On April 23, a journalist friend from Raipur raised an alarm: Murli Tati, a sub-inspector with the District Reserve Guard from Chhatisgarh’s Bijapur was abducted by the Maoists and had been in their custody for two days.

He lamented that there was no effort from the government to free the policeman and even the media was not concerned about Tati, an Adivasi. He recalled how frantically state agencies and civil society organisations had moved to secure the release of a jawan of the Central Reserve Police Force who had been captured by the Maoists on April 3 after a deadly battle between them and the Indian security forces. But there was a deafening silence in the case of Murli Tati.

On April 24, Alok Putul said that no further action was needed. Murli Tati had been killed by the Maoists and his body was left on the road.

Charade of justice

In the national media, there was no mourning for the loss of Murli Tati. Is he not as valuabe as the men from the central forces who have died fighting the Maoists? The Maoists had declared Tati a “traitor” since he was working with the government. They left a leaflet claiming responsibility for the killing.

They claimed that he was involved in the molestation of women and killings of innocent villagers and the cadre of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army. The leaflet said that the Maoists carried out the order of a people’s court which gave him capital punishment.

First, let us call it what it is – a murder. Tati was murdered by the Maoists and they own it. There was a charade of justice used to justify his killing. We must also tell the Maoists that they are guilty of violating the fundamental right of Tati, his right to life.

They had no right to murder him after the drama of a kangaroo court. Even if we accept that their writ runs in the “liberated zones”, which are fluid, their idea of justice is unacceptable.

Some basic questions need to be asked: how was Murli Tati “arrested”? Was his family notified about his “arrest”? Was he given a chance to hire a lawyer to plead his “case”? What was the composition of the court that decided his fate? How was it constituted? Was it independent of the prosecutors, the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army? Or the prosecutors themselves doubled up as judges? Was there a forum for him to appeal against the “judgment”?

These are the questions we regularly put before the agencies of the state whenever an “encounter” death takes place. We call it extra-judicial murder or custodial murder. This is the crime Maoists have committed in this case. And it needs to be said loudly and clearly.

Constitutional rights

On March 30, the Telangana government banned 16 organisations, including the Viplava Rachayitala Sangham (Revolutionary Writers’ Association), popularly known as Virasam and the Telangana Praja Front. We need to recall that the poet Varavara Rao, who has been accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, has been associated with Virasam.

The government claims that they are frontal organisations of the Maoists and help create a base for them in society. Many of us naturally opposed it. Why did we oppose the ban? The basis was the notion of human rights and constitutional rights. The right to life, the right to associate, the right to free thought and expression.

I was appalled by a statement by Varavara Rao in which he explained away the killings of civilians by the Maoists as a “matter of details”. But I would never support his arrest and torture by the agencies of the state. He has a right to have his own opinion and cannot be tried or punished for entertaining them.

Poet-activist Varavara Rao has been associated with Virasam. Photo credit: PTI

I remember an anecdote shared by Shailendra, an old friend from Palamu in Jharkand. He was then an active member of the Communist Party of India. One day he got the news of the detention of a Maoist by the police. He immediately called the superintendent of police of the area and told him that the detained person must not be “encountered”. He was going public with the news and would hold the police responsible if the Maoist was killed.

Whether this intervention worked or the police changed their minds on their own, the man was found in the local prison the next day.

Shailendra went to see him in the prison. He was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for Shailendra for having saved his life. Shailendra told him that there was no need for him to fall at his feet. He should at least remember that moment when death was staring at him. This is what others feel when they fall into the hands of Maoists in the jungle, Shailendra said. After all, in the jungles they are the de facto state with the power of violence is with them.

It is quite obvious that the Maoists do not appreciate these humanistic arguments. According to them, we are in an eternal class war and must choose their side. If you are on the other side, your life has no meaning for the Maoists. They will say that they are in the middle of a war and have no patience for “due process”. But they do want this for themselves.

Extra-judicial methods

By enacting summary trials and executions the Maoists are legitimising and reinforcing the extra-judicial methods adopted by the state agencies to deal with them. This killing definitely weakens the case of the human right activists who want the constitutional rights of the Maoists or their supporters to be respected.

But the killing of Murli Tati should not be condemned only for instrumental reasons. The murder is a crime the Maoists have committed. They have violated Tati’s right and must be held accountable for that.

We must also say that the Maoists have shown their insensitivity and cruelty when they chose to kill Tati during the pandemic. It should be noted that the state is also responsible for prolonging this “war”. The Maoists have offered a cease-fire in March last year when the pandemic had started knocking on our doors.

The Centre spurned the offer. They want Indians to believe that they have the upper hand in the region and all that is left is to do a “mop-up”, as Ghazala Wahab explained in an article in The Wire last year. The Maoists, on their part, have to show that they are very much in command in the jungles.

Adivasis like Murli Tati have no choice. Either they are with the state or against it. Or they have to be treated like traitors if they are not with the Maoists. Nandini Sundar has written frequently that even after the Salwa Judum state-sponsored militia was abolished by the Supreme court, the government continues the practice in a new form called the District Reserve Groups.

They largely consist of the surrendered Maoists. While the state asks them to choose between jail and the District Reserve Groups, Maoists brand these people as informers or collaborators.

Time and again, the Maoists have shown that they are a more brutal version of the state. They do not offer a better idea of justice. They are all about the monopoly over power. This is certainly not with what one wants to replace the existing system.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi in Delhi University.