On Monday afternoon, simultaneously in the seven districts of Chhattisgarh's Bastar region, groups of policemen set out from police stations with effigies made of cloth stuffed with hay.

Pinned on the effigies were the photos of five people: Nandini Sundar, Professor of Sociology at Delhi University; Soni Sori, Adivasi activist and member of the Aam Aadmi Party; Manish Kunjam, President of Adivasi Mahasabha and a former MLA of the Communist Party of India (Marxist); Himanshu Kumar, social activist; Bela Bhatia, researcher and activist.

The policemen gathered at road crossings, shouting slogans against them, calling them "traitors" who had betrayed the country. They punched, kicked and burnt their effigies. In some places, they were called Maoists, in other places, they were accused of working for them. As the protest gathered momentum, a sixth effigy surfaced: I had been added to the gallery of "traitors".

This isn't the first time that activists and journalists have been targetted in Bastar. The scenes brought back memories of February 2016 when a mob had shouted slogans against me in Jagadalpur, burning my effigies, building pressure which eventually forced me to leave the region.

Those protests were spearheaded by a civil vigilante group, Samajik Ekta Manch, which, an investigation showed, worked at the behest of the police, while retaining a veneer of independence.

Now even that fig leaf has been dropped. Instead of upholding the law, the police itself is openly and brazenly targetting people who question it.

Photo credit: Tayyab Sheikh

Indictment of the police

The protests are a reaction to the events of last week. On October 17, the Central Bureau of Investigation held Chhattisgarh police responsible for acts of arson in three Adivasi villages of Sukma district in 2011. In March that year, more than 200 homes and granaries in Morpalli, Tadmetla and Teemapuram were torched by the police in the course of an anti-Maoist operation. Five years later, seven auxiliary constables (former special police officers) have been charged by the CBI, and will face trial in a special court in Raipur.

This is an extremely significant development. The state, which has been in the grip of an armed insurgency by Maoist guerillas, most of whom are local Adivasis, has seen several cases where security forces stand accused of violence against ordinary civilians in the name of anti-Maoist operations. But most of these cases go uninvestigated, since the local police has no incentive to probe itself.

This is a rare case in which a central agency was entrusted with the investigation by the Supreme Court. In the course of the final hearings of a petition filed by Sundar and others against Salwa Judum, the anti-Maoist civil militia propped up by the state government in 2005, the judges took note of a plea by Swami Agnivesh, who had been attacked by a mob while he was taking relief supplies to the arson-hit villages. The mob was made up of members of the Salwa Judum.

Several men who worked for the Judum had been absorbed by the state police as special police officers. In May 2011, the Supreme Court held Salwa Judum and the appointment of the SPOs as unconstitutional. The state government disbanded nearly 5000 SPOs, only to reappoint most of them as sahayak aarakshaks, or auxiliary constables.

Seven such constables had been charged by the CBI. The protests on Monday were mostly staged by policemen drawn from their ranks. But support has come right from the top: the seniormost police officer of Bastar has defended the constables.

Shifting stances

On Saturday, the Inspector General of Bastar police, Shiv Ram Prasad Kalluri, addressed the media in Jagdalpur. "Whatever happened was under my instruction," he said. In 2011, Kalluri was the senior superintendent of police of Dantewada district (Sukma was part of Dantewada then).

"Main koi kayar nahin hun," he continued. I am not a coward. "If any action is to be taken, it should be taken against me as I was the SSP then...the FIR clearly states the police went under the instructions of the SSP. I am responsible."

Defending the police's actions, he said when security forces go to Maoist areas, "war is bound to erupt".

He added: "There will be firing, there will be blasts, and when there are bomb blasts, the thatched roof houses are bound to catch fire. We never said houses did not catch fire, but it happened in the course of police action. The police did not set them on fire."

Kalluri’s admission that the houses got burnt "in the course of police action" was in complete contrast to the stance maintained by the police for five years. The First Information Reports filed by the additional superintendent of police, D S Maravi, who led the security forces in the March 2011 operation, state that in the exchange of fire between the Maoists and the security personnel, the Maoists "torched the houses on the night of encounter".

Instead of explaining the change in stance, Kalluri turned belligerent. "Creating an atmosphere of doubt and trying to break the morale of the police who are taking care of internal security is unfair and anti-national," he concluded.

Sweeping allegations

On Monday, a statement released by a collective of police constables on social media reflected Kalluri's tone and tenor, but went one step further in making allegations against the five activists. The statement said they were participating in the loot of Bastar, and colluding with the Maoists for monetary gain. The money extracted by the Maoists, it added, was split between the five of them.

The policemen alleged that the activists and others were spreading propaganda against them. Foregrounding their Adivasi identity, they said they would never harm other Adivasis, but only help them. They did not stop to reflect on the fact that two of the people whose effigies they had burnt were also Adivasis.

The constables accused the activists of remaining silent when security forces were killed by the Maoists. They said that when the security forces acted against the Maoists, the activists rushed to defend them by claiming those arrested or killed were not Maoists but ordinary villagers. This weakened the morale of the security forces, they said.

They justified their act of burning our effigies as the only option to expose us, who they termed as gaddars (traitors). It is only when such traitors leave, will Bastar improve, they said. The irony is that both Kumar and I have already been forced out of Bastar. Bhatia, Sori and Kunjam have been repeatedly targetted and harassed. Sundar, who lives in Delhi, has found it hard to travel to Bastar for her field work.

What more does the police want to do?

Photo credit: Tayyab Sheikh

The rule of law

Can serving policemen take to the streets in protest against citizens?

A N Upadhyay, the Director General of Chhattisgarh Police, did not take phone calls that I made to his office.

But a senior police officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the action amounted to a contravention of the Indian Police Act. Legal action could be taken against not only those who participated in the action, but also those who condoned it.

Speaking to me on phone, Nandini Sundar put it succinctly: "This was not so much an attack on activists rather on the Constitution, the Supreme Court and the independence of the CBI."

She has filed a petition in the Supreme Court, asking for Kunjam to be assigned a security guard from a central force, and Chhattisgarh police and associated vigilante groups be refrained from public display of hostility.

Sundar has also asked for action against Inspector General of police, Kalluri, "for orchestrating and encouraging the lawlessness displayed by the SPOs and other members of the police force, as well as for his own intemperate, intimidatory and provocative statements against the petitioners and other social activists, which has encouraged violence against them in the past, and is likely to do so in the future too."