Chhattisgarh: Arrest of activists of TDF and Summary of Attacks on Rights Defenders – PUDR Open Letter

January 13, 2017

Subject: Seeking immediate intervention into the arrest of activists of the
Telangana Democratic Front on false charges and other attacks on rights
defenders by police and vigilante groups in Chhattisgarh

Honourable Sir,

In continuation with our previous two petitions dated 22nd February 2016 and
26th February 2016, we wish to draw you attention to the consistent erosion
of rule of law and constitutional freedoms in Chhattisgarh in the wake of
continuing attacks on civil rights defenders by the state police and
administration in close collusion with the vigilante groups like the Samajik
Ekta Manch and AGNI.

 

In the most recent case of attack, on 25th December,
2016 a 7 member fact finding team was arrested by the Telangana police at
Dummaguddem village of Bhadrachalam district at 6 pm and handed over to the
Sukma Police (Chhattisgarh State). The fact finding team consisted of
members of the Telangana Democratic Front (TDF). TDF was formed recently to
fight for the rights of the people of Telangana state. The members of the
fact finding team are Chikkudu Prabhakar (Advocate), Bhalla Ravindranath
(Advocate, High Court, AP), Durga Prasad (Journalist), Duddu Prabhakar
(President, KNPS, AP), Rajendra Prasad (Student leader, Telangana Vidyarthi
Vedika), Nazeer (Student leader, Telangana Vidyarthi Vedika) and Ramananda
Laskhme (Student organizer), all seven are persons of public repute and have
been committed to the cause of democratic rights for decades.

The team was on its way to investigate complaints of human rights violations suffered by
adivasis of Chhattisgarh at the hands of security forces. The immediate
context of the fact finding related to the murder of a 13 year old tribal
boy Somaru Pottam. On December 16, Bijapur police had announced that a team
of security forces had killed an ‘unidentified and armed Maoist in uniform’
in Metapal in a gun battle. The residents of Metapal, however, later
recognized him as Somaru Pottam, following which Pottam’s parents petitioned
the High Court.

The Sukma police has alleged that the team members were in possession of
demonetized currency and had come to aid the Maoists by exchanging the old
currency on their behalf. The team was charged under sections 8(1), (2) and
(3) of the Chhattisgarh State Public Security Act, on charges of support to
Maoists and for possession of banned literature.

On 3rd January the Dantewada district court rejected the bail application in the case. During
the court hearing neither the copies of seizure reports, FIR, and or
panchnama reports that are public documents have been shared with the
defence lawyers. The list of seizure reports that were read out contained
books widely available and none belonged to the category of banned
literature. The action of the police against the fact finding team is
clearly an attempt to criminalize democratic activity and prevent democratic
and human rights groups from entering Chhattisgarh and documenting excesses
by the security forces.

The arrests and incarceration of the activists of TDF is part of a long
chain of organized attacks marked by false cases, detention, intimidation
and harassment of those who dare to expose the lawlessness of the state. In
2016 alone, the security forces have carried out 134 encounter deaths in
Chhattisgarh and three cases of sexual violence by security forces have come
to public light. In one of the cases that occurred in October 2015 in
Bijapur, the NHRC has found prima facie evidence against the state police
officials of gang rapes and physical assault of tribal women.

A similar incident of sexual violence took place this year in January in the Nendra
village, in relation to which the NHRC has sought response from the
authorities. While the state continues to intensify the use of violence
against the tribals in Chhattisgarh as part of their ‘counter-Maoist’
operations, carrying out planned encounters, fake surrenders, sexual abuses
and illegal detentions, those bringing out the truth have also been on the
radar of the state. The following cases of attack on journalists, lawyers
and activists in 2016, bear testimony to the vindictive vendetta of the
state.

i)     Intimidation of lawyer, Shalini Gera:  Shalini Gera, along with other
members of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JAGLAG), have continuously been
harassed and attacked by the police and local groups, as a penalty for
providing legal remedies to adivasis who have suffered at the hands of the
police and security forces. In December 2016, another attack was made at
Shalini accusing her of exchanging old currency notes for Maoists.

She was also accused of meeting Maoists in the Dantewada jungles. The complaint was
made by a member of the vigilante group AGNI. Shalini was present in Goel
dharamshala, in Jagdalpur, from 25.12.2016 to 26.12.2016, to attend the
exhumation and repeat post mortem ordered by the Chhattisgarh High Court, of
the body of Somaru Pottam having found prima facie evidence of murder.
Shalini Gera is representing the parents of Somaru Pottam in the case where
his parents have accused the security forces of killing their son. Shalini
Gera and her team were accompanied throughout by Mr. D Mahant, Tehsildar of
Bijapur, and also by Mr. Pankaj Daharia CEO of Bijapur and the SDM of
Bijapur. Mr. Wasnikar, Divisional Commissioner, had made arrangements for
their stay in Goel Dharamshala as the Circuit house was fully occupied.

However on the 26th evening, she was threatened by the SI Archana
Dhurandhar, and accused by of staying in the dharamshala in an
‘unauthorized’ manner. The next day, she received a call from Mr R.N. Dash,
SP Bastar, that he has received a complaint against Shalini for adding the
Maoists. So far, no FIR has been registered but DIG Kalluri has addressed
several press conferences announcing that they are investigating the
complaint. These attempts at intimidation are not new. For the past year and
a half, Shalini Gera and her colleague Isha Khandelwal have been constantly
harassed by the police officials and were forced to vacate their premises on
February 20, 2016, under orders from SP Dash and SRP Kalluri.

ii)    Harassment of Sukul Prasad Barse, an adivasi rights activist: Sukul
Prasad Barse, an adivasi activist was intimidated by the Chhattisgarh police
for organizing a meeting on the 19th of December in village Matenaar of
Dantewada district. The purpose of the meeting, organized with the help of
People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) was to hear accounts of the family
members of those adivasis who have been killed in fake encounters, were
victims of sexual violence and other human rights abuses by the police and
security forces.

Activists who were returning after the event, were stopped
by the police for verification. The photos of the activists were taken by
the police and circulated through social media and were circulated to
vigilante groups who in turn concocted a story of JNU students having come
to Bastar for provoking people. The Dantewada police have been regularly
visiting Mr Barse’s house and threatening him for organizing this event.

iii)  Intimidation of activists in the wake of the CBI charge sheet in the
Tadmetla massacre:  In October 2016, effigies were burnt by the police of
six prominent members of civil society who have faced violence and
intimidation earlier for resisting the ongoing war against the adivasis in
Bastar.

This ‘official protest’ by the police came in the wake of the CBI
submitting its status report in the Supreme Court monitored inquiry into the
Tadmetla massacre of 2011. The CBI in its report held 7 SPOs responsible for
the arson and 26 Salwa Judum members guilty of the attack on Swami Agnivesh
and his team when they went to do a fact-finding. The CBI also found prima
facie evidence of killing, rapes, brutal assault and lootings. The
Chhattisgarh Police dismissed the CBI findings claiming that the burning
down of the village was accidentally caused by heat generated by crossfire
during an operation against the Maoists. Thereafter, on 24th October
personnel of the Chhattisgarh Auxilliary Police Force burnt effigies of
Manish Kunjam, Nandini Sundar, Bela Bhatia, Soni Sori and Malini
Subramaniam, across Bastar. Kunjam and Sundar are the petitioners in the
Tadmetla case.

The police forces while burning the effigies, in defiance and
utmost contempt of the Supreme Court order, claimed that those six persons
are ‘anti-nationals’ responsible for maligning the Chhattisgarh police
propagating false and fabricated stories.

iv)   UAPA and murder charges against tribal rights activists: On 5th
November an FIR was registered by the Chhattisgarh police invoking Sections
302 (murder), 120B (criminal conspiracy), 147 (punishment for rioting), 148
(rioting armed with deadly weapon) and 149 (Unlawful assembly towards common
object) of the IPC against 26 persons. The list of accused included
academics, Nandini Sundar and Archana Prasad, activists Vineet Tiwari,
Sanjay Parate from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), two local
activists, Manju Kawasi and Manglu Ram Karma for the murder of Shamnath
Baghel, a resident of Nama village and alleged leader of an anti-Naxal group
called ‘Tangiya’, who was killed on 4th November allegedly by the Maoists.
The FIR was filed on a complaint allegedly made by the wife of the deceased
(which she later denied to NDTV). This particular case connects back to a
fact-finding conducted by the people listed in the FIR in May 2016. The fact
finding report had revealed several instances of fake encounters, rapes and
arrests by police and security forces, beatings and IED blasts rampantly
carried out by the police. The team had also revealed that the police were
holding Jan Jagran Abhiyans with villagers and evidently aiding the
resurgence of armed militia of villagers similar to the earlier disbanded
Salwa Judum, to counter the Maoists. Following the report, the Chhattisgarh
police had accused the team members of threatening the villagers and
forcibly asking them to support the Maoists, a claim that the villagers of
Nama had later denied. It also remains a fact that one of the prime accused
in the FIR, Prof. Nandini Sundar is a petitioner in the Tadmetla case.

The fact that these persons were not there in the village on the day of the
murder, did not deter the police from pursuing the complaint against them.
DIG Kalluri himself appeared before the media, congratulating his men for
bringing the accused to task! Finally, a petition was moved in the Supreme
Court of India that made it obligatory for the State of Chhattisgarh to
provide four week notice to the court before deciding on any action, led to
some temporary relief.

v)    Attack on journalist Prabhat Singh: An organized campaign has long
been carried out against the local journalists who have been reporting about
the police excesses in the state. On 21st March 2016, Prabhat Singh, a local
journalist working with ETV, was picked up by policemen in plain clothes
from his office and taken to Parapa police station where he was illegally
detained for a day and tortured all night. He was also pressurized to write
reports favouring the DIG Kalluri and was forced to sign a number of blank
documents.

Prabhat Singh was then charged under Sections 67, 67 (A), 292 IT
Act on the allegation that he had sent an obscene what’s app message against
a senior police officer. The complaint against Prabhat Singh was registered
at the behest of the members of the local vigilante group Samajik Ekta
Manch. A day before his illegal detention, his job at the ETV was abruptly
terminated without any prior notice, blatantly bringing to fore the planned
nature of attack against him. Singh had been reporting on fraudulent arrests
and fake encounters carried out by the Bastar police consistently since 2014
and had been threatened by the police against his reporting. In 2015, three
other cases had been registered against him in the district of Dantewada
including charges under The SC and the ST (Prevention Of Atrocities) Act,
1989 and the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005. On
21st June 2016, the Chhattisgarh High Court granting him bail on all four
cases registered against him.

vi)   Arrest of journalist Deepak Jaiswal: On 26th March 2016, another
journalist Deepak Jaiswal working for Daindini newspaper, was arrested by
the police when he had gone to the court to file a bail application for
Prabhat Singh. He was arrested in a seven month old case in which Prabhat
Singh also was a co-accused. The two journalists had reported about a school
in Geedam in Dantewada where teachers helped the students cheat in the exam.

After the report, the Principal had complained against the two for forcibly
entering the school and demanding money. The arrest was made, however, only
when Jaiswal had come in support of Prabhat Singh on charges of trespassing,
obstructing public servant from discharging their duty, and assault against
a public servant. Along with Someru Nag, Santosh Yadav (see annexure dated
22nd February) and Prabhat Singh, Jaiswal became the fourth journalist to be
arrested in Chhattisgarh within less than six months.

These instances of intimidation, harassment, physical attacks, evictions,
false cases, and arrests of activists in Chhattisgarh, have continued
unabated in the year 2016, much like the past.  By embroiling the
journalists and activists in false cases and arresting and torturing some of
them, the police tries to ensure that crimes being committed by Government
forces and their allies do not get reported. By dragging in the names of
scholars and activists espousing the cause of the tribal rights, the support
and solidarity to the adivasis is increasingly restricted. By intimidating
and evicting legal helps such as JagLag, legal assistance to adivasis is
made difficult ensuring they languish in jail for innocence.

Findings of the CBI in the Tadmetla massacre, the NHRC in the Nendra sexual violence or the
High Court in Pottam’s encounter, need to be viewed as public
acknowledgement of that the ‘counter-Maoist operation’ in Chhattisgarh
carried out by security forces is a farce under the garb of which violence
is being perpetrated and vested interests are being served. The state
continues to foster vigilante groups such as AGNI which are nothing but
revived forms of the earlier disbanded Salwa Judum. The Supreme Court in a
historic judgment in 2011 had declared the Salwa Judum unconstitutional,
however, guises of the same have been continually being operating as
illegally armed local militias intimidating democratic forces and silencing
the truth.

Burning effigies in relation to the Tadmetla findings in contempt of the
Supreme Court order, disrupting the process of exhumation and post-mortem
ordered by the Chhattisgarh High Court and continuing to arm and empower
local goons against civilians, the Chhattisgarh state police has also been
trying to impede the interests of justice by defying the judiciary. We,
therefore, appeal for your urgent intervention in the prevailing state of
affairs in Chhattisgarh.