On December 23, the Chhattisgarh Police arrested 54-year-old N Venkat Rao, a senior technical officer of the Hyderabad-based National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI). In a press release issued on the same day, the police not only called Rao’s arrest a huge success but also termed the NGRI official a coordinator of an urban network of Naxalites.
According to the police, Rao used to converse with the top brass of Maoists in India. Additionally, he has also confessed to being a part of an “urban Naxal” network, as well as his role in an alleged “badi vardaat (big incident)” in Rajnandgaon, the press release states. Newslaundry spoke to Rao’s family, friends and colleagues about the claims made by the police. The assertions made by Rao’s family members not only refute the police’s claims but also raise troubling questions.
Date and place of arrest
The Chhattisgarh police claim they arrested the senior technical officer on Sunday, December 23, from Chabuknala Modh, which falls under the jurisdiction of Bagh Nadi Police Station in Chhattisgarh’s Rajnandgaon district. According to the police, Rao was entering the state to meet Deepak Teltumbade, who is the central committee member of the Maharashtra Madhya Pradesh Chhattisgarh (MMC) zone.
The police claim to have recovered 23 detonators, two wireless sets, two wireless phone chargers and Naxal literature from Rao. They also alleged Rao is a Naxal who is referred to as “Murti” by the Naxal cadre.
However, Rao’s family indicate that Rao may have been arrested as early as December 19. According to family members, Rao went to Nagpur on December 18 and had last spoken to them on December 19.
Speaking to Newslaundry, Hema Rao, a human rights lawyer and Rao’s wife, says, “There is no doubt that Venkat is a Left-oriented person. He was also a part of the student movement in the past.” However, after joining NGRI, Rao was not associated with any kind of movement or organisation, she claims, adding, “He went to Nagpur to meet some friends on an unofficial visit. He was staying at NGRI quarters in Nagpur. The police illegally detained him in Nagpur on December 19 but showed his arrest date as December 23.”
According to Rao’s wife, the police also collected Rao’s luggage from the NGRI guest house. “They kept shifting him from one place to other and finally showed his arrest four days later, on December 23,” the 52-year-old lawyer says. Hema is also an activist and works on displacement-related issues.
“On December 22, I received a call. Due to network issues, I couldn’t hear what the caller was saying. The caller was saying something in Hindi,” Rao’s wife says, recalling a possible call from the police. Hema Rao received another call on the afternoon of December 23. “Again, I received a call and the caller (police) told me that my husband has been arrested.” A day later, Hema Rao went to Rajnandgaon to speak to the police about not using “third degree” on her husband, among other things.
Since his detention on December 19, the police said they also interrogated Rao about the kind of work his wife does as a lawyer.
It is interesting to note that the Chhattisgarh police’s press note, which refers to Rao as a Naxal, associates him with many of the movements which his wife has worked with as an activist-lawyer. In its press release, the police stated that Rao is a Naxal who has participated in several farmers’ protests, Dalit protest movements, Narmada Bachao Andolan, protests against Mandla-Chutka nuclear power plant, protests against Special Economic Zones, displacement issues and Elgar Parishad (Koregaon-Bhima). According to the police, his role was to participate in such protests and establish them.
This allegation has been refuted by Hema Rao, who said Rao’s name was given to the police by Pahad Singh, a surrendered Naxal. “Venkat is not involved in any kind of movement or committee. He is a soft-spoken person. He doesn’t interfere, doesn’t even have basic leadership qualities to run such movements or protest. But yes, he is a very well-read person.”
Notably, projects such as the Mandla Chutka nuclear power plant in Madhya Pradesh have received support from activist Medha Patkar as well. The Mandla Chutka nuclear power plant will not only displace tribals living in the area but also affect the biodiversity in and around the Narmada river. Three tribal villages affected by the project—Chutka, Tathighat and Kunda—have also passed a resolution against the project in their gram sabhas.
Pahad Singh, whom Hema claims gave the police Venkat’s name, was a Naxalite for 18 years. He had a bounty of ₹47 lakh on his head from the governments of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. After getting disillusioned, he surrendered in August 2018. It is significant to note that Singh, during an interview with a news website, also named political activist Arun Ferreira as a member of the Rajya Committee of CPI (Maoists) after Ferreira’s arrest by the Pune police in the Elgar Parishad case earlier this year.
Hema Rao also spoke to Newslaundry about discrepancies in the Chhattisgarh police’s first information report. Emphasising the illegality of her husband’s arrest, Hema Rao says, “When the FIR has been registered in Chhattisgarh, then why they didn’t show his arrest from there? They illegally detained him for three days and then showed his arrest in Chhattisgarh.”
Hema Rao has also warned the police about reporting the discrepancy in Rao’s arrest date to the National Human Rights Commission. She says Rao was arrested from Nagpur on December 19, whereas the police’s press release says Rao was arrested in Chhattisgarh on December 23. “He didn’t have time for such movements as he was a government employee.”
Newslaundry spoke to Virendra Tiwari, the director of NGRI, about Rao’s arrest. “This was a shocking piece of news for all of us. Venkat Rao was working in NGRI from last 30 years. He was good at his work and had good personal conduct,” Tiwari says. “We don’t know whether the allegations against him are true or not. But as of now, we are going as per the police statement. However, I am also going to talk to the police regarding the matter as it’s difficult for us to believe this.”
Tiwari also told Newslaundry that Rao was on leave from December 19 to 21. “He was on casual leave. However, he didn’t mention that he was going to Nagpur. But yes, he had checked in at the NGRI quarters in Nagpur.”
In their press release, the police alleged that Rao met Devji, Chief of Central Military Commision of CPI (Maoist) and Central Committee Member Deepak Teltumbade in Tanda’s Koruva forest in 2016. Additionally, they claim that in December 2017, Rao met Teltumbade in Tanda’s Bagarjhola forest.
The press release also states: “The police have been receiving inputs from a very long time about an urban network of Naxals providing arms, ammunition and logistic support to Naxalites in the forest. Various inputs related to the urban network were received last month. This included an input related to Venkat Rao’s visit to Teltumbade. As per the input, Rao has always used a motorcycle for his movements. In order to trap him, the police increased checking in sensitive areas of the state and managed to get hold of him when he was passing through Chabuknala Modh.”
The December 23 press note also names N Narayan Rao, Rao’s brother, as a member of the Naxal group. According to the police, during his questioning, Rao had said the wireless phone seized from him was given by his brother Narayan Rao. “[This] clearly states that his brother is also an active member of the Naxal group,” the press note claims.
Newslaundry contacted Rao’s younger brother, N Narayan Rao, general secretary of Telangana Civil Liberties committee. He says, “My brother went to Nagpur. On December 19, he last informed us of his well being.” Narayan Rao says his brother was subsequently abducted by the Chhattisgarh police. “This is a fabricated case. He doesn’t have any kind of involvement with any movement and was working as a scientist in NGRI from last three decades,”
Venugopal N, a Hyderabad-based journalist who has known Rao since 1980, says, “He was connected with the student movement around the mid-1980s. He was also associated with a magazine Shramjeevi to which I have also contributed.” However, Venugopal says Rao had not been associated with any protest or movement for more than two decades now.
The police version
GP Singh, Inspector General of Police, Durg Range, told Newslaundry that Rao is an “important coordinator of the urban network of Naxalites”. He says, “He is a man of such stature that he only talks to central committee members. In the past, he has met Devji and Deepak Teltumbade.” Singh also stated that Rao knew Sudha Bhardwaj and Varavara Rao, adding, “There is a quite a certainty he must have met them from time to time.”
Singh also told Newslaundry that Rao is “very hardcore and had a camouflage of a government organisation”. “He started his career with this organisation in 1980 and is indoctrinated by the ideology,” Singh says. “He would not open his mouth.”
Singh also mentioned several measures used by the “urban network” to create unrest. “In the urban network, these people create unrest either in the form of farmers’ protests, displacement issues or maybe small workers association. Basically, they penetrate into these organisations and achieve their objectives without the knowledge organisations which they penetrate.” In Rao’s case, Singh says, he penetrated NGRI, who were clueless about his activities all these years.
Newslaundry asked Singh about Rao’s detention from Nagpur, which was shown as Bagh Nadi. Singh says, “We don’t deny that he came to Nagpur, but through Nagpur, he was supposed to go to the jungle. Previously also, when he came to meet Teltumbade, he came through Nagpur.” If someone has to come to Chhattisgarh, he has to come through Nagpur, Singh added.
Bela Bhatia, a Chhattisgarh-based activist and lawyer, warns against the use of vendetta in such cases. “I want to say that the government should not work with a vendetta against someone while dealing with such cases,” she says. “If somebody is wrongly accused, it becomes a very difficult situation for that person, it is very difficult for him/her to remove that stigma.”
Bhatia adds, “If the government is taking action after due process, then it’s fine. We have a law in place, so an arrest should only be made after a suitable enquiry with proper evidence.” She says people are sometimes arrested before the police begin finding evidence.