It has been an eventful New Year for the Chhattisgarh government. First, Kopa Kunjam, an adivasi youth who was detained on false charges of having Naxal connections by the Chhattisgarh police was let off after seven years in prison. Then, the National Human Rights Commission issued notices to the government of Chhattisgarh holding it vicariously liable for the crimes of rape and sexual assault against adivasi women that its security forces committed.
Yet, in the same week, the Naxal Special Cell of the Dantewada District Court denied bail to the seven activists – Chikkudu Prabhakar, Balla Ravindranath, both AP and Telangana high court lawyers; B Durga Prasad, journalist; Duddu Prabhakar, President, Andhra Pradesh Kula Nirmulana Porata Samithi (KNPS); R Lakshmaiah, General Secretary, Adivasi Tudum Debba; Rajendra Prasad and Nazir, both research scholars – who claim to have been arrested in Telangana and handed over to the Chhattisgarh police on December 25, 2016.
According to Chikkudu Prabhakar, who along with the others is under detention at Sukma prison, the group was on a fact-finding mission to Chhattisgarh, when their motorcycles were surrounded by four jeeps carrying some 25 Chhattisgarh policemen in plainclothes at Dummuguda in Telangana. When they resisted the attempt to force them into the waiting jeeps, the Telangana police was informed.
The Telangana police, after detaining them at Dummuguda initially, handed them over to the Chhattisgarh police, who took them to Kunta police station and registered an FIR under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005, section 8(2)(3)(5). The FIR charged them with carrying one lakh rupees in old currency of 500 and 1000 rupee notes to help Naxals convert currency and carrying banned literature.
The activists and lawyers currently being held at Sukma prison expressed their deep sense of shock at the role played by the Telangana police in assisting the illegal arrest by the Chhattisgarh police. All the activists have actively participated in the separate Telangana movement and are respected leaders who have fought for the rights of dalits, adivasis and students over the last several decades.
A team of 18 members (including the author) comprising 11 lawyers from Hyderabad and Vizag along with family members of the detained activists travelled to Dantewada to represent on behalf of the detainees when the bail petition came up for hearing at the Dantewada District Court on January 2, 2017.
The Naxal Special Court was reluctant to share any evidence collected or even the public documents like panchnama reports and seizure reports with the defence advocates. It was only at the insistence of the defence lawyer, the judge allowed the records to be read out in court.
The defence lawyer, Senior Telangana High Court advocate V Raghunath, pointed out that the charge of helping Naxals with old notes makes no sense as the demonetised old currency is of no use to anyone. Assuming that the accusation is true, on the date of arrest, 25.12.2016, it was not illegal to possess one lakh rupees in old notes. The lawyer also pointed out that the list of literature allegedly found with the activists is available in the market and widely read, none of it being banned literature.
Even so, Raghunath cited case law that says mere membership of a banned organisation (SC judgment in Arup Bhuyan case) or possession of literature (SC judgment in Binayak Sen case) are in themselves not a crime and in a democracy, these cannot be grounds for depriving someone of their freedoms.
The public prosecutor at one stage said that the accused entered Chhattisgarh without permission and that they should have reported to the police station and informed them of the purpose of their visit. The defence lawyer Raghunath pointed out that Chhattisgarh has no law that prohibits anyone from entering the state, and under the Constitution of India, Indian citizens have the right of movement to travel anywhere in the country.
The Special Court however denied bail saying that the issue is serious and therefore bail cannot be granted.
This has been more or less the template that plays out in the ‘law and order’ administration of Chhattisgarh. Individuals are caught and charged with having links with Naxals or helping Naxals under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005, often without any evidence. The lower courts deny bail. By the time the “law takes its course”, the arrested persons would have spent 7 to 8 years in prison.
The case of Kopa Kunjam is one such, where he spent seven years in jail, before being absolved and released. Kawasi Hidme, an adivasi young woman was also similarly charged with Naxal connections. She was brutally raped and physically abused in jail. Even after being absolved of all charges and released after eight years in prison, the police have been hounding her and her family. She is now under the care of Soni Sori and is undergoing surgeries and treatment to recover from the traumatic physical assaults she had to suffer during her time in jail.
Such instances are not exceptions in Chhattisgarh, but the norm. Women are routinely subjected to extreme sexual violence by the security forces and the police, and then charged with being Naxal sympathisers, as several detailed fact-finding reports of WSS reveal.
Sukma, Bastar, Bijapur and Dantewada regions of Chhattisgarh are sparsely populated but heavily militarised with DRG, CRPF, Chhattisgarh Police, and BSF conducting joint and sometimes separate operations. There is an atmosphere of siege in the area, with plainclothes police everywhere.
When the 18-member team went to attend the bail hearing at Dantewada, the police visited the hotel where the team was staying several times to make inquiries and to collect photo copies of all identity cards given to the hotel. By the next morning, the hotel was compelled to install cctv cameras in the lobby and all the corridors.
The Chhattisgarh administration is notorious for breeding vigilante groups like Salwa Judum, which they were compelled to dissolve when the Supreme Court ordered it illegal. There are newer avatars of the vigilante group that have been threatening, intimidating and driving away journalists, lawyers, civil liberties activists, and academicians, thus preventing any outside scrutiny of the gross human rights violations in the state.
As soon as the bail petition was denied in Dantewada District Court, one Mr Subba Rao of AGNI (Action Group for National Integrity, the new avatar of discredited, disbanded Samajik Ekta Manch) circulated a message on Whatsapp that reported Inspector General Kalluri’s happiness at the denial of bail to Telangana activists. He went on to call the activists “white collar Naxals”, promising that no mercy will be shown to them, and that their police custody will be sought. Such intimidation is routine.
Foisting false charges on activists, lawyers and journalists is now as normal as rounding up of adivasis from their villages and herding them into the jails. Chhattisgarh jails are the most crowded in the country, with a conviction rate of just 4.3%.
The situation is worsening with impunity resulting from complete lack of accountability. The NHRC order raises the issue of compensation to the victims under the SC, STs Atrocities Prevention Act, but does not address the problem of how the security personnel who perpetrate crimes, violate human rights and foist false cases are to be dealt with to make the system answerable under any dispensation.