A stinging indictment: on acquittal of Chhattisgarh tribals in 2017 ambush case

The scapegoating of innocent tribals in the fight against Maoists is a self-defeating ploy

Updated - July 20, 2022 10:14 am IST

Published - July 20, 2022 12:20 am IST

The acquittal of 121 tribals by a National Investigation Agency (NIA) court, who were wrongfully held responsible for the deaths of 25 Central Reserve Police Force jawans in a Maoist-led ambush in Burkapal, Sukma district, Chhattisgarh in 2017, would have come as a huge relief for them. The tribals were held under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the fact that the court held that there was little evidence that the tribals had any association with the proscribed Maoists should be a pointer to the utter failure of the law enforcement agencies in their response to the massacre. While justice has definitely been done to the innocent villagers, their prolonged incarceration would have clearly upended their lives and those of their dependents. The tribals who had been arrested and kept in jail for five years had been denied bail in the past by the NIA court and the Chhattisgarh High Court. Clearly, in what seems to be a dubious trend in such cases in conflict-ridden Chhattisgarh and beyond, the imposition of the draconian UAPA without sufficient proof has resulted in this situation. A defence lawyer also claimed that the police investigation was poorly done, with the injured Central Reserve Police Force commandos not being made witnesses before the tribal people were arrested, lending credence to the fact that the apprehended people had been made scapegoats.

As a takeaway from the outcome of this case, the state must ponder as to whether this strategy of rounding up suspects among the hapless tribals in the name of swift action following a military setback does any good to law enforcement. The clearest way to defeat the Maoist insurgency — or any political movement based on violence and motivated by disenchantment with the state — is to uphold the rule of law and to win support among the people who the insurgents claim to be fighting for. Without popular support, insurgencies are bound to fail, specifically, the Maoist movement that is underpinned on winning over those disenchanted with the Indian state. Beyond harping on factors related to poverty, livelihoods in crisis and economic inequality, the Maoists also use tactical violence that invites state repression and serves their purpose of questioning the legitimacy of the Indian state. By typecasting the tribal people, conflating dissidence and disaffection with insurgency, and taking the dubious route of mass incarceration following any setback to the security forces, law enforcement agencies only end up adding grist to the Maoist propaganda that emphasises that these are just characteristics of a repressive state that is beyond reform. Besides purposive socio-economic action, law enforcement must reinforce steps related to procedural law to disprove the Maoist critique of the Indian state and to retain legitimacy among tribal citizens.

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