Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Supriya Sharma - The story the Chhattisgarh police does not want you to read

“People are fed up of the police, of the Maoists, and of journalists,” said the old man, his voice bristling with anger. “We don’t want to talk to you. Where were you when the whole village was taken to the thana and beaten up?” The old man lives in a village along a broken road in Chhattisgarh that’s in the grip of a war that the outside world doesn't seem to care about.

This non-existent road, connecting Dornapal and Chintalnar in Sukma district of Bastar region, cuts through one of the most intense battlegrounds of the low-intensity war between Maoist rebels and government security forces.

This is the road where the Maoists swooped down on a sleeping contingent of paramilitary personnel in April 2010 and left 76 security men dead in three hours. Between 2005 and 2007, an anti-Maoist civil militia called Salwa Judum stormed through these villages and forced residents to move to government camps. Those who stayed behind were seen as Maoist supporters, and their villages were targetted. As the Maoists hit back, the area was convulsed with a civil war that left hundreds dead.

Having survived successive rounds of violence for more than a decade, the villagers living along this road now face a peculiar turn in the war. Starting from December 2015, the police has rounded up hundreds of people, detaining them in security camps for days. Some were beaten up before being released, others were arrested, a few are still missing.

The mass detentions were followed by "mass surrenders": the police claimed that Maoists and their supporters had surrendered voluntarily, but villagers’ accounts suggest many of the surrendered Maoists were ordinary villagers. Curiously, even senior police officials in the state capital have questioned the authenticity of the surrenders.

Worse, for the villagers, their troubles do not end with the police action. They now live in fear of reprisals by the Maoists ‒ in one of the villages, a divisional commander of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) held meetings and threatened to evict the entire village as punishment for the surrenders.

Civil vigilantism: This is reminiscent of the Salwa Judum years when people were forced to take sides, and those who did not, faced violent consequences. Unlike the Judum, there isn’t an armed militia acting on behalf of the state this time, but civil vigilantism is back. This time, it is focused on evicting those who can stand witness to the violence.

Scroll.in contributor Malini Subramaniam reported on the surrenders that took place in Polampallion December 9. Of the 26 men who surrendered, four were from Chintalnar. They told her they were not Maoists and had been coerced into participating in the event.

Subramaniam travelled along the road again in the first week of January to investigate another round of surrenders involving 70 people. The day after she came back to Jagdalpur, the town where she lived, about 20 men from a group called Samajik Ekta Manch showed up at her home, warning her against "tarnishing the image of the police". The same night, around 11, the police visited her home. This was followed by a month-long series of 
intimidatory actions, with the police and civil vigilantes acting in tandem. Subramaniam was eventually forced to leave the town.

Subramaniam was not alone in being hounded out. Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, which provides legal representation to adivasis, were forced to leave in similar circumstances. Activist Soni Sori was attacked by unidentified men with grease-like material that had led to burns on her face.

The attacks on human rights defenders has received some media attention. But the larger backdrop of the attacks ‒ the widespread allegations of police atrocities in the village ‒ has gone largely unnoticed. Few journalists have travelled to the region. Alok Putul of BBC abandoned his assignment mid-way after he faced threats.

In the second week of February, I travelled to the Dornapal-Chintalnar road. This report is based primarily on that trip, but also draws upon Subramaniam’s field notes, which remained unpublished after the police decided to make her the story.

Manufacturing consent: Chintagufa is a village made famous by a signboard outside the police station housed inside the security camp of the Central Reserve Police Force. The camp, rimmed by barbed wire, overlooks a large pond where the green moss is dotted by a burst of lotus blossoms every summer. On the edge of the pond, outside the camp, a signboard says, "Welcome to Heaven".

For several days late in January, residents of Chintagufa woke up to a regular sight: columns of young men and women from nearby villages walking with their heads lowered, being led into the police station by armed security men. Within hours, a trickle of older people, women and children from those villages would follow. They would gather outside the thana, camping there, often for days and nights, pleading with the police to free their loved ones being held captive. Occasionally, a few people would be released, only to be replaced by a new lot of detainees from other villages.

The pattern, which continued for about two weeks, ended on February 4, when a helicopter carrying the Inspector General of Police of Bastar, Shiv Ram Prasad Kalluri, landed in Chintagufa. Dressed in uniform and a cap, with a tilak on his forehead, Kalluri presided over the surrender of 43 people drawn from the villages of Temalvara, Burkapal, Minpa, among others. According to the police, these were Maoists who had surrendered voluntarily. Kalluri gave them cheques of Rs 10,000, while also distributing Rs 100 notes among the villagers who had been assembled for the ceremony… read more: