So long as the investigation in the Gujarat riots remained in the hands of the Gujarat police, Maya Kodnani could strut around as woman and child development minister in the Narendra Modi state government. But, a few months after the Supreme Court had appointed a special investigation team (SIT) in 2008, the very incriminating evidence that had long been in the public domain, the call data record of her mobile phone, forced Kodnani to go underground. She surfaced only after obtaining an anticipatory bail. Once the high court had cancelled her anticipatory bail, she resigned and surrendered to the SIT. Thus followed her historic conviction as the ‘kingpin’ of the largest of the massacres that had taken place in Gujarat in 2002. This was a dramatic departure from the pattern of impunity for communal violence, especially for political leaders. Kodnani is among some 150 people who have been convicted in the key post-Godhra cases entrusted to the SIT. Such is the difference made by the SC’s monitoring.
Imagine the difference a similar monitoring could have made in the context of Chhattisgarh, where a community more vulnerable than even the Muslims has been subjected to murder, rape and displacement. The reference, of course, is to the adivasis of the six districts of the Bastar division. The perpetrators of human rights violations against them are mainly vigilantes. Yes, the kind that have been in the news for rampaging against Muslims and Dalits elsewhere in the country. Except that the vigilantes in Bastar have been openly backed by both the BJP and the Congress, as also the Raman Singh government in Chhattisgarh and the Manmohan Singh and Modi governments at the Centre. So much so that the vigilantes have been conferred the status of ‘special police officers’ (SPOs) and given firearms, with little training and discipline. The audacious blurring of the line between non-state actors and state actors to avoid accountability for mass crimes provoked renowned anthropologist Nandini Sundar in 2007 to go beyond her academic engagement with Bastar and file a PIL in the Supreme Court along with two other eminent persons. Four years later, even as it ordered the disbanding of the militia called the Salwa Judum (purification hunt), the SC baulked at granting Sundar’s plea for a high-level monitoring panel to ensure rehabilitation of affected tribals and proper probe on their criminal complaints. In the absence of such monitoring, none of the thousands of desperately poor villagers whose homes were burnt have got compensation; nobody has been prosecuted for the hundreds of rapes and murders.
The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar is a compelling first-person account by Sundar of the vagaries of her litigation and a host of related issues and experiences that bring out the atrocities that have been committed on the tribal people under the guise of security and development. Indeed, if cow vigilantes are driven by the Hindutva agenda, the proliferation of SPOs in Bastar would seem to have been fuelled by a neo-liberal consensus between the Congress and the BJP, aimed at ejecting adivasis from their traditional habitat in mineral-rich forests so that land could be acquired for mining operations. It was no coincidence, as mentioned in the book, that the Salwa Judum was born in 2005 just when the state had signed MOUs with Tatas and Essar to set up steel plants and they had been allotted captive iron ore mines. Nor was it any coincidence that the Salwa Judum was publicly headed by Congress leader Mahendra Karma under the patronage of BJP chief minister Raman Singh. From 2005 to 2007, villages deep inside the forests were systematically burnt and inhabitants forcibly evacuated to Salwa Judum camps along the highways. Mercifully, the mass violence began to come down in 2007 around the time a couple of civil society groups brought out fact-finding reports on Bastar. The one with which Sundar had been associated formed the basis of her petition the same year before the apex court.
The ostensible objective of this state-sponsored vigilantism was to combat Maoists, who positioned themselves among adivasis as a shield against displacement. The SC did not, however, buy into the justification offered for the Salwa Judum. Hearing the petition filed by Sundar and another by CPI activist, Kartam Joga, the then Chief Justice of India, K.G. Balakrishnan, aptly remarked in 2008 that arming civilians who committed murders amounted to the state abetting crime. On the plea for an independent investigation, the bench headed by Balakrishnan invited suggestions for names and even received consent from retired judges and bureaucrats familiar with adivasi and conflict issues. But it settled instead for a probe by the NHRC, despite its sagging reputation as a watchdog body. The NHRC conducted its probe in 2008 with a team consisting entirely of police personnel who, unsurprisingly, exonerated the Salwa Judum without questioning Karma or any of its other leaders. The fresh plea made by the petitioners for independent monitors suffered a setback due to a Maoist ambush in which 76 CRPF personnel deployed under the Centre’s Operation Green Hunt were killed in Tadmetla in April 2010. Shortly thereafter, Balakrishnan retired without passing any order on the consent obtained afresh from those willing to undertake the monitoring responsibility. In the spate of arrests that followed the Tadmetla incident, the police did not spare even petitioner Joga, who was released only after two years.
Meanwhile, addressing the new bench dealing with the PIL, the Chhattisgarh government was brazen enough to suggest a monitoring committee headed by Karma, one of the prime accused. In March 2011, there were further incidents of violence involving SPOs in places including Tadmetla. Yet, in its judgment delivered in July 2011, the bench, comprising Justices B. Sudershan Reddy and S.S. Nijjar, did not deem it fit to order any monitoring of the accountability of SPOs. Taking advantage of this fatal deficiency in the verdict, the Raman Singh government, within a few days, promulgated an ordinance under which Salwa Judum was reincarnated as Auxiliary Armed Police Force. The judicial indifference to the investigation of crimes against adivasis was also apparent from a contrasting approach adopted by the same bench in the same month in another case, this one pertaining to the high-profile issue of bringing back the black money stashed abroad. The Reddy-Nijjar bench ordered the appointment of an SIT led by two former Supreme Court judges to monitor the investigations related to the black money.
Given the apex court’s failure to secure justice to the victims of state-sponsored vigilantism, it seemed to have been left to Maoists to fill the breach, in their own crude and lawless manner. Barely two years after the judgment, Maoists pulled off a spectacular strike in which they killed about 20 Congress members, including their prime target, Karma. The alacrity with which the criminal justice system responded to this 2013 crime betrayed “a hierarchy of good and bad killings”, as Sundar put it, one in which “the state construes culpability depending on the status of the victim.” Take the corollary cited by the book: “The killing of a man like Mahendra Karma, who was responsible for thousands of homes being burnt and women raped, was followed up by an enquiry by the National Investigative Agency. However, the people who were killed and raped on his orders and under the watch of the chief minister disappeared into the abyss of impunity.”
The book is full of sardonic insights into the Indian legal system, providing an outsider’s perspective which is less likely to miss the wood for the trees. Its nuanced narrative also conveys very well the political folly of adopting a purely militaristic approach to the Maoist challenge, thereby causing incalculable collateral damage to adivasis. Against the greater firepower of the state, Maoists may come nowhere near fulfilling their fantasy of creating liberated zones. However, quoting another scholar, Sundar points out that “Bastar has become a liberated zone in more senses than one—liberated from the protection of the Constitution”. At stake is more than the fate of Bastar or the adivasis. Despite its ban by the Supreme Court, the Salwa Judum has “gone mainstream”, as evident from the growing incidence of vigilantism against minorities and liberals across the country.