New Delhi: Podiyam Panda, the former sarpanch of Bastar’s Chintagufa village and local leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI) whom the police alleges is a “link between the gun-wielding Maoists and those who support them from outside”, was produced before the Chhattisgarh high court in Bilaspur under heavy police escort on Monday, May 22.
With a group of policemen standing a few feet behind him, Panda told the judge he had not been beaten or tortured and did not want to return to his family.
The police have claimed that Panda is not under arrest but “surrendered” on May 9 and wants to stay in police custody and not with his family.
Panda’s wife, Muiye, has alleged that her husband is being forced to lie in court under police pressure.
At last week’s hearing of a habeas corpus petition filed by Muiye demanding the whereabouts of her husband, the police had failed to answer the judge’s question that if Panda had indeed “surrendered”, why was he still under police detention.
On May 17, the police after repeated instructions from the court, filed an affidavit saying that Panda, who surrendered on May 9, had sought police protection and is living in a police transit camp out of his “free will without any threat and coercion.”
The judge had, therefore, asked the police to bring him to the court on May 22.
The Wire had earlier reported how Panda, who belonged to the CPI – a party which has been contesting elections since 1952 – was forced into leading the life of a fugitive after the Bastar police allegedly framed him under false charges.
Many witnesses have claimed that Panda was picked up by a CRPF patrol party and the Sukma police on May 3. They had also claimed that Panda was beaten up by the security personnel before being flown in a helicopter to the police station. Yet the police kept denying his arrest and prevented his family from meeting Panda for days. At the same time, the police leaked the news of his detention to the regional media but denied having “arrested” him.
It was only after Panda’s wife Muiye filed a habeas corpus petition that the Sukma police held a press conference in which it officially circulated the information that Panda had surrendered on May 9 and had given important information about an ‘urban network’ of Maoists. Though Abhishek Meena, the Sukma superintendent of police, told reporters that the police could not provide any names as Panda’s information had to be “verified”, he claimed Panda had told the police about arranging meetings with Maoists for Delhi University professor Nandini Sundar and senior research scholar Bela Bhatia – both of whom have been at the forefront of highlighting human rights abuses and atrocities perpetrated by the Bastar police against adivasis.
Sundar, along with others, had moved the Supreme Court through a PIL which eventually led to the ban of the state-backed vigilante group Salwa Judum, responsible for large-scale human rights violations, in 2012.
Panda too had been informing journalists and activists of the glaring human rights violations perpetrated both by the Maoists and the security personnel. As a result, he had been at the receiving end of both the parties. Had it not been for Panda’s leads, the CRPF’s brutal act of arson and loot of three villages – Tadmetla, Morpalli and Timapuram in 2011 – or the Samsetti rapes in 2013 would not have come out in the national media.
In fact, Panda’s family has also been targeted by the Maoists for supporting state-backed welfare activities in Bastar. For instance, Panda’s brother and wife were abducted by the Maoists, produced before their own ‘jan adalat’, tortured and fined for cooperating with the administration.
It is in this context that activists, who have been following incidences in Bastar, have claimed that not only have the police framed false charges against Panda – who was a three-term sarpanch of Chintagufa until 2010 and who now is an accused in 19 crimes – but have also termed the story of his “surrender” which is being circulated by the police as fake.
Muiye has alleged that her family is being harassed by the police ever since she filed her habeas petition. Two of Panda’s brothers were tortured by the police, she said, one of whom is still missing.
Panda’s family has alleged that at least four other people – Podiyam Sushil and Podiyam Hurra, who are minors, and Vetti Mala and Hadma – were picked up on May 3 along with Panda but none of them have been produced before the magistrate.
The police produced Panda under pressure from the court nearly three weeks after he was taken into custody and ten days after the petition was filed by Muiye.
On the morning of May 22, Panda was brought to court under heavy police presence and was not allowed to meet his family and friends. This despite the police having told the court that Panda was free to go and was not under any coercion. To all the questions regarding Muiye’s allegation that he was tortured by the police, Panda replied in a monosyllabic “No”.
Panda also told the court, although reluctantly, that he would like to stay with the police and not with his family. The judge, however, did not ask Panda whether he surrendered or was picked up.
In a press statement, Sundar said that despite the judge allowing Panda to meet his family, Sukma’s assistant superintendent of police Jitendra Shukla, who accompanied Panda to the court, abused his wife, his children, CPI leader Manish Kunjam and his lawyers, Shalini Gera and Sudha Bhardwaj.
Shukla told them that they would have to file another habeas corpus petition if they wanted to meet Panda. In a brief moment when Muiye managed to sneak in to meet Panda, she said that her husband was trembling with fear and admitted to being tortured and under tremendous pressure.
In what could be seen as contempt of court, Shukla, later in the day, told the press that Panda informed the court that Gera and Bhardwaj were keeping Muiye captive and preventing her to meet him. He also said that Panda had filed an application with the police asking them to take action against his wife’s lawyers.
Lawyers who were present at the court said that no such statement was made by Panda before the judge and alleged that Shukla was misinforming the press. In fact, they said, Muiye had held two press conferences – one at Raipur and the other at Bilaspur – alleging that Panda was under high duress and is likely giving false statements under pressure from the police.
In a press statement on Monday evening, Sundar posed a series of questions about the police version of events:
- How can the police explain the gap between May 3 when Panda was picked up and May 9 when he is claimed to have surrendered?
- Why did the court not ask the police about this?
- Why did the court not enable his family to meet him before giving a statement or allow him to change his statement after meeting his family?
- It has been held by the SC and is also established procedure that a person should not be taken straight from long duration police custody to give a statement, without a cooling off period where they are not in police custody.
- Are the police claiming that he needs protection from his own wife and children?
- How likely is it that a man would rather stay with the police than with his own wife and children?
- Why did the court not order a medical examination despite his family’s claim that he was being tortured?
- If he was free, as the ASP Sukma claimed, why did the ASP prevent him from meeting his wife?” asked Sundar.
Citing a number of legal precedents, she said that “the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that a statement made by a person who is in police custody and thinks they will go back to police custody cannot be relied upon as being the whole truth. The fear of return to police custody may inhibit a free and frank statement, even to a court.”
The controversy and doubts that have emerged around Panda’s alleged arrest and surrender have opened a Pandora’s box for the Chhattisgarh government. With around 97% of such surrender cases having been established by an official review to have been false, the cloud around Panda’s surrender puts a question mark on the state’s surrender policy.
Taking note of the controversy surrounding the case, human rights activists, for the sake of a free and fair trial, have demanded that the Chhattisgarh high court record Panda’s statement again without police presence, after giving Panda adequate time in judicial custody. They also said that the court must order a medical test outside the state so that allegations of police torture on him could be independently verified.
Note: Nandini Sundar is married to one of the founding editors of The Wire.