Mumbai: On November 21, solicitor general of India Tushar Mehta made a peculiar comment in the Supreme Court. He claimed that the NGOs send their “own people” as a part of fact-finding teams and come to “predetermined conclusions” in their reports.
These reports are then converted into petitions in the court, he was quoted as saying by LiveLaw.
Mehta made these statements during the court’s hearing in an almost decade-old petition seeking legal action against the elite Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) unit of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), accused of killing eight people, including three minors, and injuring several villagers of Edesmetta in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district on the intervening night of May 17 and 18, 2013.
Mehta didn’t stop there. He even proposed, as per the LiveLaw report, that the court impose costs and initiate legal action against the petitioner in the case – human rights activist Degree Prasad Chouhan – for “perjury and fabrication of evidence” in accordance with the precedent set in another Chhattisgarh case involving leading rights activist and Gandhian, Himanshu Kumar.
Interestingly, when Mehta made these statements, he left out some of the most crucial aspects of the case. These include the fact that soon after the bloody incident, the state government itself had set up a one-member judicial commission, presided over by Justice V.K. Agarwal, a retired judge of the Madhya Pradesh high court.
Most importantly, this commission, after inquiring into the incident for close to eight years, submitted a report last year holding the armed forces responsible for killing innocent villagers in a “panic firing”.
Justice Agarwal’s report, which was submitted to the Chhattisgarh state cabinet in September 2021, was tabled before the assembly in March this year. Chouhan had moved the petition soon after the incident, when he was still a government employee teaching at a school along with raising human rights concerns from the region.
Justice V.K. Agarwal Commission Report by The Wire on Scribd
The Edesmetta incident occurred on the night of May 17, 2013, when the villagers were celebrating their annual ‘Beej Pandum’; a ritual sowing festival just before the rains. According to the eyewitnesses and relatives of those killed in the incident, personnel from CoBRA, a special ‘anti-Naxal’ force of the CRPF, who were out on a combing operation, had attacked the village during the celebrations.
Those killed included Karam Somlu (35); Punem Somu (30); Beeja Pandum priest Karam Pandu (37); Karam Guddu (10); Karam Masa (16); Karam Badru (8); and Punem Lakku (15). CoBRA constable Dev Prakash also died in the incident after he was hit by a bullet fired by one of his colleagues.
Justice Agarwal, in his report, pointed out that Prakash had fired 18 of the total 44 bullets that were fired by the armed forces. The report also concluded that Prakash could have been killed by a bullet fired by his troop and that there was no evidence to claim that the villagers had resorted to firing.
The detailed, 108-page report systematically documented the entire incident, backing it with the testimonies and evidence on the ground.
Speaking to The Wire, Chouhan recalled that the fight for justice for the villagers of Edesmetta has not been an easy one. Chouhan was still a school teacher in a government school at the time of the incident and had moved to the Supreme Court months after it happened.
“Our team (a fact-finding team comprising human rights defenders) had visited the place of the incident and it was clear that the villagers, including three children, were killed in a cold-blooded fashion. The petition, too, was based on these findings,” he told The Wire.
It is worth noting here that Rajaram Todem, a former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA from the Bijapur constituency, was also part of the fact-finding team lead by Chouhan.
Interestingly, the erstwhile BJP state government had stayed silent on the issue but the Ministry of Home Affairs (of the erstwhile UPA government) had filed a counter affidavit in 2014.
The counter-affidavit talked of the “violent ideology” professed by the Communist Party of India (Maoist). This was when the state government had set up an inquiry into the incident.
Chouhan, at the time, was an executive member of the state unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL); he is now the state president of the organisation. Several teams, including one from the Human Rights Forum (HRF), an Andhra Pradesh-based human rights organisation, visited the village soon after the incident and conducted a detailed fact-finding exercise.
Over the years, these organisations have built a formidable body of work, exposing state-sponsored violence and exploitation, especially in the conflict-inflicted areas of the country.
For the longest time, Chouhan’s petition saw no developments. But suddenly in 2019, the Supreme Court ordered for an independent Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) to be set up to investigate the killings. This is where things changed, Chouhan says. The SIT, instead of focusing on the reported crime, trained its sights on the petitioner.
Chouhan claims that he was questioned twice (the last time was on June 24, this year) and both times, the CBI, he says, focused on how and why he got access to the villages, which remain inaccessible to the police.
“As a human rights defender, working for over two decades, I visit the remotest of villages, intervening when there is a human rights violation,” Chouhan told The Wire. “Over the years, I have built contacts and most grassroots-level workers are aware of the work that both PUCL and I have been doing for years. It was amusing how the questioning focused on my work and not the crime.”
This is not the first time 40-year-old Chouhan, a first-generation learner belonging to a Dalit community, has been subjected to state scrutiny. As a part of the PUCL team, Chouhan has worked closely with many rights activists in the state, including labour rights lawyer and academic Sudha Bharadwaj.
After Bharadwaj was arrested for her alleged role in the Elgar Parishad case (and later released in December 2021), the National Investigating Agency questioned Chouhan. According to the NIA (the claim first was made by the Pune police), one of the letters allegedly found from the computer of an arrested accused in the Elgar Parishad case had mentioned Chouhan in it. The authenticity of these letters has already been questioned and debunked by many independent tech organisations.
Chouhan shared that the team had been to the village once and many crucial witnesses were left out.
“We offered to help in approaching crucial witnesses and also told the officers; it is important to build trust and spend more time in the village for people to come forward and share what had happened. But the CBI didn’t pay heed to our offer,” he alleged.
While Chouhan claims that the CBI has left out crucial pieces of evidence, Mehta says the agency’s investigation has reached the “final stage” and that the report will be submitted to the court on November 30. The case is scheduled for further hearing on December 9.
Since most witnesses were left out, Chouhan fears that the CBI would go by the CRPF’s claims that those gunned down were armed Naxalites and not innocent villagers. The state response to the incident, however, was telling.
Contrary to the claim made by the central force, the state government paid compensation to those killed and injured in the firing. The Justice Agarwal commission noted that this was would not have happened if the victims were really a part of the Maoist movement as there is no policy to pay the families of real Naxalites killed in police firing.