On the night of November 25, 2014, adivasis in Dantewada's Jangampal village, about 400 km south of Raipur, capital of Chhattisgarh, noticed a battalion of security personnel appearing on the hillock overlooking their village. By dawn, their worst fear had come true. For about 30 minutes, the 150 armed security personnel, who had descended on the village, hauled up the men and beat the women and children. At the end of the operation, 26 men from Jangampal and the neighbouring villages of Chhota Tongpal and Chuleras had been picked up. They were told that they would be released after being questioned. Fellow villagers feared they would be taken away, branded Maoists and killed.
Madka Ram Sodi, former village head of Jangampal, narrates what took place at the Kukanar police station, where he and 25 others were taken. "They made me sign a document stating that I was a witness to seizure and had seen the men participating in Maoist activities," he says. Out of 26 men, 11 were released after questioning. Charges were framed against 15, who got acquitted this month.
The disturbing Jangampal incident is a typical example of how, every time Maoist activity intensifies in Chhattisgarh's Bastar division, adivasis are picked up and framed as Maoists or sympathisers who aid them in anti-state activities. While some of these villagers are released after preliminary enquiries, most waste away in prisons for years unaware even of the charges against them.
Prisons in Bastar are the most over-crowded in the country with occupancy rates exceeding 400 per cent in jails in the Kanker and Dantewada districts in 2012. The high acquittal rate (96 per cent between 2005 & 2012 in Dantewada's district and sessions court) suggests that most of the accused are eventually set free. However, acquittal comes only after the accused have been subjected to unusually long trials - a clearly appalling case of justice delayed being justice denied.
Documents related to four cases including the Jangampal one (see side stories), copies of which are with HT, point to flimsy charges, forced confessions and shoddy investigations. Then, there are specific social factors that set apart under-trials in this region from those in the rest of the country. "Many men and women here have the same name. As a result, the wrong person may get picked up," says lawyer Shalini Gera, who provides voluntary legal aid to adivasis in Bastar.
"There are cases where CRPF personnel, who are supposed to be produced before the court as witnesses, have been transferred to other states by the time the trial commences. In some cases, the judgment regarding the accused's acquittal is ready but the court cannot pronounce it as the jail has not been able to produce him because of lack of security guards," she adds.
The situation raises serious doubts about the efficacy of the government's policy of weaning adivasis away from Maoists. "Arresting innocent people will work against the state. The case against anyone who is arrested under such charges should be strongly built, for which the investigation should be robust," says PV Ramana, research fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
The day the HT team left Sukma, seven security personnel were killed there in an encounter with Maoists. In the next three days, nine more security personnel were killed in two attacks in Dantewada. Considering that the police intensifies search operations after every round of heightened Maoist activity, the latest attacks are likely to trigger a fresh round of random arrests. Sadly, the war continues.
The curious case of the secret informers
Charge: 12 cases including explosion of passenger buses and burning trucks
Status: Died as an under-trial
Mother and wife of Bhima Kadti, a tribal man who was charged with 12 Maoist related cases, in Phulpad village, Dantewada. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)
By the time he reached Raipur's Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar Memorial Hospital in August 2012, Bhima Kadti, an alleged Maoist from Dantewada's Phulpad village, had been severely ill for fifteen days. His bowels were inflamed, he had high fever and was diagnosed with a fatal form of malaria. After surgery, he suffered a cardio-respiratory arrest. Two days later, he was dead.
"I could count his ribs. He had turned into a skeleton," says his father 48-year-old Sanna Kadti, as he describes receiving the corpse of his only son.
Bhima was 19 when he was arrested in October 2010. The 12 Maoist-related cases slapped on him included destruction of the Kuakonda tehsil office, causing explosion of a passenger bus in Gaadiraas, and burning trucks in the Nerla valley in Bacheli. However, a close look at the case files reveals holes in the police theory. Take, for example, two cases of rail derailment in which Bhima was a co-accused: In both the cases, the same two witnesses (villagers) gave their statements, eight months after the first incident and three months after the second derailment. They claimed to have learnt from some villagers that people from the "Kuakonda region" - a tehsil in Dantewada district with several dozen villages in its jurisdiction - were involved in the incidents.
How did such vague information lead the police to zero in on Bhima? Here is what the Chhattisgarh police stated in the chargesheet: "Based on the information provided by our trusted secret source and the interrogation of the arrested accused we came to know who were involved in the unlawful assembly". It is this line alone that incriminates Bhima. There is no mention in the charge- sheet or confession or witness statement about who the sources were and what kind of information they gave. "Secret informers" tipped off the police in two more cases in which Bhima was named.
Last month, the NHRC awarded Rs 2 lakh in compensation to Bhima's family on the grounds that there was an unexplained five-day delay in his medical treatment. In the 22 months that Bhima survived in Datewada prison, he was acquitted in five cases. His acquittal in six other cases came after his death. "So what if he was proved innocent? He is dead," says Sanna Kadti, wrapping his son's death certificate in a plastic bag.
Accused number 53
Charge: Attack on a police patrol party in Bastar, killing 23 policemen
Kawasi Hidme, a tribal woman from Dantewada's Borguda village was arrested in January 2008 for the attack on a police patrol party in Bastar's Errabore village. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)
The Ramaram fair of January 2008 is etched in Kawasi Hidme's memory. With a detatchment that only increases the listener's sense of unease, the adivasi girl from Borguda village in Sukma district recalls how CRPF personnel detained her at the fair. "I was applying mehendi on the palm of my younger sister when they surrounded me," Hidme says in her native Gondi language. She was 17 then, she says. It would be seven years before she was seen in public again.
Named in the attack on a police patrol party in Bastar's Errabore village in July 2007 in which 23 policemen were killed, Hidme was kept under detention for fifteen days across three police stations. During that time, she was brutally assaulted. "They used to tie me to a chair and break logs of wood on my body. I was blindfolded every time male policemen beat me," she recalls. "They said they would stop beating me only if I accepted that I used to work for andar-waaley (Maoists)," she says. The detention was followed by fifteen days of treatment at a hospital in Sukma, after which she was presented before court and remanded to judicial custody.
During her incarceration, Hidme suffered cholecystitis (swelling of the gall-bladder) and a prolapsed uterus, which is consistent with her allegations of police torture. But Hidme does not want to talk about her ordeal, or at least the severe sexual torture to which she has possibly been subjected. "It was not like this before I went to prison," she mutters staring into the middle distance. Persist with your questioning and she's only says: "I am improving. I can sit upright now."
Hidme was arrested on the basis of the statement given by two Special Police Officers (SPOs), three months after the Errabore incident. Interestingly, in the initial three statements, the police personnel who survived the attack had recalled the same 50 names that they claimed were being called out by Maoists during the three-hour-long exchange of fire. In a fourth statement, they added a few more names to the list. One of those names - the fifty-third in the list - was Kawasi Hidme's. The only other testimony against her is by two sisters-in-law, who claimed she was friends with Maoists. The statement did not prove her involvement in shooting on the patrol party. In July 2012, one of the SPOs who testified against Hidme died and the other turned hostile. 30 months after the appearance of witnesses who had not named her and doctors who never treated her, a fast track court in Dantewada set Hidme free for want of evidence. "I am wondering if I should ever go outside the village as my last experience was a nightmare," she says.
The Absconder who was not
Crime: Attack on Congress leader Avdhesh Gautam's house in July 2010
Status: Facing trial
Wife of Barse Manjhi, one of the accused in July 2010 attack on the house of Congress leader Avdhesh Gautam in Dantewada. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)
Soni, the barefoot, frail woman with hollow cheeks, is perturbed by our presence at her home in Mahrakadka, a remote village in Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district. "You people are the ones who took him. CRP (sic) sent you?" she says, shooing us away, as we enquire about Barse Manjhi, her husband of two years. She puts down her son, whom she was feeding, and shouts out to fellow villagers. "She thinks you are from the police or the CRPF as they are the only outsiders who visit our village," says a local man.
Manjhi is facing trial for the July 8, 2010 attack on the house of Avdhesh Singh Gautam, senior Congress leader in Dantewada. Gautam named 67 people including Barse Manjhi, as attackers. There was a catch though: Manjhi and the two tribal men mentioned in the list of 67 were already in jail on the day of the attack. During the trial, this was pointed out and the court was told that the FIR was unreliable as it contained names of those who were in prison on the day of the attack. That did not help. Manjhi was declared an absconder by the court while he was still in prison.
Meanwhile, Avdhesh Gautam admitted before court that he had not seen the 67 persons he had named as attackers and that the police had given him those names.
In 2012, Manjhi was acquitted in all the other cases for which he was facing trial. But his freedom would not last long. In November 2014, a joint squad of the CRPF and the police claimed a major breakthrough in the Avdhesh Gautam case with the arrest of three "Maoist cadres" from the forests of the Kuakonda police station range. Barse Manjhi was one of those arrested. He found himself behind bars once again. Now, he will be released only if Avdhesh Gautam specifically tells the court that he was not involved in the attack.
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