I visited Bastar this February and learnt first-hand how the criminal justice system operates in conflict zones.
When I flew to Raipur, I knew that Bijapur was verboten. But I did not realise how quickly Jagdalpur, home to the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG) would also become the site of an intense battle for spaces.
I arrived in Raipur on Valentine’s day, which had morphed into Matru-Pitru Diwas. A few defiant youngsters passing on their bikes whooped “Happy Valentine’s Day” at me. I noticed that police were deployed at parks and public places, and were refusing entry to single males and young couples.
Killings by the CRPF
On a more serious note, it was also the day when cross-examinations took place before the one-man Sarkeguda Commission.
A retired high court judge, V K Agarwal, had been inquiring into the killings of 10 adults and seven children by the CRPF on June 28, 2012. The official narrative was that the CRPF fired in retaliation to an attack by armed Maoists. This was determinedly refuted by villagers. The villagers maintained that a group from three villages had gathered in an open field near Sarkeguda for bija pandum, a sowing ritual, when they were fired upon. It took concerted efforts on the part of many individuals before the commission was finally set up and hearings got underway in December 2013.
During the cross examination on February 14, the police produced their witness, Punem Mangu, supposedly a surrendered Maoist. He affirmed the incident occurred in the month of June. But then, under questioning by Isha Khandewal of JagLAG, he was unable to tell which month precedes June. Nor did he know the name of any month besides June. He failed to identify any of his former rebel counterparts and fumbled in providing clarifications on what he had submitted in his affidavit. The lawyers maintain Mangu was never a Maoist and was being tutored by the police to appear as witness.
Two days later, I met Heera (name changed), one of the women who had doggedly persisted in trying to get the inquiry against the Sarkeguda killings, going up to Delhi with a group of villagers to testify.
Heera was enroute to Dantewada jail to meet Madkam Hadma. Overflowing with inmates, the jail is 409% over its capacity.
Hadma’s case is not unusual, says his lawyer, Shalini Gera of JagLAG. Close analysis of the case reveals why the jails of Bastar division are so crowded and why under-trials, many of them labelled as dreaded “Naxalis”, languish for years before acquittal.
Gera explained how JagLAG got involved with this case. “The Sarkeguda villagers knew us well because of the commission. On March 28, 2015 we got a call by some of them saying that people had been picked up by the CRPF and detained at the large Basaguda CRPF camp.”
Whilst the police still has a public role to play and one can press them for information, this is not the case with the CRPF. Even so, the lawyers persisted. They were eventually able to contact the camp in Bijapur district, 150 km away from Jagdalpur. CRPF personnel claimed they don’t hold people, which, legally speaking, is true. They do not have powers to detain and must hand suspects over to the police.
“We were insistent, however,” said Gera, “At 8.30 pm they said they had checked with Basaguda camp but no civilians were being held.”
The matter was then forgotten. Six days later, Heera arrived from Sarkeguda to provide a more complete picture.
She said a cousin brother from Chinnegelur, one of the interior villages that lie in the Naxal belt, had come to her village to help build her home for wages, as is customary among Adivasis. On March 27 there were minor IED explosions near the camp. This angered the CRPF who raided the village early the next morning. Men were rounded up. Two of them, including Hadma, were taken away. The other man was released but Hadma was severely beaten at the CRPF camp. He was made to lie down whilst troops stomped on the palms of his hands, splaying them back and forth. Blades were used along the soles of his feet.
He was then shifted to the police station, perhaps just after the lawyers had begun making their calls to the camp. The torture continued.
Hadma was only then told he was being arrested for causing the explosions. In despair he tried to commit suicide. Gera said, “Hadma told us this when we met him in the jail. He says he tried to stuff his lungi into his mouth and gag himself.”
He was shifted to the civil hospital in Bijapur, and then hastily produced in court after he regained consciousness. The court took no cognizance of his visible injuries. After the trial, he was sent back to hospital flouting criminal procedures that stipulate that once a man has been produced in court he comes under its jurisdiction and the police cannot take him anywhere without informing the court.
Since his injuries were still visible when the legal team visited Hadma in jail, they wanted to establish torture and put an application in the Bijapur court. The judge was on leave and the Dantewada judge kept making excuses to not issue orders. When the Bijapur judge returned from leave, he ordered a medical examination for Hadma, but the order took eight days to reach Dantewada jail authorities. The civil hospital, too, refused to act speedily. The result was that 20 days passed, the injuries healed, and the medical evidence was lost.
The charge sheet arrived three months later. But since a judge had been transferred, there was no vacant judge. There could be no hearings for nine months. The police claimed in the charge sheet that Naxalites had been firing at the CRPF camp and they fired back. Some witnesses spotted Hadma and recognised him as a Naxalite since names, they claimed, were being shouted out by the Naxalites. Hadma, they added, had run away. Strangely enough, he was conveniently found in a jungle two days later on March 29.
The case is floundering. Two SPOs who are said to have been eyewitnesses and recognised Hadma now maintain they gave no names. They say firing was taking place one kilometer away and so they could not see anyone or hear the names the Naxalites were purportedly calling out to each other.
What is alarming about the case is that it typifies the way the justice system leans entirely towards the police version. And that courts remain mute spectators. The fact that the villagers of Sarkeguda were witness to Hadma being picked up from the village and not the forest, that he was in the village on the day of the IED explosions and so could not be held responsible, and finally that the women presented themselves in front of the collector and SP to give their version and signed an affidavit, had no effect on the court.
Gera said wryly: “It is the police and security forces who determine who will be picked up and how vigorously they want to pursue the case. Here, they haven’t bothered to even tutor the witnesses. It would appear that Hadma’s “fault” is that he happens to belong to an interior village and just happened to be in a place where the explosions occurred. The case is collapsing on its own. It’s not because we are brilliant lawyers. We wanted to establish torture, which we couldn’t do.”
But it is precisely these efforts to reveal the inadequacies of the justice system that put JagLAG in the line of fire.
Sudha Bharadwaj, Chhatisgarh’s noted human rights lawyer and trade unionist, observed how there are two aspects to the justice system. One involves the routine procedures of going to court, trying to secure bail, trial proceedings and so on. The second is trying to address the injustices within the justice system – experiments in setting up judicial commissions, trying to establish torture, and questioning the interminable delays while a desperately poor man languishes in jail till acquittal.
What perhaps aroused the ire of the establishment was the way in which these practices brought the police and the state’s accountability under the scanner. And that triggered the war for spaces. Taking refuge in the air of impunity that surrounds them in a conflict zone, the police escalated the intimidation and lawless actions from February 17 onwards.
Despite assurances given by the inspector general of police, S.R.P. Kalluri and superintendent of police R. N. Dash that there would be no difficulties for journalists and lawyers in Bastar in carrying out their professional duties, Prachi, the young domestic help of journalist Malini Subramaniam was called in for prolonged questioning at the police station. In violation of the norms for questioning women, she was kept there till late evening. That same night at 10.30 pm, a policeman came to the house of the JagLAG landlord, who lives in an adjoining building and asked him to come to the Kotwali police station. At 1.30 am he was dropped back in a police van, without his car in which he had gone to the police station.
Visibly shaken, he told the JagLAG team that they, the team, would have to leave in a week’s time. Belonging to a minority community and of modest means, his livelihood is dependent on his car. By the morning of February 18, it was clear that the intimidation would not stop until the team had vacated the house as soon as possible – perhaps as soon as two days. The landlord was summoned yet again and asked if he knew the landlord of the social activist Bella Bhatia.
The official line of the police was that eviction is a private matter between a landlord and his tenants. But that did not explain why various policemen in civilian clothes found it necessary to drive into the galli in which the landlord’s home and JagLAG office cum residence is situated. Or why a policeman spent half the day in a kirana shop near the office.
Gera, Khandelwal, and Bhatia met with the collector of Jagdalpur and the commissioner in the evening and informed Special DG (Anti Naxal Operations) D. M Awasthi of the situation. Despite this, the next day the police went to the village in which Bella Batia lives and proceeded to take photographs of her room.
A rally by the vigilantist group Samaj Ekta Manch went by later in the evening, shouting slogans, but did not enter the galli. Late at night, the landlord’s car was released.
The battle on the turf intensified when the lawyers found that besides losing their home spaces, efforts were renewed to prevent them from going to the courts. On February 19, the Bastar District Bar Association held a meeting and passed a resolution saying any local lawyer who co-signed a memo of appearance with JagLAG would be thrown out. Those who had already signed were told to withdraw their signatures within 10 days. An earlier attempt in October 2015 to prevent these local lawyers had been challenged by Gera and Khandelwal, and in November, the Chhattisgarh State Bar Council had passed an interim order allowing them to practise. But this order has cut no ice with the Bastar District Bar.
Amidst feverish packing, a press conference was held to inform the people of Jagdalpur. The press conference went well despite the infiltration of some members of the Samaj Ekta Manch. The legal team also had to visit their clients in jail and hand over their cases to other lawyers. A major concern for many clients now is the affordability of fees.
One visitor to the JagLAG house on their last day in Jagdalpur was the brother of Santosh Yadav, the journalist who has been behind bars since September 29, 2015. The charge sheet had just arrived, but it was not possible to look at it, so another lawyer would have to handle the case.
Attack on Soni Sori – a dark moment in Chhatisgarh
Among those who came to say their emotional farewells was Soni Sori, the Adivasi activist.
Sori, who had been warned not to venture into Bijapur, told me that her biggest sorrow was that the Samaj Ekta Manch and ex-Salwa Judum leaders were again trying to divide the Adivasi population. That was why she did not want to respond to the name-calling and ugly slurs.
She left on a two-wheeler at 9pm with an attendant, young Rinky.
The tension of the last few hours sharpened with rumours and the circulation of a threat to the latest entrant to the JagLAG team – Devesh Agnihotri, who had joined only at the beginning of the month. Exhausted and wary of what might happen, the team left Jagdalpur around 10 pm. Shortly thereafter WhatsApp messages began flashing the blackened face of Sori.
Three men had attacked two unarmed women and poured chemical substances on Sori’s face.
The administration, despite so many appeals, had let them do so.
These are truly dark times in Chhatisgarh.