Nandini Sundar Case: Chhattisgarh Cops Using Law to Gag Activists

Professor Nandini Sundar pushed the CBI to prosecute the Chhattisgarh police. Now they’ve accused her of murder.

3 min read
Human rights activists in Chhattisgarh are harassed by the police as a matter of routine. Photo used for representational purpose. (Photo: Reuters)

Since 2005, 7221 civilians, Maoists and security personnel have been killed in Chhattisgarh. But of all these cases, the Chhattisgarh police have made the fastest breakthrough in the case of a young man murdered in his home in Bastar last Friday.

The “suspects”?

An award-winning sociologist from Delhi University, Nandini Sundar, and a widely published labour historian from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Archana Prasad.

A first information report lodged at the Tongpal police station in Bastar district on November 4 claims that the two professors, along with social activist Vineet Tiwari and Sanjay Parate from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), were part of a conspiracy to kill Shamnath Baghel in Nama village.

Baghel was part of the “Tangiya” (or “Axe”) group set up to dissuade villagers from joining the Maoists. Chhattisgarh has a long history of such groups. Most of these groups are supported by the gopniya sainik (secret informer) funds available to district police stations, according to senior police officers.

“As per the complaint lodged by the victim’s wife, her husband had been getting threats from Maoists since he and other villagers had complained against Sundar in May this year,” said Bastar’s Inspector General of Police SRP Kalluri in a statement.

The “investigation” into the Shamnath Baghel case offers an insight into the repeated use of fake police cases to suppress any scrutiny of the security forces in their long and bloody battle with the armed cadres of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Bastar’s Inconvenient Facts

In May 2016, Sundar, Prasad, Tiwari and Parate were members of a fact-finding team that visited Bastar and reported several allegations of repression, land grab, arbitrary arrest, rape, and extra-judicial execution by the state police and central paramilitary forces.

According to their report, titled 'Caught in an Irresponsible War', members of the fact-finding mission were repeatedly harassed by the police. The local police station reported a complaint of intimidation against the members of the team, but an investigation by The Indian Express and hindi newspaper Nai Dunia alleged the police complaint to be a fabrication.

“The police told the local press we were all seditionists and traitors from JNU,” Parate told The Quint over the phone. “A local TV channel even ran a story on this.”

The matter died down when the team left Chhattisgarh, but was revived last week after the local police suffered a significant setback in a separate case.

Tadmetla’s Smoking Gun

Last month, the Central Bureau of Investigation held the Chhattisgarh police and paramilitaries responsible for burning hundreds of homes in the course of a counter-insurgency operation in Tadmetla village in March 2011.

The CBI was responding to a petition filed in the Supreme Court by Sundar as part of a landmark case in which the court held that the deployment of the Salwa Judum, a state-sponsored vigilante mob, in anti-Maoist operations was unconstitutional.

Days after the chargesheet was filed, the Chhattisgarh police burnt effigies of Sundar, journalist Malini Subramaniam and four other activists.

“The FIR in this murder case is clearly a reprisal for the recent CBI chargesheet that has held the Chhattisgarh police responsible for the violence in Tadmetla village in 2011,” Sundar said in a telephone interview with The Quint.

This isn’t the first time that Bastar’s Inspector General of Police Kalluri has targeted Sundar and other activists.

In 2010 for instance, Kalluri held a press conference in which he claimed that Sundar, Booker-winning author Arundhati Roy, and Magsaysay Award winner Medha Patkar had provided terrorist training to an alleged Maoist.

The police, Kalluri said, were “investigating the matter”, but never disclosed the outcome of the presumed investigation.

FIRs As a Weapon of War

Years of reporting and data collated by the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, or JagLAG, a collective of women lawyers, reveals that the use of fabricated complaints to intimidate civilians is standard practice in Chhattisgarh.

From 2005 to 2013, JagLAG found, an astonishing 96 percent of cases in Chhattisgarh’s Maoist-affected districts ended in acquittal, compared with a national average of 61.5 percent.

Yet, in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, almost 70 percent of prisoners awaiting trial in these districts spent more than one year in prison before they were either acquitted or granted bail, compared with a statewide average of 30 percent. JagLAG’s analysis also revealed instances in which the police fabricated evidence or were overzealous in charging suspects. In one case, for instance, an Adivasi was booked under the Arms Act, intended to regulate the use of firearms, for possessing kitchen knives and a large kitchen utensil.

“Our analysis suggests that Chhattisgarh is using the criminal justice system as a weapon of war,” said JagLAG’s Shalini Gera, in an interview.

Till recently, JagLAG was the only legal aid cell available to Adivasis booked by the police. Earlier this year, they too were forced to relocate from Bastar after repeated threats from the police.

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