New Delhi, Nov. 8: Two Delhi-based professors have been booked for murder along with several other activists by Chhattisgarh police, dragging the liberal and academic community into yet another confrontation with a BJP-led government before the dust had settled on the now put-on-hold NDTV ban.
Nandini Sundar, a professor in Delhi University, and Archana Prasad, who teaches at JNU, were among those named in the FIR lodged over the Friday night murder of Shamnath Baghel.
The other activists whose names figured in the FIR included Vineet Tiwari of Delhi's Joshi Adhikar Sansthan, a cultural organisation, CPM state secretary Sanjay Parate, sarpanch Manju Keswani, who is from the CPI, and a local resident, Mangal Karma.
Baghel's wife had filed a complaint on Saturday, saying the activists and academics had been pushing her husband to join the Maoists.
Earlier this year, Baghel - killed by alleged Maoists at his home in Nama village in the Tongpal area of Bastar - had made a similar complaint about the same activists.
News agency PTI quoted the inspector-general of police (Bastar range), S.R.P. Kalluri, as saying that all those named in the FIR had been booked under penal code sections, including 120-B (criminal conspiracy), 302 (murder) and 147 (rioting) at Tongpal police station.
"The strongest possible action will be taken against those guilty after the investigation," Kalluri was quoted as saying.
The FIR against the activists came a little over a week after the October 31 purported encounter that killed eight Simi activists in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh.
That was followed by multiple detentions of leaders of parties opposed to the BJP when they tried to meet the family of an ex-serviceman who had committed suicide.
The BJP-led Centre later slapped a one-day blackout on a Hindi channel, NDTV India, over its coverage of the Pathankot terror attack before putting its heavily criticised order on hold yesterday, two days before the channel was to go off the air.
Many wondered why the BJP had "shot itself in the foot" so often over the past few days.
Although technically the FIR against Nandini and the others is a state government issue, many saw it as part of an emerging trend to intimidate the independent media, academics and all those who disagree with the BJP.
Local people in Bastar said the FIR appeared to be a fallout of a long-standing confrontation between Bastar police and Nandini - whose public interest plea against human rights violations in Chhattisgarh had resulted in the Supreme Court banning the Salwa Judum, a state-backed private militia to counter Maoist rebels.
"The FIR is patently absurd. How can we be charged with murder and rioting when we are not even there?" Nandini said in a statement from the US, where she has gone on a visit.
"This is clearly part of IG Kalluri's attempt to intimidate and harass journalists, lawyers, researchers, political leaders and human rights activists who have exposed the reign of fake encounters, gang rapes etc. that are going on in Bastar," Nandini, a professor in DU's department of sociology, added.
"In particular, this is a direct fallout of the CBI chargesheet of special police officers turned constables for arson in Tadmetla in 2011, an operation which Mr Kalluri directed. I condemn the killing of Shamnath Baghel and reiterate that it has nothing to do with us."
After the CBI had filed the chargesheet, Chhattisgarh police in uniform had burnt effigies of several activists and journalists, including Nandini, Bela Bhatia and Malini Subramaniam, a scribe who was forced to leave Bastar earlier this year after spending nearly half a decade in the restive district.
"He (Kalluri) runs an autonomous region in Bastar and the rest of the administration has turned a blind eye to his impunity," said a senior journalist, adding the officer had openly threatened Opposition leaders.
Archana, who teaches at JNU's Centre for Informal Sector & Labour Studies in the School of Social Sciences, told The Telegraph that Kalluri was speaking the language of the BJP and the ABVP, the Sangh's student arm.
She also said anyone familiar with her work would know how anti-Maoist she was.
"This is a case of political vendetta," she said, fearing for the safety of the Chhattisgarh-based activists named in the FIR, Mangal, Sanjay and Manju.
No action had been taken against them till this evening. "The police are currently investigating," said a person in the know of the developments.
"As far as I am concerned, I refuse to be intimidated. As a political activist, I am prepared for such attacks," Archana said, adding that the FIR was clearly targeted at political parties that are trying to organise people against the BJP governments at the Centre and in the states.
In a statement, the CPM said: "The registration of false murder cases against political adversaries and renowned academicians for a murder that took place only last Friday, when they visited the area six months earlier, is a direct assault on our democratic polity and indicates the growing trend of authoritarianism in the state."
The party demanded that the Chhattisgarh government "withdraw this fabricated case immediately".
The JNU Teachers' Association said the state, instead of "safeguarding the voices of dissent", was "actively participating in victimising academicians" for discharging their social duties to raise the "pertinent issue of victimisation of innocent tribal(s) from both sides i.e. the Maoists and the police".
As word broke early today about the FIR, liberals and academics rallied around the activists. "Professor Nandini Sundar is one of the bravest, and most decent, Indians I have known. The CG Govt's action shows their utter depravity," historian Ramachandra Guha tweeted.
Filmmaker Rakesh Sharma said the "Chhattisgarh govt, esp the CM & Home Minister must quash this trumped up FIR & remove IGP Kalluri now!"
In a Facebook post later in the day, Nandini refused to be intimidated by the IG: "First our effigies were burnt by the police and now a false FIR is being filed against us. This should also show what kind of false cases have been filed against adivasis all these years - people are routinely charged in cases where they have no involvement at all. That's why the jails of Chhattisgarh are so over-crowded."