Bastar cop: Samajik Ekta Manch is our version of guerrilla warfare
The Bastar police's hostility towards human rights activists and journalists is well known. Also well known are the strategies they use, such as setting up public fronts, to silence their critics.
But it's not everyday you get to hear a policeman explain the thinking that goes into setting up such fronts. So when a top officer in Bastar was doing exactly that, this reporter discreetly recorded the conversation.
The officer was talking about Samajik Ekta Manch, the group widely held responsible for attacking and forcing the journalist Malini Subramaniam to leave Chhattisgarh; for recently trying to do the same to the scholar and activist Bela Bhatia; and orchestrating the arrest of a local journalist.
The officer called the SEM the state's "version of guerrilla warfare" against the Naxals. It was set up, he added, as a "shield for the police" to enable them to take action against certain individuals without attracting the ire of the law.Bastar "anti-Naxal front" leader: If we help the police, praise their work, do you think that's wrong?
The group though won't be allowed to continue for long, the officer added, because the last time such a front was established (Salwa Judum), its leader (Mahendra Karma) had developed political ambitious. So, to ensure it "does not come back to haunt the force", the group would be disbanded within two to three years. Then, some other front would be created.
The SEM was "founded" by local leaders of the Congress - like Sampat Jha, Subba Rao - and the BJP - Manish Parekh - along with former members of the Salwa Judum such as P Vijay. Another prominent SEM leader Farooq Ali is the brother of Sadiq Ali, who was a close aide of the Salwa Judum founder Mahendra Karma.
A local journalist who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal said most members of the SEM are people who had little chance of "outshining their political colleagues otherwise".
"They had mediocre political careers and now with the help of the police, they are trying to start some movement like Salwa Judum, whose founder Mahendra Karma had gained immense political clout. They are completely funded by people from inside the system. Where do you think they get the money for their programmes from? Don't be surprised if you find them or their friends bagging government contracts," the journalist said.Bastar scribe on SEM: these people are trying to start another Salwa Judum with the police's help
Another journalist called the whole "movement" a sham. "They have three wings - the main SEM, Mahila Ekta Manch and Adivasi Ekta Manch. Has this Mahila Manch ever spoken about the rights of women? Has the Adivasi Manch ever talked about the malnutrition among Adivasis? This is all a smokescreen. But because everyone here knows who's backing them, nobody's raising questions about their motives."
The SEM founders are said to enjoy unparalleled access to Bastar's police chief, Inspector General SRP Kalluri, who has been accused of committing and overseeing grave atrocities under the garb of anti-Maoist operations. In fact, Kalluri and other top policemen of Bastar frequently attend the events organised by the SEM.
Sampat Jha, however, insisted that his "movement" was non-political; he found the suggestion that the SEM was funded by the police "laughable". "Our movement is a fight against Naxalism. Are you telling me so many respectable members of the society have joined this group due to some greed?" he asked.
The "rumour" about state funding, he added, could be the result of his group's "close association" with the police. "If we help the police, praise the work they are doing, do you think that's wrong? Get one thing clear: in this region you are either with the Naxals or against them."
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