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?
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.”
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].
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.
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).