Mumbai: On March 9, 2021, when hundreds of Adivasi women from across different villages had gathered at Sameli village in the conflict-torn Dantewada district to mark International Women’s Day, a large group of paramilitary force personnel – aided by the local district police and District Reserve Guard (DRG) – arrived unannounced.
The gathering was abruptly scattered and the heavily armed force whisked away Hidme Markam in an SUV. Markam, a well-known forest rights and prisoners’ rights activist, was branded as a “dreaded Naxalite”. The police, in a press note, claimed that she carried a reward of Rs 1 lakh. She was shown wanted in five cases of violent Naxal attacks and murder.
Nearly two years of incarceration later, the police have failed to prove the charges. Markam has now been acquitted in four cases and granted bail in one. Her lawyer Xitij Dubey confirmed that a sessions court on January 4 acquitted her in the fourth case. In the fifth case, Dubey confirmed, the court had granted her bail a few months ago but Markam had waited to be acquitted in other cases to come out on bail. She was released from Jagdalpur Central prison on January 5 at 7 pm.
While four cases were handled by the state police, one case was investigated by the National Investigation Agency. Markam faced grave charges under the Indian Penal Code and the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), but none could be proved. The courts, one after another, turned down the prosecution’s case.
Markam, for over a decade, has been working in the Bastar region as a forest rights and prisoners’ rights activist. The March 9 event in 2021 – from where she was arrested – was organised in response to the alleged police violence that had led to a death of an 18-year-old woman, Pande Kawasi, in custody. Kawasi’s death was later shown to be a case of suicide.
The Wire, in November last year, published a detailed investigation of the ill-treatment and violence inflicted on the Adivasi youth under a controversial scheme ‘Lone Varattu’, which in the Gondi language – spoken by one of the largest Indigenous groups (Gonds) in India – means ‘coming back home’. Under the scheme, several tribal youths, like Kawasi, had been kept under illegal detention in Dantewada and had allegedly been married off against their will. Markam, along with other tribal rights leaders, including Soni Sori, had been aggressively campaigning against the scheme.
She has also been at the forefront of protesting against several coercive mining projects. As a pivotal part of the Jail Bandi Rihai Manch (Committee for the Release of Arrested Persons), Markam had been meticulously gathering information from every village and readying a case for the release of incarcerated persons – many of whom were arrested as part of excesses by the state and central forces in the region.
Markam is an unlettered woman and can only converse in her native Gondi. But because of her work, villagers trusted her and approached her every time there was an incident of state or Naxal excess in the region.
‘Evidence failed to prove involvement’
The first case that Markam was arrested in related to an armed attack on the police team in 2016. In another case from 2017, the police claimed that Markam was involved in the killing of a villager, who was first allegedly abducted and then murdered by the Naxals. “The trial, in this case, was already concluded and those arrested had already been acquitted by the sessions court. Markam was still arrested and made to face trial. She was eventually acquitted,” Dubey told The Wire. In the other three cases, she was charged with sections pertaining to attempt to murder and possession of arms or explosives, among others.
Except for the murder case, in which the victim’s family had testified, in other cases, the prosecution only had police witnesses to rely upon. “But these witnesses and the evidence shown in court failed to prove Markam’s involvement in the cases,” Dubey added.
Markam, who led a public life and had been traveling and participating in public demonstrations and was part of many fact-finding teams, was shown to be a “wanted accused” in these cases. Soon after her arrest, the then Dantewada superintendent of police, Abhishek Pallav, told The Wire that “Markam is a dreaded Naxalite who has not just subscribed to the ideology but also participated in several violent attacks.” In that interview, Pallav had further added that after the 2016 incident, Markam had been “under the police radar” and her phone calls were regularly intercepted and her movement closely monitored. Despite this, the police claimed that she committed several grave crimes in 2017, 2019 and 2020.
The NIA’s case, like the local police’s cases, was also in connection with an alleged “terror attack”. This, Dubey says, was one of the cases that she was acquitted in. Even though the police repeatedly failed to prove the charges, the Dantewada sessions court denied her bail. Her bail application in the Chhattisgarh high court too had been rejected. “So, we decided to stay focussed on her trial,” Dubey told The Wire. Fearing that Markam could be implicated in more cases, her legal team and activists had kept the court progress under wraps until her release.
In the pending case, Dubey said the court has already examined all witnesses. “Only the accused statement under section 313 of CrPC is to be recorded. This case too should be concluded in the next few days,” he said.
Markam, before her arrest, had been working closely with tribal rights activist Soni Sori, who also faced prolonged incarceration in the past. Sori has since been coordinating Markam’s trials and led many campaigns urging the state to drop all charges against her. Sori says Markam’s release vindicates their work spanning many decades. “The state continues to treat the tribal community as criminals and those raising voices are thrown into jail. We have, all along, maintained that Markam was a victim of state vendetta,” Sori told The Wire, as she waited outside Dantewada central jail to receive Markam.
Markam’s arrest had led to both national and international protests. A group of seven UN experts had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking her immediate release. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) had petitioned the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) seeking its urgent intervention in the matter and also led many campaigns both in Chhattisgarh and Delhi.
PUCL’s state president Degree Prasad Chouhan highlighted the reason behind Markam’s incarceration. “The intention is never to prove these cases but to stifle courageous voices like that of Markam. Like Markam, several Adivasi youths have been languishing in jail for speaking up against state atrocity,” he said.