SPOs may be illegal, but Chattisgarh still has them: Archana Prasad
Archana Prasad, professor, the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, is considered an authority on Adivasi livelihood and their resistance movements. She has authored critically acclaimed books on the life and struggles of Adivasis. She is also connected to several grassroot movements of Adivasis and working class.
Prasad was part of a four-member fact-finding team that visited conflict-ridden Adivasi heartland of Bastar this May with Delhi University’s Prof Nandini Sundar, Chhattisgarh CPM unit secretary Sanjay Parate and the Joshi-Adhikari Institute’s Vineet Tiwari. Their report, “Caught in an Irresponsible War”, attracted national attention because of its rich empirical details. The report argued that Adivasis are caught between the vindictive State and the Maoists. The report had particularly referred to the ways in which the State is nourishing vigilante groups.
However, the notoriously vindictive Chhattisgarh Police framed all four members of the team in the murder of an Adivasi villager. In a chat with Nidheesh J. Villatt, Archana Prasad tells how Chhattisgarh is increasingly becoming a police state.
Villatt: You have a legacy of fighting for the Adivasi cause. But on a fine day, Chhattisgarh Police accused you of murdering an Adivasi. Can you briefly tell us the circumstances that led to this case?
Prof Archana Prasad: From 12-16 May, Nandini Sundar, myself, Vineet Tiwari and Sanjay Parate went on a fact-finding mission to South Bastar. When we came back there was a fake complaint put against us that we had gone to Nama village and incited the villagers against the government and in favour of the Maoists. The truth is that we told the villagers not to succumb to the pressures of the Maoists or the police as both were anti-tribal and bad for them. For a month, they harassed us and tried to file an FIR but found no evidence. Thereafter on October 17, 2016, the CBI indicted SRP Kalluri (Inspector General, Bastar Range) of having directed the arson and rape of women by the SPOs in Tadmentla, Timapuram and Morappali villages in 2011. Nandini Sundar is the main petitioner in the case. On November 4, 2016, Shamnath Bhagel was killed in mysterious circumstances and we were blamed for it. The FIR was a conspiracy – retaliation against the campaign we have been carrying out against police and Maoist atrocities. The villagers, even Bhagel’s wife, has denied that they complained against us. On November 15, 2016, the Supreme Court directed the government to refrain from investigating us and granted us relief.
Villatt: You are teaching in JNU, which is often described as a den for anti-national activities by the ultra-nationalist Sangh Parivar. How did the JNU administration deal with you after this case?
Prof Archana Prasad: The JNU administration had received a complaint from SP Chhattisgarh in May and ignored. This time, (IG) Kalluri was pressing for a departmental inquiry, but the student and teachers union averted it through their swift action. I have not heard from the administration regarding this.
Villatt: Can you tell how the state is nourishing vigilante groups in Bastar to kill poor Adivasi villagers?
Prof Archana Prasad: In 2011, the Supreme Court declared SPOs (special police officers) to be illegal, but the Chhattisgarh government has found other ways of supporting them. Now they are being given protection and payment as police officers. Youth are being told that this is a good option for employment and they are given the freedom to act with impunity. In this way, the state is employing tribals to fight their own and oppress ordinary people.
Villatt: Do you feel the revenue administration in Bastar is subservient to the police?
Prof Archana Prasad: Yes, it is a police state.
Villatt: Can you critically evaluate the role of the forest department in Bastar? What is the status of the implementation of the FRA (Forests Rights Act) in Bastar?
Prof Archana Prasad: They are not seen, they have no role. If FRA was properly implemented, the democratisation of governance would have taken place. But both government and Maoists are not interested.
Villatt: Your fact-finding report criticised State agencies as well as Maoists unlike typical pro-State or pro-Maoist reports. Can you share some field experiences that would give instances of how Maoists are violating rights of Adivasis?
Prof Archana Prasad: The Maoists kill informers and adversaries. They do not allow people to avail of schemes such as MNREGS which will help them to survive. In fact, the State and Maoist violence has started a vicious cycle where they are strengthening each other and ordinary people are suffering.
Villatt: How do you evaluate the functioning of the media in Bastar? What are the challenges faced by journalists working in Bastar?
Prof Archana Prasad: Journalists have been harassed but very brave in opposing the police State and Maoists. They also supported us.