Maoist Conflict

What do professors living in Delhi have to do with a murder of a Bastar villager?

A look at the latest and the most bizarre chapter in the confrontation between Chhattisgarh police and its critics.

Late on the evening of Friday, November 4, a middle-aged Adivasi man named Shamnath Baghel was killed in Soutenar village, 50 kms from Jagdalpur town in Chhattisgarh’s southern region of Bastar.

On Saturday, based on a complaint filed by Baghel’s wife Vimala, the police filed a first information report against Nandini Sundar, a professor at the Delhi University; Archana Prasad, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University; Vineet Tiwari, a faculty member of the Joshi-Adhikari Institute of Social Sciences; Sanjay Parate, State secretary of the Communist Party of India; Manju, the sarpanch of village Gufdi; Mangalram Karma and a few other unnamed persons, including alleged Maoists.

What do the academics and activists living in Delhi have to do with a murder in a village in Bastar?

The complaint

In her complaint filed in the form of a neatly typed up letter, Vimala Baghel states that a group of five-seven armed and uniformed Maoists descended on their house in Soutenar village on Friday evening.

The family had finished dinner and was getting ready to sleep. The Maoists dragged her husband out of the house, which was surrounded by two dozen people with bows and arrows, axes and knives.

Vimala Baghel identified the attackers as Commander Sanju, Masa, Badal, Raje, Shyamala, Dashmi, Hidme, Sukhram, Laxman. The Maoists thrashed her husband, accusing him of instigating people against them.

When Vimala pleaded with them to let him go, Sanju, the Maoist commander, told her that Shamnath was being punished for organising a “tangia gang” against them, despite visits in June from Delhi by Sundar and others, who had asked him to support the Maoists.

Referring to the visitors, Vimala Baghel claimed the Maoist commander said, “They are your real benefactors”.

Then, he asked his companion Umesh to kill her husband. Before they left the village, according to Vimala Baghel, the Maoists allegedly said: “This is the outcome of not obeying our people.”

The visit

In the month of May, a four-member team of civil society activists visited villages in Bastar’s four districts to assess “the situation of ordinary villagers who are living through the conflict between the state and Maoists”.

The team included Nandini Sundar, Archana Prasad, Sanjay Parate and Vineet Tiwari.

A report titled Caught in an Irresponsible War was released after in July.

In the report, Sundar and others write about the shortfalls in the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the weak implementation of the Forest Rights Act, the mushrooming of makeshift schools as opposed to regular schools in complete violation of the Right to Education.

The team also wrote about the plight of the villagers of Kumakoleng, who recounted how they were being pressured by both the Maoists and the police to support them. Over the last decade, many villagers had been killed by the Maoists on the suspicion of being police informers. After a local Maoist named Shankar surrendered to the police, 50 others followed in a ceremony held in April 2016.

This provoked a backlash by the Maoists, who beat up the villages so badly that 18 people, including women, had to be rushed to the Jagdalpur hospital for treatment. Of the 110 families living in Kumakoleng, 75 families decided to abandon the village to find safer places to stay. The families are now scattered between Jagdalpur and Darbha.

The events of Kumakoleng ricocheted around the region. The residents of the nearby village of Nama in Soutenar panchayat resolved to fight back the Maoists. They formed a “tangia” gang. Tangia in the Gondi language refers to an axe, a common utilitarian tool hung on the shoulders of Adivasis, ready to be put to use.

Finding the revolt in Soutenar panchayat a useful opportunity, the police distributed clothes, vessels and mobile phones in the villages. The village elders asked the police to set up camps in the area, while some women opposed this.

Detailing the sequence of events, the report stated:

‘.....the villagers are trying to make difficult choices about who to side with and which will be a safer option for them. These are contingent, unstable and unhappy choices to have to make. A peaceful, democratic solution needs to be found in the long-term interests of the welfare of the villagers.”

The police reaction

On May 17, the local press reported that the villagers of Nama had written a letter to the Bastar District Collector accusing Sundar and the others of inciting them against the police.

Bastar Superintendent of Police, RN Dash, then shot off letters to Delhi University, in which he questioned the veracity of the report, and accused the team of instigating villagers to join the Maoists and oppose the police. In Bastar, the police went to the homes of the two local people, Manju and Mangalram Karma, who had accompanied the team and provided translation support.

On May 20, the local press reported that the villagers had staged a protest in Darbha block headquarters, with the support of vigilante groups.

However, subsequently, when a journalist of The Indian Express went to the village, the residents denied having filed any complaint with the police, or having participated in any protest. The report, published on May 27, quoted a villager as saying, “Nobody ever told us that we should side with the Maoists.”

What the activists say

In October, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed a chargesheet against seven constables of Chhattisgarh police for acts of arson in three Adivasi villages of Dantewada district in 2011. The CBI held the police responsible for burning more than 200 homes in Tadmetla, Morpalli and Teemapuram villages in March 2011 while on an anti-Maoist operation. The Inspector General of Bastar SRP Kalluri was then the senior superintendent of police of Dantewada district. Nandini Sundar was one of the petitioners who went to the Supreme Court which ordered the CBI investigation.

Soon after the CBI report was submitted, the police went on a rampage, burning effigies of Sundar, and other petitioners, human rights activists and journalists. [Disclosure: An effigy of this reporter was among those that were burnt].

Sundar's effigy was burnt in Bastar.
Sundar's effigy was burnt in Bastar.

Manish Kunjam of the Communist Party of India, who was a co-petitioner with Sundar, held a press conference in Bastar to condemn the act of the police. Members of a civil vigilante group forcibly entered and ransacked his office, and threatened him with violence.

Civil vigilantes threaten CPI member Manish Kunjam.
Civil vigilantes threaten CPI member Manish Kunjam.

Sundar has filed a petition in the Supreme Court detailing the acts of intimidation and violence, and asking for action to be taken against IG Kalluri.

She believes the murder charges against her and the others are a continuation of Kalluri and Chhattisgarh government’s attempts “to intimidate and harass journalists, lawyers, researchers, political leaders and human rights activists who have exposed the reign of fake encounters and gang rapes that are going on in Bastar.”

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article erroneously reported that the murdered villager Shamnath Baghel had spoken to a journalist of the Indian Express in May 2016 and that Manish Kunjam was a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.

Play

SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.