by Shazia Nigar ( [email protected]) at gulail.com
Anyone who dares to dissent against the Naveen Patnaik government in Odisha faces the risk of being branded a naxal or seditionist. The list of those jailed on trumped charges includes legions of protesting tribals, public-spirited lawyers and human rights activists. In a month long investigation Gulail lays bare a systematic subversion of civil liberties and extra-judicial killings by a government that has till now been by and large successful in avoiding media scrutiny.
The national narrative today revolves around the resurgence of communalism, deeply pervasive corruption, the spread of Maoist insurgency and competitive terrorism by Islamist and Hindutva forces. Narendra Modi, who is seen by many as the next prime minister, has for years, and rightly so, faced an intense scrunity by activists and hacks on his malicious failure in preventing the 2002 riots and presiding over the cold-blooded killings of innocent Muslim youth in staged police encounters. The State of Odisha has however remained for the most part unabrased by such debates. Somehow the image of Naveen Patnaik portrayed by the national media has been of a benign, clean and efficent administrator. However, a closer look would reveal a state marauded by a staggering number of human rights violations, a rural population constantly persecuted for resisting land acquisition and a civil society with its leading lights being gagged or jailed for raising a voice against state repression.
A month long investigation carried out by Gulail revealed that scores of social activists, journalists, lawyers, students and tribals have been arrested and jailed on the basis of clearly fabricated cases.
Close to 530 individuals are currently in various jails in Odisha in what prima facie appear as fabricated cases. Out of these nearly 400 are tribals. Gulail has documents that show that 32 individuals in Badipada, 75 in Rourkela, 18 in Balangir and neighbouring districts, 27 in Gajapati/Ganjam, 35 in Kandhamal, 14 in Raigada, 70 in Koraput, 25 in Malkangiri, 6 in Bhubaneshwar, 42 in Kyonjhar, 2 in Chaudwar, 10 in Jajpur, 30 in Sambalpur/Devgarh/Badagarh are in jail at the moment. Many of these people have been in jail since 2008.
30 individuals have been killed in police firing in displacement related protests. In Kalinganagar in Jajpur district, 2006, 14 people were killed in police firing during a protest against displacement caused by a Tata steel plant. A judicial enquiry was announced and instated by the State government but seven years down the line, the report is yet to be submitted. This is one among many cases that Odisha has witnessed in the recent years.
75 individuals have been killed in various police encounters and branded as Maoists over the last 10 years. The most recent of these cases ocurred on 14th November 2012, when 5 individuals were killed during an encounter with security forces. On the 30th of November when a congregation of activists and families of the deceased protested outside the Vidhan Sabha Bhavan in Bhubaneshwar and demanded an inquiry into the killings, Naveen Patnaik refused to so much as meet them.
After spending three years in jail for Maoist related cases Arati Majhi was acquitted of all charges against her on 17th July 2013. Lack of evidence – inability of the police to produce seized items in court and contradictions in statements of key witnesses, made it amply clear that Majhi’s case was predicated on largely fabricated evidence.
Arati was 20-years-old and a week away from getting married when she was arrested in Maoist related cases. She was picked up by the Special Operation Group and the Central Reserve Police Force, from her house in Jadingi village, Gajapati at 3:00 AM on 13th February 2010. Arati’s cousins, Shyam and Lazar Majhi, were also arrested. Five men from the SOG and CRPF then took her to the jungle and forced her to see pornographic pictures on a mobile phone. Then they blindfolded and gang-raped her after which she lost consciousness. When she regained consciousness she found herself in Paralakhemundi. On inquiring about the reason behind her arrest she was threatened that she would be implicated in fabricated Maoist related cases.
The law does not permit a woman to be arrested after sunset and before sunrise. Arati was arrested at 3:00AM. There were no policewomen present during her arrest. No seizure list was made. Then, she was gang-raped in custody.
She was forwarded to Berhampur jail on Judicial remand where she spent three years of her young life. Altogether she had 6 cases registered against her. Four cases were related to the burning of four OSRTC buses and one of a Reliance tower by Maoists in Raipanka, Gajapati on the night of 27th December 2009. The other case involved damaging a forest beat house with explosions. Arati was charged with Sedition, waging war against the state, rioting, being a member of an unlawful association, the Arms Act and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, amongst others.
Four cases were made out of one incident of the burning of four buses. No Test Identification parade was conducted during investigation. None of the witnesses, the only evidence the prosecution had claimed, recognised any of the accused as the ones who had burnt the buses. Not the drivers and the conductors who had registered the case. Neither the independent eye witnesses. They all said, one by one, that the ‘miscreants’ had their faces covered. How then could they recognize them by face? The suggestion made by the Public Prosecutors to one of the witnesses that he had heard the attackers calling each other by name was also denied.
- Most witnesses didn’t recognise Arati or any of the other co-accused. If they recognised her, like the leader of the gram panchayat she belongs to, they testified that she had no links with the Maosists.
- The eye witnesses declared that the attackers had covered their faces with cloth and hence could not be recognised contradicting police claims. Were the witnesses coerced into making the written statements implicating Arati?
- Why were none of the items, such as guns,that the police claimed to have seized presented in court?
In all the four cases, with separate and over lapping witnesses, the judgement of acquittal follows the same tone and points out similar flaws in the case of the prosecution. The Judgement in one of the case goes onto note “The witnesses have not implicated any one of the accused persons. Rather evidence of Public Witnesses goes to show that the culprits had covered their faces with clothes making it difficult for the witness to know their identity”. On cross examination of one of the witnesses the judgement noted “He has stated that he does not know the accused persons and anything about the case.” So not only were witnesses unable to recognise the accused as culprits, but they were also completely unaware of the case itself. At another point one of the judgements states “ The very prosecution of the accused persons does not seem to be according to law.” Arati and her co-accused were acquitted in all four cases in relation to the burning of OSRTC buses. The last of the acquittals in this incident came on 27th November 2012.
The sixth case was related to an incident that occurred at Paniganda forest beat house on 9-10th July 2009 between 12:00-1:00AM. It is alleged that a group of 40-50 people dressed in black tied up the
guard at the beat house, inquired about the fire arms of the forest department and left him near the Panchayat office. They then went onto damage the beat house with explosives. Arati was charged under sections of the Indian Penal Code, PDPP Act, Explosive Substance Act, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act.
In this instance too no Test Identification Parade was conducted. The sanction order required to prosecute the accused under UAPA and the Explosive Substance Act was not procured. Once again, the 15 witnesses in this case failed to support the story of the prosecution. The Sarpanch of Katama Gram Panchayat denied the police version that the accused persons had blasted the beat house under the influence of a Maoist leader Ajad. While he knew Arati and several others accused in this case he had absolutely no knowledge of any of them being involved in Naxal activities. The police version of the story was denied by the very people who the police claimed would support it!
The Forest Guard who had lodged the FIR did not corroborate his evidence with the FIR story. In fact he said there was no way he could recognise the attackers as they had all covered their faces with cloth! The judgement read “ Basing on the above untrustworthy testimony of the prosecution witnesses, no such case is made out against the accused persons.” The complete lack of proof against Arati goes to show that there was an attempt to frame her. There were no valid grounds on which she was picked up. Rather, there was a strategic effort to build a case against her.
Arati was acquitted and finally released on 17th July 2013. Her struggle is far from over. Arati has now been embroiled in fresh controversy. The prosecution, after her acquittal, acquired sanction
in the cases to try her under UAPA. The future is uncertain. Her father Dakasa Majhi petitioned the courts on her behalf, when she was in jail, for an enquiry into the gang-rape of Arati in custody. Filed on 20th August 2010, three years later Arati still awaits justice.
Pratima Das an accused in Maoist related cases was also found to be innocent, but a little too late. The judgement came after she had wasted two and half years of her life in prison, with no criminal
record or evidence against her.
A lawyer by profession she had paid for her law degree by taking tuition classes for school students. At the time of her arrest in 2008 Das was working as an assistant to lawyer Prashant Kumar Jena who practices in the Cuttack High Court. Jena focuses on human rights cases. Pratima was also active as a political activist. She used to organise and participate in rallies, protests and talks. Given her sensibility, it would not be a stretch to call her a politically conscious lawyer. During one such event, a people’s tribunal on 11th August 2008, Pratima came in contact with environmentalist and scholar David Pugh. He expressed his wish to visit Kalinga nagar, the site of an ongoing struggle between TATA steel and the tribals who own the land, in Odisha’s Jajpur district. Having written an article on Soni Soi, who is the mother of one of the martyrs to the struggle and is herself an accused in Maoist related cases, Das was familiar with the place. She was also to act as his translator. Pugh and her visited Kalinga nagar the next day, 12th August 2008.
They met people, heard their stories and left for Bhubaneswar on the same day. As they were passing a village called Gobarghati a police van tried stopping the vehicle Pratima and David were traveling in. Apart from David, Pratima, and the driver, a local from Jajpur who was showing them around was also in the vehicle. The driver, fearing that he will be caught without a license, sped on rather than stopping to let the policemen inquire. This piqued the curiosity of the policemen. At a little distance they were met by about 30-40 policemen armed with lathis and guns. The police told them that they had intelligence that a wanted Maoist, Gopi Mishra was traveling in the vehicle. He wasn’t. But all four traveling in the ambassador were taken to Jajpur town. There were several violations in the manner Pratima was arrested. She was detained after sunset and before sunrise, when the law says that a woman cannot be arrested after dark. She was also not allowed to inform her family of her whereabouts. She claims that there were also irregularities in the arrest memo and the seizure list prepared by the police.
The four arrested were taken to Badchan police station, Chandikhol. Police Superintendent D.S.Kutte and Sarangi interrogated Pratima uptil 4:00 AM. She was asked if she was a maoist cadre named ‘Mala’ . Then she was told that she is ‘Mala’. Pratima denied.
She was then driven to Jagatsinghpur, the place of her ‘official’ arrest. Meanwhile David was taken to a guest house for the night and his seats were booked in the next flight back to the United States.
Despite his protests that he wouldn’t leave until Pratima was released. The local from Jajpur who was showing them around was also released when he dropped names of his political connections. The driver was also let go.
The police records show that she was arrested on her way to Jagatsinghpur on 13th August 2008 at 5:00 PM. A full day after her arrest. Interestingly, a quick google search reveals that by 11:40 AM
of 13th August a press release had already been sent out by human rights groups on the detention of Pratima. How then can she have been arrested only at 5:00PM on her way to Jagatsinghpur? Pratima says “We reached Jagatsinghpur at 6:30 AM on 13th August. By 7:00 local channels were braodcasting that four naxals, including one foreigner, had been arrested.” After reaching Jagatsinghpur her interrogation continued. Without any sleep and barely any food she answered questions directed at her. Many of which were irrelevant. Such as “ Do you love someone?”. The police than told her about which Maoist leader was in love with which Maoist cadre. She answered
questions about her family, academics to the extent of having to recall her marks and participation in extra curricular activities with special reference to sports. They then showed her pictures of acts of violence alleged to have been committed by Maoists. All this while repeating “ We know you are not involved in action, but why did you go to Jajpur?” She recalls another inspector, Bhawani Shanker who threatened to torture her. Little did she know that this was just the beginning.
Two cases were lodged against Pratima. She was charged with Sedition, waging war against the state, dacoity with murder, attempt to murder and under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, amongst others. Alleged of mobilising people for the cause of Maoism Pratima was lodged in the Alipingala jail in Jagatsinghpur. A police witness who was a constable admitted in court that he didn’t recognise Pratima. He said “I signed on the instructions of the Inspector without being aware of the contents of the documents.” On this note the judge intervened saying “ Think about your job before you speak.” She was acquitted in this case on 31st July 2010. There was no other way it could have ended considering that not one of the 13 witnesses brought up by the prosecution recognised Pratima.
- A constable who was a witness in one case said “I signed on the instructions of the Inspector without being aware of the contents of the documents.”
- In one of the two cases the written statement said two witnesses ‘heard’ one of the attackers being addressed as Pratima. The witnesses contradicted themselves in court when they said they ‘saw’ Pratima. That is implausible not just because it contradicts their written statement but also because Maoists are known to cover their faces during an operation. How could anyone have seen Pratima then?
- At the time of the Sambalpur operation in which Maoists killed a policeman and seized 4 weapons, Pratima was a final year law student in Cuttack. She was actively organizing political talks and protests with various democratic forums in the city. How then could she havebeen an underground Maoist cadre?
The irreparable loss:
- Pratima spent more than two years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. She is yet to receive any compensation.
She was then shifted to Kuchinda jail in Sambalpur as per the second case against her. On 16th October 2005 around 40 Maoists had attacked a police party in Budarma, Sambalpur. They killed one policeman and seized four rifles. Pratima was made a co-accused in this case. She was charged with Arms Act, robbery, murder, attempt to murder and sedition. At the time of Pratima’s arrest the charge sheet in this case had already been filed on 18th June 2008 by Investigative Officer Niranjan Mishra. It had absolutely no mention of Pratima. Five months after Pratima’s arrest a supplementary charge sheet was filed in the case by Mishra on 24 January 2009. This one had her name on it. Was this an attempt to ensure that Pratima remained in jail if she was acquitted in the first case?
As evidence the police brought in two witnesses who in their statements said that they ‘heard’ the name Pratima being called out to address one of the Maoists during the incident. By the time the case reached trial the witness claimed they ‘saw’ Pratima at the site instead of hearing her. These were not the only witnesses who contradicted themselves. One by one, none of the 36 witnesses put up by the prosecution associated Pratima with any Maoist activity and nor did they recognise her. As she herself says “ At the time the said incident occurred I was a law student in Cuttack. How could I have been a Maoist cadre involved in action when I was busy attending classes in town?” After her bail plea was rejected for the third time, the Cuttack High Court directed the district court to pass the judgement in two months. The judgement came much later. She was acquitted on 17th November 2010. Even today, as she narrates her story of struggle and strength, her face lights up and breaks into a smile as she says “ I had to be acquitted. At the start of the trail the judge asked me if I wanted to plead guilty. I refused because I had not done anything wrong. I had to be proven right.”
Through the 2 years, 3 months and 5 days that Pratima spent in jail she was not given the status of a political prisoner. The Kuchinda jail did not even have a phone that the prisoners could use to contact their lawyers or family. Food was cooked once a day. That same cold food was served later again. Pratima recalls this one time she had written a postcard to her family. The jailer tore it to pieces. Pratima found out later when the warden told her.
Pratima is currently working with a lawyer in Bolangir where she lives with her husband. But she misses the High Court. She wants to go back and practice there someday again. For now she is working on cases that don’t interest her much. The lawyer she is working under doesn’t know of her past yet. She says “ I have thought a lot about it and I want to be open about my past with him. But I am afraid of the consequences.”
There were two instances in 2011-12 when the Odisha state government used Dandapani Mohanty a local human rights activist as an interlocutor in a hostage crisis. Mohanty was hosted as a state guest and it was primarily through his mediation that the government could secure the release of Italian tourists and Malkangiri district collector held hostage by the Maoists. Two years down the line, the same government arrested him in 2013 for Maoist related charges dating back to 2009-10. What is more shocking is that the cases he has been implicated in date back to the 2009-10 when he was being used as an official interlocutor by the State. Arrested on 5-February-2013, Dandapani is now facing charges in 19 Maoists related cases. Gulail’s investigation shows that all cases have been based on fabricated evidence. Mohanty is presently lodged 345 KM south of state capital Bhubaneswar at the Parlakhemundi jail in Gajapati district.
Mohanty has been charged with sedition, waging war against the state, rioting, being a member of an unlawful association, the Arms Act and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, amongt other charges. At the time of his arrest there were six non-bailable warrants issued against him. The incidents he is alleged to have been involved in include the blasting of a police patrolling vehicle in Gajapati, setting ablaze of four OSRTC buses at Raipanka, blasting of a forest beat house at Paniganda and burning of Reliance and BSNL mobile towers at Raipanka in 2009. The other allegations involve setting on fire BSNL and Airtel towers at Birikote in March 2010, a murder in May 2010, police-Maoist encounter at Gopinathpur in Novemeber 2010, distribution of Maoists literature and guns at Sapalaguda, in October 2010, collecting funds and organising shelter for the Maoists, amongst others.
Read more here- http://gulail.com/the-dark-side-of-the-patnaik-regime/