By Deepak Tiwari
Story Dated: Saturday, March 31, 2012 11:19 hrs IST
Listen to the voice of imprisoned innocents branded as Naxals
Case #1: Ulihatu, Jharkhand
Schoolgirls Juliana Purti, Jasmani and Magdali Mundu were picked up by the Jharkhand Police on October 30, 2010. The girls had stayed over at Juliana’s relative’s house after watching a hockey match. The police nabbed the relative on suspicion of being a Naxal sympathiser. The girls spent three months in jail for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Juliana now studies in class 9 at Saint Mary’s School, Muruhu, 30km from Ranchi. She refuses to talk about the nightmare in jail and smiles rarely. She stays near the school, sharing a room with seven others. Her teachers showed her school records to the police to convince them that the girl was indeed a teenager. The police accused them of forging records.
Incidentally, Juliana comes from the same village as Birsa Munda, the legendary tribal who fought the British.
Case #2: Ganjam, Orissa
Auphira Badmajhi, a BSc. student of Khallikote Government College, was jailed under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, and sections of the Indian Penal Code. His only fault was that he was at home on vacation when the paramilitary raided his village. Auphira thought his English speaking skills would help the security forces interact better with the villagers. But it made the forces suspicious of him. He spent 10 months in jail, despite his college certifying that he had 90 per cent attendance and was a meritorious student.
Case #3: Ranchi, Jharkhand
Jeetan Marandi spent three years in jail for being the namesake of a wanted Naxal. Through his Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikash Andolan, Jeetan highlighted human rights issues and fought forcible land acquisition in Jharkhand. He was jailed because his namesake was accused in a Naxal attack which killed 20 people, including Anup Marandi, son of former Jharkhand chief minister Babulal Marandi, in October 2007.
On appeal, the courts absolved Jeetan of all charges. He was to be released on December 15, 2011, when the government filed fresh cases against him.
These lives have been caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and the state. Certain sections of the government and bureaucracy conveniently tag them as collateral damage and scoff at the idea of compensating them for their suffering. But what does the law have to say about it? In the Naxal belt, the laws are many and their interpretation varied (see list on page 43).
The central laws and state-specific laws were framed to give the police adequate powers to maintain internal security and deal effectively with insurgents. The problem lies in the interpretation. For example, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (CSPSA) allows the police to arrest people committing “an unlawful act by words spoken or written or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise”.
The interpretation of “unlawful” has led to the arrest and imprisonment, without trial, and, in many cases, without any charges, of hundreds of innocent villagers, social and human rights activists, teachers and journalists in the poorly connected and poorly developed Naxal belt. Rajendra Kumar Sail, former president, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Chhattisgarh, equated these laws with the colonial Rowlatt Act. He said they work on the principle of “no dalil, no vakil, no appeal [No plea, no lawyer, no appeal].”
On March 29, a Delhi trial court absolved high-profile Naxal leader Kobad Ghandy of terror charges. The judgment came after a protracted legal battle. Despite being a popular doctor and having innumerable well-wishers in India and abroad, Binayak Sen had to spend two years in jail. The fate of the nameless faces can only be imagined.
An example is Junash Pradhan, 45, chairperson, Daringbadi block panchayat samiti, Kandhamal, Orissa, who was arrested on January 9. He was charged with involvement in a landmine blast, but actually his crime was speaking out for innocent tribals who were arrested for being Maoist supporters.
Said Narendra Mohanty, convener, Banvasi Surakshya Parishad: “Junash had organised a protest against the local police on May 5, 2011, to protest the killing of innocent tribals. It seems he was arrested and tortured to prevent him from contesting in the panchayat elections.”
Mohanty himself stands accused in another landmine blast case in Kandhamal. He has left the district, and came to Bhubaneswar secretly to meet THE WEEK. He said the case was foisted on him as his organisation helped tribals fight exploitation.
In an appeal before the National Human Rights Commission, Mohanty said Junash had no criminal links or involvement with banned organisations. “Since 2008, he has been a government nominee on a sub-division level forest rights committee,” he said. “He has never owned a gun, yet the police framed him in a landmine blast case.”
The police maintain that Junash is a hardcore Naxal involved in the landmine blast that killed three policemen near Kotagarh on January 5. He is charged under sections 120(b), 121, 121(a), 307, 302, 324, 326, 124(a) and 34 of the Indian Penal Code, sections 3 and 4 of the Explosive Substances Act, 1908, sections 25 and 27 of the Arms Act, 1959, and sections 16, 20 and 38 of the UAPA. The court may or may not find merit in these charges, but until then it is going to be a long wait for Junash.
Orissa Director General of Police Manmohan Praharaj said that while the UAPA was a strong law, there were checks to prevent its misuse. However, activists say most cases registered under such acts do not stand in court.
Village women Beko Bhime and Kunjam Ramwati of Mudbedi in south Bastar were charged under CSPSA and spent 15 months in jail before being acquitted. Madvi Joga, Mukka Hunga, Suknath, Muchaki Joga, Makdam Lakma, Uika Bhima and Banjam Bhima were arrested in 2008 for allegedly maintaining contact with Naxals and possessing Maoist literature and detonators. They were released on February 12, as the police could not establish their case.
Acquittals hardly compensate for the time they spent in jail. Most victims do not seek compensation for fear of being harassed again. But the tide is turning. Orissa High Court lawyer Pratima Das, 28, was accused of being a Naxal sympathiser and was jailed from August 13, 2008, to November 17, 2010, when the trial court acquitted her. She has moved court seeking ∃20 lakh as compensation for unjust imprisonment and the failure of the state to protect her life, liberty and livelihood.
The access to justice is also an issue in the Naxal belt. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram said there was a need to probe the reports about private companies paying protection money to the Maoists. Essar Steel was one such company mentioned in Chhattisgarh and arrests were made in this case. Essar General Manager D.V.C.S. Varma, an accused in the case, has been granted bail.
Vijay Sori, 38, master trainer of Rahul Gandhi Youth Brigade in Chhattisgarh and Dantewada district president of Kisan Congress, spent nearly two years in Bastar Jail, waiting for his bail plea to be heard in the Supreme Court. He was arrested along with 32 others on trumped up charges of murder of a local contractor on July 8, 2010. Many accused in the case were released for lack of evidence.
In an undated letter addressed to his wife and smuggled out of prison, Vijay had written that a high-profile legal team made all the difference. In the Essar case the executives had paid off the Naxals and were in the wrong, but they got bail. Innocents like Vijay languished in jail because their defence was poor.
Another arrest that has got media attention was that of Soni Sori (not related to Vijay Sori). A teacher and a panchayat member, she was accused in the Essar case and was charged under CSPSA. It was alleged that she had passed on the protection money to the Naxals. Recently, it was reported that she was tortured in custody by stuffing stones in her vagina and anus. Her family, too, was hounded to break her.
Kopa Kunjam’s case is another litany of abuse. A social activist, he had worked for Unicef and various agencies in Bastar through the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram in Dantewada. He was a district resource person of Mitanin, a rural health programme designed by Binayak Sen.
He vehemently opposed Salwa Judum, the state sponsored militia, and helped victims of Salwa Judum violence in more than 60 villages. He was picked up on December 10, 2010, with a young Human Rights Law Network lawyer, Alban Topo. Kunjam was sent to jail, while Topo was freed. He was charged with the abduction and murder of a Salwa Judum worker in Dantewada.
“When [social activist] Medha Patkar came to meet me in jail, the jailer told her that I did not want to meet her. He made me sign me some paper,” said Kunjam. “I was brutally beaten and suffered serious injuries on my chest, back and leg.” The Supreme Court granted him bail after 22 months in jail. In Dantewada jail, Kunjam organised a hunger strike of inmates demanding that cases of undertrials be heard within six months and parole be given to undertrials to attend funerals in their families. The Vanvasi Chetna Ashram was demolished last year by the police, as it was a base for social activists and journalists covering Bastar.
The police are also allegedly targeting journalists, activists and lawyers who work in the locality. The cops’ ire is that these people pass on information to the media at large, leading to negative publicity.
Amarnath Pandey, a PUCL member and practising advocate in Ambikapur, Chhattisgarh, filed lawsuits in an encounter killing and a custodial rape case. Within months he was implicated in a case and charged with sedition. “These cases were forged to threaten me for acting against the state,” he said. “I fight for ordinary people who are [tagged as being] Maoists.”
Sources said the police in the Naxal belt now file the names of activists in Naxal violence cases in remote areas. As nobody knows about it, the ‘accused’ are later declared absconders. “Later when they want to pressure these people, the FIRs come out of the cold storage,” said Sail. “Branding someone as a Naxal and then discrediting them using the available draconian acts have become a common police tactic.” He said the conviction rate of cases under these laws was less than 1 per cent.
Advocate Sudha Vyas of the Bilaspur High Court said more than 1,000 people were rotting in Chhattisgarh jails on charges of being Naxals or Naxal sympathisers. Ram Niwas, additional director-general, Naxal operations, Chhattisgarh, said CSPSA was specifically made to counter Naxals. “It is used only where we are sure that a person is directly involved in Naxal activity,” he said. “We are the worst hit by Naxal violence and we are here to protect both ordinary people and the security forces.” Official figures about victims are obviously much lower than what the activists quote.
Claims and counter-claims aside, the ordinary citizen is caught between the police hammer and the Maoist anvil. Shivdayal Tomar, a contractor, said nobody wanted to work in south Bastar region. “It is impossible to live in a rural area without giving and taking support from people around,” he said. “If a Naxal demands food, the villager cannot refuse. If he gives food, the police jail him for being a Naxal sympathiser.”
An example is the case of Puranchand Meher, a tailor from Indagaon on the Chhattisgarh-Orissa border, who was arrested under UAPA clauses meant for those who “disrupt the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India”. Meher’s crime was that he stitched 20 trousers and five shirts from 35m of olive colour cloth given to him by a customer. A tailor from Raipur and two cloth merchants from Bilaspur have spent months in jail under CSPCA for selling camouflage cloth to a person whom the police claim is an active Maoist. How would a tailor know who is a Naxal and who is not?
Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason to the arrests, activists said. Prominent human rights activist Sashibhushan Pathak said there were instances in Jharkhand where the paramilitary arrested only salwar-kameez wearing women from a village, while ignoring the sari clad.
In Jharkhand, Father Stan Swamy said, “Between January 2010 and January 2011, 341 people were arrested under UAPA on trumped up charges.” He alleged that there were 6,000 innocent tribals in Jharkhand jails branded as Naxal sympathisers. “If you speak against forced displacement of tribals or against police atrocities, you will be branded a Naxal,” he said.
Gladson Dungdung, the young general secretary of Jharkhand Human Rights Movement, was branded a Naxal for opposing Operation Green Hunt. But he was subsequently nominated to the Planning Commission as a member from the social sector!
Inspector General R.K. Mallick, spokesman, Jharkhand Police, said the special laws were never used to target anyone. “We realise, in a democracy, there is a space for an alternative viewpoint and we try our best not to interfere in that,” he said. “We know people who are declared sympathisers of Naxals, but we have not touched them.” He, however, said the police would not spare anyone who provided arms, communication equipment or logistical support to the Naxals.
Reports from Andhra Pradesh show that the misuse of laws is not restricted to the northern reaches of the Naxal belt. Pittala Srisailam, 35, editor of online television Musi TV and co-convener of Telangana Journalists Forum, was arrested on December 4 and was tortured for 30 hours. Only on December 5 did the state accept that he was in custody. He was charged under the Andhra Pradesh Public Security Act, 1992, for being a Naxal courier.
Even worse is the case of Sripathi Tirupathi Goud, 35, a toddy tapper. He and his fellow tappers were out collecting toddy from a palm grove when Naxals approached them and asked for money. They refused. The police came to know about this and questioned them about the Naxals and the conversation. Soon after this, 18 trucks were burnt at a sand quarry nearby. The police nabbed Goud and his friends and tortured them, accusing them of arson at the behest of the Naxals. Goud was sent to jail three times and it took seven years for the case to end because of lack of evidence.
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