The Chief Justice of India
Supreme Court of India
New Delhi – 110201 (India)
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
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.
Cijo Joy and Anushka Singh