Hazaribagh killings: has Jharkhand police become a tool of the coal mafia?
Chief Minister Raghubar Das recently took a team of senior officials to the US to "attract investors" to Jharkhand. The visit followed his road shows in different parts of India for the same purpose.
The chief minister's US sojourn was extensively covered by Jharkhand's media. The papers were full of pictures of Das and his entourage at various events, and reports detailed the investment commitments Das supposedly secured.
The flavour of the frontpage headlines, however, changed as soon as Das landed in Ranchi. He was welcomed with news of violent clashes between villagers and the police in Barkagaon, which claimed four lives. The chief minister could not even find time to call a press conference to highlight the "achievements" of his US visit.
Barkagaon is a block in Hazaribagh district. The National Thermal Power Corporation, or NTPC, is extensively mining the area for coal. Skirmishes between the police and local villagers had regularly taken place in the area for months, until the police shot dead four villagers and threw the area into chaos.
The slain villagers were part of a crowd trying to free Congress legislator Nirmala Devi from police custody. Nirmala represents Barkagaon assembly constituency. Her husband Yogendra Saw, a former MLA, is notorious for manhandling state officials.
There is no trace of Nirmala Devi and her husband since the killing. Her supporters point fingers at the police for their disappearance. The police officials, on their part, have maintained silence.
Chirudih, where the clashes took place, is still under CrPC Section 144. Civil and police officials have visited the place to take stock of the situation, but the administration has barred politicians from entering the area.
Nirmala Devi and her supporters had been sitting on a dharna, christened 'Kafan Satyagraha', since 15 September. A fortnight later, the NTPC, which is mining the region in collaboration with the Triveni Coal Company, lodged a police complaint, alleging that the protesters were obstructing its work.
Assistant SP Kuldeep, along with two circle officers, reached the site of the protest on the night of 30 September and arrested Nirmala Devi. The police team had barely gone 2 km when over 100 bikers surrounded it at Dadikala, and a fracas ensued.
Hazaribagh SP Bhimsen Tuti claims the bikers pelted stones at the police, which caused injuries to Shailesh Kumar, one of the circle officers. Kuldeep and several other cops were also hit. It was then that the police were forced to fire in self-defence, if Tuti is to be believed. "Why would the police fire upon people without a good reason? It is often forced to do so in self defence. The same happened in Barkagaon," Tuti says.
Other senior police officers echo Tuti. "In Barkagaon, the police was forced to fire in self defense as it came under a sudden attack. As many as 17 police personnel, including several officers, were injured," claims IG, Operations, MS Bhatia.
Privately, though, a senior officer admitted, "Self defence is a vague term used by the administration to hide its shortcomings".
The villagers contest the claims. According to them, the policemen resorted to unprovoked violence, and the beating of several protestors aggravated the situation. The sequence of events that led to the four deaths is, however, still a matter of investigation and several questions remain unanswered.
It is being said the villagers have became cannon fodder in a battle for control over mining operations in the area.
On one side, this battle is said to be led by Yogendra Saw. On the other side, the NTPC has allegedly been using criminal gangs, recruited with the help of Triveni Coal Company, to counter Saw's influence. Saw is purportedly backed by the notorious Sushil Shrivastava gang.
Shrivastava was murdered last year inside the Hazaribagh court premises, but his gang still operates in Hazaribagh's coal belt. Reportedly, senior officials who visited the area after the firing, rebuked the NTPC and Triveni officials for trying to "erect a parallel criminal nexus".
The local administration is making all efforts to bring this matter to an early closure. Hazaribagh Deputy Commissioner Ravi Shankar Shukla assures that "senior district officials are looking into the matter and the truth will soon be revealed".
Jharkhand Police chief DK Pandey says the truth "will come out once the probe is over".
The administration's haste can also be seen in light of the fact that it is the second incident of police firing in the state within a month. On 29 August, the police opened fire on people protesting against the Inland Power Company in the neighbouring Ramgarh district. A bureaucrat was accused of sanctioning the action in that case. While two protestors fell to the bullets, the Ramgarh administration argued the police was compelled to fire as the protesters had "gone out of control".
Like Barkagaon, the Ramgarh incident too was an outcome of a tussle between two local politicians over coal supply. This raises the question: has the state's intelligence network totally failed to ascertain the real causes of such protests. Also, the police need to answer why they have repeatedly resorted to drastic measures such as firing on unarmed people. Two similar incidents within a month suggest either the police has become insensitive or it is acting in collusion with the coal mafia.
The Barkagaon tragedy is unlikely to have long-term political ramifications, not least because no party except the CPI (ML) has shown any inclination to turn the truth hidden in the belly of Jharkhand's coal mines into a political issue through mass movements. Unfortunately, the CPI (ML) has limited influence in the state.
While former chief minister Babulal Marandi has completed the formality of issuing a statement demanding an "impartial enquiry". Reactions of the other political parties have been no different.
There are fears that the situation could turn worse after the two incidents of firing. A message has gone out that the police has become brutal in the coal belt. Also, the Naxals could try to capitalise on the discontent in the wake of the killings of common villagers. Over a six dozen ultra-left organisation are already active in the state. Most of them mint a large sum of money through extortion.
They might try to persuade the people to join their cause instead of losing lives at the hands of a nexus between the police and the coal mafia. It is no secret that Naxal outfits in Jharkhand are on a recruitment drive these days. The gullible youths are enticed by the promise of power and money. The only beneficiaries are going to be the Naxals if the police fail to come out of the grip of the coal mafia.