The many Kalluris of Telugu states: How women activists are being hounded by police

For decades, the combined state of Andhra, produced vicious policing methods with the blessings of the elected governments.
The many Kalluris of Telugu states: How women activists are being hounded by police
The many Kalluris of Telugu states: How women activists are being hounded by police
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For human rights activists, the Chhattisgarh government asking SRP Kalluri, IG of Bastar, to proceed on long leave was the best news in recent times. It took a decade or more for the state government and NHRC to deconstruct Kalluri’s modus operandi, that too only because the young women activists from WSS and lawyers of JagLag relentlessly ferreted out evidence of gross human rights abuses perpetrated against civilians in Bastar under his close and appreciative supervision.

But the bad news is, Kalluri is not unique either to the mindset or the diabolical repressive strategies that the police brass can come up with against civilians. For decades, the combined state of Andhra Pradesh, now the two Telugu states, have produced vicious policing methods with the blessings of the elected governments.

Overnight, hundreds of anonymous posters have appeared in public places with the photographs of several women social activists – Rajeshwari, Satraj, Devendra, Varalakshmi, Shilpa, Radha, Indu, Annapurna, Shipora and Padma – in Kakinada and Rajahmundry. This is the second phase of the publicity blitz seeking to malign the work of these women activists by labelling them as fronts for Maoist propaganda.

Following the Malkangiri encounter, the Andhra Pradesh state government has allegedly launched a propaganda war against some of the progressive women’s organisations. Late in November 2016, the same anonymous posters appeared in colleges across Vijayawada and Guntur with photographs of the ten women, which the activists claim is the handiwork of the Andhra Pradesh government. 

The women activists shown on the posters are members of various well-known, left-leaning social and literary organizations like Chaitanya Mahila Sansham, Progressive Organization for Women, and VIRASAM (Viplava Rachayitala Sangham), who have been actively campaigning for women’s empowerment, education and rights, for over two decades.

They also assist women who are victims of domestic and other forms of violence. They organise essay-writing competitions and debates to build awareness about women’s education and women’s rights at universities and colleges, and give away prizes. Knowledge production about contemporary social, cultural and political issues and its distribution has been an essential aspect of the work of these groups.

The civil liberties groups and the women’s organisations have all claimed that the poster slander is the handiwork of the police in Andhra Pradesh. Chaitanya Mahila Sangham held a dharna in Guntur town on December 29, 2016, protesting the maligning posters that have appeared with photographs of the women. The use of photos is to make the women recognisable to hate groups, which is in itself an abetment to violence and an intent to criminalise.

Activist Rajeshwari says that whenever they protest, a counter group is manufactured by the state and sent to intimidate them. “During the Guntur dharna, a motley group calling itself Adivasi Vidyarthini Chaitanya Sangham, claiming to represent victims of Maoist violence showed up, much like Salwa Judum and AGNI created by the Chhattisgarh police. When we confronted a couple of them, one of them confessed to be the wife of a policeman, another a labourer who was forced to join the group.” She also says that the women who are sent to disrupt protest gatherings cover their faces with scarves and make themselves unrecognisable.

The text on the posters attributes itself to an unknown entity called Vidyarthini Chaitanya Sangham, without any address or contact information. “But this unknown organization seems to have lots of resources to print thousands of posters which are being pasted on college walls, near bus stops and railway stations,” Rajeshwari says.

The Superintendent of Police, Guntur Urban, when contacted over the phone when the posters first appeared in November 2016 said that he has no information about this and has nothing to say about the issue. The Andhra Jyothi newspaper reported on February 1 that the police have intensified their poster war on the activists following the protest phone calls from civil society groups to the senior police officials.

Geetanjali, a writer and VIRASAM member, says that the state is orchestrating the negative propaganda against the women’s groups to undermine their right to free speech and their right to build awareness on women’s issues.

One such strategy is the sudden appearance of anonymous posters that urge the students, the colleges, their principals and wardens to debar the women activists from entering their institutions, alleging that they are connected with the Maoists and will lead innocent students into forests. The posters also warn that the women may sweet-talk the students into believing their propaganda through songs and convincing speeches, but are out to poison the impressionable minds of young students.

The Andhra Pradesh police is very tough with anonymous publicity material that does not identify the printer, publisher/sponsor. But in this case, they claim that they do not know anything about the posters and are unwilling to take any action even as hundreds of them are being distributed as leaflets and displayed as posters in public places.

The police project of chocking avenues for democratic debate of ideas that the women’s groups have been attempting is dangerous and will be the real cause for narrowing the options for expression of dissent. Under the democratic Constitution of India, and the prevailing laws of India, it is not a crime to debate ideas, assemble in public spaces and to express dissent peacefully. To do so is certainly not an abetment to armed insurgency.

The irony is that since 1983 at least, every political party that got into power publicly wooed the electorate in the Telugu state(s) claiming that their agenda is the same as that of the Maoists. Once in power, they proceeded to use brutal police repression to eliminate Maoist cadre.

By merely listening to different worldviews, people do not turn to Maoism. Movements like Maoism are a consequence of the material conditions in society. The energies of democratically elected states are better spent if they concentrate on improving the lives of the poor and marginalised people, instead of hounding those who speak up for their rights through repressive police measures.

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