By Dr V Suresh* and Prof Prabhakar Sinha**
The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) strongly condemns the shocking action of the Chhattisgarh state police and district administration threatening criminal prosecution against a team of academics and members of the CPI and CPI(M) parties who had visited Kanker, Bastar, Dantewada and Sukma districts of Southern Chhattisgarh between 12th and 15th May, 2016 to enquire into the conditions of life of ordinary adivasis caught in the conflict between the State and the Maoists. This is apart from the vicious witch hunt launched by the district police against all local tribals who accompanied and assisted the team during the Fact Finding visit.
The fact finding team consisted of Prof Nandini Sundar of Delhi University, Prof Archana Prasad of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Shri Vineet Tiwari of Joshi- Adhikari Institute. Shri Sanjay Parate, State Secretary, CPI(M) also accompanied the team. The team visited many villages between 12th and 15th May 2016 and released to the press its preliminary findings of the very serious humanitarian crisis prevailing in this area. The team pointed out the human rights violations suffered by the ordinary adivasis at the hands of both parties to the conflict – fake encounters and fake surrenders and arrests by the State as well as arbitrary beatings and killings by the Maoists.
The FFT also pointed out the extreme distress experienced by villagers caught in the cross fire in a situation reminiscent of the “Salwa Judum” which had caused widespread displacement, divisions in the Adivasi society and destruction of their lives and livelihoods. The Fact Finding Team has appealed to all political parties, the Central and State Governments, as well as to the Maoists to urgently address this situation.
What is shocking and deplorable is that the State police, instead of providing their response to the findings of the FFT, has chosen to sponsor a ridiculous and politically motivated allegation against the team that “they are JNU professors who threatened the villagers to side with Maoists”. In an unprecedented move the District Collector, Mr. Amit Kataria, has irresponsibly propagated the allegations by posting in his Facebook page, a so-called complaint in the name of local villagers demanding a FIR against the FFT. This has been done even before any investigation has even started.
This raises the crucial issue of the ethical and legal propriety of the District Collector posting in a public fora like social media, such a complaint even before it is verified. It is unfortunate that the high office of the District Collector, who is expected to behave in a restrained, independent and balanced manner, has degenerated to indulging in political propaganda to whip up hate campaign filled with hostility, hysteria and hype against anyone exposing the role of the police and state administration in creating the war like situation that has enveloped the life of adivasis in the Bastar area.
Even a cursory reading of the so called complaint of the villagers does not inspire confidence about its authenticity and indicates that it is a fabricated complaint. In a move symptomatic of the antagonistic manner in which the state government, district police and administration responds to any critical assessment of its role in creating a situation surcharged with fear, intimidation and terror for ordinary villagers, the Home Minister and Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh have supported these baseless allegations and said that they would be “thoroughly investigated”.
Our greatest concern is that C. Ms Manju Kawasi, a member of the CPI women’s wing who accompanied the team got a midnight visit from the Sukma police, who told her that she would have to go to Jagdalpur for questioning; she was also threatened that an FIR would be registered against her. A villager from village Nama – Shri Mangla, a carpenter by profession, who had accompanied the team has also been repeatedly called to the police station for questioning.
The PUCL notes that Professor Nandini Sundar, who is a petitioner in the case before the Supreme Court challenging the government-sponsored Salwa Judum, has been continuously facing harassment by the Chhattisgarh police – being stopped, detained and followed; facing malicious propaganda and tapping of her phones. Such a hostile response was in fact commented upon by the Hon’ble Apex Court but evidently with no effect on the Chhattisgarh government.
It is evident that the Chhattisgarh government does not want human rights organisations, citizens’ fact findings teams, or social activists to make any independent enquiry into the news of dozens of encounters, hundreds of surrenders and arrests and of the counter insurgency operations being carried out in the Bastar region. It should be pointed out that such allegations of widespread involvement of state authorities in creating a humanitarian crisis are not baseless.
In fact the record of allegations are so well documented that Constitutional bodies including the National SC & ST Commission, the National Commission of Women and the National Human Rights Commission have sent official teams to investigate the allegation. Their reports highlight cases of sexual violence, fake encounters and other human rights violations.
Over the past few months the Chhattisgarh government has been continuously hounding journalists, lawyers and social activists who are raising serious issues of human rights violations and has been criticised for wanting “a war without witnesses”. Such motivated and hostile actions of the State Government are clearly abuse of the process of law, illegal, unconstitutional and undemocratic.
PUCL reiterates its firm conviction that a free press, an independent judiciary and fair criminal justice system, and an engagement with voices of dissent are essential to a democracy, even more so when a highly militarized counter insurgency operation is being carried out which is having sweeping consequences for lakhs of adivasi people. PUCL calls upon the Government of Chhattisgarh to give up its hostility to human rights groups, rights defenders and other democratic forces.
*National General Secretary, PUCL, **National President, PUCL