The University of California, Berkeley, was the venue of a conference on Indian democracy on September 26 and 27. Among those invited to the conference was Vishwa Ranjan, Director-General of Police, Chhattisgarh. Some human interest groups in India were appalled by the decision to offer the DGP a forum. As it happened, his appearance at Berkeley provided human rights defenders an opportunity to question him and to expose the misdeeds of the state machinery over which he presides.
The following is a report on the Berkeley proceedings:
As part of the conference, there was a two-hour panel discussion on the human rights situation in Chhattisgarh. The panel consisted of Justice Srikrishna (former judge of the Indian Supreme Court), Vishwa Ranjan (Director-General of Police, Chhattisgarh), Nandini Sundar (Professor of Sociology, University of Delhi), Sunil Kumar (Editor, Daily Chhattisgarh) and Dipti Bhatnagar (Students for Justice in Chhattisgarh).
Chhattisgarh is the site of an ongoing conflict between Naxalites and state security forces, including the state-backed "Salwa Judum" vigilante army. Counterinsurgency programs have displaced over 300,000 tribals from their villages. The state security forces, including the Salwa Judum, have been implicated in many instances of extrajudicial killings, rapes, extortion, torture and theft from adivasis, the main inhabitants of the mineral rich southern part of the state. Human rights activists who have criticized state actions, journalists reporting on state atrocities, and tribals resisting forced dislocation have been arbitrarily detained, harassed and/or imprisoned under the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act of 2005, and accused of working for the Naxalites.
Dr. Binayak Sen, an acclaimed human rights activist and development worker, has been imprisoned in Raipur jail since May 2007, despite calls for his release from Nobel Laureates, Amnesty International, national and international organizations of physicians, and thousands of individuals from around the world. Ajay T.G., who made a film about the circumstances surrounding Dr. Sen's arrest, was himself arrested by Chhattisgarh police in May this year, but had to be released after 93 days in jail because the police were unable to produce a charge-sheet. Almost five months after his arrest, although out on statutory bail, the charges against Ajay have neither been filed nor dropped.
The first speaker at the panel was Justice BN Srikrishna. He forcefully pointed out that there was no role for vigilante armies in a democracy, and who was or was not a Naxalite or what punishment should be meted out to a Naxalite are questions that only a court of law can decide, not private citizens.
DGP Vishwa Ranjan defended the Salwa Judum's "peaceful," "spontaneous," nature, despite widely available evidence to the contrary, including a recent report by Human Rights Watch enumerating numerous violent abuses by the militia.
Nandini Sundar challenged the DGP's description of Salwa Judum. She traced the collusion of the state in supporting and arming the Salwa Judum, and detailed some cases from the widespread murder, rape, arson, and theft committed by Salwa Judum. She also talked about the increase in Naxalite violence in the past three years.
Sunil Kumar alleged in his presentation that human rights activists only speak out against violence by the state and disregard Naxalite violence.
He was directly challenged by Nandini Sundar who reminded him that when she had written a letter condemning the Naxalite-driven blackout in Bastar and the Salwa Judum violence earlier this year, all papers in Chhattisgarh, including Sunil Kumar's
Daily Chhattisgarh, had refused to carry it.
The audience was appalled to hear Sunil Kumar claim in his presentation that the "little political understanding" of the people of Chhattisgarh, unlike that of a "mature democracy" such as the US, makes them incapable of appreciating the difference between state and extra-state actors.
Dipti Bhatnagar, a UC Berkeley graduate student who had been added to the panel at the request of student groups, challenged Vishwa Ranjan, as the chief of Chhattisgarh police, to explain his role in suppressing dissent in Chhattisgarh. She highlighted specific cases, such as the fabrication of evidence in the trial of Dr. Binayak Sen, the arrest of documentary film maker Ajay T.G. without any charge-sheet, and the tacit complicity of the security forces with Salwa Judum when it exacted revenge on residents
of Nendra village for testifying against it in front of the National Human Rights Commission.
Rajeev Dhavan, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India, started off the question and answer session by challenging DGP Vishwa Ranjan's facts and asking for his resignation.
Students attending the event silently carried signs that, among other issues, voiced protest about children being held in police custody, about a Chhattisgarh superintendent of police accused of rape and murder, and about the ongoing harassment of Dr. Binayak Sen's family. One protestor carried a placard pointing out that even Gandhi would be jailed as a dissenter under Chhattisgarh's black law (CSPSA).
The DGP was handed a letter written by 106 academics calling for him to address a number of egregious human rights and police brutality cases. The signatories included professors from many universities including UC Berkeley's Center for South Asia Studies, the organization co-hosting the conference.
The DGP evaded most of the pointed questions from conference attendees. Asked why independent filmmaker Ajay was arrested and jailed for 93 days, given that the police has not been able to come up with charges even after 150 days, he replied that it might have been a "technical mistake"! If so, then why has the police still not withdrawn the case against Ajay? How many other such technical mistakes are there?
The DGP was asked that based on his claim that there are 3,200 SPOs today, and his recent article in the Pioneer where he wrote that 3,250 SPOs have been discharged for indiscipline, can one draw the conclusion that most SPOs have engaged in criminal behavior? He neither answered nor acknowledged this question.
Given that the charge-sheet against Dr. Binayak Sen is very vague, mentioning no date or time or place, nor a description of any actual illegal act, the DGP was asked to list the specific charges for which Dr. Binayak Sen has been imprisoned. Instead of answering the question, he said that the charges were about providing "logistical support" to Naxalites. He also claimed that he had nothing to do with Dr. Sen's imprisonment since the arrest happened before he became the DGP, and that Dr. Sen's supporters should petition the government.
The DGP is either obfuscating, or being disingenuous, because as chief of police, it is within the DGP's power to withdraw the charges against Dr. Sen, and to not oppose his bail application in the court.
Asked about recruitment of child soldiers as SPOs, a very common practice in Chhattisgarh, DGP Vishwa Ranjan replied that the police do not deliberately recruit children, but go by whatever age the applicant claims to be. This means that despite reports by several independent human rights groups--including Human Rights Watch, Forum for Fact-Finding Documentation and Advocacy (FFDA), and Asian Center for Human Rights--that large numbers of children are being employed by the state as soldiers, the police has taken no steps to verify the ages of the SPOs. This is a war crime under the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court, and the DGP is liable for this gross human rights abuse.
Apart from the unconditional release of Dr. Binayak Sen and other political prisoners, community members also demanded that the Salwa Judum be disarmed, the Black Law (Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act of 2005) be repealed, and the use of child soldiers in counter-insurgency measures be prohibited.
Below are links to some videos related to this report:
DGP Vishwa Ranjan on Ajay TG's case: http://tinyurl.com/3lqm5c
DGP Vishwa Ranjan answering Srividhya's question on Dr. Binayak Sen's
Attorney Rajeev Dhavan says charges against Dr. Binayak Sen false;
asks DGP to resign: http://tinyurl.com/45cp56
Protestors chanting slogans after the session is over: http://tinyurl.com/52dvcq