‘Doing a Binayak’ on Nandini Sundar

The government can throw the rulebook at anyone for sharing inconvenient truths and wait as they spend weeks, months and even years to legally get out of a quagmire


Nandini Sundar, a sociology professor at Delhi University. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Nandini Sundar, a sociology professor at Delhi University. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Nandini Sundar appears to have had a “Binayak Sen” pulled on her.

You may recall the episode from 2007 when Sen, a doctor and human rights activist in Chhattisgarh, was arrested after being accused of being a Maoist sympathizer by the government of Chhattisgarh.

Sen was sentenced to life in jail for sedition and other crimes by local courts before being bailed out by the Supreme Court, which found the evidence flawed. Sen’s real crime appears to be: he exposed corruption and human rights violations that made Chhattisgarh’s government and police look bad in its at-any-cost battle against Maoist rebels.

On the face of it, it’s Sundar’s real crime, too.

A sociology professor at Delhi University, Sundar has been named in a first information report by Chhattisgarh police. The inspector general of police of Bastar range, S.R.P. Kalluri, announced this to media on 8 November, stating that Sundar, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Archana Prasad, a local communist politician and “Maoists” stood accused of killing a tribal gentleman in Sukma district on 4 November. The district comes under Kalluri’s jurisdiction.

According to the version presented by Kalluri, Sundar and others have since May threatened folks in the area who have resisted Maoists. This accusation may work against the Maoists, but Sundar and her colleagues-in-accusation? It’s a twisted tale.

Sundar has rubbished the claim. The investigation, if pursued, will lead to hard questions, legal wrangling, possible arrest, possible bail, time in court, and such. Sundar and her co-accused will now see where the water flows.

It could flow right to the door of Kalluri, who is in the sights of the Central Bureau of Investigation for being the officer in charge during an incident in 2011 in which more than 160 homes in the tribal village of Tadmetla were burned. Kalluri, state auxillaries and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) blamed it on Maoists, who they were operating against. Sundar was key in pursuing culpability of the state. She was also co-petitioner in a suit that led the Supreme Court in 2011 to order the disbanding of the vigilante group Salwa Judum. She and her colleagues in human rights remained staunch in subsequently exposing the revival of Salwa Judum by other names, and the continuing human rights violations against non-combatants. All in Kalluri’s patch.

The truth will be revealed in due course, by due process.

Meanwhile, a truth is that government can throw the rulebook at anyone for sharing inconvenient truths and wait as they spend weeks, months and even years to legally extricate themselves from a quagmire. The state has all the time and funds at its disposal. Citizens frequently depend on pro bono work by lawyers and, in several cases, if they are fortunate enough to not be in jail, care provided by benefactors of conscience.

Sundar, like Sen, is now in the glare of publicity, and will, in all likelihood, attract goodwill and legal help—as Sen did. Imagine the plight of those not as connected as a Sen or Sundar, those who need a Sen or Sundar, and numerous courageous activists and lawyers to fight for them.

A major slice of evidence against Sen was that there was Maoist literature in his Raipur residence. Like any writer and analyst engaged with the issue of the Maoist rebellion, I probably carry far more “evidence” in my writing and personal archives. This I’ve freely shared at numerous forums, including talks at Army War College, Naval War College, and CRPF’s academies, to explain the rationale of the Maoist rebellion.

Frankly, anyone who types “Maoist documents” on a robust Internet search engine will get a flood of documents, images and statements. Some of us need to go deeper, to know more, understand more. Understanding of conflict, and conflict resolution, must come from knowing ground realities, not propaganda. Sundar is a prime participant in that venture. So was Sen. Their views and work is well known.

Sundar, Sen and I were among several “civil society” representatives and commentators invited by senior home ministry officials a few years ago—after Sen’s release, as it happens—to discuss the Maoist conflict, from causes to human rights violations and possible solutions. We were there as citizens of India, not spies for a foreign ideology or country, or enemies of the state. If at all we were spies for fellow citizens, enemies of the state of affairs.

But there is a price to pay.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights in India and South Asia, runs on Thursdays.

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