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Hostage Taking in Bastar

On 25 January, the CPI(Maoist) abducted five policemen of the Chhattisgarh police force. A team of human rights activists worked for their unconditional release which took place on 11 February inside Chhattisgarh's dense Abujhmad forest. These activists spoke to the tribal-villagers and the CPI(Maoist) members. What follows is their assessment of the situation at ground zero and how the tribals have been affected by the security operations.

COMMENTARY

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Hostage Taking in Bastar

Sarva Dharma Sansad, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, People’s Union for Democratic Rights

On 25 January, the CPI(Maoist) abducted five policemen of the Chhattisgarh police force. A team of human rights activists worked for their unconditional release which took place on 11 February inside Chhattisgarh’s dense Abujhmad forest. These activists spoke to the tribal-villagers and the CPI(Maoist) members. What follows is their assessment of the situation at ground zero and how the tribals have been affected by the security operations.

This is a summary of the report “Of Human Bondage: An Account of Hostage Taking in Bastar”. For the full report see: http://www.pudr.org/index. php?option=com_docman&task=cat_ view&gid=108&Itemid=63

O
n 11 February, inside the dense forests of Abujhmad in Chhattisgarh, five policemen of the Chhattisgarh police force, abducted by Maoists on 25 January 2011, were released by the CPI(Maoist) in the presence of a team of human rights activists and media persons. Unfortunately this did not receive much media exposure or form the subject of public discussion. The activists’ team comprised six members, two each from the Sarva Dharma Sansad, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and the People U nion for Democratic Rights (PUDR).

Shortly after the hostages were released an IAS officer V Murali Krishna, Collector of the Malkangiri district in neighbouring Orissa, was kidnapped by Maoists. The similarities in both these incidents, the demands raised by the Maoists about mitigating the impact of development schemes which have adversely affected the tribals there, and the questioning of the current industrialisation plans clearly reflect a changing trend which needs to be taken into account. The experience in Chhattisgarh therefore assumes great importance because it brings into focus the unheard voices of the tribals in the remote areas of Bastar and Abujhmad who have been victimised due to security operations.

Testimonies of Village Dwellers

After the policemen were released, members of the human rights and media teams were invited to listen to the testimonies of the adivasis. They described the abuse and violence unleashed by the security forces not just during the combing operations or targeted searches, but even when the villagers attended to daily chores like shopping in markets, going to school and other routine activities.

Many of those who spoke clarified that they were not necessarily Maoists or

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supporters of Maoists. But they had suffered at the hands of the security forces who insisted that they were or had supported the Maoists. As speaker after speaker pointed out, once they were picked up by the security forces, there was no question of explanation or discussion. It was a grim story of utter lawlessness and the helplessness of a people forced to contend with an alienating and brutalised administrative/security system and complex judicial remedial system.

One after another, parents, wives, children and relatives of those who had been thus victimised from numerous villages across the area marched to the microphone. They provided detailed lists of household goods, poultry and livestock looted by the security forces during their regular patrols. One such incident about which a complaint was lodged with the s uperintendent of police is given below.

Complaints of Arrest and Looting

On 27 December 2010 a police patrol entered the Koodhoor village in Bastar district. The patrol party included policemen from Murdapal. The details are as follows:

Arrests: Three persons (Mandhar son of

Badhru, Buaal son of Raitu, Manku son of

Fardun)

Looting: Ten houses were looted

Situram son of Bogi resident of Tumdibal

(silver Rs 6,000, cash Rs 15,000, clothes

Rs 700)

Sundar Ram son of Badhru Muria (cash

Rs 800)

Mandhar son of Badhru Muria (cash

Rs 2,500)

Buaal son of Raitu (utensils Rs 2,500)

Ghasia son of Fasele Muria resident of

Kotmatapara (door destroyed, cash Rs 980)

Jamdhar son of Hagru (cash Rs 5,000)

Kadaru son of Budhu (cash Rs 300)

Ganesh son of Kaharu (cash Rs 2,000)

Ramnash son of Hadi Raut resident of

Kotmetapara (three chickens)

Bagdev son of Kamlu (battery one)

From Tumribal village (100 arrows, two

catapults)

Beating: Five women were beaten up

Gadri wife of late Deshu

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Gangadhai wife of Buaal

Phoolmati wife of Mandhar

Dashri wife of late Lakhan

Masan wife of Jagnath

Source: Complaint to the Superintendent of P olice, Bastar.

The general pattern of police raids on villages was confirmed by many others who deposed before us. The same pattern was confirmed by those present at the Bhoomkal diwas celebrations at Jagdalpur on 10 February. It was also instructive that the issues which figured in the speeches at Jagdalpur were about displacement from forest areas, land acquisition, privatisation of river water and its diversion for industrial use as well as the state administration’s pro-corporate sector tilt.

Arrests

A number of people confirmed that during police patrolling, young men are routinely and arbitrarily picked up and taken away. Their arrests are confirmed only when family members visit the police station or the jail at Jagdalpur. Many of the arrests also occur when people visit the weekly haat (market) or go to the nearest town to purchase goods. According to Jagannath, a large cooking vessel that he had purchased was taken away by the police who said that he must have bought it for the Maoists. When they go to a chemist to purchase medicines, the villagers are accused of buying the medicines for the Maoists. Even local journalists confirm this pattern. This situation is apparently responsible for the men migrating to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh to look for work. There are reports of some villages in Narayanpur district that have only women residents.

The team was told about the large number of people who have been detained in jails across Chhattisgarh. In most cases the socalled “Naxalite inmates” are not produced before a magistrate and the families are unaware of the charges against them. While we could not get a list of those arrested, we were told that from the villages which fall under what the Maoists describe as their East Bastar Division, at least 500 people are either in jails or their whereabouts are unknown. Our inquiries revealed the following: Against a capacity of 1,987, there were 5,878 convicts and undertrials in the five jails in Chhattisgarh. This means that the actual prison population was three times its capacity. Of these, 1,036 were charged with either being Maoists/Naxalite supporters/sympathisers or members. There are also about 300 activists of the Adivasi Mahasabha, a mass front of the Communist Party of India, in the jails of the Bastar region. Anecdotal evidence shows that 90% of the prisoners are adivasis.

Jail authorities have shared their concern with civil liberties activists about a collapse of the jail administration due to this as well as its detrimental impact on the mental and physical well-being of the jail inmates. They have told our colleagues in Chhattisgarh that since the cases registered against the accused-alleged Maoists fall under the jurisdiction of other districts, the police department routinely expresses its inability to provide security due to shortage of staff.

The Maoists Speak

When some team members among the human rights activists raised the issue of child soldiers, Neeti and Rehmati made it clear that children below 16 were not allowed to become members of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA). There was no question therefore of children bearing arms. They pointed out that more than 65 children were going to the alternative school that they had set up in that area. However, the local policeattacked these schools. According to them, in October 2010 in Tirka Village the Janata School was attacked by the forces. Baldev, the teacher of that school, was arrested and jailed. The children in these schools often have to defend their schools, and may thus have to take up arms. Neeti pointed out that even in a situation of war, “teachers” must have immunity and must not be taken away.

She also said that the struggle against superstition and illiteracy and in attempting to provide medical facilities, they had been successful. She talked proudly of the efforts to develop books in the Gondi language which are being read in more than a hundred villages; the schools in these villages are being run under the new educational system.

The young Maoist leaders were very v ocal about the attack on the children’s education system in their area and the c losure of schools due to takeover of the buildings by the police and paramilitary forces. They also expressed concern that the teachers were not being allowed to come to their area and teach the children.

They said that the accusations that Naxal violence was responsible for the schools being destroyed and the children being deprived of education are false. The “revolutionary movement has never been against education. Instead, it has always promoted education”.

According to them, the real reason for the denial of education was the policy of privatisation of education that has resulted in only the rich accessing it. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the total literacy programmes had failed and in the last 60 years less then 25% of children in this r egion had got any education.

In this context, the team was given a pamphlet to explain the Maoist position on the issue of education and schools. One pamphlet, issued on 5 February by the East Bastar Divisional Committee, pointed out that more than 156 schools in Dantewada and Bijapur districts were presently occupied by the security forces. Another pamphlet distributed by the East Bastar Divisional Committee on 8 February claimed that in the five blocks of Bijapur and Dantewada, the school and ashram buildings in Cherapal, Pamalvai, Cheramangi, Murkinar, Naimarh, Matwara, Jaiwara, Pinkonda, Nelnar, Ranibodli, Toynar, Gudma, Bodli, Polampalli, Injaram, Maraiguda, Aranpur and Palna village, are now used as police camps. Besides, ashrams located in Padera, Pidia, Tamneri, Kadenar, Vechhapal Munder, Tudem, Dharmapuram, Regadgatta, Todka, Torram, Ilingair, Dadli and Dabbakunta have been moved closer to the police or relief camps, rendering the schools inaccessible for the villagers who fear venturing close to the police station. According to them, in the villages of Basaguda, Usur, Gangalur, Mirtul, Kuttru, Bhopalpatnam, Konta and Kistaram, teachers are reluctant to come to the schools because they are suspected of being Naxalite sympathisers.

Concerns of the Media

We were contacted by a few journalists who wanted us meet their local colleagues at Kanker. They were all members of the Chhattisgarh Shramjivi Patrakar Sangh

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COMMENTARY

(CSPS). They have been agitating against acts of omission and commission of the administration and local officials. A memorandum submitted by the CSPS to the Chhattisgarh chief minister refers to the killing of two reporters, Sunil Pathak at B ilaspur and Umesh Rajput at Chhura in the recent past, and harrassment of N R K Pillai, Anil Mishra and Yashwant Y adav at the hands of a local commander of a central force. It also goes on to detail how the l ocal administration instigated by activists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Maa Danteshwari Swabhiman Manch (a front floated by Salwa Judum activists, notorious for their attacks on social activists) issued posters warning these senior reporters of dire consequences if they “do not mend their ways”. Some media persons also told us that the unedited video of the handing over of the hostages programme organised by the Maoists would reach the Narayanpur LIU (local intelligence unit) and all the villagers present at the meeting would be identified. Should any of them visit the nearest haat or go out on other errands, there was the very real risk of being arrested.

We asked the journalists why they did not report such things, was there an embargo on doing so? We were told that journalists, and especially stringers, faced many obstacles in the course of their duty. They were threatened; first information reports (FIRs) were registered against them and the owners/publishers/editors of the publications refused to stand by the stringers (many publications have stringers in remote areas rather than full-time reporters or news bureaus) since they are not on the staff. As for reporters employed by newspapers or the electronic media, their managements discourage reporting on such issues. As one reporter told us, “How do you expect media houses to allow such reports when their owners are setting up super-power plants or own sponge iron mills...?”. The destruction of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram and filing of cases against its activists has meant that independent voices have become even more scarce in this region.

Conclusion

While we recognise that there is an element of desperation behind hostage taking, u sing human beings as bargaining tools is fraught with danger. Yet, the legitimacy of the grievances and the remedy sought c annot be denied. These demands are also different from the usual ones asking for the release of an arrested leader or accused in return for the hostages.

Another aspect of reality confronts us when we consider the institutional response to the hostage taking of police constables in Chhattisgarh and shortly thereafter of a district collector of Malkangiri in Orissa. The five policemen taken hostage received little notice. But the police administration in Bastar went out of its way to remove/tear posters of the CPI(Maoist) which explained what their demands were and why they had abducted the police personnel. The abduction of the district collector, on the other hand, elicited a different response. The national media descended on Malkangiri for the very first time and for the first time the rest of the nation got to know that the tribals there who had been displaced by projects had not been rehabilitated even after 50 years!

The public also got to know that in Narayanpatna (Koraput), where hundreds of tribals were arrested allegedly for being Maoists, the tribals had been agitating for restoration of lands occupied generations ago by non-tribals. They were forced to work as bonded labour, for the very people who had occupied their land! Would this harsh reality, known to civil right activists for years, have come to the notice of the wider public in any other way? If this was possible, without hostage taking, why was nothing done until now?

In long-neglected areas that have become conflict zones now, the rule of law does not operate and people are subjected to police raj under the pretext of suppressing Maoist insurgency. Illegal arrests and the plight of the kith and kin of such innocent people put behind bars, count for nothing. What is equally unnerving is that the Chhattisgarh government did not show any inclination to negotiate the release of the five police personnel. Presumably, they were not senior enough to merit the administration’s attention. The local and national media too followed suit and remained indifferent to the issues raised by the Maoists. In contrast, in Orissa, because an IAS cadre officer was involved, negotiations took place and the demands raised by the CPI(Maoists) were considered. In both instances, the demands were perfectly legitimate, constitutional and just. This is also a reminder that conflict zones in India in general and Bastar (Chhattisgarh) in particular have become no-go areas where the Constitution does not operate and an arbitrary approach takes precedence over lawful conduct. It is this lawless climate, brought about by “Operation Greenhunt”, which is singularly alarming.

If we are opposed to the politics of hostage taking, does not incarcerating people for daring to protest their conditions and making perfectly legitimate demands amount to “legally” sanctioned abduction? Similarly, if hostage taking by the CPI(Maoist) is wrong but the demands raised by them are legitimate, should we not ensure that the state government complies with the demands?

The CPI(Maoist) for its part must stop the practice of taking hostages to press for their demands since risking the lives of these hostages is unacceptable in any situation.

On the other hand the government must immediately among other things suspend Operation Greenhunt, review the cases of villagers arrested for having links with the CPI(Maoist), institute a judicial inquiry into the allegations of police loot of villagers’ belongings, vacate school buildings occupied by the police and paramilitary, lift the ban on the CPI(Maoist) and stop the displacement of people in the name of development.

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