Around February 19, a picture of a young Adivasi woman did the rounds of media and police circles in Chhattisgarh. The woman, Pandey Kawasi, 20, wore a white t-shirt with the words “Lon Varratu” printed on it – referring to a to convince Maoists to “surrender”, after which they’ll be rehabilitated. Dantewada is one of the areas of Chhattisgarh that’s worst affected by Maoist activity.
In the photograph, Pandey Kawasi, claimed to be a rehabilitated “Naxal” by the police, was being felicitated by Dantewada police officials for surrendering.
Four days later, however, the same photograph emerged in local journalist WhatsApp groups but with a different tale: that Pandey had died by suicide in police custody.
Newslaundry learned that Pandey’s family and neighbours had a very different story from the police’s feel-good narrative that she had been coaxed to surrender. They said she hadn’t been a Maoist at all – the police had dubbed her one and forced her to “surrender” so they could push their Lon Varratu campaign. She died four days later.
This is a common story in Chhattisgarh. In Dantewada, Adivasis of being dubbed Maoists, and jail is just one false allegation away. There is of security forces jailing and killing Adivasis on trumped-up charges and, in some cases, jailing Adivasis for even with suspected Maoists.
Pandey Kawasi’s case follows the same pattern.
She was ‘beaten black and blue’
Pandey was from Gudse village in Dantewada’s Katekalyan tehsil. According to the police, she and five other alleged Maoists surrendered to the police under the Lon Varratu campaign on February 19.
“Lon Varratu” is a Gondi phrase that means “come back home”. The programme, launched in July 2020, rehabilitates Maoists who surrender by providing them with houses, aid to get married, and jobs in the district reserve group – a police unit comprising former Maoists who have surrendered and joined the police.
The five others who surrendered with Pandey are Paike Kowasi, 22, and Kamlu alias Santosh Podiyam, 25, from Narayanpur; Bhume Uike, 28, and Linga Uike, 36, from Kirandul; and Kumari Jogi Kawasi, 35, who was from Katekalyan’s Gudse, like Pandey.
Photographs of the six 'Maoists' released by the police.
The police claimed that Kumari Jogi was the head of the Katekalyan area committee of Maoists, and that Pande was a member of this committee. Jogi was a “prized Naxal”, they said, who carried a bounty of Rs 3 lakh for any information on her whereabouts until she surrendered. The police said Pandey and Jogi would “place booby traps” for the police; Pandey was also accused of “spreading Naxal propaganda” and Jogi of attempt to murder.
Both women surrendered, the police said, and were being held for a week for interrogation. Pandey died by suicide during this period. The police squarely blamed her parents, saying the parents threatened to marry her off, and even that they threatened to kill her once she went back home.
Villagers in Pandey’s village of Gudse had a different story to tell.
According to them, the police came to Gudse on February 18. A local festival was underway and Pandey was at Jogi’s house when police personnel arrived from the district reserve group.
“They reached Jogi’s house and forcefully took both of them,” said Sannuram Taati, a resident of Gudse who is related to Pandey. “They took them into the jungle. They tied Jogi to a tree and threatened to kill her in a fake encounter if she did not surrender. She requested them not to kill her and agreed, and they took her and Pandey to Katekalyan police station and then to Karli police line.”
Newslaundry had accessed a video of Jogi describing how she was tied up and threatened. The video was taken by a villager on the morning of February 24 at the Dantewada district hospital, where Jogi had been taken later by the police to identify Pandey’s body.
Karli police line is in Dantewada town, about 60 km from Gudse. Hemlata, the sarpanch of Gudse, corroborated that the two women were taken away on February 18. On February 19, she said, the police announced that Jogi and Pandey had “surrendered” under the Lon Varratu scheme and that they were being held at Kaarli police line in Dantewada town.
Villagers told Newslaundry that Jogi had, in the past, cooked for Maoists when they visited Gudse. “It wasn’t her wish to do so,” Sannuram said. “It was out of fear and pressure; villagers often have to do this due to fear of the Naxalites.”
But Pandey, they emphasised, was not associated with the Maoist movement in any way. “She only used to participate in dance and music festivals, like other young boys and girls in our village,” said Sannuram. “Her name was not even registered at any police station.”
On February 20, Hemlata, Sannuram, the parents of both women, and a handful of others went to meet Jogi and Pandey at Karli police line.
“Both were beaten black and blue,” said Sannuram. “Pandey’s face was swollen. She was crying and telling us that she had been beaten mercilessly. Her hands were tied, her hair was pulled, she was slapped and punched and beaten on her legs with sticks. She was asking why the police had abducted her and forced her to ‘surrender’ when she wasn’t even a Naxal.”
This was corroborated by Hemlata and Shyama Markam, a villager who had also gone to meet Pandey at the police line.
“Pandey was crying a lot when we met her. She was beaten up badly,” Shyama said. “She was telling her mother she didn’t want to stay at Karli and she wanted to go back to the village. We were told that she will be allowed to go back only after a week, once the police finish their inquiry.”
On February 23, Hemlata tried again to meet Jogi and Pandey with their parents at Karli police line, but was told that the interrogation was underway. It was noon, she said, and a senior official of the district reserve group told them to wait till 5 pm to meet the young women.
“So, we waited in Dantewada town,” Hemlata said.
At 4.30 pm, Hemlata received a phone call from the Katekalyan police station.
“I was told to go to Karli police line with Pandey’s parents,” she said. “When we got there, we were told Pandey is dead. They said Pandey hanged herself.”
Shyama Markam, who was also present at the time, said he went into a bathroom at the police line and saw Pandey’s body lying on the floor.
“I couldn’t see any marks on her neck. She looked like she was sleeping,” he said.
‘The police claims are rubbish’
The police version of events is that Pandey killed herself due to pressure from her family.
“The girl died by suicide because her parents were pressuring her to come back to the village,” said Abhishek Pallava, the superintendent of police, Dantewada. “They fixed her marriage with a drunkard boy against her wish after she surrendered on February 19. They were coming to meet her on a daily basis and putting her in emotional turmoil...There may have been fear in her mind that her parents would get her killed after her surrender.”
Pallava reiterated: “According to me, she died by suicide because of her parents...But I would also like to say that the exact reason of any suicide cannot be determined.” He added that the postmortem report on Pandey's death is being prepared.
Shyama Markam said the police theory is “rubbish”.
“Pandey didn’t commit any mistake. She was not a Naxalite but the police showed her as a surrendered Naxal,” he said. “The police is making false claims that she died by suicide because her parents supposedly fixed her marriage with a drunkard. Such claims are just rubbish.”
Soni Sori, a social activist based in Chhattisgarh, agreed.
“The police claim that Naxals who surrender under the Lon Varratu scheme are helped with jobs, marriages and things that make life comfortable and happy,” he said. “Then why will a Naxalite who is promised these things die by suicide? Even if someone wants to believe the police’s theory of suicide, then many questions arise. Why will a person who surrenders after being fed up of Naxalism, who is about to get a hell of a lot of benefits from the government, suddenly die by suicide in police custody?”
He added: “Pandey was not even distantly a Naxalite. Her death is a murder. It’s a shame that the police are making these stupid theories that she ended her life because her parents fixed her marriage forcefully.”
But what about Jogi, the other woman who “surrendered” from the village? As of February 27, she’s still in police custody, despite it being over a week since her “surrender”.
Superintendent Pallava claimed that Jogi’s family came to take her home but she refused to go.
“If she had gone with them, she would have to report to us on a weekly basis, as she has a reward on her head,” he explained. “And in case she absconds, she needs a guarantor. But no one was ready to become her guarantor.”
He continued: “We don’t stop anyone from going back to their villages. Jogi herself chose not to go but her parents were forcing her since they feared the consequences of her surrender. They were traumatising her but she chose not to submit to their demands.”
Pallava also pointed out the age difference between the two women. “Jogi is 35; that’s why she managed all this emotional turmoil,” he said. “The other one [Pandey] was only 20 years old, so she couldn’t bear it and ended her life.”
Curiously, Pallava then said: “We didn’t even apprehend Pandey. She followed Jogi and came to us, saying she will live with her.”
Why then did the police announce that Pandey was a “surrendered Naxal”? Pallava did not say.