In March 2019, long after it had become untenable to ignore of the anti-Naxal security apparatus jailing, and even killing, Adivasis on trumped up charges, the Chhattisgarh government set up a committee to investigate.
The committee, led by the retired Supreme Court judge AK Patnaik, was tasked with examining over 23,000 cases filed against Adivasis. It started off by discarding 313 cases filed under the Chhattisgarh Excise Act in October 2019. In March 2020, the committee examined 234 cases registered under the Indian Penal Code and dropped the charges in 19 cases. In spite of this, the practice of booking Adivasis on false charges continues unabated.
The misconduct is systemic, infecting every criminal justice process from FIR registration to court hearing, and the consequences are devastating. Irpa Narayan’s ordeal is illustrative.
Irpa, 40, from Bella Nenda village in Bijapur district of Bastar region was arrested soon after the Maoists attacked a patrol of the police and the CRPF near Murdunda village in Bijapur on February 3, 2008. The FIR related to the incident claimed that after the Naxal rebels had fled under heavy firing from the patrol, the police combed the area and found Irpa, carrying a bow and arrow, near the site of the attack.
It was a lie, Irpa maintained. He was taken from his home. “I was cooking for my wife, who was eight months pregnant at the time, when the police barged into my home. They kicked me, punched my face, and beat me with a stick. They kept saying I was helping the Maoists, cooking for them. These people believe that every Adivasi helps the Naxals,” Irpa told Newslaundry in March. “They took me to the Awapalli police station and then to the Dantewada jail, where I spent a fortnight before being shifted to the Jagdalpur Central Jail. I spent seven and a half years in prison despite being innocent.”
Though the FIR named Irpa alone, the police arrested two other Adivasis as well. Punem Bhima and Midiyam Lachhu, both from Surnar village, later claimed they were going to a fair in a neighbouring village when they were nabbed by the police.
Astonishingly, the three men were not tried for almost seven years. The prosecution had five witnesses, all policemen who were with the patrol attacked near Murdunda. They were not produced despite the Dantewada sessions court calling them 40 times over seven years.
In the meantime, after over six years, the court had woken up to the fact that the names of Punema and Midiyam didn’t appear in any case record, save for the affidavit of arrest. Since they were named neither in the FIR nor the chargesheet, the court asked what they had to do with the matter at hand. The prosecution didn’t have an answer. Punema and Midiyam were eventually granted bail, but not Irpa as he was named in the FIR.
Punema and Midiyam weren’t released for another six months, though. They couldn’t afford bail and their families couldn’t be located. Turned out that while they were in jail, their village had been emptied out by the Salwa Judum, a ruthless anti-Maoist militia that has since been disbanded. Midiyam’s mother had died but his sister was found living in a detention camp for the Adivasis driven from their homes by the Salwam Judum. She managed to bail out both Midiyam and Punema.
After seven years, when the witnesses did appear in the court, they couldn’t identify Irpa, Punem and Midiyam. None of them could place any of the accused men near the site of the attack either.
“I have never been involved with the Naxals, yet I had to spend seven and a half years of my life in jail,” said Irpa. “After my arrest, my wife gave birth to our son who passed away about a month later. Had I not been in jail, I probably could have saved him.”
Adivasis wait for their jailed family members to be brought to the Dantewada court.
There are several cases where innocent Adivasis have been imprisoned for years merely because they shared the same first name as a suspected Maoist.
Take the case of Raju Pugdu, 62, of Kilam village in Bastar’s Narayanpur district.
On March 9, 2007, a woman named Asha Devi was murdered at her home in Chotedongar, Narayanpur. The police claimed she had been killed by a group of 17 alleged Naxals, and arrested them all except the suspected leader, one Raju Vuddi Morya.
After a trial in the sessions court of Kondangaon, 13 of the arrested men were freed in November 2007, one in March 2008, and the other two in July 2013. Raju Vuddi Morya wasn’t found, and a permanent warrant was issued for his arrest.
This warrant would wreck the life of Raju Pugdu. The police mistook him for Raju Vuddi Morya and arrested him in September 2016. In the Kondagaon court, Raju Pugdu protested that he wasn’t the person named in the FIR. His father’s name was Pugdu, he explained, while the father’s name of the person the police were looking for was Vuddi Morya. His protestations fell on deaf ears and his case was transferred to the NIA court in Jagdalpur.
Raju Pugdu languished in the Jagdalpur Central Jail for more than two years without trial because the police claimed that documents related to the matter – FIR, chargesheet, records of other accused – had been lost.
He moved the Chhattisgarh High Court, which sent multiple summons to both the sessions court and the NIA court for original records of the case, to no avail. Finally, in February 2019, the high court released Raju Pugdu on bail.
“This is emblematic of cases where the NIA Act is used and the accused bears the burden of proving himself innocent. To be eligible for bail, the accused has to prove he was arrested on false charges,” argued Shikha Pandey, who represented Raju Pugdu in the high court. “This man languished in jail for two and a half years because of an old warrant. His bail was cancelled twice even though the warrant wasn’t for his arrest.”
Soni Sori, the noted Adivasi activist who lives in Gidam, said the security forces arresting villagers who share their name with a suspected Maoist wasn’t uncommon. “Among Adivasi communities, a lot of people have the same first name. In a village, you might find 10 people named Podiya, 10 called Mangal, 10 Budra. So, we add the father’s name to distinguish one from the other. This is the Adivasi naming tradition. These days, however, people are shunning Adivasi names because they fear they might be killed or arrested in lieu of a Naxal.”
Another tactic employed by the police to jail Adivasis is that they submit similar evidence, usually witness statements, in multiple cases.
In 2010, the Kuakonda police station in Dantewada registered two FIRs. One was related to suspected Maoists robbing the armoury of the police station on July 8, the other for the rebels blowing up the tehsil building in the same town on August 16. The FIRs not only named the same set of accused, the statements made by the witnesses were also the same. What’s more, though the FIRs were filed by different people about different incidents that happened over a month apart, they had the same date, October 17.
In several cases, the police have categorised household items, even utensils, as “dangerous weapons”. In State v Betti Bucchi, 11 Adivasis were accused of possessing “dangerous weapons”, and charged under the Arms Act. What “weapons”? Four of them carried bows and arrows, as many had kitchen knives, one held a shovel, one a “sickle-like knife”, and another a large pot.
The 11 villagers from Similipenta village in Bijapur had been detained on June 28, 2012, soon after the security forces gunned down 17 Adivasis in the neighbouring Sarkeguda village. In 2019, a judicial commission set up to investigate the concluded that all 17 villagers, including six minors, were innocent Adivasis and not Maoists as the police had claimed, and that they had been murdered in cold blood.
Bhima Kadati, 19, from Phulpad village in Dantewada, was arrested in October 2010, booked in a dozen cases – related to the derailment of a train, bus bombing, destruction of a tehsil office, attacks on the police – and thrown into the Dantewada jail. It took over four years for him to be cleared of all charges. By then, however, he had died, allegedly due to medical negligence by the jail authorities.
In their chargesheet against Bhima, and four other Adivasis arrested along with him, the police didn’t cite any evidence. They merely claimed that a secret informer had provided them “information about Bhima”. None of the witnesses produced by the police had identified Bhima either.
Bhima Kadati's wife, son and sister at their home in Phulpad village.
Vijay Sori, a social worker from Sukma, was arrested in 2010, accused of being involved in at least eight “Naxal incidents”, and thrown into the Dantewada jail. Vijay, who had competed in national archery competitions before he was arrested, was exonerated of all charges on May 1, 2013.
“My name was needlessly being linked with the Naxals,” Vijay recalled. “I was a member of the Congress at the time, so I complained to Congress leader Kawasi Lakhma. He took me, along with Bhima Mandavi, then the MLA of Dantewada, to the police superintendent’s office to meet SRP Kalluri, who was the DIG. As soon as we got there, I was sent to the police post near Danteshwari temple. They kept me in lockup for the night. The next day, I was produced in court and subsequently sent to the Dantewada district prison.”
According to Vijay, he was locked up merely because Kalluri objected to the activist’s “presence in the SP’s office”. “In jail, I got to know that eight cases had been filed against me,” he said. “I was accused of talking to a Naxal named Ramanna and moving some goods for him, for a bus bombing in Singaram, the attack on the house of Congress leader Avdhesh Gautam in Nakulnar, the firing on Kuakonda police station, the blast in a vehicle carrying eggs in Girdalpara, the Sindhgarh tehsil office blast. I was even accused of killing my own brother Budhram Sori, who was the BJP’s district chief. I spent three years in jail despite being innocent.”
He added, “In 2011, I went on hunger strike in the Dantewada jail after I saw that only prisoners from the Adivasi community were being denied bail. I was moved to the Jagdalpur Central Jail after that. In Chhattisgarh, any Adivasi can be taken away for no reason and sent to jail.”
Lingaram Kodopi, 30, from Dantewada’s Sameli village, was accused of being involved in the attack on Avdhesh Gautam’s house as well as for facilitating illegal financial transactions between the . He was acquitted in the Avdhesh Gautam attack case in 2013. The Essar case is still being heard by the NIA court in Jagdalpur and Lingaram is currently out on bail.
He spent around two years in jail, where he was allegedly beaten up so badly by the police that he still has bouts of excruciating pain all over his body.
“Anyone who raises their voice for their rights or against the injustices the Adivasi community is facing is arrested on false charges,” he said. “When the police arrest such a person, they blackmail him. They pressure him to work for them or else the charges against him won’t be withdrawn. Under pressure, if the person agrees to become an informant, he’s left with a simple choice: join the police formally or get killed by the Naxals. If the person doesn't give in, he’s branded a Naxal, sent to jail.”
In 2015, the Chhattisgarh police detained over 1,000 Adivasis “on suspicion of being Naxals”. This led to Sukma’s chief judicial magistrate at the time, Prabhakar Gwal, admonishing the police for their “high-handed approach”. In a stern letter to the inspector general of police, he protested that “in the name of wiping out Naxalism, police oppressed innocent Adivasis”.
Speaking to Newslaundry, Gwal, now retired, said, “The police arrested a thousand people on suspicion of being Naxals. They had picked them up from haat markets of the villages. Police knew they were wrong in this matter. After I wrote to the IG, only 55-60 people were arrested and the rest were set free.”
Gwal added that “91 percent of the cases against Adivasis of being Naxals are false”. “The police arrest a man and dub him a mastermind or area commander. But he has no clothes on his body, no food in his belly, no roof over his head. Where would he get the money to buy an AK-47 or an expensive bomb? The Adivasis have been in Bastar for centuries, why would they suddenly become Naxals? Adivasis are fleeing their jungles because of police brutality and torture. The masterminds of Naxal activities are other people but the police always arrest poor Adivasis.”
Newslaundry reached out to Chhattisgarh’s police chief, DM Awasthi, for a comment about the jailing of Adivasis on false charges, but didn’t hear back. The report will be updated if a response is received.
This is the third part of a four-part series on Chhattisgarh’s Adivasi prisoners. Read the and parts.
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