Lawari, Gadchiroli (Maharashtra): The 110 kilometre drive from the district headquarters to Gadchiroli’s last village in Kurkheda tehsil is a rickety ride. The concrete roads slowly recede the closer the car comes to Lawari. The last four-km stretch is an unstable mud road, making the village almost inaccessible, unless guided by a local.
But the remoteness of this area did not deter the villagers from taking on the state’s most powerful police unit – the anti-Naxal cell – when 27- year old Dasharath Gawade, a tribal from the Gond community, was picked up after a “Naxal surrender” on December 15, 2017. The surrender was organised by the district’s C-60 commandos (the Maharashtra police’s special anti-Naxal unit) and Gawade was kept in illegal confinement for 65 days.
His wife, Sunita, didn’t let the matter go. She says the so-called surrender was clearly illegal and moved the magistrate’s court, which agreed. In possibly the first instance of the kind, on February 17, magistrate N.C. Borphalkar of the judicial magistrate first class (JMFC) court in Gadchiroli ordered Gawade’s immediate release.
On December 22, almost all the local media in Gadchiroli had written about the ‘major feat’ of the district police in getting the “senior Naxalite” Gawade’s decision to “voluntarily surrender” before the ‘screening-cum-rehabilitation committee’ headed by the district collector Shekhar Singh. This was eight days after his actual detention. Gawade, according to the Gadchiroli police’s Naxal cell, was involved in an armed movement between 2012 to 2015 and had participated in at least “two fire exchanges”. His “disillusionment” and the “police’s sustained follow-up” had made him take the decision to surrender, the police claimed.
But soon after this fake surrender, a disturbing pattern of coercion and police torture began to emerge. “I was kept confined in a dingy room for two months. They would question me for hours about my Naxal connections. When I told them I was innocent, they beat me severely,” Gawade told The Wire, four days after his release.
Gawade lives with his wife and a 10-month old girl child in his family home in Lawari village. The eldest of four sons, Dasharath is responsible for tilling the four-acre farm family land and sells the produce in a local market. Gawande told The Wire – and this is something that every villager that this reporter spoke to vouched for – that he had never left the village for more than a day or two, leave alone enter an armed movement and live in the forest for three years.
He is now back in his village after spending over two months in the “surrendered Naxal rehabilitation camp”, but recalls well the events that began on December 15, 2017, when a team of 10 men dressed in casual clothes, knocked on his door at 5.30 am. “They identified themselves as C60 (commandos) and two of them claimed to be from the nearby Purada police station. They called it a routine inquiry and asked me to come along to Gadchiroli police headquarters. They said I would be released by 3 pm the same day,” Gawade said. “But, I knew that if I go with the police, I am never returning home again.”
And so it turned out.
The police officials did not seek his consent, nor did they provide him with a reason for taking him. Since there was no criminal case registered against him – and there never had been one – Gawade said he resisted his detention. As the police began dragging him, Sunita clung on to her husband and demanded that she be taken along too. Other relatives and villagers stayed back to find out the cause of Gawade’s detention and ways to get him released.
“I did not let the police enter the house. I was afraid they would plant something and later call it an evidence against my husband. When they tried to forcibly take my husband away, I insisted they take me along too. I began howling, and fearing the commotion, they let me come along,” Sunita says.
On reaching the Gadchiroli police headquarters, Sunita was stopped at the entrance and Gawade was ushered into a room, which Sunita says looked like an “enquiry room”. “They asked me to return home and get his ration card and Aadhaar card. I kept insisting that they tell us the cause for his detention. The police would not respond. Then at around 2 pm, we were told he would be shown as a surrendered Naxal,” Sunita recalls.
Surrendering, or as the state government calls it, ‘Aatmasamarpan’, of a Naxal is a long-drawn-out process. As per this scheme, launched in 2005, a person, who has been involved directly, or has indirectly supported the armed movement, gets a ‘chance’ to return to normal life on undergoing rehabilitation at the police’s camp for two months, and spending the next 10 months outside village limits. The surrendered person is paid Rs 4.5 lakh as a reward, in instalments, for this decision.
In the past decade or so, the state has allotted a large sum for this programme, along with separate central funds, and over 700 armed rebels have surrendered “voluntarily”, as per official claims. The state home department recently approved the extension of the ‘Aatmasamarpan’ scheme for Naxals till August 28, 2019.
Sunita says that at superintendent of police (SP) Abhinav Deshmukh’s office, she was constantly reminded of the benefits her family would get out of this move. “They said, I will become a lakhpati (millionaire) overnight, if I stayed quiet.” The police, Sunita claims, asked her and the other villagers who had by then reached the police headquarters to “cooperate” and let Gawade be at the camp for two months. “I could have chosen to stay quiet, take lakhs of rupees, let my husband return after a year and lead a contented life. But I also knew this came at the cost of my dignity and a permanent blot on my husband’s character. I did not want that to happen to us at any cost,” Sunita says emphatically. Outside the police headquarters, with her husband in some sort of police custody without any legal reason, she decided she would fight back.
“The police insisted I hand over my husband’s identification documents. I did not yield to their pressure. I took my in-laws and other villagers in confidence and told them that together we had to foil their (the police’s) nefarious plan.” While Sunita went on meeting local leaders and then lawyers in Gadchiroli and Nagpur, her husband remained clueless of the efforts she was making. “Before leaving from Gadchiroli (police headquarters), I told my husband, I will get him out soon and that he should have faith in me. That was the last time I spoke to him in those two months,” Sunita recalls. From December 15- 21, the police did not declare Gawade’s detention and on December 22, they called for a press conference and spun a story around his voluntary surrender, and this was widely carried in the media in the area.
Gawade’s lawyer Jagdish Meshram says it was a tricky case. “Sunita was ready to fight, but we had no clue if the police would be able to break Dashrath’s spirit. After all, he was kept in a confinement for two months with no contact with his family members or with anyone in the outer world.” Unlike the usual process of filing a habeas corpus in the high court, Meshram moved the JMFC court in Gadchiroli under section 97 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Since this section is most commonly used for child custody in matrimonial discord cases, the police considered this a feeble attempt by Sunita and her lawyer. “They are usually alert when we move the high court and come prepared. Extra care is taken to cover up. But since we moved the magistrate court, the police took it lightly. And this worked in our favour,” Meshram says.
On February 17, the magistrate ordered Gawade’s immediate release and concluded he was kept under illegal confinement for 64 days. This was done after Gawade told the court he was detained against his will. “I did not surrender to the police. I was never involved in any Naxal activities,” Gawade told the court during his examination.
The court observed, “It is clear that the stay and observance of Dashrath seems to be confinement. So, he deserves to be released forthwith. Hence, I pass the following order in the interest of justice.”
The Wire tried to contact Gadchiroli’s SP Deshmukh, under whose supervision this surrender was carried out. His office said that he was in Hyderabad undergoing “training”. Additional SP Maheshwar Reddy, who is in charge of the district police, claimed that they had carried out the surrender exercise following all “due processes”. “Gawade had agreed to surrender. We had counselled him for a week and only then had presented him before the collector’s committee. But he seems to be under tremendous pressure from the Naxals and had to retract his statements.” Reddy further added that they would look into the mater afresh and examine the role played by other Naxals and his wife in the incident.
Javed Iqbal reports from Gadchiroli ground zero about the Adivasi struggle against ‘development’ that displaces
Rehabilitation camp a living hell
The ‘rehabilitation camp’ – where the Naxals who want to surrender are housed in a three-storey fortress-like structure built near the police headquarters – has dozens of people confined here, according to a local police source. Its entrance is heavily manned by armed policemen. This reporter was denied access to the building for “security reasons.”
Gawade says his stay at this camp was like living in hell. “Ti jaagha narka peksha kamhi navhati (It was nothing less than hell).” He was kept alone in a small room which had no fans or ventilation. The only time he was allowed to step out was when he was taken to the “senior policeman’s office”, whose name he does not know. Gawade also alleges that he was beaten up severely and forced to sign the surrender papers. “They would come to the cell every day and beat me. They insisted I sign blank papers. When I refused, they threatened to kill me in an encounter”, says Gawade, who has has been suffering from severe backaches, which he says began after he was hit on the spinal cord.
According to Gawade, he was taken out of the camp to a forest, 15- minutes’ drive from the camp, twice. “Three days after my detention, I was taken to the forest by five policemen. They asked me to get out of the vehicle and run in the forest. They said we will kill you tonight and no one will come to know. I was really scared,” he recalled. A fortnight later, Gawade said, he was taken to the same forest once again. “This time they had clearly asked me to choose – either sign the papers and agree to surrender or we will kill you in an encounter.”
But on February 17, when Gawade was asked in the court about the ill-treatment, he did not speak up. “I was scared. They had warned me that if I spoke against them, they would kill me and my family,” he told The Wire.
The reward for surrender
As a standard practice, every surrendered individual stays here for a period of two months. During this period, the anti-Naxal cell interrogates the individual for days, collects intelligence, takes stock of the cases against the individual, if any; and finally, a decision is taken on the cases in which the person would be tried and in which he could appeal for pardon. Such surrender policies are prevalent in Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
Most “surrendered” Naxals at the camp, according to Gawade, are Telugu-speaking men. “They have been there for months. They handle the kitchen and also work as security personnel. Most of the information about my detention and the possibilities of my release were relayed to me by these men,” he said.
In order to make the surrender look real, along with illegally detaining Gawade, the police had also hastily opened a savings account with the local ‘Gadchiroli District Co-operative Bank’, situated right opposite the police headquarters. It turns out, for every surrender, the police have been opening an account with this branch and the reward money is then deposited in their accounts in instalments.
According to the bank branch manager, A. K. Patre, Gawande’s account was opened following the bank’s stipulated Know Your Customer procedure. “This account was opened after the police produced him before the bank and his signature along with other documents were procured.” Gawade, however, has dismissed Patre’s claims and in his deposition before the court, said he was never taken to the bank and nor was the signature on the bank papers his. “The signature on the bank passbook was in Marathi. I sign in English,” Gawade told The Wire. The court, too, has accepted Gawade’s statements after the police failed to produce the original copies of the documents.
The staged surrender drama
This is not the first surrender in Lawari village. Two months before Gawade, a 25-year-old woman, Kamala Gawade, was picked up in an identical fashion. “They came in large numbers at the crack of dawn, asked us to surrender our daughter and said they would get her back safely in two months,” recalls her mother Sukumari. The family was also promised money.
Kamala was kept at the camp for two months until December 25; a bank account was opened for her and Rs 2.5 lakh was deposited in that account. The remaining Rs 2 lakh is yet to be paid, Sukumari told The Wire.
Although Kamala had not volunteered to surrender, the monetary transaction and lack of any legal support pushed her into silence. The family feels confused about how to deal with the episode. When asked if her daughter was a Naxal, Sukumari promptly says ‘no’. But as an afterthought she says, “She had gone away for four years.” When asked for a timeline, Sukumari said, “a long time ago.” A few minutes into the conversation Sukumari said, “No, my daughter was never in the movement and does not have any cases registered against her.”
Kamala now lives with her uncle in the neighbouring Korchi taluka since she is restricted from entering her village for the next one year. Her family has, meanwhile, arranged for her to get married.
Antu Kumote, a former sarpanch of the village and an active leader here told this reporter that each of these surrender stories have uncanny resemblances to each other. “They stress on the Rs 4.5 lakh reward so much that the families end up feeling it is better to accept the money than put up a fight against the system.”
Government scheme and its follies
In 2003, as part of its anti-Naxal drive, the state government began rewarding the gram sabhas that managed to chase away armed rebels and make themselves a “Naxal-free village”. Once declared Naxal-free, the village was to be awarded Rs 3 lakh to introduce welfare schemes. In the last 15 years, out of Gadchiroli’s 1681 villages, 872 villages have already been declared ‘Naxal- free’.
The Naxal-free village scheme and voluntary surrenders are carried out simultaneously. However, local activists allege that both schemes are rigged. “Just like the fake surrender drama, most villages here which never had even the smallest trace of Naxal activities are declared Naxal-free under this scheme and granted money. The state wants to show they have handled the menace without really addressing the real issue,” said Amol Marakwar, the district representative of the Communist Party of India (CPI).
According to the Gadchiroli District Rural Development Agencies (DRDA), which is in charge of evaluation and fund disbursement under the scheme, in 2017- 18 alone, the state had earmarked Rs 5.79 crore to be distributed in 193 villages. But so far only 90 villages have agreed to accept the funds. “We have been following up with 103 villages to collect the money; if they do not, the funds will lapse,” said Gajanan Dahikar, a consultant at the DRDA office.
The lure of funds, for individuals and villages, can be tremendous. Besides, taking on the state is not an easy task. But as Dasharath Gawade’s case shows, not everyone is ready to accept a reward that comes with a rider attached – admitting to being a Naxalite and then surrendering, more so since the claim of the state apparatus is fabricated. And the Gawade couple hopes after their victory, the police will think twice before they falsely implicate any other innocent Adivasi.
“We only hope other victims learn from our struggle and do not give in to the police pressure. There is no other way but to fight back,” Sunita said.