Dantewada (Chhattisgarh): Hidme Markam’s arrest was inevitable.
Over the past decade, the 28-year-old Adivasi rights activist from Permapara in Burgum village of Dantewada district in southern Chhattisgarh had immersed herself in the people’s movement, fighting both the police and the Naxals in equal measure. There are hardly any villages in the conflict-torn Dantewada district that Markam hadn’t reached – gathering evidence of both police and Naxal excesses, and strategising ways to fight a legal battle. As a pivotal part of the Jail Bandi Rihai Manch (Committee for the Release of Arrested Persons), Markam, along with other tribal rights activists, has led some crucial agitations in the Bastar region over the last few years.
She knew she would soon become a target – every tribal rights activist confronting and speaking up against state repression in Bastar faces a similar fate. On March 9, when she and hundreds of other villagers had gathered at Sameli village in Dantewada to mark International Women’s Day, a large group of paramilitary force personnel, aided by the local district police and District Reserve Guard (DRG), suddenly appeared and took Markam away in an SUV.
Markam has since been lodged in the women’s section of the Jagdalpur central prison. The police have, so far, arrested her in a case relating to an armed attack on a police team in 2016; she is awaiting arrest in at least four more cases. Her family and supporters fear that the police, instead of seeking custody in all cases simultaneously, will deploy their usual tactic of arresting her in the next case right when she applies for bail in the first one. This way, they fear, the police can keep her in jail for at least a year, if not more. Among the other cases, one filed under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act is being investigated by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). According to the press note released soon after her arrest, she has been charged with sections pertaining to murder, attempt to murder and possession of arms or explosives, among others.
Markam’s arrest came at the time when agitations against false and prolonged incarceration and forceful acquisition of tribal land by corporate giants have been at an all-time high in the state.
On February 23, an 18-year-old woman, Pande Kawasi, had died allegedly by suicide while in police custody. The police claimed she was wanted in a Naxal case but Kawasi’s family has rubbished the accusation. The March 9 meeting was organised in response to Pande’s death and Markam was coordinating and leading the women’s day event.
Over a year ago, an ongoing protest against an iron ore mining project in the Bailadila mountains took a dramatic turn, with over 13,000 Adivasis converging at the Nandraj Pahad (mountain) to protest against the ‘coercive’ mining project. Here too, Markam was one of the leading voices.
When the Bhupesh Baghel-led Congress government came to power in the state in 2018, the release of Adivasi people booked in false charges was one of the first promises he made. The state also set up a committee, chaired by retired judge Justice A.K. Patnaik, to identify those false cases and recommend people for release. But barring a few releases under the state excise laws, very little work has happened in over two years.
As a part of the Jail Bandi Rihai Manch, Markam had been meticulously gathering information from every village and readying a case for incarcerated persons’ release. Soni Sori, a tribal and prisoners’ rights champion from Bastar, said that Markam’s arrest has a direct impact on the work done by their committee for the past year and a half. “She had all the data and information of every individual languishing in false cases in jail. We were in the process of putting a document together to submit to the Patnaik committee. Now that she is arrested, we will have to reorganise ourselves and find a fresh way to petition the committee,” Sori told The Wire.
The work done so far by the Jail Bandi Rihai Manch, Sori said, was endorsed by Baghel, who they had met in October 2019. “He (Baghel) had asked us to work out a parallel committee to help Justice Patnaik’s team in the release process,” Sori added. But now, Sori feels an attempt is being made to “criminalise” the Jail Bandi Rihai Manch itself.
The Patnaik committee was to review cases of over 6,000 prisoners, all belonging to Adivasi communities.The Jail Bandi Rihai Manch had managed to gather information on over 100 individuals.
The Jail Bandi Rihai Manch, although less than two years old, has managed to make its presence felt in even the remotest of villages. “So, when we called for public rallies or meetings, villagers would walk for kilometres to participate. On March 9 too, several hundred villagers from across different parts of Bastar were present at the meeting,” said Sujeet Karma, secretary of the Jail Bandi Rihai Manch. After Markam, Karma too is anticipating police action. He was recently questioned for several hours by the Dantewada police and has been summoned for an inquiry again. Karma called this a “police tactic” to derail any voices against state repression and brand them as “Naxals”.
Hidme Markam’s love for education
Markam is unlettered; she never went to school. She can only converse in Gondi – the language spoken by the Gond tribe in central India. Her village Burgum, with 12 paras and over 1,200 persons, has no school. But Markam’s younger sister Hiteshwari Markam said she knew “the power of education”. “She ensured our younger sister and I completed our schooling. She insisted every child in the village had access to education, health and other government schemes,” Hiteshwari said.
Hiteshwari has studied till class 10 and now works with the Swastya Vibhag (health department) in the village panchayat. With Markam’s arrest, Hiteshwari has had to step in, shouldering the family’s financial responsibilities. Her younger sister, Bajni Markam, is pursuing a diploma in education (D.Ed).
Journalist and rights activist Lingaram Kodopi recalls an incident when Markam had to mediate between villagers and Naxals for a school. A few years ago, in the neighbouring Potali village, when villagers proposed that a school be built, Naxals had vehemently opposed it. “The Naxals have long opposed schools, as any concrete structure in the village eventually gets converted into a CRPF camp, rendering the schools defunct and getting easy control over the villagers,” Kodopi explained. But Markam was unrelenting. “She negotiated both with the villagers and the Naxals and found a middle path. A school was set up but it had a tin roof,” Kodopi added.
In a conflict region, chancing upon Naxals is not uncommon. “But Markam knew hers was a democratic fight and did not fear talking back to them (the armed rebels),” Sori claimed.
Markam’s rise has been extraordinary. For an Adivasi woman to speak against the powers in a conflict region has never been easy. “But she is fearless,” Sori said. “The only thing that ever scared her was rape. She would tell us, even if the police implicate me in false cases, I will fight it out. Just ensure they don’t sexually assault me.” Her fear is not unfounded. There have been innumerable allegations levelled against the armed forces of torture and sexual assault. Sori herself was brutalised when in custody between 2011 and 2014. This assault, she says, was ordered by the then superintendent of police, Ankit Garg.
Markam’s sister, Hiteshwari, who had walked for over 2.5 hours and spent an equal amount of time in the bus to reach the Dantewada district court from her village on March 30, met The Wire minutes before the court hearing began. She had hoped to see her sister in the court but Markam was not produced. Before this, she had managed a less than five minute meeting at Jagdalpur central prison, where Markam could barely share her concerns with the family. “It was an emotional moment. All that we could do is hold hands and cry.”
On March 30, magistrate Yogita Jangde simply adjourned the case until April 5 after the prosecution informed the court that they are in the process of procuring sanctions from the district administration. “Undertrials are rarely produced before the court when in judicial custody. The prosecution made an oral submission and the court extended her (Markam’s) judicial custody,” Markam’s lawyer Xitij Dubey said.
Hiteshwari said that as the eldest daughter, Hidme Markam had very early on starting taking care of the rest of her family. But she also cared for the issues plaguing Adivasi life in Bastar. According to Hiteshwari, Markam is a “headstrong woman”. “She was resolved to work for the Adivasi cause. She wouldn’t give up even when we chided her,” she said. Hiteshwari further added that “As young kids, we did not approve of her work. But as we grew older and began to understand the importance of her work, we supported her.”
The sisters, along with rights activists from Chhattisgarh and outside, have already begun appealing to the state and petitioning different forums for justice. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) petitioned the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) seeking their urgent intervention in the matter. The commission has now sought an Action Taken Report (ATR) from the police within a month.
An ‘underground rebel’ who never went underground
The Dantewada superintendent of police, Abhishek Pallav, claimed Markam is a “dreaded Naxalite” who has not just “subscribed” to the ideology but also participated in several violent attacks. “She is wanted in several cases and carries a reward of Rs 1 lakh [for information on her],” Pallav told The Wire.
This, particularly, is a strange claim. The first FIR, for instance, is of 2016. Pallav told The Wire that Markam had since been “under the police radar”. Her phone calls were intercepted; her movement was closely monitored. But again in 2017, 2019 and 2020, she allegedly goes on to commit several, equally grave, crimes. Pallav, however, doesn’t explain why she was not apprehended five years ago.
When asked how she continued to live overground, leading a very active public life, Pallav said, “Most of them get trapped because of their over confidence. She did not know we have been closely following her.” According to Pallav, she led both overground and underground lives.
Markam, Sori said, was mostly confined to her village and other interior regions until 2014. But as Sori and Kodopi were released from jail in 2014 and began their social activism once again, Markam collaborated with them. “And since then, she has attended uncountable public meetings, addressed villagers and even petitioned the district administration from time to time; the claim that she participated in the armed movement is baseless.” She shared several pictures of Markam’s public appearances – some even with BJP and Congress leaders present. Pallav too admitted to having met Markam on several occasions.
Another glaring issue is the inconsistency in the name mentioned in the FIR. Until her arrest, Pallav claims that the police “did not know her real name”. “We assumed she is Hidme Kawasi all along. Only recently we discovered she is Markam and not Kawasi,” Pallav claimed. Such “errors” can’t be overlooked, her lawyer Dubey said. A press note released soon after Markam’s arrest mentions sketchy details of the five cases she is implicated in. Dubey said Markam’s name, her village – nothing matches. In one case, she has even been misgendered.
Pallav, during an interview with The Wire on April 1, boasted that the cases built against Markam are “foolproof” and that would ensure she doesn’t come out on bail for years. “Mere IG banne tak to woh bahar nahi aati (She won’t be released at least till I get promoted to the IG (Inspector General) post),” he claimed.
Her legal team, however, feel the cases won’t stand the scrutiny of the court. “But when the police slap multiple cases against a person and delay judicial processes only to keep the person in prison for as long as they wish, it is irrelevant whether or not the cases are eventually proven in the court. Like thousands of other Adivasi prisoners, the police want to ensure she too languishes in jail for a long time. The process itself is a punishment in this state,” Sori said.