trapping a fearless journalist from Dantewada named Prabhat Singh. Prabhat Singh had been critical of S.R.P. Kalluri, Inspector General (I.G.) of Police for Bastar range, and had reported many police atrocities in Dantewada. He was arrested for a sentence he posted on a WhatsApp group about someone sitting in the lap of “mama”. A complaint was registered under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, and according to Singh’s brother, he was abducted by some plainclothes policemen in a Scorpio vehicle. According his lawyer, Singh was tortured all night in police custody.
Next day, Dantewada and Jagdalpur police suddenly realised that there were “grave offences” registered against Singh a year ago. He was produced in court with four cases against him and was sent to judicial remand. On March 26, Deepak Jaiswal, a journalist with the local Hindi daily Dainik Divyashakti and a close associate of Singh, went to the Dantewada court to witness the proceedings in his case. The Dantewada police woke up to a case filed against Jaiswal in 2015 and swiftly arrested him and sent him to jail. The fault of these two journalists was that they wrote and reported independently and did not buckle under police pressure. With the arrest of Singh, every journalist based in Bastar is scared to write even a sentence against the police.
On March 26, Bela Bhatia, a social activist and researcher and the partner of well-known economist Jean Dreze, who resides in a village eight kilometres from Jagdalpur, was told to leave Bastar by members of a vigilante group and policemen.
Meanwhile, a “rumour of the possibility of a journalist getting killed in cross-firing” is being spread in Bastar these days, apparently to scare the national media from coming to Bastar and reporting from the ground. Almost every human rights group, lawyer, journalist and political worker who questions the police version of the happenings in Bastar is either out of the district or in jail.
When asked about the current situation of Bastar, a senior politician from the region said: “This is just the continuation of Salwa Judum or you can call it Salwa Judum 2. But this time you won’t find anything on paper. No registered organisation but loosely formed vigilante groups in order to have an escape route if the case comes up in the higher judiciary.”
There is a common link to the 2011 attack on Swami Agnivesh’s convoy near Dornapal, the ransacking of three villages in Sukma and the current crackdown on social activists, independent journalists and human rights lawyers in Bastar: Shiv Ram Prasad Kalluri. In March 2011, as Special Superintendent of Police (SSP) of the then undivided Dantewada district, Kalluri, who was the most controversial officer in the State, was unceremoniously removed after the two incidents. He has been Inspector General of Police of Bastar range since July 2014 and openly supports Salwa Judum, calls himself the biggest enemy of the Maoists and their “urban network of sympathisers” and speaks only to “nationalist media”.
With Kalluri as the Bastar police chief, former members of the banned Salwa Judum have formed a “Vikas Sangharsh Samiti” (VSS) termed as Salwa Judum 2, led by Chavindra Karma, son of Mahendra Karma, the Congress leader who played the main role in organising Salwa Judum in 2005 and was killed by the Maoists in 2013.
When national media started reporting on it, Kalluri said: “When we speak to the Maoists or their supporters and NGO intellectuals about the killings carried out by the Maoists, they ask you to look into the history of political vacuum. The Maoists have more supporters than opponents. The VSS is an effort to fill that vacuum, but the national media termed it as Judum 2. This fight does not mean killing and raping. It’s a big initiative. The media from outside is hell-bent on defaming us. My personal opinion is that the VSS is not wrong.”
At a press conference organised outside the house of Mahendra Karma, Kalluri shared his thoughts on the group. “Even Salwa Judum was not wrong. It was also an attempt to bring peace [to Bastar] by peaceful means. Unless the VSS doesn’t do any wrong, they have full rights to work here. What wrong did Salwa Judum do? What was Salwa Judum? All the tribal people and leaders of this area who were exploited got together against Maoist exploitation. Outsider Maoists are coming here and exploiting people. The people of Bastar never asked for Maoism. When the case on Salwa Judum was going on in the Supreme Court, our people could not present our case properly. I wasn’t posted in Bastar then. But if someone goes against the VSS in the court now, I will answer.”
Reacting to the eviction of JagLAG, Kalluri said in a press conference in Raipur: “I am not calling them Maoists but if you verify the jail records, just see how many times they [JagLAG] have gone to meet people and who the people they met were. The local people of Bastar were agitated over [JagLAG] and the law and order situation could have been threatened.” When asked about the eviction of Malini Subramaniam, he said, “There is the PLGA [People’s Liberation Guerilla Army] and there is also an overground Maoist structure. I am beating their PLGA inside the forest, so why should I worry about Malini Subramaniam and JagLAG?”
Kalluri controls everything in Bastar now, from the administration to the Police Department, and has been involved in confrontations with almost every human rights activist and journalist in Bastar in the last six months. He shares a good rapport with all former Salwa Judum leaders, including P. Vijay, Sattar Ali, Madhukar Rao and the family members of Mahendra Karma.
Officers who had been critical of him were removed from the anti-naxal wing of Chhattisgarh one by one. The list includes former Anti Naxal Operation (ANO) I.G. Deepanshu Kabra, former ANO Additional Director General R.K. Vij and former Bastar Superintendent of Police Ajay Yadav. Another pet project of Kalluri is the SEM. According to the Editors Guild of India’s recent fact-finding report from Bastar, the SEM is an informal but controversial organisation in Jagdalpur.
The report says: “The administration calls it a citizen’s forum and claims that people from all walks of life are members of this organisation. The Collector of Jagdalpur, Amit Kataria, said that many religious organisations are also part of it and they are against the Maoists. But many journalists call it the urban version of Salwa Judum. They, however, did not want to oppose it openly. They said off the record that the Manch is sponsored by the police and it takes its orders from the police headquarters. The fact-finding team met one of the coordinators of this organisation, Subba Rao, to understand the working of the SEM. He introduced himself as editor of two dailies, one morning and the other published in the evening. When asked whether his main occupation is journalism, Subba Rao was candid enough to explain that he is basically a civil contractor and he is working on some government contracts. The fact-finding team met more than a dozen journalists in Jagdalpur, but he was the only (so-called) journalist who claimed that he had never experienced any pressure from the administration. His statements about the arrested journalists were the same as the administrations. He termed Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag as informers for the Maoists. He said that what Malini Subramaniam was reporting was very biased and was glorifying Maoists and painting a picture of the police as exploiters. He denied that SEM was behind the attack at Malini’s residence.”
The main focus of Salwa Judum was on evicting people from their villages to clear the land for projects. Now a different policy is being applied. Entire villages are asked to come to the police station for some programme or the other and a propaganda is made out of “large-scale Maoist surrenders”.
Since Kalluri took over as Bastar I.G., more than 700 “Maoists” have been shown as surrendered Maoists. But most of them have gone back to their villages in the interior parts of Bastar and are living in fear of the Maoists. Many are migrating to neighbouring States. The rule is clear: “If you are not with the police then you are a Maoist.” Unlike in the time of Salwa Judum, when people were forced to join rehabilitation camps, an atmosphere is being created in Bastar to force people to give up their land and migrate to other parts. Huge claims are made about construction of roads and other infrastructure, but extremely slow development can be witnessed on the ground, with unaccountable funds shown as having been spent on Bastar.
According to a senior editor of a Hindi daily in the State, Kalluri’s openness to willingly accept all the negative publicity is beneficial for the government. Kalluri openly tells people that he has been “directly appointed” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and enjoys the full backing of National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval. But the fact is that his own Police Department is against him. “Three powerful bureaucrats, Home Secretary B.V.R. Subramaniam, Chief Secretary Vivek Dhand and Director General of Police A.N. Upadhyay, are shielding him for their own benefit. These three have managed to influence the Chief Minister about the great work Kalluri is doing in Bastar. The Chief Minister has been told that Kalluri is being unfairly targeted because he is going after the Maoists. But if you look at the Maoist insurgency in the national context, it is losing its sheen in every State and not just Chhattisgarh,” said the senior editor, requesting anonymity.
Despite having his entire department against him, Kalluri is thriving in Bastar because no other I.G. wants the posting. According to an I.G.-level officer posted in Chhattisgarh, Kalluri is more active against people like Soni Sori and against JagLAG than in carrying out anti-Maoist operations. The recent Maoist attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) team in a civil locality of Dantewada district of Bastar, which resulted in the killing of seven CRPF men, puts a big question mark on Kalluri’s claims of controlling and confining Maoists to a relatively small area.
According to a bureaucrat, the Chief Minister will find it difficult to continue with Kalluri for a long time. “The State is one of the financially better-managed ones in India. There have been no communal incidents since the formation of the State. Except the Maoist insurgency in Bastar, Chhattisgarh is perceived to be a start-up-and investor-friendly State. However, the government of the day can’t afford to have negative publicity for a long time,” he said. But a senior leader from Bastar, who is no more active in politics, said: “Officers will come and go, but what about some monsters who have been set free now? Can they be controlled even after those who created them leave Bastar for good?”