RECENT cases of action against adivasi rights activists, lawyers and intellectuals have shown that demonetisation has become one more tool of State repression. At the start of the demonetisation drive, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, claimed that this measure would strike at the root of the funding to ‘terrorist groups and maoist insurgents”. This claim was further buttressed by unverified police media leak that the ‘maoists’ had stashed rupees seven thousand crores in the jungles and were now forcing villagers and sympathisers to exchange their old notes for new ones. They alleged that Jan Dhan accounts in Bastar had suddenly got a collective deposit of rupees three hundred crore, and this was enough proof to show that the ‘maoists’ were in trouble because of demonetisation. This self-professed success of a move that has led to penury for the working masses, has raised questions about the intention and nature of the unsubstantiated media leaks that the Chhattisgarh police is handing out as a part of its propaganda machinery. The events of harassment and false cases in the post-demonetisation phase have also shown that ‘notebandi’ has become yet another tool for the police to harass adivasis and their supporters.
The growing number of encounters and surrenders in Chhattisgarh shows that the security forces are penetrating villages and forcing people to admit that they have supported the ‘maoists’. The data of the ministry of home affairs shows that the number of surrenders increased dramatically from 275 in 2015 to 955 in 2016 where as the number of arrests only increased from 221 in 2015 to 380 in 2016. In other words, the number of surrenders increased by more than two hundred percent whereas the number of arrests only went up by about seventy percent. The rate of surrenders far outstripped the number of arrests showing that the police had used its muscle power to get people to admit that they were either ‘maoists’ or ‘maoist’ supporters. This is evident from the fact that in 2016 out of 2,274 surrenders in five states (Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra) only 266 were surrenders of those who belong to any level of organisation in the CPI (Maoist) party. This means that more than 70 percent of the surrenders were forced surrenders where no weapons were recovered nor was there any substantial evidence of links with the ‘maoists’.
The same is true of the ‘encounters’ where the number of deaths increased from 251 in 2015 to 430 in 2016. The number of deaths of people belonging to the CPI (Maoist) increased from 101 in 2015 to 244 in 2016. More than half these deaths were in the state of Chhattisgarh. But if one breaks this figure down, it is again possible to show that only 93 of 244 fatalities in five states were of those people from the armed squads. Hence the suspicion that the others were largely ‘fake encounters’ is not an unfounded one.
On December 25, 2016 seven members of a fact finding committee were arrested in Telangana and handed over to the Chhattisgarh Police which claimed that they had recovered one lakh of old demonetised notes from the team. And Bastar IG S R P Kalluri told media persons that those arrested were “coercing the local villagers to get Maoists’ old notes exchanged”. This claim however is not fully supported by the FIR registered against the seven people. Though the police say that it recovered rupees one lakh, it makes no claim to show that the fact finding team was coercing villagers. In fact the press statements by the police show that the team was arrested before it could even cross over to Chhattisgarh from Telangana. If this is the case, IG Kalluri’s statement is not only false but also shows a malafide intent of the Chhattisgarh police.
Three days later, Shalini Gera of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, was charged by the Chhattisgarh police of having exchanged rupees ten lakh worth of old notes for the maoist insurgents. Gera challenged this and put a complaint against the police in the National Human Rights Commission. According to police sources, the complaint filed against Gera shows that she had attended meetings in Palnar Community Centre (which Gera did not visit any time near the stated dates) and collected money for exchange from the ‘maoists’. In addition to this, the police complaint also states that the boys who collected new notes on behalf of the ‘maoists’ also gave a commission of 30 percent for this exchange. This complaint too is ridden with inconsistencies and falsehoods since Gera’s visit to Jagdalpur was organised by the Commissioner of Police in order to oversee the post-mortem and cremation of an alleged ‘maoist’ whose parents are represented by her and have approached the High Court against the ‘fake encounter’. It should also be noted that the police searched her room in Goel Dharamshala in order to find incriminating evidence.
These cases are not unique or special in their character. That demonetisation has become a ruse to harass villagers is evident from the statements of local people in different media reports. In most of the villages there is a general fear that demonetisation will increase the threats of extortion by the ‘maoists’ and also increase the police pressure on the villagers. This is largely because it is believed that the ‘maoists’ would put pressure on villagers to get new notes for their own survival. In the process the villagers would be labeled as ‘informers’ or ‘supporters’ of the ‘maoists’ by the police. As one villager is quoted as saying: “Aage aane vale samay mein hum hi pisenge police aur naxailyon ke beech,” (In the days to come, we would be squeezed between the police and the Naxalites). Given this fear, the local people will continue to be the greatest losers, and the ‘maoists’ may not face the actual brunt of the notes ban.
While demonetisation provides a handle to the security forces to harass genuine adivasi rights activists and supporters, it also shows the need for a continuous effort to oppose the systematic targeting of scholars, journalists, lawyers and activists by the state government. The case against the Telangana fact finding team and Shalini Gera is evidence of this and highlights the need to intensify the struggle against a police state.