Pudiyam Panda will be free to go home with his family if he wants, the high court in Bilaspur said in its habeas corpus order on Thursday.
New Delhi: Days after the wife of Podiyam Panda – former sarpanch of Bastar’s Chintagufa village and local leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI) – filed a habeas corpus petition in the high court demanding that the whereabouts of her arrested husband be disclosed, the Chhattisgarh police held a press conference in Sukma to declare him part of a group of Maoists who had voluntarily “surrendered” themselves earlier this month.
Panda has been accused by the police of involvement in 19 incidents of Maoist violence, including the famous kidnapping of Sukma collector Alex Paul Menon in 2012 and the killing of 76 CRPF men in a Maoist ambush at Chintalnar in 2010.
“Today, the honourable high court ordered that Panda be presented in the high court on Monday and that if it emerges during the hearing that he wishes to go with his family then he will be free to do so right from the court premises,” a spokesperson of the Bastar Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti (BSSS) – an activist group that had helped file the habeas corpus – told reporters on Thursday.
According to local witnesses, Panda was reportedly picked up by the police on May 3 between Chintagufa and the neighbouring village of Minpa. According to his wife, Podiyam Muiye, who addresses a separate press conference in Raipur on Wednesday, police claims about his surrender are a blatant lie.
Many Chintagufa villagers had admitted seeing the police and a patrolling Central Reserve Police Force party beating up Panda on May 3 soon after his arrest. Since then, his family has unsuccessfully tried to meet him at the police station multiple times. On May 10, the police accepted some clothes that Panda’s wife brought but did not allow her to meet him, prompting her to file a habeas corpus petition at the Bilaspur High court on May 12.
Panda is one of the most respected persons in Sukma district and has been instrumental in getting developmental work done in the region.
While working as sarpanch of his village, the CPI leader had been at the receiving end of both the Maoists and the police. For encouraging people of his village to join MGNREGA works and helping the government fix solar lamps in his village, the Maoists had allegedly kidnapped and tortured his brother.
The CPI, a parliamentary communist party that has participated in elections right from the first parliamentary polls of 1952, is opposed to the Maoists and their armed struggle.
Panda earned the wrath of the local police establishment for informing the press and human rights activists about state atrocities in Bastar, including the burning down of three villages – Tadmetla, Morpalli, and Timapuram in 2011 and the Samsetti rapes in 2013.
“The presence of the CRPF camp there (Chintagufa) is due to Panda’s help – he helped the CRPF level the land for a helipad with his tractor, and provided emergency rations to the jawans out of his own stock when their supplies did not come. He once saved the lives of seven CRPF jawans who had been kidnapped by the Maoists, arguing with them all night at risk to himself, and finally succeeded in getting them released,” says Nandini Sundar, who has been highlighting state abuses in Chhattisgarh for many years now, including via a PIL in the Supreme Court that eventually led to a ban on the Salwa Judum – the state-backed anti-Maoist vigilante movement that was responsible for large-scale rights violations across the Bastar region.
However, in 2010 when the controversial police officer S.R.P. Kalluri, the then senior superintendent of police in Dantewada, began a drive against CPI members in the aftermath of the Chintalnar ambush, including Kartam Joga – a co-petitioner in the Salwa Judum case – Panda was advised by a friendly police officer to remain underground, advice that may have been well intended but became the reason Panda turned into a fugitive. Though the courts eventually ordered the release of Joga and other CPI activists since the police had no actual evidence against them, Panda was forced to live a life in the jungles. Meanwhile, the police added his name to the list of those responsible for almost all major incidents of Maoist ambushes over the past seven years.
In the days following his alleged detention on May 3, the police remained tight-lipped about Panda’s detention in public but leaked the news of his arrest to the local media. At that stage, the police gave no indication that the former sarpanch had “surrendered”.
When the national press followed the story up, the police accepted Panda was in custody but that an arrest had not been made. A report in The Hindu quoted the deputy inspector-general of police (Dantewada range) P. Sundar Raj as saying that he has not been “arrested” yet.
Wife refutes police version
Refuting the police account of her husband’s “surrender”, Podiyam Muiye, currently the sarpanch of Chintagufa, told reporters that Panda was arrested on May 3 and described how the police tried to exert pressure on her family to withdraw her habeas corpus petition.
“Soon after we filed the petition, the police started to scuttle the process. Panda’s brother Komal was taken into custody when he reached Sukma after filing the petition. He was beaten and made to sign various papers without being allowed to read them,” said Muiye.
Before Komal was taken into custody, another of Panda’s brothers was summoned by the police and questioned.
Muiye also said that the Sukma police forced Komal to misinform her that he and Panda were safe and at their house in Chintagufa. “They wanted me to return from Bilaspur (where the Chhattisgarh high court is) to Sukma,” added Muiye.
On May 13, Panda himself called Muiye and asked her to come back from Bilaspur. He said that he had surrendered on May 9 but did not want to go back to Chintagufa. Panda also allegedly said that he was free to go anywhere but did not have the money to go to Bilaspur. Muiye said that Panda sounded stressed and it seems likely that he was forced by the police to deliberately mislead his wife.
Given the circumstances, Muiye feared returning to Chintagufa and decided to stay back in Bilaspur.
Muiye was speaking at a press conference organised by the BSSS, a collective of human rights and political activists. The BSSS dismissed the police charges against Panda and demanded that he and his family should be allowed to meet without the presence of the police so that the truth of his “surrender” comes out.
It also demanded that the Chhattisgarh government explain Panda’s illegal detention from May 3 to 17 May.
The activists alleged that Chhattisgarh police have been misusing the government’s surrender policy for Maoists for their own gains, and that this was evident in Panda’s case too.
“We know that only 3% of the total surrender cases are real. Everyone in Chhattisgarh knows about how the police concocts surrender stories in Chhattisgarh. The government should take those officers to task who plot such fake surrenders, so that this practice stops in the future,” said the BSSS.
Note: This story was updated on Thursday afternoon to include details of the Chhattisgarh high court order.
Note: Nandini Sundar is married to one of the founding editors of The Wire.