In March 2011, a phalanx of heavily armed uniformed men set fire to over 200 homes across Tadmetla, Morepalli and Timapuram in south Chhattisgarh.
I visited the villages days after the operation with Anil Mishra, then a reporter with the Rajasthan Patrika. Villagers told us that their homes had been destroyed by security forces, who had also killed three civilians and raped at least three women – one in a police station under the control of the Central Reserve Police Station in Chintalnar.
My report was published in The Hindu on 24 March 2011, after which the district police force went berserk. Local journalists attempting to follow the story were assaulted by the local police, as was a relief convoy led by the Dantewada district collector R Prasanna. The following year, in 2012, a team dispatched by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate the incident had to be airlifted out of Dantewada after their investigators were attacked by Special Police Officers (SPOs) loyal to the district police force.
Five years later, on 17 October 2016, the CBI has finally submitted its first chargesheet in the case, largely confirming the account published in The Hindu, and has charged seven constables of participating in the 2011 violence.
This time, policemen across southern Chhattisgarh have taken to the streets to burn effigies of sociologist Nandini Sundar and Communist Party of India politician Manish Kunjam who brought the Tadmetla incident to the notice of the Supreme Court; activists Bela Bhatia and Himanshu Kumar, who have been critical of the police in the past; journalist Malini Subramaniam who reported on police encounters in Chhattisgarh until she was forced to leave earlier this year; and Soni Sori, a former school teacher and now member of the Aam Admi Party – herself a victim of torture and sexual assault at the hands of the Chhattisgarh police.
It is very rare for security forces in India to be held accountable for violence directed against civilians, and Chhattisgarh is no exception. Thus, the CBI chargesheet marks an important moment where a central investigating agency – famously described as a “caged parrot” by India’s Supreme Court – has held the police responsible for destroying three villages.
Yet by naming seven constables – one of the junior-most ranks in the police force – the agency has shied away from pinning the responsibility where it lies; on the officers tasked with commanding these forces, and the senior-most echelons of the Chhattisgarh police force that knew about the Tadmetla incident, spoke of it off-record as a “mistake”, yet rather than establish an inquiry to hold their juniors to account, consistently stymied all attempts to establish the truth.
The violence in Tadmetla, Timapuram and Morepalli came at the end of a five-day operation involving hundreds of troopers from the state police and the CRPF. The attack on Tadmetla, according to villagers, and my sources in the local police and the CRPF, happened at the direction of SRP Kalluri, at the time posted as Senior Superintendent of Police in Dantewada.
On 22 October this year, Kalluri admitted as much. In a combative press conference in Jagdalpur, where he is now posted as Inspector General Bastar, Kalluri said:
Whatever happened, happened at my direction. I am not a coward. Anything that happens should happen to me. I am responsible.
Kalluri claimed he deployed 421 troopers into the forest at the urging of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), ostensibly to investigate previous allegations of murder, violence and torture by his own security forces.
While Kalluri’s claims regarding the NHRC is at odds with previous police submissions in court, his misstatement reveals Bastar’s profound tragedy: a police force accused of committing human rights violations deploys hundreds of heavily armed troops to investigate these allegations, and returns having committed fresh acts of violence.
Kalluri’s role in Tadmetla is part of a larger pattern of killings, beatings, imprisonment and extortion adopted by the police forces in Chhattisgarh. From 2010 to 2012, the years I was posted in the state, stories of summary execution by his forces were commonplace.
Two months prior to the attack, for instance, at a public meeting on 16 January 2011, the local Hari Bhoomi newspaper reported that Kalluri had announced an award of Rs 1 lakh for every Maoist killed in Dantewada. At the same meeting, Hari Bhoomi reported, Kalluri told reporters he would not eat salt until the forces killed at least 12 Maoists – a claimed Kalluri later denied.
Years later, when I interviewed him in 2015, Kalluri told me he had changed tack, and was now more focused on convincing adivasis “misled” by the Maoists to surrender before the police. In 2015, 413 such supposed Maoists chose to surrender before the police. Yet, dozens of villagers and “surrenders” told me they were ordinary civilians who had been coerced into participating in an elaborate public relations campaign by pretending to be Maoists, rather than hardcore guerrillas shunning violence to work with the police.
In his press conference held after the CBI filed its chargesheet, Kalluri ended on an ominous note. “Breaking the morale of the police who are taking care of internal security is unfair and anti-national.”