Police states, anthropology and human rights
3rd January 2010
Ujjwal Kumar Singh, Professor of Political Science, Delhi University and I have just returned (January 1st) from a visit to the police state of Chhattisgarh.
Ujjwal had gone for research and I had gone for a combination of research and verification purposes to assess the livelihood situation of villagers for our case before the SC, both entirely legitimate activities. In Dantewada, we had checked into Hotel Madhuban on the 29th of December around 2 pm without any problems, only to be told later that night that the management required the entire hotel to be instantly emptied out because they were doing some puja to mark the death anniversary of the hotel owner. We refused to leave at night, and were told we would have to leave at 6 am instead because the rooms had to be cleaned. As expected, other guests checked in the next morning, puja notwithstanding.
At Sukma, we were detained by the police and SPOs at the entrance to the town from about 7.30 till 10 pm, with no explanation for why they had stopped us, and no questions as to why we were there or what our plans were. We were denied lodging – all the hotel owners had been told to claim they were full and refuse us rooms, and the forest and PWD departments had been advised not to make their guesthouses available, since ‘Naxalites’ were coming to stay. Indeed, the police told us that these days Naxalites had become so confident that they roamed around in jeeps on the highways. Since everything was mysteriously full in a small town like Sukma, the police advised us to leave that very night for Jagdalpur, some 100 km away. We decided instead to spend the night in the jeep, since we did not want to jeopardize friends by staying in their homes. Later, we contacted friends and they arranged for us to stay in the college boys hostel, since students were away on vacation.
At midnight on the 30th, 6-7 armed SPOs burst into our room at the college hostel, guns cocked, and then spent the night patrolling the grounds. Evidently, the SPOs have seen many films and know precisely how to achieve dramatic effect. They were also trying to open our jeep, presumably to plant something. The next morning we were followed by seven armed SPOs with AK 47s from Sukma in an unmarked white car, and this was replaced at Tongpal by twelve SPOs, in two jeeps. None of them had any name plates. Given that we could have had no normal conversation with anyone, we decided to do all the things one normally postpones. In twenty years of visiting Bastar, for example, I have never seen the Kutumbsar caves. Everywhere we went, including the haat at Tongpal, the Tirathgarh waterfall and the Kutumbsar caves, as well as shops in Jagdalpur, the SPOs followed us, one pace behind, with their guns poised at the ready. Two women SPOs had been deputed specially for me. The SPOs also intimidated our jeep drivers by taking photos of them and the vehicle.
DGP Vishwaranjan claimed on the phone that it was for our ‘protection’ that we were given this treatment since there was news of Naxalite troop movement, and has gone on to say (Indian Express, 3rd Jan), “anything can happen. Maoists can attack the activists to put the blame on the police. We will deploy a few companies of security forces for the security of the activists.”
Clearly all the other tourists in Tirathgarh and Kutumbsar were under no threat from the Maoists – only we, who have been repeatedly accused of being Naxalite supporters, were likely targets. As for the police ensuring that we got no accommodation and trying to send us from Sukma to Jagdalpur in the middle of the night, such pure concern for our welfare is touching. The SP of Dantewada, Amaresh Misra, was somewhat more honest when he said he had instructions from above to ‘escort’ out ‘visiting dignitaries.’ The Additional SP shouted at us to be more ‘constructive’ – not surprisingly, though, with 12 swaggering SPOs snapping at one’s heels, one is not always at one’s constructive best. The next time, I promise to try.
The SPOs in their jeeps followed us some way from Jagdalpur to Raipur, even when we were on the bus. In addition, two armed constables and an SI were sent on the bus to ensure we got to Raipur. We overheard the SI telling the armed constables to “take us down at Dhamtari” but fortunately this plan was abandoned. Poor man, he narrowly missed getting a medal for bravery, and as the good DGP tells the readers of the Indian Express, it would have been passed off as an attack by Naxalites. On reaching Raipur, the SI was confused. Shouting loudly and forgetting himself, as bad cell connections are wont to make us all do, he said “The IG and SP had told me to follow them, but now what do I do with them.”? The voice on the other end told him to go home. We flew out of Raipur the next morning. In real terms, this was a rather pointless exercise for the CG govt, since we were scheduled to come home the following day anyway, bound by the inexorable timetable of the university and classes. But symbolically, it allowed the SPOs to gloat that they had driven us out.
The CG government obviously wants to ensure that no news on their offensive or even on the everyday trauma of villagers reaches outside. Many villages have been depopulated in the south, both due to the immense fear created by Op. Green Hunt and the failure of the monsoons this year. All the young people are migrating to AP for coolie work. There are sporadic encounters – the day we were in Dantewada (29.12.09), two ‘Naxalites’ were killed in the jungles of Vechapal and three arrested. A week before seven people had been killed in Gumiapal. Who is getting killed and how is anyone’s guess. The Maoists are blockading roads with trees and trenches, and killing ‘informers’. There is compete terror, fear and hunger throughout the district.
While the CG govt is busy providing us ‘protection’, it has refused to restore the armed guard that was taken away from CPI leader Manish Kunjam. He has had credible reports that his life is under threat, and he may face a replay of the Niyogi murder, because of his opposition both to forcible and fraudulent land acquisition by multinationals like Tata and Essar and to the Salwa Judum and Operation Green Hunt. Manish Kunjam, whom I have known since the early 1990s, is the single most important mass leader in the area who has been independent of both the state and Maoists, and taken a stand on various issues. Despite Raman Singh assuring the CPI leadership that this would be done, the DGP has refused to act.
It is also remarkable that a government which can waste so many armed SPOs for an entire day and night on two people who do nothing more dangerous than teach and write, has been unable to catch the SPOs who are responsible for raping six young women. Despite the trial court finding the SPOs and Salwa Judum leaders prima facie guilty of rape and issuing a standing arrest warrant on 30.10.2009, even two months later, they are ‘absconding’. Some of them even give public speeches, but they are invisible to the police. In the meantime, when Himanshu reported that the rape victims were kept for 3-4 days in Dornapal thana and generally terrorized, the Chief Secretary’s response was to accuse him of running an ‘ugly motivated campaign.’ All good men these, good fathers, good husbands, good citizens. So was DGP Rathore and all the honourable men who defended him, promoted him and awarded him despite what he did to Ruchika. Unfortunately for these adivasi girls, they are not middle class, so no media campaign for them.
Bastar can no more get rid of me than I can get rid of Bastar. In 1992, because I attended meetings to observe the protests by the villagers of Maolibhata against the steel plant that was proposed to be sited there, the government denied me access to the local archives. But it was the government which then fell, and my book on Bastar, Subalterns and Sovereigns, was published by 1997. In 2004, four of us were stopped in a village while doing a survey of the Lok Sabha polls by village level sympathizers of the Maoists. They retained Ajay TG’s video camera, for which the brilliant CG police later arrested him. In 2005, Salwa Judum activists stopped us as part of the PUDR-PUCL factfinding on Salwa Judum; in 2006, as part of the Indepdendent Citizens Initiative, Ramachandra Guha, Farah Naqvi and I were stopped and searched in Bhairamgarh thana by out-of-control SPOs, and Ramachandra Guha was nearly lynched inside the station, while the thanedar was too drunk to read the letter we carried from the Chief Secretary. My camera was taken away by a Salwa Judum leader, and returned only months later. In 2007-8, the then SP, Rahul Sharma, fabricated photos of me with my arms around armed Maoist women and showed them to visiting journalists and others to try and discredit my independence. He later claimed, when challenged, that the photos were of one “Ms. Jeet’ and it was he who had verified the truth. In 2009, Ajay Dandekar (historian), JP Rao (anthropologist) and I narrowly escaped a mob of around 300 Salwa Judum leaders, police and SPOs, who, however, took away JP Rao’s mobile phones, a camera charger and vehicle registration documents from the parked jeep. The police refused to register our complaint and detained us for questioning for a few hours, even though we had got the consent of the District Collector and the Mirtur CRPF contingent to visit Vechhapal.
For anthropologists, our professional life is often difficult to separate from our personal – our research depends on developing deep friendships with the people we ‘study’. In the twenty years that I have been visiting Bastar off and on, I have acquired a range of acquaintances, friends and people who are like family members, whose concerns are my concerns. This does not in any way diminish one’s commitment to independence and objectivity. As Michael Harner said in 1966, when the American Anthropological Association was debating whether to pass a resolution against the war in Vietnam, ‘genocide is not in the professional interests of anthropology.’