It is the relief one feels when dark clouds give way to sunshine, was how Aam Aadmi Party leader and activist Soni Sori described the exit of Bastar’s Inspector General of Police Shiv Ram Prasad Kalluri. Accused of human rights excesses, Kalluri has gone on indefinite leave citing ill-health, though speculation is rife that he was forced out.
On Wednesday, P Sundar Raj took over as deputy inspector general of Dantewada, a district in the Bastar region in Chhattisgarh. And a day later, the state home ministry gave him charge of all seven districts of Bastar. The 2003 batch Indian Police Service officer, who previously served as superintendent of police of Rajnandgaon district and in the State Intelligence Branch at Raipur, will operate from Jagdalpur city, the commercial centre of Bastar.
Media reports said Kalluri – who was appointed inspector general of Bastar in June 2014 – had applied for leave for a kidney transplant, but there was no confirmation of this. On Thursday, the officer told the News 18, “It is a government decision and I have nothing to say on it.”
Kalluri had gone on leave for a month in November too, reportedly after suffering a heart attack. On December 25, the day after he returned to work, the police arrested seven activists from Telangana in Bastar’s Sukma district on the charge of assisting Maoists. They were part of a fact-finding team looking into the killing of a 13-year-old hearing-impaired boy in an encounter. The police had claimed the teen was a Maoist.
Speaking on phone from Raipur, a senior police official said Kalluri’s leave this time would not be like the previous one when he had returned after a month, implying that he might not be posted in Bastar again.
However, observers in Raipur were sceptical about such an interpretation. “If he is not to return again, why not instate an IG-level officer?” asked a senior editor who did not want to be identified. “The reason a DIG has been given command now makes it seem like Kalluri would return to finish his term in Bastar. This smells of something temporary.”
Kalluri’s exit comes close on the heels of a mob attack on scholar-activist Bela Bhatia. On January 23, civil vigilantes, allegedly backed by the police, had barged into her house in Parpa village, 8 km south of Jagdalpur, and given her 24 hours to leave the village. Bhatia has been instrumental in helping Adivasi women in the region file complaints of rape against security forces.
Immediately after the mob action, a member of a women’s collective, Women Against State Repression and Sexual Violence, had texted Kalluri on his official mobile number, seeking protection for Bhatia. “The entire civil society is watching and raising their voice against the attack on academic Bela Bhatia,” she wrote. “Stop the attack and threats and protect Bela Bhatia.” Within 10 minutes, she received a response that read “F U”.
Several other activists also wrote to Kalluri asking him to protect human rights defenders in Bastar and received rude, dismissive responses. They have taken these messages to the National Human Rights Commission.
“He went on the rampage against anyone who so much as questioned him,” said Sushil Sharma, editor of the Hindi daily Bastar Bandhu.
Kalluri’s targets included human rights defenders, activists, lawyers and journalists. He referred to them as “white-collared Naxals” and issued warnings against them at press conferences in Raipur and Jagdalpur.
Sexual assault investigation
Among the allegations of human rights excesses against security forces in Bastar is an investigation into the rape of 16 Adivasi women in 2015-’16. In March, the National Human Rights Commission started looking into complaints of mass rape and sexual assault by troops in the far-flung villages of Peddagellur, Bellam Nendra and Kunna. On January 7, it indicted them for the rape of 16 women and sought a response from the state government.
On January 30, senior state government officials appeared before the commission to present their case. Kalluri was also summoned but he failed to appear, citing health reasons and seeking a date in February.
Explaining Kalluri’s departure, a senior police official said the Bastar police were under considerable pressure following the public furore over the attack on Bela Bhatia and the filing of first information reports against Delhi University professor Nandini Sundar and 10 others in November in a murder case. “The NHRC’s dogged follow-up of the matter put the final nail in the coffin,” he added.
According to observers, Kalluri’s actions may have been driven by the fact that he had only one more year in his position before he was due for a promotion. “And that is what was scary,” said the editor Sushil Sharma. “The man knew he had one year to go. And he wanted to make a mark as the man who wiped out Naxalism during his tenure.”
Last year, Kalluri vowed to eliminate Maoists from Bastar in a year as part of his “Mission 2016”. He had made the claim earlier as well.
Through the year, journalists were arrested and at least two, including Scroll.in contributor Malini Subramanium, were forced to leave Bastar. Human rights lawyers were harassed. Leaders of opposition parties were threatened and assaulted. And 133 suspected Maoists were killed, the largest number since the formation of the state in 2000. Another 1,210 Maoists surrendered but a state government-appointed screening committee found the police claims of surrender in 97% of the cases to be fake.
Controversy followed Kalluri even before his posting in Bastar. In 2006, he was accused of the custodial rape of a woman whose husband had reportedly been shot by the police in the state’s Sarguja district.
In 2011, he was transferred out as superintendent of police of Dantewada after social activist Swami Agnivesh’s car was attacked by special police officers (civilians recruited for anti-Maoist operations) and members of the Salwa Judum (a now defunct civilian group set up by the state to fight the rebels). Agnivesh was visiting villages in the district that had allegedly been burnt down by the police.
The same year, Kalluri accused the International Red Cross and Medicins Sans Frontieres of helping Maoists.
To the shock of many activists, the Union government in January 2013 awarded Kalluri for his “meritorious service”. The next year, he was named inspector general for the Bastar range, with jurisdiction over the seven districts of Bastar, Dantewada, Narayanpur, Kondagaon, Sukma, Bijapur and Kanker. “That was the biggest slap on our faces,” said politician-activist Soni Sori, who was injured when unidentified men attacked her with a chemical in Dantewada last year.
For now, the activists are rejoicing the officer’s exit. “While celebrating these developments, and congratulating the community of civil society organisations, human rights groups and individuals who have been relentlessly raising their voices against human rights violations in the region, we are sharply aware that this is only the first step in the long road to restoring peace, justice and the rule of law in Bastar,” the Women Against State Repression and Sexual Violence said in a statement on Thursday. “We all will continue to mobilise public attention while pursuing our complaints and submissions in cases currently before the NHRC.”
Shalini Gera, a lawyer with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group who was hounded out of Bastar last year, said, “We are happy that he has exited for now. And hope his exit will be cemented.”