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How Prof Nandini Sundar got pulled into a murder mystery

November 21, 2016 07:44 IST

While the Chhattisgarh police charged the well-known academic with a tribal man's murder, those who know her say it is vendetta at play.
Shakya Mitra and R Krishna Das report.

Last week, academic and social activist Nandini Sundar along with four other people was booked by the Chhattisgarh police for abetting the murder of a tribal man, Shamnath Baghel, in the insurgency-hit Sukma district.

They were booked under Section 120B (criminal conspiracy), 302 (murder), 147 (punishment for rioting), 148 and 149 of the Indian Penal Code at the Tongpal police station.

The first information report, though not made available to the local media, narrates what led to Sundar's booking.

It states that three months ago, Sundar and others came to Nama in Sukma, considered to be the country's worst Naxal-affected district, in the night and held a meeting. Sundar, the police say, travelled incognito.

Two days after Sundar's visit, Baghel lodged a complaint with the police stating that Sundar and others asked the villagers not to support the police and associate themselves with the Naxalites.

It also mentioned that Baghel was warned of dire consequences for opposing the Naxalites.

In his complaint to the police, Baghel mentioned that if he was killed, Sundar and the others would be responsible for it.

On the night of November 4, Baghel was murdered. The police found it highly suspicious that Sundar travelled incognito to Bastar.

Chhattisgarh is easily the worst Naxal-affected state in the country, with Bastar amongst the worst-affected districts. The state is considered the epicentre of Naxal activity in the country.

Bastar is a remote and dangerous area: It is policed by as many as 80,000 armed security personnel.

Sundar, 48, first visited Bastar in the early 1990s as a part of her PhD research when she was a student at the University of Columbia in New York.

Bastar also provided the background for her first book, Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar, 1854 to 1996, first published in 1997 with an updated version releasing 10 years later.

Currently a professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics where she has been teaching since 2005, Sundar makes regular visits to Bastar for her fieldwork. She says about Bastar, "I think everyone who goes there is charmed by the place. Yet at some stage, there is also a certain sense of anger at the way Adivasis have been treated there."

Sundar sees herself as primarily a sociologist/anthropologist. "The discipline is very reflexive, and scholars have challenged the idea that you can just parachute in and study people and then forget them," she says.

"This is not to say that one has to spend one's life fighting court cases against the government, but it's not unusual among sociologists/anthropologists in India and elsewhere to be involved in the lives of the people they study."

Born and brought up in Delhi, where she did a part of her schooling from the Delhi Public School in RK Puram, Sundar is well known in academic circles but remains an elusive figure in the state where she has conducted most of her fieldwork, with most locally based journalists having had little interaction with her.

Sundar's relationship with the Chhattisgarh police and the state can at best be described as stormy.

In 2011, following a writ petition filed by her, the Supreme Court described as illegal and unconstitutional the deployment of tribal youths as special police officers, either as Koya Commandos, Salwa Judum or any other force in the fight against Naxal insurgency.

The ruling strongly indicted the state government for violating Constitutional principles in arming youth who were school dropouts and conferring on them the power of justice.

Sundar's recently released book, The Burning Forest: India's War in Bastar, sheds light on police atrocities and how children have been at the receiving end of the police.

In the book, she also seems to blame the state for turning Adivasis against each other, with many days turning into 'carnivals of rape, looting, arson and killing.'

In October, when the Central Bureau of Investigation held security forces responsible for the March 2011 incident where 160 houses were set on fire in Tadmetla village in Sukma, Sundar released a statement along with Swami Agnivesh calling out the police's lie in claiming that Naxalites had been behind the episode.

These incidents have clearly made her a much bigger troublemaker for the Chhattisgarh authorities than they would have wanted. It has definitely brought her under the scanner, from the perspective of those involved in the anti-Naxal movement, and her being booked for murder could be a diversionary tactic by the police, according to the Left parties, of taking attention away from the CBI chargesheet.

Sundar is predictably outraged at the whole turn of events and feels she is a victim of the police's anger.

"The Chhattisgarh police have been going ballistic because they have been implicated by the CBI in the burning of three villages in 2011. There were also rapes and murders involved," she says.

"The Chhattisgarh police have consistently hounded anyone who has been critical of their excesses. I have been facing police and vigilante threats since 2005. In 2010, the police kept me and a friend in their captivity for a week by posting a whole posse of police to accompany us. That is why this year when we were stopped by the police, I gave a fake name." (Sundar had gone under the name of Richa Keshav).

A couple of weeks prior to being booked on charges of murder, effigies of Sundar and other activists were burnt by security personnel.

Based on the recommendation of the Bastar police, the state government had ordered a Criminal Investigation Department to investigate the matter. Senior police officers refuse to talk on the issue.

S G P Kalluri, under whose command the FIR was filed, took over as inspector general of police of Bastar two-and-a-half years ago. He had drawn an action plan to eradicate Left-wing extremism from Bastar.

While briefing about the operations of security personnel in Bastar, Kalluri had stated that a 'war is going on' elaborating that in war, every weapon is used against the enemy.

As of now, the police have made a strong imprint in Bastar. This has put the rebels on the back foot.

In the last one year, the rebels had failed to inflict any major incident in Bastar. The view from the ground in Chhattisgarh is that under Kalluri, the incidents of violence have reduced, and that he has so far done a good job.

Support for Sundar too has been forthcoming. A Delhi University professor (who does not want to be named) who knows Sundar, says: "This charge of murder is outrageous, this seems to be a clear case of vendetta at play. Sundar is not the kind of person who would instigate people to kill someone."

It may be pointed out that while there has been criticism of the Raman Singh government for allowing this conflict between the activists and the police to build up, it was Manmohan Singh, who led the United Progressive Alliance government for 10 years starting from 2004, who had declared the Naxals to be India's biggest internal security threat in 2010.

In a relief to Sundar and others who were booked, the Supreme Court has asked the Chhattisgarh government to give four weeks' advanced notice before proceeding against them in the case related to Baghel's muder.

The petitioners have also been given the liberty to approach the court once the notice is served.

While refusing to entertain Sundar's plea about the state taking permission from the court before arresting or interrogating her and the others, the Supreme Court did tell the state they should find a peaceful solution to the Naxal problem.

The National Human Rights Commission too seems to have taken the activists' side while summoning Kalluri and Chhattisgarh Chief Secretary Vivek Dhand, 'There is no apparent connection between the murder and the visit of these rights activists and, therefore, it has been alleged that they have been framed in a mala fide manner by police to settle scores,' the NHRC said in a statement.

Ask Sundar on what are the other issues that agitate her, apart from the mistreatment of Adivasis, and she says: "The exciting thing about India is that there is always something to get upset about -- and so many issues to take up. Where does one begin?"

Shakya Mitra and R Krishna Das
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