How not knowing Odia landed an innocent Bengali in jail: the sad but true story of Ranjit Sana.
Bhubaneswar: For the last eight years, 37-year-old Ranjit Sana has been an under-trial prisoner in the Jharpada jail of Bhubaneswar, Odisha, branded a hard core Maoist. But what Sana has consistently been saying to anyone who cares to listen is, “My name is Ranjit Sana and I am not a Maoist.” This may sound like a borrowed filmy line, but his story truly belongs in a horror film.
Sana’s history bears some similarity to the story of Sarabjeet Singh, whose family claimed he was an ordinary farmer who strayed across the border, but who was locked in a Pakistani jail and branded a terrorist. While Singh’s release became a matter of national honour, Sana’s case has been consigned to oblivion.
In today’s India, being branded a Maoist is almost worse than being branded a terrorist. People are afraid to stand by him fearing that they might also be referred as Maoists supporters. Sana is fighting his battle all alone, with only his aged father and his advocate, Bibhu Prasad Tripathy, for support.
When I first heard about Sana, I was curious to meet him. I contacted his advocate and met Sana in the Jharpada Jail. When I was introduced as a journalist, Sana’s eyes brightened with new hope. He greeted me saying in one breath, “Madam, I am not a Maoist. I am a common man. Please help me to get out from this place. I am missing my family, my old parents, my wife and my children. I have not done any crime. Please ask them to release me from here. I want to go home and never come back to Odisha.”
He went on to tell me his story, “I had come here in search of a job to earn some money and to help my father financially. But the police arrested me as a Maoist and put me behind bars. Sometimes I think that when God is unkind towards me why should I blame other human beings.” He tried to stop the tears that had started rolling down his face.
An ordinary mistake
Sana was a resident of Naya Chowk village of Howrah district in West Bengal. His 66-year-old father, Gobind Sana, owns a small sweet shop there. Since his parents, two brothers and their families, and his own family could not all survive on the income from that one shop, Sana, as the middle son, decided to migrate to earn more money. In February 2008, Sana came to Bhubaneswar and started working in the sweet shop of one Prasant Marik, a fellow Bengali. But after a few days, he felt homesick so he spoke to his father and decided to return home.
On February 23, 2008, he went to the Baramunda bus stop to catch the night bus to Naya Chowk. Sana spoke no Odia. He heard an announcement, starting with the word ‘naya’, so he thought that the bus was going to Naya Chowk. Two and a half hours later when the bus stopped, Sana got down and realised that he had landed in the wrong place, in Nayagarh town and not Naya Chowk in Bengal.
It was midnight and Sana was clueless about what to do next. At the bus stop he saw a small tea stall where two persons were standing. He asked for help in Bengali, and they answered in Odia and as the three of them were struggling to communicate, the police came and arrested him. Sana’s first thought was that he had been arrested because he spoke only Bengali, or because he had got down from a bus at midnight. But the real reason was something else entirely, and completely unknown to him.
Sweeping up strangers in Nayagarh town
On February 16, 2008, about a week before Sana was arrested, hundreds of Maoists attacked police establishments in Nayagarh and looted arms. Fifteen people were killed, including thirteen policemen.
I remember rushing with my camera crew at midnight to cover this incident. This was one of the biggest incidents of Maoist violence in Odisha; there was great indignation among the police and the public. A massive search operation was conducted to trace the Maoists in the forest, and entry and exit points to the city were closely monitored. All visitors were watched.
In this atmosphere it was not unnatural for the police to suspect a stranger with no apparent reason to be there. But Sana says the police arrested him without asking any questions. “I screamed and tried to tell them that I am not a criminal. I have not done anything wrong. But no one listened to me.”
When Sana did not reach Naya Chowk on February 24, his father got worried, and began to search for his son. Bhubaneswar yielded no clue. A ‘missing person’ report was published in different newspapers. It was only after a year, in 2009, when the Odisha police went to West Bengal to investigate the case, that the local police informed Gobind Sana about the arrest of his son. Gobind Sana told me, “I was terribly shocked to know that my son was arrested as a Maoist. It was only with much difficulty that I could meet Ranjit in jail. I found him completely traumatised and disheartened. Again and again he pleaded with me to get him released. I was also helpless.” Gobind tried to complete his sentence, but failed, his eyes welling up with tears.
Gobind Sana hired an advocate to defend his son, but found that he could not afford to pay his fees. He met the then secretary of the CPI(M), Odisha state committee, Janardan Pati, who asked him to meet advocate Tripathy. Tripathy is known for doing pro-bono cases for Dalits and Adivasis in Odisha. Gobind Sana went to him with the case sometime in June 2011.
Tripathy told me, “I believe that every accused person has a right to be defended; whether rich or poor, he or she should have access to the justice delivery system. Being moved by Ranjit’s plight, I considered it my professional and ethical obligation to take up the case.”
The profile of a wanted Maoist
The police FIR against Sana contains every possible charge in the IPC: Sections 121A (waging war), 122 (collecting arms with the intention of waging war), 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon), 149 (being a member of an unlawful assembly), 341 (wrongful restraint), 342 (wrongful confinement), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 324 (voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons), 325 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt), 326 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons), 307 (attempt to murder), 302 (murder), 396 (dacoity with murder), 436 (mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy house), 427 (mischief causing damage to the amount of fifty rupees). All of this read with Section 25 and Section 27 of the Arms Act, Section 3 of the Explosive Substance Act, Section 3 of Prevention to Damage of Public Property Act, and Section 7 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act.
It was only after Sana got bail in one case that his family and lawyer came to know of the other cases filed against him. In all, there were nine cases registered – four cases in Daspalla and five cases in Nayagarh. In the four cases filed in Daspalla, Sana was not even chargesheeted. In three out of the five cases filed in Nayagarh, Sana was acquitted as there was no incriminating material against him nor was anything recovered from him. Not a single witness has stated that he was involved in any crime. As of now, two cases are pending, in which 41 and 27 witnesses have been examined till date respectively.
Tripathy notes the clear violation of law during his arrest, “In D.K.Basu vs. State of West Bengal, the Supreme Court directed that the relatives of the arrested person should be informed at the earliest, and failure to do so would lead to prosecution for contempt, a task that they entrusted to high courts. In this case, the police informed his relatives only after one and a half years. In such cases, the arrest memo is usually fabricated, showing that relatives have been informed. It is equally likely that the magistrate simply ignored this detail. Neither the police nor the magistrate have ever tried to find out about the antecedents of the accused in this case.”
Since Sana first went missing, his family has been shattered. For the last eight years, his father has visited Bhubaneswar every two to three months, hoping that Sana will be freed. Sana’s wife is hopeful every time her father-in-law boards the train, only to be disappointed when he returns alone. Sana’s mother, Laxmi, told me: “Whenever I meet Ranjit in jail he cries like a child. We are a poor lower-middle-class family. Our life and happiness lies with our children… every time I see him crying, my chest is riddled with pain…..Though this is a hard time for our family, I know that my son is innocent and will be exonerated one day. But can your judiciary or indeed, anybody, bring back the days that he spent in jail? Can he lead a normal life after this trauma?”
His lawyer too is hopeful, but like his mother, argues that nothing can compensate Sana for his years of wrongful incarceration. “The police must be held accountable,” says Tripathy.
In theory, the law is based on the presumption that even if hundreds of criminals escape, one innocent should not be punished. But for Ranjit, like many others languishing in jail, this principle has no relation to his own reality.