For Dantewada's Adivasis, jail is only a false allegation away
Chhattisgarh's Adivasi Prisoners

For Dantewada's Adivasis, jail is only a false allegation away

They live in perpetual fear of being labelled Maoists by the police. For such an accusation invariably means they would end up in jail, or worse.

By Prateek Goyal

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March 17, 2020. Mandavi Deva, 22, was sleeping on a cot outside his mud house at Mallapara village in Neelwaya panchayat of Dantewada, Chhattisgarh. At around 3 am, he and his family were woken up by a commotion. As Deva opened his eyes, he saw armed men looming over him. Suddenly, one of the men thrust the butt of his gun into his chest. They tried to grab him, but Deva slipped out of their clutches and ran into the nearby forest. They chased him, but he got away. That was the last time his mother saw him.

The armed, uniformed men who tried to grab Deva were from the District Reserve Guard, or DRG, a police unit made up almost entirely of local Adivasis and surrendered Maoists.

By morning, the village was surrounded by the DRG. A few policemen again went to Deva’s home, and threatened his disabled mother Mandavi Lakkhe, 60.

“That night, they barged into our home and started hitting my son,” Lakkhe recalled. “Somehow, he escaped. At around six in the morning, the policemen returned, three women and 15-20 men. They threatened to kill me unless I could convince my son to surrender. They hit me with a stick. They took whatever they could find – money, a mosquito net, 10 bars of soap, shoes, our rooster, spices, salfi.” Salfi is a local liquor extracted from fishtail palm trees in Bastar.

She alleged the policemen stole Rs 10,000 from her home, money saved from selling their goat and the entire family labouring for a month.

Mandavi Jogi, 21, wife of Lakkhe’s second son Mandavi Channaram, recalled that she had gone to collect Mahua leaves from the forest that morning. “When I returned, I learned the policemen had robbed us of our money and belongings. I went after them, asking them to give us back our stuff,” she said. “They threatened to kill me and said the money was not ours. They claimed it was other villagers’ money and we were just holding it.”

The police allegedly looted several other homes in Mallapara and the neighbouring Gurrepara village that day.

The police have been a menacingly constant presence in Mallapara and Gurrepara since early this year. They have arrested four villagers, including three minors, accusing them of being involved in Maoist activities. The villagers believe the lootings and the arrests are retaliation for the killing of Mohan Bhaskar, from Patelpara village in Neelwaya, by suspected Maoists.

None of the arrested persons or any other accused such as Deva were involved with the Maoists, the villagers insisted. “My son lived an ordinary Adivasi life. He worked in the fields and sold some forest produce to get by. He is no Naxal,” said Lakkhe, Deva’s mother. “Had he not run away that night, he would have been killed or jailed as an alleged Naxal. He still might if they find him. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again.”

Mohan wanted to join the DRG and the police authorities had promised to recruit him soon. He would hang out with the DRG men and, according to the villagers, even join them in abusing and harassing the people.

According to an FIR filed at the Aranpur police station, Mohan was abducted on January 30 by Maoist rebels Sona, Hemla, Dhurva, and Hidma. On February 1, his body was found by a roadside near Arbe village, his throat slit.

The police blamed the villagers for Mohan’s killing and that’s when the lootings and the arrests began, Jogi said. They started by taking away three minor girls from Mallapara named Madkam Manisha Sona, Mandavi Koshi Malla and Kurram Kamli Nang.

Mandavi Jogi, 14, was a witness to their arrest. “The three of them, me, three other girls and a boy from our village went to work in Melawada and Gidam in February. One day, we were resting after work at the place provided by the contractor near a forest camp when some men in plainclothes arrived,” she recalled. “They asked if we were from Neelwaya. They then took the eight of us to the police station and asked why we were in Gidam. They accused us of lying when we said we were there to work. They said we had been sent by the Naxals to spy. They said, ‘Why did you kill Mohan? We will kill you the same way you killed him.’”

Mandavi Paike Idiya, 15, was there as well. “The police kept saying we had killed Mohan. That we had killed him and run away to this place in Gidam. They said, ‘You thought that we would kill you in your village, so you came here.”

Manisha’s father Madkam Sona denied the police’s allegation that his daughter had run away to hide after Mohan’s murder. “She went to work with our consent,” he said. “There was no soap, no bangles in the house, so she said she would go earn some money.”

The boy and four of the girls were let go the next day, while Manisha, Koshi and Kamli were arrested. They were granted bail on May 14 following the Supreme Court’s direction to lessen crowding in prisons in view of the coronavirus pandemic.

Adivasi villagers in Neelwaya panchayat.
Adivasi villagers in Neelwaya panchayat. Prateek Goyal

In Neelwaya panchayat, Adivasis live in constant fear of being labelled Maoists by the police. For such an accusation invariably means they would end up in jail, or worse.

“Whenever I go to the market in Nakulnar, Palnar, Patoli or Dantewada, I am terrified of being picked up by the police, and accused of being a Naxal. The fear of being arrested or killed is there in the village as well. This is why many young boys and girls leave to find some work in cities,” said Mandavi Lakhma, 21, from Mallapara. “Even if we are found innocent in the end, we would have spent many years in prison.”

Mandavi Masaram, 17, echoed the fear. “A year ago, I quit my studies because the police would frequently stop us on the way to school and accuse us of helping the Maoists. The fear of being accused as a Naxal and arrested is a sword constantly hanging over our heads.”

Subjugation and imprisonment

Whenever Mandavi Muye, who is in her early 30s, looks at the Mahua tree outside her home at Gurrepara, the horror of a 2018 afternoon comes alive. Her husband Mandavi Podia Lakka was fixing the roof of their mud house and had just climbed down to eat lunch when a few policemen came asking for him.

“The policemen were standing under that Mahua tree. They grabbed him as soon as he got there and began beating him,” she recalled. “I and a few other women who were around ran towards them. I asked why they were beating him but they threatened us. When my mother-in-law tried to stop them, they beat her up too.”

Podia’s mother Mandavi Deve, 75, added, “They beat me with sticks. I couldn’t walk for over a week. That beating broke my body.”

Podia was made an accused in a case related to a Maoist attack on security forces near Perpa Crossing on Cholnar Road in Dantewada on May 20, 2018. The FIR, registered at Kirandul police station, alleges that the rebels targeted a police patrol using an incendiary device.

In all, the FIR lists 18 names. They are all first names such as Podia; there are no last names or addresses. In Chhattisgarh, even a small Adivasi village will likely have many people with the same first name. So, they follow the custom of adding to it their father’s name and their last name representing the tribe.

Podia and his fellow accused are lodged in a Jagdalpur jail while their case is heard in the NIA court there. There have been 23 hearings so far, but the trial is nowhere near completion because, as is common in such cases, the prosecutors have consistently failed to produce their witnesses.

“Whenever my daughter-in-law goes for a hearing, I clean our house, hoping that my son will return with her in the evening,” said Podia’s mother. “Every time she returns alone, it breaks my heart. I haven’t seen my son in two years because I don’t have money to go. My daughter-in-law always asks me to go with her but I don’t. I know she borrows money to go herself. Why must I burden her more?”

Mandavi Podia Lakka's wife and mother outside their home at Gurrepara.
Mandavi Podia Lakka's wife and mother outside their home at Gurrepara. Prateek Goyal

Sodi Bhima, 30, from Gurrepara, was arrested in February this year and accused of being involved in Mohan Bhaskar’s killing.

“My husband had gone to sell bananas in the Kirandul market of Beladila,” said his wife Sodi Somdhi, 26, referring to a village around 20 km away. “They grabbed him from the market. We didn’t know he had been arrested until another man from our village who was with him came back and told us. He was taken to a police station in Dantewada. When I got there, he was crying. He said the police had hung him by his ankles and beaten him. They were forcing him to confess to having a hand in Mohan’s murder.”

Somdhi was accompanied to the Dantewada police station by Sukesh Kawasi, the sarpanch of Gurrepara. “They had beaten Bhima mercilessly, asking him to confess that he was involved in Mohan’s murder,” the sarpanch said. “The police said they would free him after two days. But when we went there two days later, they said he was a Naxal, a militia commander.”

Somdhi’s was one of the families allegedly looted by the DRG on March 17. “My husband is in jail. I barely get by and pay for the lawyer by selling fruits and some forest produce. I have a banana tree near my home. I would sell a dozen for Rs 50-60 dozen. That day, the DRG men plucked all bananas from the tree. When I asked for payment, they told me to shut up and threw half a packet of biscuits in front of me.”

Sodi Somdhi, third from right, with her family members.
Sodi Somdhi, third from right, with her family members. Prateek Goyal

Tadmetla is an Adivasi village in Sukma district. Here, during a combing operation, the security forces burned down 160 homes in March 2019. One of those was Madkam Lakhma Andha’s. “DRG, police and CRPF men come and beat us whenever they want. They accuse us of working for the Naxals,” said Andha, 50. “Boys are regularly beaten up on their way to Burkapal. Some have been taken away and thrown in jail.”

Madawi Bhime with her children.
Madawi Bhime with her children. Prateek Goyal

Madawi Andha, 40, has been in a Sukma jail for four years. “My husband was on his way to our neighbouring para to distribute wedding rice when the police nabbed him and took him to the Chintalnar police station,” said his wife Madawi Bhime, 35. Para is a cluster of huts that sits a short distance from the village. “We weren’t even informed about his arrest by the police. A man from another village had seen him being taken away and he told me. I searched for four days before finding out that he was in the Sukma jail.”

She continued, “I paid Rs 10,000 to a lawyer in Dantewada to fight my husband’s case, then Rs 19,000 to one in Jagdalpur, and Rs 20,000 to another in Sukma. The first two lawyers said they would get my husband out but didn’t, so I had to hire a new one. I have given him Rs 20,000 already but he is asking for Rs 3,000 more. I work on chilli plantations in Andhra Pradesh to pay the legal fees and to provide for our four children. One of my children also works with me.”

The wanton jailing of Adivasis has adversely affected many children in Tadmetla. Gonche Madha, who is about 30, was accused of involvement in the 2017 Maoist attack at Burkapal, arrested soon after, and jailed. His wife had died two years previously. So, after Madha’s incarceration, his two daughters and three sons – all minor – were left alone. They only have his sister-in-law, Gonche Chunni to look after them.

Kudum Badri with her child in Tadmetla.
Kudum Badri with her child in Tadmetla. Prateek Goyal

Kudum Sukka, who is in his late 20s and is accused in the same case, has also been in jail for over three years. “One of our children died in 2018 but even then he wasn’t let out of jail,” said Sukka’s wife Kudum Badri, 23. “Now, I fear he may never come back home.”

This is the second part of a four-part series on Chhattisgarh’s Adivasi prisoners. Read the first part.

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This story is part of the NL Sena project, which 35 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Manas Karambelkar, Abhimanyu Chitoshia, Adnan Khalid, Siddhart Sharma, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Sreya Bhattacharya, Abhishek Singh, and other NL Sena members. Contribute to our next NL Sena project, Long Wait for Home, and help to keep news free and independent.

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