Chhattisgarh: The optics of human rights

Major human rights violations and belligerent posturing of some officials against media persons and human rights defenders have led to widespread negative publicity in India


Like any place that lives with protracted conflict, in particular the southern part which has experienced the Maoist rebellion for more than two decades, the situation has bred extreme anger, rhetoric and action. Photo: HT
Like any place that lives with protracted conflict, in particular the southern part which has experienced the Maoist rebellion for more than two decades, the situation has bred extreme anger, rhetoric and action. Photo: HT

Has Chhattisgarh turned sensitive to criticism? Or has the behaviour of some officials proved too much even for this state notorious in matters of human rights—and which led to the recent transfer of three senior police officials in Maoist battle zones?

The only explanation seems to be: image.

Like any place that lives with protracted conflict, in particular the southern part which has experienced the Maoist rebellion for more than two decades, the situation has bred extreme anger, rhetoric and action. Here the state and its agencies have long turned utterly feral, much like their Maoist enemies.

Major human rights violations and belligerent posturing of some senior officials against media persons and human rights defenders have led to widespread negative publicity in India and abroad especially over the past couple of years. Even businesses, which have largely ignored such issues—and some household names in India actually opted to establish bases in southern Chhattisgarh, in flagrant violation of common sense let alone complicity in human rights violations—have now begun to get a bit edgy. Imagine such wariness when human rights violations by businesses, both state- and privately-run, continue unabated in the coal mining and electricity generation hotspots in central Chhattisgarh.

On 3 March, the government transferred the superintendent of police of Sukma district, Indira Kalyan Elesela. As local media reported—later followed up by, among others Hindustan Times, the sister publication of Mint—Elesela had a day earlier made a controversial statement at Jagdalpur during a private function. Jagdalpur is the headquarters of Bastar district, which is to the north of Sukma.

Elesela was quoted as saying in Hindi: “Manvadhikaar karyakarta ko sadak pe kuchal dena chahiye …” Human rights activists should be run over—literally, crushed—on the roads. He also repeated a frequent accusation in Chhattisgarh, that human rights activists were “Maoist sympathizers”.

Though Elesela denied it all, his quick transfer to the state capital Raipur (and a position with the state Intelligence Bureau) spoke more eloquently. His colleague in Bastar, R.N. Dash was also transferred the same day, to be top cop in Baloda Bazar district in central Chhattisgarh.

Both Elesela and Dash are seen as protégés of former inspector general of Bastar Range S.R.P. Kalluri, who was transferred out in early February to the state capital Raipur, where he remains in assignment-limbo. Kalluri had over several years gained reputation for his ruthless tactics, “collateral damage” of non-combatants included, during several tours of duty in southern Chhattisgarh.

Allegations washed off Kalluri for years, including his being behind the revival of vigilante groups modelled on the murderous, and now technically defunct, Salwa Judum; and intimidation of several tribal folk, human rights lawyers, activists and media persons based in southern Chhattisgarh—the reason for massive negative publicity these past two years. He was finally shifted out because one such alleged intimidation went too far and too public; and also as he came uncomfortably close to 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.

Like Dash, Kalluri was present at the function in Jagdalpur where Elesela reportedly made his comments.

There is no indication that the transfers were on account of electoral equations, even though the Congress, the main opposition party in Chhattisgarh, has gained ground both in the number of seats and—perhaps more importantly—in share of votes in general elections to the assembly in 2013, over 2008. Next elections are due by November 2018. In any case elections aren’t fought on the platform of the Maoist rebellion or human rights even for the 12 seats of the 90-member assembly in areas affected by the Maoist rebellion. Here, parties focus on urbanized areas with relatively low tribal populations, not rural war zones in tribal heartlands.

Few acknowledge it, but the most violent operational phase—less violent than now, that is—the practice of maximum collateral damage and human rights violations occurred at a time when the Congress was in government in New Delhi. Salwa Judum was transparently supported by Bharatiya Janata Party’s chief minister Raman Singh when it began in 2005, under the approving watch of the Congress-led central government. Singh is now in this third term. Moreover, Mahendra Karma, a co-founder of Salwa Judum who was assassinated by Maoists in May 2013, was a key Congress legislator in Chhattisgarh.

Shifting personnel is merely a matter of optics.

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, runs on Thursdays.

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