Amid shouts of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, “Vande Maataram” and “Jai Shri Ram”, the controversial former Inspector General (IG) of Bastar Range in Chhattisgarh, SRP Kalluri, strode into the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) main auditorium in Delhi on Saturday evening. Kalluri visited the campus to participate in a panel discussion on “Vanchit Samaj Ke Sawal (Questions about Marginalised Sections), which was a part of a day-long event titled, “Vartaman Pariprekshya Me Rashtriya Patrakarita (Mainstream Journalism in Contemporary India).
At the time Kalluri was receiving this raucous welcome, students who were protesting his visit were long gone. However, remnants of the small but spirited protest were littered outside the campus gates (protesters, some of whom were current IIMC students, and several media persons weren’t allowed to enter the campus by police and authorities). Pamphlets and signboards were strewn by the roadside – “Kalluri tu chor hai, gali gali me shor hai (Kalluri you’re a crook and everyone knows it) read one sign, while another said “#SaveHumanRights #SaveMediaEthics #KalluriGoBack”.
Earlier in the day, these protesters had voiced their concern over Kalluri’s visit.
“There are countless allegations of orchestrating rape, gangrape, fake encounters, tortures, arrests, false arrests and created an environment of intimidation and terror across Bastar,” Anirban Bhattacharya, a student from Jawaharlal Nehru University, who was at the protest told Newslaundry. He also blamed Kalluri for harassing journalists in Bastar during his tenure as IG.
The protesters were camped outside the gates, hoping to confront Kalluri when he entered the campus. Meanwhile, organisers of the event remained ambiguous about whether Kalluri would attend or not – the discussion he was slated to be part of commenced without him and a quarter of an hour into it, moderator Rajiv Ranjan Prasad told the audience that Kalluri “might be joining them soon”.
But the protesters had left the campus by then and perhaps they had waited in vain anyway – there is speculation among students that Kalluri was on campus since Friday night.
Kalluri himself made light of the opposition he was facing. “I was expecting people will throw stones, shoes or ink on me,” he said in his opening comments. “But this audience is very sweet.” A little later in the discussion though – which basically turned into a one-on-one interview the moment Kalluri started speaking, with the remaining two panellists turning into spectators – he addressed his opponents seriously. “In the name of social service organisations or human rights activists or academicians – not all, but a section – they claim to serve the people there [in Bastar]. I’ve been working in Bastar since 2004. Let them show even one family who has benefitted from their services,” he said to a smattering of applause. “They meet with Naxalites, go to jails, fight their cases; wherever our security forces go they accuse them of rape, murder and pillaging,” he continued. “They create a [negative] perception in the country and world.”
While the audience at the event agreed vigorously with Kalluri’s analysis, it is important to note that it isn’t just a “handful of vocal” activists, who have levelled serious charges against him. In January this year, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had sent a notice to Chhattisgarh government over allegations of rape and sexual assault of 16 women by state police forces. Furthermore, Kalluri has been blamed for intimidating journalists who dare to question his ways. Last year, Bastar-based journalist Kamal Shukla had told Newslaundry he had been threatened by Kalluri. He also spoke about journalist Prabhat Singh’s run in with Kalluri. “IG Kalluri had threatened Prabhat in press conference and within days, he [Singh] arrested him for posting ‘offensive’ post about Kalluri in a WhatsApp group,” Shukla said. Another journalist, Santosh Yadav, was imprisoned for 17 months and has claimed that he was wrongly implicated. “Before my arrest, the police had been pressurising me and threatening to do what they eventually did,” Yadav told the Indian Express after being released from prison in March after the Supreme Court intervened.
When a journalist in the audience asked Kalluri about allegations made by members of the Bastar press, he trivialised the issue. “Who did you name – Kamal Shukla? Who else?” he asked. The journalist responded by naming a couple of others like Singh and Yadav and then said similar allegations were made by “lots of other people”. “Tell me, who are these people? You won’t be able to,” Kalluri shot back, at which point the audience once again broke into applause. Within a minute, the moderator wound up the discussion and Kalluri left.
Before Kalluri’s tirade against the “human rights brigade”, KG Suresh, Director General of IIMC, had launched into a verbal attack against ‘pseudo-seculars’ when he addressed the gathering during the first event of the day. Calling those who objected to a yagya on the campus premises before the event began “moorkhon (stupid)”, Suresh said “your secularism is 60 years old but the feeling of Vasudev Katumbakam in me is centuries old”. Defending Kalluri, he raised the question that if there can be dialogue with leaders of the Hurriyat Conference and Kashmiri separatists, why not with a former IG of police. But students protesting in the campus were disturbed by the conduct of the yagya and said that “saffronisation of an educational institution was unacceptable.”
Too often, though, the event lapsed into endless tirades against ‘liberal-JNU-anti-national’ types, making it difficult to take the critique offered with any seriousness. In fact, the only memorable highlight, so to speak, was Kalluri’s appearance, who has been laying low ever since he went on medical leave in February and doesn’t hold any official charge as of now. However, he didn’t shy away from fuelling speculation about where he would land next. “Bastar se hataya, par Delhi to main aa gaya (I got removed from Bastar but here I am in Delhi),” he said. Wherever Kalluri goes, though, controversy is sure to follow.