Dantewada: A Rally That Wasn’t

March 29, 2015

from Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group

A Protest is Planned

The Sarpanch Sangh of Kuakonda Block, Dantewada, submitted an application to the SDM Dantewada seeking permission to hold a rally from village Palnar to village Kalepal, a few kilometers away. The applicatíon, duly signed by 24 sarpanches, was submitted yesterday (19th March) and the rally was announced for tomorrow (21st March). A photo of this application is attached.

Today, 4 of the signatory sarpanches have been detained by the police.

The Issue

A CRPF camp is coming up in the large open ground in village Kalepal, currently populated by many Mahua trees. With the coming of the new CRPF camp, women who routinely go there for picking Mahua flowers (an important source of income for them) are being stopped from using the ground and are being harassed daily by the CRPF jawans.

In their letter to the SDM, the Sarpanch Sangh listed issues relating to the forest produce acquisition price, policies of land acquisition and the establishment of a CRPF camp without the consent of a Gram Sabha as the reasons behind this rally.

What happened today?

Four sarpanches of the Sangh (Shankar Kunjam – sarpanch of Bade Bedma, Saklu Modiyam – sarpanch of Palnar, Nandlal – Janpad panchayat Kuakonda, and Rahul – Sarpanch of Phoolpad) were picked up from their homes and markets in early afternoon today and taken to the CRPF camp in Palnar. A couple of hours later, they were taken to the Kuakonda Police Station. Some local villagers followed them on motorcycles and informed us of the developments. When we called up the thanedar of Kuakonda, he acknowledged that the sarpanches had been picked up (for creating disturbance in a local market, he said), but that there were no charges against them. Furthermore, he claimed that they were all still in the CRPF camp and not in his thana, and promised to get back to us with details as soon as he had them.

But he did not get back with information, and he stopped answering our calls. Meanwhile, the families were getting frantic. Soni Sori and two of us from JagLAG decided to pay the thanedar a personal visit. We reached Kuakonda thana, some 30 kms from Dantewada, at 7pm, where we were informed by Sub-Inspector Sharad Chandra and ASI Sunil Singh that the sarpanches had indeed been in the thana for some “questioning” because there was some suspicion that they “were about to commit a cognizable / violent crime” but they had been released after being found innocent. Released? Yes, released. After their “release,” the men had chosen, “of their own free will,” to visit Dantewada.

How come they hadn’t informed their families? Why weren’t they picking up their phones? How did they go to Dantewada at this time – when there are no buses in the evening? We refused to budge from the thana till we got some concrete information about the whereabouts of the sarpanches. Subsequently, the SI and ASI remembered that the men had told them that they planned to visit to the Collector or SP at Dantewada.

We called up the Collector, but he had no knowledge of the men, and expressed surprise that any villager would come to meet him in the evening. The SP wasn’t picking up the phone.

It was getting late, and we were going nowhere. We told the thanedar that we wanted to file a missing person’s report for the sarpanches, with the information that they were last seen at the Kuakonda Thana. A worried thanedar stepped out of the room for a short while and came back looking relieved. Within a minute, the SP of Dantewada, Kamlochan Kashyap, called us and informed us that the sarpanches were indeed with him, and had come to him “of their own free will” to seek his advice. He told us that the villagers actually wanted the CRPF camp in Kalepal, but the Naxals were pressuring them to hold a rally instead, and that is why the sarpanches are seeking his advice.

We told him that this is wonderful, and that we were coming right back to Dantewada to meet with the sarpanches. He immediately said, No Madam, please don’t come – these people are just getting ready to go back to their homes.

We asked to speak to them on the phone, and they told Soni in Gondi that they had been kept in Dantewada for several hours without any food, and were not sure when they would be released. They were miserable. We told them to wait for us, we were coming.

We went back to Dantewada. The SP was not in his office. It was 9 pm. We called him up and he said he was at the Police Lines in Karli, some 5 kms away. We told him to please stay there, we are coming to meet you in a few minutes. He again said, please don’t come, the men were ready to go. We pleaded- hold them for two minutes, we are on our way, we just want to see them. He hung up.

Just then, we saw a large police vehicle drive right past us at great speed.

The SP called us back – Madam, the men are telling me that they don’t want to meet you, they want to go home. We insisted that we only want to speak with them to confirm that they are okay. He passed the phone to one of them, who told us in Hindi that they were already halfway to their homes and could not meet us with. We passed the phone to Soni, and he told her in Gondi that they had just been bundled into another van, and but he didn’t know where they were being taken, and he was scared and and could we please follow their vehicle?

But the vehicle that had taken them had sped away too fast, it was too dark and too late on the night, and we couldn’t follow them.

We told the SP we were going back. The SP assured us that the men were being taken back to Kuakonda, but only after telling us that he had indeed asked for them to be sent from Kuakonda (so much for their “own free will”) because it was necessary to impress upon them that if they hold a rally, then they will be personally liable for any violence that happens at the rally.

This is the situation as of a few hours ago. We have just reached Jagdalpur. We won’t know till tomorrow morning whether the men have reached their homes. We can only hope that the SP was telling the truth.

We don’t think there will be any rally tomorrow. A “cognizable crime” has indeed been prevented.Three cheers for democracy!

– Guneet, Isha, Parijata and Shalini (JagLAG)

LATER UPDATE::

The latest on this is that the sarpanches have reached home and there are still plans to hold the rally, but there is heavy deployment of forces in the area, so not quite sure how many people will be allowed to come for it.