By People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR)
PUDR strongly condemns IG Bastar, SRP Kalluri’s threat of taking severe action against certain NGOs in Chhattisgarh for allegedly aiding and abetting the Maoists under the guise of helping Adivasis. At a recent Press Conference he said that many such organisations were already under surveillance. The IG‘s list of suspicious activities included providing legal assistance to ‘Naxalites’ – a thinly veiled reference to the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG), a small NGO active in Bastar since 2013, that provides legal aid to Adivasis many of whom are falsely implicated in cases of Naxal activities.
This warning comes on the heels of two recent incidents of illegal detention of Adivasis in which the Jagdalpur Legal Aid lawyers have actively intervened on behalf of the victims and helped highlight police violations.
On 17th April police fired on villagers protesting against the arrests of two Adivasi men from Modema village, on allegations of being Maoists. One of the protestors, Bhima Madkam sustained grievous bullet injuries. The fear of the police prevented villagers from getting him to a hospital. It was at Soni Sori and other concerned citizens’ intervention that he was taken to Maharani Hospital in Jagdalpur on 21st April. His family lodged a complaint against the police firing, demanding action against the guilty policemen.
While Bhima Madkam has not been arrested, he is virtually under arrest in the hospital. He is constantly surrounded by police, who are preventing people from meeting him, or from availing further, possibly surgical treatment. These are blatant tactics to pressurise the family into withdrawing its police complaint. Nor has he been allowed to consult lawyers. Orders were specifically issued that the “madam log” (as the all women lawyers of Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group are popularly known), were not to be allowed to meet him. This despite his mother having signed a vakalatnama appointing them as his lawyers. Finally after being made to run from pillar to post, from the ASP to SP to SDM to ADM to CSP to Nazul officer in what was clearly an orchestrated effort by the authorities to stall proceedings, they were finally allowed to visit him on 25th April. Under heavy police presence, they saw a heavily sedated and seriously injured Bhima and spoke to his father. His father informed them that the police were taking good care of Bhima and his family. However Bhima’s statement had still not been recorded.The police are circulating two mutually contradictory stories- one, supposedly based on medical assessment of his injuries, that he sustained the gunshot wounds about a week before the incident; two, that he is a Naxalite who allegedly attacked relatives of one Hidmu Madkam (a known police informer) on 18th April indicating that he could have then been injured only afterwards. While the police is making up its mind, Bhima’s condition is deteriorating as he is being denied further treatment. Soni Sori who has been raising the issue of Bhima’s illegal detention, has since been threatened that if she persists the police will get her bail revoked and she’ll be rearrested. And the police are still refusing to accept that JagLAG are his lawyers, thus effectively blocking any recourse to legal action by Bhima and his family.
In another recent incident, on 27th April, three minor girls, (one aged 15, the others 17) were picked up by the STF Chhattisgarh and CRPF in Kormagundi village, Sukma district. The girls were going to graze their buffalo and bathe. On seeing about 25 security personnel emerge from the forests they turned around and ran home in fear. The security personnel followed, beat them as well as their family members who tried to stop the girls being taken away. The three minors were forcibly marched to Kukanar thana, 21 km away. On the way the police also picked up a young man, Muda Banjami (25) on suspicion of being a Naxalite. All four were produced before a magistrate on the 28th April. The girls were then then shifted to an observation home in Rajnandgaon, 400 km away. They have been charged with arson, rioting, as well as under the Arms Act. The Station Supervisor argued that the girls running away, their very presence in the forest, where only the “sandigdh log” go, were all signs of guilt. Another official narrative runs that the four were Naxalites as they had been caught fleeing from the site after a skirmish between the police and the Maoists. The villagers have been vociferously protesting the arrests. The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group helped the girls’ parents file a petition for bail. The group have also publicly pointed out that the police action was a total violation of the Juvenile Justice Act whereby juveniles cannot be detained in police lock up, and handing them over to the Child Welfare Officer delayed. They have to be produced before a Juvenile Board. Here, in clear violation of the Act the police made the girls walk for eight hours, incarcerated them in the thana overnight and produced them before the magistrate only on the 28th of April.
The two incidents illustrate what it means to be an Adivasi in Bastar today. No one – men, women, children- is safe at the hands of the security forces and the police. For the Indian Government every Adivasi who questions or resists is a rebel, and therefore a Maoist- in other words, the enemy. With the Government waging a dirty war against the Adivasis for daring to resist their policy of forest land grab, and in the relentless pursuit of attracting FDI into mining and setting up of large scale plants, the Adivasis’ very existence is under threat. Basic entitlements – medical help, legal aid, protection of children – instead of being ensured by the state are actually being used to tyrannise civilians.
The worst kept secret in Bastar today is that most of the Adivasis arrested for Maoist activities are victims of the government’s false ‘successes’ and fake ‘surrenders’. The numbers of those arrested and who continue to be in prison as the cases drag on, run into thousands; and more keep getting added daily. The sheer absurdity of the stories the police spins indicates the absolute and terrifying impunity they enjoy. Even rules of war, let alone Rule of Law, is marked by its absence.
It is in this situation – of the war being waged by the state in the interests of large scale industry on the one hand, and the everyday persecution of Adivasis on the other – that organisations like the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group and activists like Soni Sori make their presence felt. Moreover as evident in both incidents, the Adivasis are asserting their fundamental rights through recourse to legal action such as lodging complaints against the police, as well as through dharnas and protests. The state’s reaction of clamping down on all resistance by Adivasis , as well as targetting activists and people’s lawyers in the name of fighting Naxalism, indicates the lengths to which it is prepared to go to silence all constitutional freedoms in Bastar.
So that these don’t become lonely battles, PUDR appeals to all democratic sections to join in demanding:
1. Immediate release of the three minor girls and the boy
2. Removing all restrictions, providing of appropriate medical attention to Bhima Madkam
3. Action against the guilty policemen for violating the Juvenile Justice Act, false arrests and beating of the girls’ family members
4. Investigation into the police firing on 17 April in Mudema village in which Bhima was injured.
5. JagLAG lawyers be recognised as Bhima’s lawyers
6. Stopping threats and surveillance against Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, Soni Sori.
Sharmila Purkayastha and Megha Behl