India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is pledging an in-depth investigation after the Feb. 9 killing of controversial fugitive paramilitary leader Kartam Surya in a road ambush by presumed militants of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist)—better known as Naxalites—in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh state. Dubbed the “Scourge of the Maoists,” Surya, 29, began his career in counter-insurgency as a “Special Police Officer” in 2005, when the semi-official corps was created. The SPOs are leaders of an irregular anti-guerilla force known as the Salwa Judum, overseen by the official security forces. Surya grew to head his own Salwa Judum militia, the “Surya Group” or “Koya Commandos,” which was trained by the Grey Hounds, an elite unit of the state police of Andhra Pradesh (bordering Chhattisgarh on the south). A Chhattisgarh state police honor guard attended his funeral, and state government officials honored him as the “Bastar Tiger,” after the southern region of Chhattisgarh where he operated. But rights groups objected to this lionization; petitions filed with India’s Supreme Court accuse Judum members and SPOs of over 500 murders, 99 rapes and 103 acts of arson.
In 2009, Surya and fellow SPO commander Kicche Nanda were accused of having raped three tribal women at Sam Setti village in 2006. A warrant was issued for the two after they failed to show up for a court hearing, and they were declared “absconders.” But his Koya Commandos continued to operate, and in April 2011 were accused of raping three women, killing three men, and burning several homes in the villages of Tarmetla, Timapuram and Morepalli. In response to this new atrocity, in July the Supreme Court ordered the Salwa Judum disbanded.
However, when Surya was killed, he was returning with other SPOs to a presumably clandestine Surya Group base camp after being deposed by a CBI team probing an alleged assault on human rights advocate Swami Agnivesh in March 2011. Locals accused Surya and his men of instigating the attack after Agnivesh launched his own fact-finding mission into Salwa Judum atrocities. Agnivesh petitioned the CBI to investigate the abuses, accusing the agency of turning a blind eye to Salwa Judum violence. The circumstances of Surya’s slaying raise questions both about why he had not been arrested by the CBI, and whether the Salwa Judum has in fact been disbanded. The Chhattisgarh police deny the formal existence of a “Surya Group.” (Kracktivist blog, India, Feb. 12; Indian Express, Feb. 11; The Hindu, The Telegraph, Calcutta, Feb. 10; The Hindu, Feb. 4)