Even as reports are pouring in from Chhattisgarh of the police staging the surrenders of hundreds of alleged Maoists – who in actuality are innocent villagers either lured by the paltry reward of Rs 10,000 or intimidated by the police – in neighbouring Odisha, the ‘surrender’ pattern may be a little different but the cacophonic charade is no different.
In their latest display of machismo, the state police and CRPF officials at a January 5 press conference in Bhawanipatna presented to the media their ‘fresh catch’, a 24-year-old adivasi woman named Kalamdei Majhi. The police claimed Kalamdei was a member of the Bamsadhara-Nagavali-Ghumsur division of the banned CPI (Maoist) and that she had surrendered that very morning.
However, two days earlier, on January 3, while speaking with Satya Mahar, a rights activist and the district convenor of the Aam Admi Party, I had learnt that an adivasi girl had been picked up by the police at 3 a.m. on December 29 from her village, Tal Panchkul in the Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary – a fact that was corroborated by two local reporters. The reporters also said that the girl had been kept in police custody for days without being produced before a court, a fact that was known in the area. Since the police had not officially divulged the details of her arrest to the media, reporters were in two minds about reporting the incident; in the past some reporters had been harassed by the police and the district administration for reporting on certain incidents that the police wanted to hush up.
“The claim at the press meet that Kalamdei is a Maoist and that she had ‘surrendered’ before the police is a brazen lie to cover-up the unconstitutional act the police had committed by picking her up and and keeping her in illegal detention for days,” said Lingaraj Azad, a rights activist and national general secretary of the Samajvadi Jan Parishad. “Everyone here knows that the girl was forcibly taken away by the police from her home in Tal Panchkul at night few days back; that is not how someone ‘surrenders’. Then she was illegally kept in custody for eight days until the police thought that they had adequately trained her to make a statement to suit their fabricated plot,” he added.
At the press meet, many reporters confronted the Superintendent of Police, Brijesh Rai, about the alleged illegal detention of the woman. The SP simply repeated that Kalamdei had surrendered that morning.
‘There isn’t much that a reporter here could do apart from asking a question or two, unless you are ready to endure the mental harassment by the police and administration that would follow,’ said a local reporter on condition of anonymity.
‘The girl was not even able to speak properly; she looked terrified and puzzled. The police did most of the talking and claiming,’ says Aslam, a Bhawanipatna-based reporter.
As in any press meet organised by the police after the ‘surrender’ of a woman Maoist, Kalamdei too claimed mental and sexual exploitation by male comrades as the reasons for her leaving the camp.
But “she sounded very uncertain and incoherent in her statement to the press. She could not even answer simple queries like where exactly was the Maoist camp located which she was part of or how she found her way back all by herself,” says Aslam.
Lingaraj adds, ‘That means the police could not prepare her enough in eight long days to lie to the media with confidence. Truth does spill out how much you try to cover it up.’
What then made the police call a press meet so hurriedly? With no media reporting on her detention, Kalamdei could have been kept in custody until better ‘oriented’ with the manner the police wanted before being presented to the media.
According to Aslam, although the mainstream media was not reporting on her detention, people had started using social media, especially Facebook, from January 3 to bring attention to the case. That is likely to have forced the police to organise the press meet.
“Anyone could vouch for the fact that Kalamdei was picked up by the police from her village at the dead of the night and that this was not a ‘surrender’. The whole press meet was a drama by the police to counter the growing atmosphere of discontent against the police forces here after the fake encounter at Nisanguda village in which three innocent adivasis were gunned down in cold blood,” says Satya, adding a deeper perspective to the issue.
Tal Panchkul village is close to the Nisanguda where Jai Majhi (an elected panchayat member), Shukru Majhi and Hari Naik were gunned down in November by the police. The police tried to pass off the shootings as a ‘fierce and lasting exchange of fire’ with the Maoists. But two young boys, Ichchu Majhi and Arjun Majhi, who were with the men when they were killed, escaped from the spot despite being injured in the firing, and shared the truth about the incident with the local media.
In damage-control mode, the police took Ichchu and Arjun to the Burla Medical College for treatment. This also allowed the police to keep an eye on them. According to Lingaraj, on being discharged, the boys were kept in custody for days and threatened against divulging any more details of the shooting to the media or else they would be booked as Maoists.
Despite the police pressure, Ichchu and Arjun unambiguously described in a press meet how the police attacked them with guns while they were searching for a missing goat along with Jai, Shukru and Hari in the forest near Nisanguda. Although the two boys suffered bullet injuries, they were able to hide and then run to safety. They also claimed to have seen the policemen shoot the bodies of their companions to ensure they were dead. The incident was reported in the Odia mainstream media, and had evoked widespread criticism and condemnation.
“After the Nisanguda killings, the police have worked overtime to keep the villagers of Nisanguda, Tal Panchkul and Upar Panchkul terrorised so that they don’t speak out a word. Today, even the two brave boys – Ichchu and Arjun – have been made to keep their mouths shut. What bigger tragedy could you imagine when none other than Kalamdei’s father is scared to utter a word now even while his daughter is going through the worst possible ordeal surrounded by gun-toting strangers in a police station and is made to make a statement that she can’t make properly,” says Lingaraj.
“The police is desperately trying to create an image of villagers around Nisanguda being Maoists. This illegal arrest of the innocent girl is an attempt towards that only. We fear there might be more such arrests and more such press meets. And once they succeed in portraying a number of villagers as Maoists, they think they would be able to prove that the three villagers they killed in cold blood last month were also Maoists,’ says Satya.
Lingaraj adds, ‘But we are not going to let it happen. People will continue to fight for their rights and for justice.’
Kalamdei is not the first victim in Odisha of state repression in the name of fighting the Maoists. Ever since Operation Green Hunt began in 2009, hundreds of adivasis and Dalits have been arrested, with press meets organised to showcase the ‘fake surrenders’. Once in jail, they wait for years for their trials to begin, with virtually no one to help them with the necessary legal procedures that they cannot even comprehend. Dozens have been killed in the same manner as Jai, Shukru and Hari.
The police and paramilitary forces appear at their wits end to justify the huge amount of money being pumped in to carry on Operation Green Hunt. Hence, they fall back on such orchestrated surrenders and killings of innocent villagers to make it look as though they are engaged in a gruelling war against the Maoists.
Subrat Kumar Sahu is an independent filmmaker and journalist