The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, tasked with documenting what might be happening to the innocents caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and in Chhattisgarh, ends up taking on the toughest legal cases. The ones that nobody else seems to want.
Running a legal aid group (you fight all your cases for free) in Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh – 300 kms to the south of Raipur and on the very frontlines of the war on Naxalism – can be a wearying business. For one thing, there is always the fear that you might be branded a Maoist sympathiser. Which of course is no laughing matter. Binayak Sen was sentenced to life in prison on that charge.
Shalini Gera, one of the four women lawyers who staff the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, says a trial court judge once asked one of her colleagues if she knew whether she (the judge) was on a Maoist hit list. “How would I know?” the colleague replied. And that when they recently went to meet a senior police officer, they thought they were going to introduce themselve, he started out by saying the only reason for lawyers like them to be here in Jagdalpur was if they were Maoist sympathisers. And that the onus was on them to prove otherwise.
Shalini, 44, graduated from Delhi Law Faculty last year, before which she worked in San Francisco with a consulting firm that offered management advice to pharmaceutical companies. She also has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Her colleagues at JagLAG (they shorten it to that rather than the more prosaic JLAG, saying “it makes them sound cool”) include Isha Khandelwal, 24, who was a classmate of Shalini’s at Delhi Law Faculty; Parijata Bhardwaj, 25, who graduated in law from Symbiosis, Pune, and then got herself a Master’s in Social Work in Dalit and Tribal Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai – she’s the one the judge asked about the hit list – and Guneet Kaur, 24, who graduated from Hidayatullah National Law University in Raipur.
Guneet says some of her need to understand Chhattisgarh’s Naxal problem was driven by the fact that she herself is from Punjab, which had seen its own insurgency in the 1980’s; and that she went on get a Master’s in Law with a focus on Transitional Justice – how to have rule of law in a conflict zone – from the University of California, Berkeley. (Guneet works as a research fellow at JagLAG. Unlike the others, she does not appear in court.)
Of course, JagLAG’s stated remit is very different from what officialdom might sometimes believe. Shalini, Isha, Parijata, Guneet are here – they’ve been in Jagdalpur for a little more than a year, JagLAG was set up in July 2013 – to document what might be happening to the innocents caught in the crossfire between the State and the Maoists. And to legally intervene where they can.
This, says Shalini, is because Chhattisgarh has some of the most overcrowded jails in the country – full of undertrials, people who have been charged with a crime but who have not yet been convicted; their trials are ongoing – while, at the same time, also having some of the highest acquittal rates.
In the Dantewada judicial district, which includes the districts of Sukma, Bijapur and Dantewada, for example, the acquittal rate between 2005-2012 stood at 95.7%. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, on the other hand, the average national acquittal rate in 2012 stood at 61.5%.
What this means, according to Shalini, is that in this conflict between the State and the Maoists, a lot of innocent people are being arrested, who then spend years in jail without bail, sometimes for as much as five to six years, during which time they lose all contact with their families, and then, finally, because of a lack of evidence against them, they are acquitted.
Why is this happening? Acccording to Nirmala Buch, former chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh who now heads a committee that is reviewing the cases of undertrials in Chhattisgarh jails, a number of complex reasons are to blame. Including the fact that when trials go on for so long, it becomes difficult for witnesses to depose before the courts. “Over time, they forget the details of a case,” she says. But she adds that her committee has recommended to the government of Chhattisgarh that it not oppose bail to undertrials.
Shalini says it was the Soni Sori case in 2011 – she was interning then with the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), a collective of lawyers and social activists who use the legal system to try and advance human rights and which was defending Sori – which finally turned her attention to Chhattisgarh.
Now that it’s here, is JagLAG being able to help? Shalini says their documentation of cases is going well. They have managed to collect data that shows how high the acquittal rate is, and the number of years undertrials spend in jail without bail. Sometime this year, JagLAG will also be coming out with a report on its findings.
The legal intervention, says Shalini, has been more of a challenge, for a number of reasons. The courts are slow, there is hostility towards them – from fellow lawyers and judges – because they are outsiders, and also because the administration tends to be suspicious of them. Isha adds that the fact that they don’t charge for their services sometimes also works against them, that it tends to make people take them less seriously. For now, the staffers of JagLAG live on the fellowships a few Supreme Court lawyers like Colin Gonsalves, founder director of HRLN, and Rajeev Dhavan, a commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists, the international human rights NGO, have put them on.
Nor does it help that they get the toughest cases, with people coming to them for help only after they have exhausted all the other more conventional channels. These cases then, because they have often already run through the length of the legal system, become the toughest nuts to crack.
But the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group might have started to win the battle that it has taken on. They’ve got past that all-important, one-year mark. They’re beginning to take on more work and with all the travel the quartet undertake today, it is almost close to impossible to get all of them together in one place at the same time, which could be interpreted as a sign that they’re beginning to embed themselves into the system. One of the more important cases they’re working on right now, they say, is the Sarkeguda encounter, in which 17 villagers were allegedly killed by CRPF and state police who mistook them for Maoists.
But still, it must be tough for four women in the middle of nowhere taking on the might of the Indian state, gently nudging it to own up to the mistakes that it might have made?
“We’re here to stay,” says Shalini. “We’re not going anywhere.”
“Well,” says Guneet, “I do miss eating butter chicken.”
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