NEW DELHI: Journalists, scholars, activists working for human rights were shocked when news broke that a First Information Report had been registered against six persons for the alleged murder of a villager on November 4. The list included well known academic Nandini Sundar along with Professor Archana Prasad, Vineet Tiwari, Sanjay Parate, Manju Kawasi and Mangalram Karma. This FIR, filed by the tribal’s wife, came in close succession to a series of incidents implicating the police. (see background note at the end)

In an interview to the media recently Baghels wife, Vimala, denied having named any one in an FIR. She said that armed men had attacked her husband. She told NDTV that the Chhatisgarh police had instructed her and the villagers not to talk about the incident to the media and to outsiders. She said that she had not recognised anyone in the armed mob that attacked her husband.Mangalram Karma, former residinformation report has been registered against six of us (and assorted others) for the murder of a villager called Shamnath Baghel on November 4th, ostensibly on the complaint of his wife. The charges are serious and include murder, rioting, possession of arms, and unlawful activities (UAPA).

In an exclusive interview to The Citizen from the US where she currently is, well known academic and Professor of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University speaks of the charge, the intention behind it, and the harassment she and others have faced. Excerpts:

Q. Were you shocked to hear that you had been framed?

Of course, who expects to be charged with the murder of someone 1500 km away, someone you don’t even know?

Q. Did you know of the specific case about the tribal man who died?

No, I have only read about him after the incident – I didn’t know that he was the leader of the Tangiya gang.

Q. You have been working in the area, have you been threatened before? What kind of pressures have been brought to bear on you?

A. I have been harassed by the police many times. This is why, in May 2016, for the first time, I used a false name, for the safety of the team. Its pointless to keep being stopped- and having to make that the story, instead of being able to talk to villagers.

Q. After your report that was fair and factual, did the authorities---politicians, cops---get back at you?

In May, the police claimed we had incited villagers and threatened them that if they didn’t support the Maoists their houses would be burnt. They filed a fake complaint in the name of the villagers – which was put up by the Bastar Collector, Amit Kataria on his facebook page, and also forwarded to our universities. The police got their vigilante stooges to put up posters of Archana Prasad (of JNU) and me and burn our effigies. And now this false FIR!

Q.In Bastar and around clearly there has been a concerted effort to get rid of independent journalists, activists and others. Its been systematic. What are they trying to hide?

In this case, they were trying to hide the background to the revival of Salwa Judum style arming of villagers and the creation of village defence committees. Overall, they just want to be able to rape women and kill villagers with impunity and pass it off as encounters.

Q.This charge against you and the others seems to be to harass, to instil fear, to prevent others from taking up causes.Does it seem like they are succeeding?

They have succeeded in their immediate objective – which is to prevent us pursuing the Tadmetla case in court, in which the CBI has chargesheeted 7 SPOs and 26 Salwa Judum men for the 2011 arson and attack on Swami Agnivesh. Also, they have effectively defamed us to a wider public. But we’ve also had an enormous degree of support – so among those who know anything about what’s going on, its backfired.

Q. What now Nandini?

I have a wonderful group of lawyers who have been working flat out to deal with this – Nitya Ramakrishnan, Rahul Kripalani, Ashok Desai – so I’m not worried at all. The others too are being well represented. As far as Bastar goes, the government would be well advised to remove SRP Kalluri and initiate peace talks as the Supreme Court justices are suggesting.

This was posted by Nandini Sundar earlier, shortly after the FIR was filed:

A first information report has been registered against six of us (and assorted others) for the murder of a villager called Shamnath Baghel on November 4th, ostensibly on the complaint of his wife. The charges are serious and include murder, rioting, possession of arms, and unlawful activities (UAPA).

This FIR comes in close succession to a series of incidents implicating the police.

In 2011, the police had gone on combing operations in which they burnt 300 homes in the villages of Tadmetla, Timapuram and Morpalli. 3 women were raped and 3 men were killed. The Salwa Judum leaders, a vigilante group supported by the police also attacked Swami Agnivesh, a well known human rights activist and religious leader. In July 2011, the Supreme Court ordered a CBI enquiry as part of the petition filed by Nandini Sundar, Manish Kunjam and ors.

On 17 October 2016, the CBI chargesheeted 7 SPOs for arson and 26 Salwa Judum leaders for the attack on Swami Agnivesh.

On 23 October 2016, IG Bastar Kalluri took responsibility for directing the operations, claimed the CBI was lying and accused Nandini Sundar of bribing villagers to depose.

On 24 October 2016, the former Special Police Officers turned armed auxiliary forces/constables burnt effigies of activists

On 26 October 2016, AGNI, a state sponsored vigilante group and RSS activists attacked a press conference by Manish Kunjam, President of the Adivasi Mahasabha, and one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court case which resulted in the CBI chargesheet against SPOs. The CPI office in Jagdalpur was vandalized.

On November 7 2016, the Bastar police led by Mr. Kalluri framed a false FIR against Nandini Sundar, Archana Prasad and others for the murder of Shamnath Baghel by Maoists on November 4th.

The background to this: A group of us had gone on a visit to Bastar in May 2016. In a group of villages we visited (Nama, Soutnar, Kumakoleng) the villagers had formed an anti-Maoist patrol gang, which they called the ‘tangiya gang’ with support from the police.

The police got a fake complaint filed against us (ostensibly in the name of villagers) saying we incited the villagers against police and in favour of the Maoists. Indian Express had also done a story quotingthe villagers saying they had not filed any complaint.

(In the Shamanth Baghel charge too, unfortunately for the police, on November 11, the wife says on camera that she never named anyone.)

Our press release, as well as articles in EPW and Times of India show that we had done no such thing as inciting villagers or threatening to burn their houses. Instead we faithfully reported the villagers dilemma caught between the police and Maoists, and stressed the need for peace talks.

On Nov 4, the Maoists killed the leader of this anti-Maoist gang. We are being charged with his murder, even though we last visited six months ago.

The police are also claiming that Nandini Sundar had malafide intent because I used a false name, Richa Keshav, on that visit. However, this was only used once, and for the safety of the team. I have had a long history of persecution by the Chhattisgarh police.

The people being charged:

Nandini Sundar, Professor of Sociology, Delhi University (author of The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar, Juggernaut Press 2016, also lead petitioner in the case in which the Supreme Court banned Salwa Judum in 2011, Nandini Sundar & Ors. vs. State of Chhattisgarh)

Archana Prasad, Professor, Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies, JNU (author of Environmentalism and the Left, Leftword 2004), also member of AIDWA, CPM’s women wing)

Vineet Tiwari, former journalist and currently at the Joshi-Adhikari Institute of Social Studies, also member of the CPI

Sanjay Parate, State Secretary of the CPM, Chhattisgarh

Manju Kawasi, Sarpanch of Guphidi village, CPI activist, Sukma District, Chhattisgarh

Mangalram Karma, former resident of Nama, now working as a carpenter elsewhere.

(Cover Photograph: Bastar police violate norms to burn effigies of activists, including Sundar and other subsequently named in an FIR for filing a PIL before the Supreme Court against human rights violations. )