On the evening of December 6, Gopanna Reddy, 62, received news that filled him with excitement. After 15 years in jail, he was being acquitted. He could finally go home.
Gopanna, a resident of Subba Reddy Gudam in Telengana’s Nalgonda district, was first arrested in 2006 for alleged Maoist links. Four cases were filed against him, including for firing and bombing. He was acquitted in all these cases in 2011. But minutes after he was released, he was arrested and slapped with three more cases. In 2014, he was again acquitted in the new cases as well and released. But as soon he stepped out of jail, he was arrested again and charged in four more cases.
Since then, he had been lodged in Jagdalpur jail in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. On December 6, it seemed like his ordeal would finally come to an end.
His family prepared to welcome him home, planning a get-together in their village. On December 7, his brother, Bucchi Reddy, 57, took a bus to Dantewada from Hyderabad to bring Gopanna back.
Gopanna’s release was scheduled for December 9. That morning, he shaved, bathed, and packed his meagre belongings. As he stepped out of the main gate of the prison that had been his home for so long, however, Gopanna was immediately accosted by a team of policemen. He was arrested and taken to a local court in a police vehicle. Five cases were filed against him. There would be no going home.
Curiously, every case filed against Gopanna over the past 15 years – 16 in total – was on the basis of warrants issued in 1998. These warrants invoke charges of kidnapping, rioting and attempt to murder.
Though Gopanna is periodically acquitted in the cases, he’s consistently rearrested using the same warrants. It’s a vicious cycle but it’s also a familiar tale for dozens of so-called “Naxals” in Chhattisgarh.
‘Warrants not executed’
In 1980, Gopanna went missing.
At the time, he was a student of biological sciences at the New Science College in Hyderabad’s Ameerpet. For the next six years his family believed him dead, until a police officer from Khammam paid them a visit and told Gopanna’s incredulous parents that their son had become a “Naxal” and was reportedly somewhere in Chhattisgarh. They searched for their son, but couldn’t find him.
It would be years before the family met again.
“In 1990 I saw a photo of my brother in the newspaper,” said Bucchi Reddy. “He got attracted to the movement while in college and went into the jungle.”
In 1998, a Chhattisgarh court issued five arrest warrants to the Jagargunda police in Bastar, a hotbed of Naxal activity, authorising them to arrest Gopanna. The warrants were made out under charges for kidnapping, attempt to murder, and rioting as well as under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989.
It was a common practice to invoke generic charges such as attempt to murder and rioting against suspected “Naxalites”. Two of the warrants against Gopanna did not even mention his full name, merely authorising the arrest of “Gopanna Naxali”. The police then used legal technicalities to keep him in jail even after he was acquitted repeatedly.
Here’s how it works: a court issues a warrant for a person’s arrest to the police. When the police make the arrest, they must by law “execute” the warrant. In Gopanna’s case, the warrants weren’t “executed” even when he was arrested, meaning they are still valid. And so the same warrants were used to arrest him again and again. This is how they managed to keep him in jail for years.
In 2009, Gopanna’s family learned from news reports that Gopanna was lodged in Raipur jail, Chhattisgarh. His mother, brother and sister travelled 800 km to meet Gopanna for the first time in 29 years.
Since then, Gopanna has been caught in an unending loop of arrest, imprisonment, acquittal, and arrest.
‘He just wants to go home’
Having witnessed this travesty of justice for years, Bucchi said a part of him was therefore not surprised when his brother was rearrested on December 9.
“Though I was happy and excited, there was some concern in my mind,” he admitted. “He has been released and arrested previously as well...However, this time, we were assured he would be released. That’s why we even started preparations to celebrate. But everything was shattered.”
Gopanna’s lawyer had called Bucchi on December 6 to tell him his brother was being freed. The release order would be issued on December 8. Bucchi left for Dantewada and went straight to the district court there.
“I wanted to make sure the release order had been issued,” he said. “After confirming it had, I went to Jagdalpur jail with a friend who had accompanied me from Hyderabad. We reached at 7 pm and the jail authorities told us the police superintendent was not available and to return the next day.”
Bucchi was at the jail sharp at 9 am.
“A policeman came and told me my brother had been arrested again and that I should go to court if I wanted to meet him,” Buchhi said. “I was stunned and rushed to Jagdalpur court. I met my brother. He was very sad and angry. He had a heated argument with a cop, asking why they were behaving in such an inhumane way with him. He was disheartened, very sad.”
But while he described the police as “ruthless”, Bucchi said he believed in the judicial system. “There will be a day when my brother is back home,” he said. “My brother is a changed man. He just wants to come back home and settle down in our village.”
Khitij Dubey, a lawyer in Dantewada who is fighting Gopanna’s case, told Newslaundry that all the cases filed against Gopanna were from the late 1990s.
“When the police file cases, they get arrest warrants against the accused,” Dubey explained. “But instead of executing them at the time of the accused’s first arrest, they keep the warrants with them. They then execute these old warrants whenever the accused is acquitted by a court, and arrest him again.”
Gopanna has been in jail for 15 years. Had he been convicted in any of the cases against him, Dubey pointed out, he would have completed his sentence by now.
Arvind Chaudhary, another lawyer fighting Gopanna’s case in Jagdalpur, said, “What the police are doing is a grave violation of human rights. Their intention is that he should never get out of jail, that he should die there. They are using old warrants which they were supposed to have executed at the time of his arrest. Everybody knows he has been in jail for the last 15 years. Even so, the police have not executed those warrants. They must have kept some warrants with them to arrest him again if he gets acquitted.”
Newslaundry contacted P Sundararaj, Bastar’s inspector general of police, to ask him about Gopanna’s case.
“These old warrants were executed now because at the time of their issuance in the late 1990s there weren’t many details or records on the accused,” Sundararaj replied. “So it was difficult to find who was involved in how many cases. These people use different aliases, so it is difficult to identify them and the investigation goes on for a long time. Once the police confirm the identity of a person they use old warrants to arrest them.”
He added: “We never want a criminal to remain in jail forever after completing his sentence.”
But this practice of arresting people again and again when they are released from jail isn’t new or limited to Chhattisgarh.
In 2015, the Supreme Court pulled up the Odisha government after the police rearrested Sangram Mohanty, the son of alleged Maoist ideologue Dandapani Mohanty, despite him being . The court held the police in contempt.
Similarly, activist Bellala Padma spent 10 years in a Chhattisgarh jail as a “”, trapped by the police in the same cycle of being arrested, imprisoned, and acquitted, only to be arrested again. In 2017, she was finally acquitted in all 10 of the cases filed against her and released again.
In 2015, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court for the rearrest of Naxal leader Maroti Kurwatkar. Kurwatkar had been arrested in 2012 and released on bail in 2015, after being acquitted in some of the cases filed against him. After he was rearrested in September 2015, and the court said the police needed to learn the “importance of an individual’s liberty as per the constitution of India”. The court in October 2015.