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Abduction of the District Collector of Sukma, Chhattisgarh--Response of the Indian State


The kidnapping of the Sukma district collector in April 2012 and the issues that came up in the CPI (Maoist) party's statements had much to do with a model of development that is surrendering rich natural resources to corporates and multinationals for a pittance in the name of growth. This article, written by one of the two mediators who negotiated with both the Chhattisgarh government's nominees and CPI (Maoist) representatives to secure the collector's release, describes the twists and turns the talks took and points to a few salutary lessons that Indian democracy would do well to pay heed to.

The Background

Chhattisgarh was back in the news two months after activists of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) abducted Alex Paul Menon, the district collector of the newly created Sukma district, on 21 April 2012. While the abduction brought the sorry plight of Bastar's tribals to wider public attention, what made the headlines this time was the massacre of 17 tribals, including five children, at Basaguda village in Bijapur district on 29 June. Though fact-finding teams said that those killed were innocent civilians, the security forces and Union Home Minister p Chidambaram held they were hardcore Maoist guerrillas.

The police force maintained that it had been taken by surprise and had "exercised maximum restraint and fired in self-defence". It complimented itself when it said, "We did not use any area weapons such as grenades or rocket launchers. If we really wanted to, we could have razed the entire village." This speaks volumes about the character and attitude of armed law-enforcing agencies to citizens. Chidambaram praised the forces for their courage and skill but the Chhattisgarh Congress Party contradicted him, saying he had been given wrong information. Indeed, its fact-finding team described the encounter as "completely fake" and said the victims were innocent adivasis. This was supported by Union Minister of State for Agriculture and Food Processing Charan Das Mahant.

The security establishment expressed unhappiness with the quality of information passed on to the paramilitary forces, saying "pure imagination is being passed off as intelligence". E N Rammohan, a former director general of the Border Security Force (BSF), found fault with the approach of the central and state governments to tribal development.' Adding to this, Union Tribal Affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo asked, "If those killed were 'extremists', then why were most of them unarmed? No arms were recovered from them." He also said, "I have always had my reservations about the notorious Salwa Judum created by the government ... while the Maoist problem has to be dealt with, until the government addresses the root of the problem, there will be no solution".

Notwithstanding the observations of his cabinet colleague and his own party's fact-finding team, Chidambaram maintained he had been "transparent" and "upfront" about the encounter in Chhattisgarh but added he was "deeply sorry" for the killing of innocent persons. On the demand for an enquiry, he passed the buck, saying "it was for the Chhattisgarh government to take a call on it as the operation was conducted under the state police". Vijay Kumar, the director general of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), was neither willing to reflect on the matter nor order a probe into it. He asked, "What options did we have? We would have been dying and you would be saying we are incompetent." Senior police officer Prakash Singh maintained that some collateral damage was unavoidable; and Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh endorsed the view that the encounter had not been faked.

Reign of Terror

In a press release, Maoist spokesperson Pratap said about a hundred villagers from three tribal habitats - Sankinguda, Kottaguda, Rajampeta - had met at Basaguda village to decide on the allotment of land and how to go about agricultural activities that had suffered a serious setback because of the loss of cattle and agricultural implements. The spot was surrounded by the police who opened fire from all sides. Seventeen persons, including women and children, died; eight women also complained they were raped. The press release, published in Andhra Jyothi, a Telugu daily, noted that the Basaguda attack seemed only a prelude to the state declaring fullfledged war on its own people.

To go back a little in time, the atrocities in this region came to my notice when B D Sharma and I acted as mediators in the wake of the abduction of the Sukma collector. On the way to our meeting with the Maoist leadership, there were hundreds of tribals waiting for us and each one wanted to share his or her anguish. Many of them narrated the horrendous experiences they had with the security forces and Salwa Judum, an unlawful armed mafia unleashed against them on the pretext of fighting the Maoists. We could not hear all of them as time was a constraint, but what we did hear gave us a feel of the terror that Salwa Judum and the state had unleashed on the tribals.

Yadar Bodidar said his father, who was on his way to the Avapally market to buy rice, was killed and his body had not been found. Mari Bandi was killed when he was going to the Tirupan Gadu market. A woman from Tana Jagargunda village said her daughter Palki was tortured and abused in filthy language. Emla Bandhi complained her son, who had three children, was killed when he was tilling the land and his body was buried by the police and Salwa Judum. Sodi Baudh said her son Sodi Masec, who had two children, was killed when he was going to the market and his body had not been found. Bade Aite said her son Badke Edma was thrown into a fire with his hands and legs tied. Umga said her husband Torno Rosi was brutally killed. Andal of Jarimil village said her husband Kudam Andal was killed in 2006 and there was no trace of his body. Madkampenki's husband Kadmal was picked up from home and beheaded - there were innumerable such accounts. In addition, more than 2,000 tribals languish in Chhattisgarh's jails without any legal aid or assistance; it is an unending tragic story.

All this presents a picture of war - or Operation Green Hunt as characterises by the media - being waged against the tribals. Salwa Judum's systematic terror is patronised by the state; the Maoists hold it is part of a larger design to terrorise the people and make them desert villages so that the land can be handed over to multinational corporations (MNCS) for mining. We informed the chief minister of this alarming situation in our meeting with him. He responded by narrating how the Maoists killed police personnel and others, branding them informers. He said a judicial enquiry had been ordered into these incidents but the tribals were not coming forward to depose before the judge. It is strange that while a large number of tribals were anxious to talk to us, not many were willing to meet the judge. This is a sad reflection on our institutions, which are not able to inspire confidence in the common people, particularly the tribals.

Menon's Abduction

This was the context in which district collector Alex Paul Menon was abducted. This is not to justify the abduction but to describe the circumstances in which such episodes occur. The demands made by the Maoist party to set the collector free made this evident. They were, one, stop Operation Green Hunt, all combing operations and confine the police to barracks; two, withdraw the false cases against the thousands of innocent villagers in the Raipur and Dantewada jails and release them; and three, release Kartam Joga, Vijay Godi, Sannu Madavi, Sudaru Kunjam, Lala Kunjam, Rajesh Nayak Banjara, Madvidula and Burkha detained in the Dantewada and Jagdalpur jails. All these persons, the Maoists claimed, had been falsely implicated in an attack on a Congress leader at Kuwakonda. They also wanted party members Madkam Gopanna (Sat yam Reddy), Nirmalakka (C Vijaya Laxmi), Jaipal (Chandrashekhar Reddy), Malati, Meena Choudhary and Padma released, in addition to journalists P K Jha and Asit Kumar Sen. The deadline set for the government was 25 April; if it did not respond, the future of the district collector would be decided by a people's court.

The Maoist party appealed to the general public and also urged Menon's wife, friends and relatives and the lAS Officers' Association to put pressure on the government to meet their demands. It expressed concern about Menon's health and urged that medicines for his asthmatic condition be sent through the mediators. In the statement, it suggested the names of B D Sharma (former collector of undivided Bastar district and former chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes), Prashant Bhushan (Supreme Court lawyer) and Maneesh Kunjam (Adivasi Mahasabha president) as its mediators and stated that only these three persons were welcome to Tadimetla. While B D Sharma readily agreed, the others expressed their inability to do so. It was then that I was asked to join B D Sharma as a mediator.

On 26 April, the Maoists said in a statement that instead of responding to their demands, the government had held a high-level meeting to reinforce the armed forces and intensify surveillance by unmanned aircraft.' The government's campaign for the release of the collector said he was a pro-poor officer and a dalit. Several groups and individuals appealed to the Maoists that he be set free on humanitarian grounds. On 29 April, the Maoist party's south regional committee issued a press release to clarify the party's stand to the general public. It focused on humanitarian grounds and asked why a similar appeal had not been made in the last six years when the state had brutally attacked innocent tribal people. It said that during Menon's tenure, a young boy; Podium Mada, was illegally detained for four days in a police station, his genitals burnt after sprinkling petrol on them, and killed. It was declared that he had hung himself in the lock-up.

On 11 February, Podium Sanna of Polampally village was picked up from his home by the police and killed. In October 2011, Soni Sori, the warden of a girl's hostel, was not only detained and raped, but also tortured, with the police pushing pebbles into her genitals. This had come to light in medical reports. Superintendent of Police Ankit Garg was awarded the President's Gold Medal. All the district officers were silent. The statement stressed that Raman Singh's government had solved no problem of the people in eight years but the so-called "development" programmes at the behest of the World Bank had been forcefully implemented despite opposition from local tribals. The party asked why those who spoke of humanitarianism remained mute spectators when an anti-people development model was being imposed using brutal force, causing enormous suffering to the tribals. Naming a few officers and politicians who it said were corrupt, the statement added that officers like Menon could not have been unaware of all this.

Civil Society's Role

The statement observed that concerns about the health of the collector were understandable but such concerns were absent in the case of hundreds of tribals who were detained in Jagadalpur, Dantewada, Raipur and Rajnandgaon, huddled into already overcrowded prisons and treated worse than cattle. The Dantewada jail alone had 700 prisoners while its capacity was 150; the condition of women prisoners was much worse. It added that "Jaipal Dad" (Chandrashekhar Reddy), who had been implicated under Section 149, was more than 60 years old and suffering from Hepatitis B. It asked why members of civil society who were concerned about Menon's health were not similarly concerned about these prisoners; why did they not pressure the government to be humanitarian in its approach.

The statement went on to say the police had been carrying out a vicious campaign against the Maoists in new forms by organising rallies of students, traders and businessmen to protest against the abduction; but the same police lathi-charged anganwadi workers, including women, when they went in a procession to press their demands. The police had unleashed unprecedented violence and burnt 300 adivasi dwellings and molested women, but would they allow rallies against such atrocities? They did not even care for a Supreme Court judgment asking them to vacate school buildings and allow children to study. It charged that Menon, who as collector was in charge of the district administration and law and order, had remained silent when unlawful activities went on right under his nose. Officers cannot pretend innocence and claim they were propoor, it said, and demanded to know if Menon had taken a pro-poor stand and submitted a report on the conditions of the poor when the central government convened a meeting of district collectors of Maoist -affected districts.

The statement pointed out that the government did not allow any democratic activity to mobilise public opinion, citing a meeting at Charla in Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh to oppose Operation Green Hunt, which was forcefully broken up. In March 2010, the police and paramilitary forces attacked and burnt down several villages, destroying livelihoods in the name of Operation Vijay. An innocent tribal, Doorga Dhruv of Toke village, was beaten to death. The statement alleged that such misdeeds had the consent of district collectors. It also recommended that those talking of humanitarianism and democracy go to the root of the problem and ponder over basic values; they would then see the logic behind the collector's abduction. It was against this backdrop that we carried out the task of mediation.

Negotiations with Government

B D Sharma and I had several rounds of talks with the Chhattisgarh government's nominees - Nirmala Buch, a former chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh, and Suyogya Kumar Mishra, a former chief secretary of Chhattisgarh. This was in contrast to the approach of the Andhra Pradesh and Odisha governments that had agreed that the mediators chosen by Maoists could be the government's mediators as well. The issues raised by the Maoists in their press release were brought to the notice of the government nominees. The two retired officials took a rigid and inflexible stand, as instructed by the Chhattisgarh government, which was receiving directives from the union home ministry and, perhaps, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Our plea that at least some of the demands be considered - such as releasing falsely implicated tribals and detainees whose health was precarious - did not evoke any positive response. They stuck to the point that the collector had to be freed as a precondition to considering any demand. The mood of the government seemed to be one of indifference and the anxiety the Odisha and Andhra Pradesh governments had shown to get their officers released was missing. The only promise the government was willing to make was that it would constitute a high-powered committee to look into all the issues once the collector was set free.

The government nominees maintained that there was nothing like Operation Green Hunt and therefore the issue of stopping it did not arise. The police and military forces were already confined to barracks and there were no combing operations. To our suggestion that peace talks could be initiated if both sides suspended all armed action, they wanted to know what the Maoist party's line would be on this. On releasing the activists the Maoist party demanded, they said the matter was subjudice because a public interest litigation (PIL) had been filed by a retired army officer in the Supreme Court pleading that no exchange of prisoners take place. As for releasing the adivasis in jails, the response was that it would be a time-consuming process involving a case-by-case review but this would be considered sympathetically once the collector returned. The options before us were to either walk out of the talks or brief the Maoist party and ask for its response. The government facilitated a meeting with the Maoist leaders and took care of our travel arrangements. The meeting took place in the forest on the evening of 27 April.

Maoist Response

In the four to five-hour discussion, we conveyed the state's response to the kidnapping. On the issue of stopping armed action, the Maoist leaders said their response would be conveyed the next day after due consideration. Mention of the PIL in the Supreme Court evoked laughter; they gave a graphic account of the lawless behaviour of state forces in Bastar and maintained that the rulers remembered the law only when they were in trouble. The situation would not have reached this stage if the rulers had respected their own laws and the constitutional scheme of things, they added, pointing out that legal niceties were just a pretext and stressed that their six leaders and the two journalists who had been implicated in false cases had to be freed.

Their reaction to the humanitarian appeal was very sharp - those talking of humanitarianism should realise that several of the jailed tribals deserved to be released on the same grounds, they said. Drawing our attention to appeals saying that Menon's wife was in the family way they recounted how eight months pregnant Korsa Sanni had been arrested and delivered a baby in jail. They were sceptical about the proposed high-powered committee, pointing to several such committees that had done nothing to help the struggling people. The discussion ended with the Maoist representatives saying the release of at least four of their leaders was the minimum condition for setting the collector free. In the event of the government not agreeing to it, the issue would be taken to a people's court. They specifically asked us not to appeal for the collector's release or set any deadline for it if no demand was conceded.

On 29 April, the Maoists sent a communication as promised, the heading of which was "Abduction of the Collector is a part of intensification of the peoples struggle". It stated that despite the collector being in their custody, the mediators doing all that they could, and five rounds of talks with government representatives for the release of the adivasis and their comrades in jail, there was no positive response from the government. On the contrary, it was clear was that government was adopting a systematic policy of unleashing terror through Operation Green Hunt, simultaneously mobilising public sympathy and support. It charged that the high-powered committee announced by the Chhattisgarh government was being constituted under instructions from the union home ministry, which in turn was acting on the advice of the us Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

According to the note, this approach was a part of the development model impelled by the forces of globalisation, privatisation and marketisation. Unless district collectors fully grasped the dangers of this model, they would not have any clarity of their own role in the system. The note said the government was committed to transferring rich natural resources to private corporations in the name of development and those who opposed it were brutally attacked. Terms like "civic action programme" and "good governance" were used to carry on looting without any resistance, it added. The statement questioned Chief Minister Raman Singh's stand that there was no Operation Green Hunt and asked what justification there was for the presence of thousands of police and paramilitary forces in rural areas. It demanded to know how he explained the ruthless repression by security forces in Abuz Mad in the name of Operation