A Mendacious Denial: Police in Chhattisgarh
Chhattisgarh police chief Vishwa Ranjan continues to make mendacious claims about ‘misguided’ critics when the fact is that the state police are hand in glove with rightwing vigilante group Salwa Judum whose acts of violence have been condemned by a number of human rights groups, write Sanjeev Mahajan, Ra Ravishankar, Preeti Shekar and Chukka Srinivas.
(Above): Protesters ring the audience at a conference room at the University of California at Berkeley as Chhattisgarh Director General of Police Vishwa Ranjan (standing, seen from behind) speaks at a conference on justice and law organized by the Foundation for Democratic Reforms in India. [Sharat Lin photo]
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will guard the guards?)
— Juvenal’s Satires.
Chhattisgarh Director General of Police Vishwa Ranjan recently addressed a panel on human rights in Chhattisgarh at a conference on Indian democracy at the University of California, Berkeley. Ordinarily, this would not be a matter of interest to many beyond the confines of academia. For some, a relatively small state of India being the subject of a panel at a conference would be confirmation that India has finally “arrived,” and for yet others, it would be evidence that we are indeed living in a global village. So why did the address by this chief of police result in a large protest as well as result in a heated question and answer session? And why did Vishwa Ranjan, upon his return to India, declare that the protests at Berkeley were the “psy war machinery of Maoists” in action. An explanation is in order, for there must be many who are now perplexed by all the noise.
Chhattisgarh is not only a mineral rich state, it is also a new state in India, carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000. For the last three years, this state has witnessed one of the worst forms of violence in recent years in India. The Deputy Superintendent of Police of Dantewada district (southern tip of Chhattisgarh bordering the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh) has described the conditions as an aghoshit yudh (undeclared war). A report released in 2006, entitled “Where the state makes war on its own people,” describes the polarization of society between (i) “adivasis and other local inhabitants of the region [who] have little possibility of actual development and are acutely aware of their marginal and exploited status” and (ii) “a small minority [of] mostly trading families, shopkeepers, members of the bureaucracy, lawyers and others living in the small towns, and some rich tribal leaders.” The report contextualizes the rise of the Naxalite movement in Dantewada district in the ground realities of “a situation where the state claims rights to the land, and the people who live on that land are treated as peripheral to the national economy.” [Internet link: http://cpjc.files.wordpress.com/2007/07/salwa_judum.pdf]
Subsequent investigations have borne out similar conclusions. For instance, an experts committee of the Indian Planning Commission recognizes the problem as follows:
Radical groups seek the justification for their methods of violence from structural violence (caste and class-based discrimination, for instance) which is implicit in the social and economic system. While not condoning the radical violence, an honest response to it must, therefore, begin by ameliorating the structural violence in the society. [Internet link: http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/publications/rep_dce.pdf]
We may discount the civil liberties groups’ version, but could the Experts Committee of the Planning Commission have gotten it all wrong? Isn’t it self-evident that those who abhor violence and want to put an end to it ought to address the root cause of violence — real injustice? Let us quote further from the experts committee report which identifies some instances of “failure, inadequacy or injustice of State mechanisms and institutions” that have “created space for Naxalite activities”:
State’s failure to enforce land ceiling acts and distribute land to the landless.
State’s illegalizing of traditional habitation rights and putting the “forest dwellers perpetually on the brink of eviction from their own habitat.”
State’s apathy toward forest-dwelling adivasis evicted due to irrigation/mining/industrial projects and its hostility to letting them settle down again in some other forest region.
Non-implementation of the Minimum Wages Act and gaps in the law which lead to exploitation of adivasi labor.
State’s failure to eliminate social oppression, be it caste-based humiliation and oppression of Dalits and lower castes amongst the OBCs, or forced labor “in the most medieval forms.”
While the denial of basic human rights and a decent standard of living might have stoked the flames of insurgency, the Naxalite movement has made no secret of the fact that it has an agenda of its own and brooks absolutely no dissent. We agree with the experts committee that the “task of putting an end to social discrimination should not have required the threat of Naxalite-inspired militancy.” However, barring perfunctory mentions of the need for holistic development of adivasi inhabited areas, the state has paid scant attention to adivasi needs. On the contrary, it has imposed conditions facilitating the corporate looting of minerals from adivasi lands, ruthlessly destroying the livelihoods of entire adivasi communities in the process, and justifying all this in the name of development. (For an articulation of development as envisioned by adivasis, see http://publications.aidindia.org/content/view/474/62) The state has also sought a military solution to the Naxalite movement by pitting adivasis against each other through the creation and nurturing of a paramilitary force known as the Salwa Judum, which many fear has created a permanent schism in the adivasi community.
(Above): Protesters hold placards during a presentation by Chhattisgarh police chief Vishwa Ranjan during his lecture at a conference in Berkeley, Calif. [Sharat Lin photo]
Salwa Judum, literally “purification hunt,” is the culmination of a long series of campaigns launched by the state of Chhattisgarh to “contain” the Naxalites. It has torn apart the lives of thousands of adivasis, forced them to take sides in the raging conflict, and has already resulted in the displacement of around 300,000 people. The state has all along claimed that the Salwa Judum is a “spontaneous” and “peaceful” movement, its immediate trigger being Naxalite “oppression” and violence. However, several human rights organizations investigating the Salwa Judum have arrived at very different conclusions. Although these organizations, such as the Indian Citizen’s Initiative, Human Rights Forum, Human Rights Watch, and Asian Center for Human Rights, are independent of each other, there is a remarkable consensus in their evaluation of Salwa Judum. While unsparing in their criticism of Naxalite abuses, these organizations have held state security forces and the Salwa Judum responsible for many instances of extrajudicial killings, rapes, extortion, torture and theft from adivasis. For details on abuses by Salwa Judum forces, see Human Rights Watch report, “Being Neutral is Our Biggest Crime,” available at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2008/india0708/6.htm
While murders by Maoists are rightly condemned by the state and the media, the Salwa Judum militia continue to operate with complete impunity. Human rights activists such as Dr Binayak Sen and Ajay T.G. who have criticized state actions, journalists reporting on state atrocities, and adivasis resisting forced dislocation have all been at the receiving end of harassment and imprisonment under the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. The CSPSA has had a chilling effect on free speech and democratic dissent in Chhattisgarh. Its vague definition of “unlawful activities” and the provision for detaining violators for up to three years has placed enormous powers in the hands of state and police officials. Dr Sen, who is a pediatrician, public health specialist and national vice president of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, was arrested on May 14, 2007 under the CSPSA and languishes in prison despite the state’s inability to present any incriminating evidence against him (For details, see June 2008 issue of Siliconeer). Ajay T.G., a filmmaker and member of the state executive committee of Chhattisgarh PUCL, was also arrested but had to be released on bail after 93 days in prison after the police failed to file a chargesheet against him. As a recent faculty letter to Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwa Ranjan noted, unembedded journalists who seek to report the conflict objectively do so at their own peril; to avoid state harassment, most of them often rely on state press releases.
It was in these circumstances that student and community groups questioned Vishwa Ranjan at Berkeley about ongoing human rights violations in Chhattisgarh. While being largely evasive, Vishwa Ranjan did admit that the arrest of Ajay T.G. may have been a “technical mistake” (see video at http://tinyurl.com/3lqm5c). He also signed a postcard addressed to the Indian prime minister and the chief minister of Chhattisgarh demanding the release of Dr. Sen. The pre-printed words on the card read: “The imprisonment of this brave and good man is outrageous. I demand his immediate unconditional release,” to which the DGP added: “This should be sent to the govt [government], not to a police officer,” and signed it — a tacit admission that Dr. Sen is a political prisoner and the criminal charges against him are false.
Vishwa Ranjan has since, very “generously,” castigated the protestors as ignorant victims of the “psy-war machinery of Maoists.” Not surprisingly, Vishwa Ranjan’s castigation of human rights organizations and activists for their alleged one-sided criticism of Salwa Judum and state violence is simply one aspect of the state’s war against its own people, blurring the fundamental distinction between violence committed by state and non-state actors. Vishwa Ranjan and his police force appear to have forgotten this elementary distinction: when non-state actors commit atrocities, one can look to the state to provide succor, but who does one turn to when the state unleashes violence on its own people? Who will hold the police accountable? Is this not reason enough that human rights groups should be more vigilant towards the state? Can the fight against Naxalites be taken as an excuse to deprive hundreds of thousands of adivasis of their livelihood and displace them from their ancestral lands? All this while enriching the corporations who now have easier access to lands emptied of people.