Since July this year, the Telangana Police have been increasingly persecuting Adivasi residents in the state’s northern districts of Adilabad and Kumuram Bheem Asifabad. The police actions rose after Vishnu Warrier, the superintendent of police at Adilabad, released a list on 29 August of people accused of being “Maoist sympathisers.” Many of those named in the list are students and human-rights activists from Adivasi communities. Madvi Ramesh, a school teacher who has taken active part in various agitations for Adivasi rights, was named in the list. “The police has been unnecessarily framing Adivasi students,” Ramesh said. “For people like me who are in government job, we can manage. But what would the students do?”
Kumuram Bheem Asifabad was carved out of a larger Asifabad district in 2016. In recent months, students and activists from the two northern districts faced increase police intimidation, including charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. In fact, the incidents are not restricted to these two districts—Mulugu and Bhadradi Kothagudem, two eastern districts of the state, have also seen a rise in police hostilities against Adivasi locals. Simultaneously, while the police reported over ten encounter killings from multiple incidents of “exchange of fire” in the past two months, not a single person from the Telangana Police was injured, according to police press releases and news reports. The cases of harassment and intimidation of Adivasi activists, teachers, lawyers, and students in Adilabad appears to be part of the attempt by the Telangana government to shun the voices fighting for Adivasi rights.
The persecution began in July after the Telangana Police intensified combing operations in various parts of the state. On 17 July, Telangana’s director general of police, M Mahender Reddy, held a press conference in Kumuram Bheem Asifabad and said five members of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) were “spreading tension in Adivasi villages which are known for peace and tranquillity.” Reddy claimed that the group was led by Mailarepu Adellu, more commonly known as Bhaskar, who is a member of the Maoists’ Telangana state committee. A Telangana Today report noted that the five-member Maoist team’s presence in Adilabad had prompted the police to “deploy 60 police teams, including 25 special squads, to carry out intense combing operations in the forests to track down the ultras.”
Reddy held the press conference two days after a group of Maoists led by Bhaskar reportedly escaped after “exchange of fire” with the police in in Thokkuguda village of Kumuram Bheem Asifabad district. Warrier, the Adilabad superintendent, told the media that the Maoists had “opened fire at the police party which retaliated, following which they escaped.” Following this alleged escape, the police arrested Kova Vasanth Rao, a native of Thokkuguda, under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, the Arms Act and the UAPA for supplying food and shelter to the Maoists and helping them escape.
On 16 July, a Deccan Chronicle journalist Pilalamarri Srinivas reported that the villagers of Thokkuguda refuted the claim of exchange of fire and argued that “the police version was aimed at creating panic among the Adivasis and villagers.” Srinivas reported that according to the villagers, “one police party members fired in the air to terrify us on the night of July 14.” Kova Sattubai, Rao’s wife, told Srinivas that on the same night, a police party took their utensils to cook lunch for themselves and “asked the family to finish the leftover food.” Late that night, she added, another police party visited and knocked on their door. Sattubai said that due to the odd hour, there was a delay in opening the door, and the police concluded that they had helped the Maoists escape. She added that the police even took utensils from the house along with Rao, because of which they “do not have utensils to cook food,” any longer.
The following month, Warrier released the list of Maoist sympathisers, which he claimed the police found in a diary left by the Maoist leader Bhaskar in Gundala village in Kumuram Bheem Asifabad. The state police did not mention the diary following the alleged exchange of fire between the Maoist group and the Telangana Police in July. Warrier had told the New Indian Express that “a few bags containing the outfit’s literature, uniforms, detonators, cordtex wires and some electronic gadgets were seized during the operation.” In fact, the police have never produced the diary in front of the media at all, and nor have they released a copy of the list of sympathisers in it.
Warrier said that the list based on the diary was released a month later because the police were examining it. “We have documentary evidence of accused persons and based on the evidence, we will take action,” he told me, referring to those identified as Maoist sympathisers. “That is [our] stand. But things are in sub-judice now and we believe in documentary evidences. We also have potential evidences and material recoveries. We don’t have any doubt of mind or lack of clarity and we will prove it in the court, as per law.”
The list released by the police had ten names, which comprised predominantly Adivasi students and activists. Most of them are members of Adivasi Student Union and the Adivasi Hakkula Porata Samithi—more commonly known as Tudum Debba—an Adivasi-rights organisation in the state. “It is extremely unfortunate that young students are being targeted,” Ramesh, the school teacher and activist, told me. Over the past few months, many Adivasi students have been put under surveillance, and many are regularly called to the police station for their WhatsApp or Facebook status. “If the police continue to harass these youngsters, where will they go?” Ramesh asked. “When our revolutionaries Kumram Bheem and Birsa Munda fought for our rights—were they Maoists?”