Diary: The Arrest of Kopa Kunjam

December 14, 2009

Kopa Kunjam, wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of a man whose life he tried to save.

When I got news that Kopa Kunjam was beaten in police custody, I was angry, I was furious. In fact, this was only the second time this whole year that I felt such a potent rage – that wasn’t self-created.

Rage is in fact a mere trifling emotion, it lasts a few cringing seconds; what I actually felt was a million little emotions….a sensation of defeat, a vulnerability, a fragility of everything that we are, and what we’re up against. Of course, none of this is new, I was aware of what I was doing when I got into this. Or so I believe.

People asked me throughout the months of June-October, when I’m going to go back to Dantewada, and I realized, I never really left it.  The people, the place, the mahua, the Muria

the memory

the blood

the horror

the wonder

the joy the beauty

the fight

the humour

the dark humour

the broken homes the endless burnt villages

the women and their babies

the madvis

the madkams

the jogas

the jogis

the jungle fatigues

the faraway realities of murder


and the spirit of simplicity trying to remain.

I’d walk through the veins of the city of lost plastic hopes: bombay; and accidentally catch a mirage of carbon-copies of my VCA friends on the street, or someone who looked like the muria father of a boy who was killed, or the muria wife of a man who disappeared; or a man in a red-and-white striped shirt: Kopa.

They never left me.

Every day, I’d wake up to work to go back there, safely, quietly, productively: as Shubhranshu would say: ‘it’s a marathon, not a 100 metre sprint.’ You’re useless if you’re dead. You’re useless if you’re merely a cautionary tale.

Everyday, I dreamt of being back in the jungle, fighting, quietly with a pen, a notebook and a camera, for justice and the people who I admire for their fight is my fight: it is only right that a man who goes into self-imposed exile, can identify with those who’re losing their homes, it is only right that a man who suppresses violence in his soul, fights to end it in the world around him.

I said NO to injustice. I was reborn. I had to start somewhere.

Yet the face of anxiety and loss confronts me, it is an empty face: you can’t stare into it, you can’t bear knowing that the people around you shall die.

‘Human rights activist Kopa Kunjam along with Advocate Alban Toppo were picked up by Bijapur Police from our NGO office yesterday in the name of interrogation. Advocate Alban is released, badly beaten up. Kopa too beaten up, unable to breathe properly, still in police custody.’ – The SMS from Himanshu Kumar that I read as I was walking past the Koraput police station after talking to another activist.

I am 25 years old and the one thing I am certain about is that as long as you keep your heart, you’re always going to feel that you’ve lost.

* * *

I was on the train, general class, driving through the Oriya countryside, the stench of smoke and the ice-cold wind in my face; I was hungry, tired, yet I couldn’t sleep – I kept going through the whole damn thing in my head – Dantewada, Narayanpatna, state violence, individual terror, repression, oppression, death, murder and the whole cheery lot.

It had occurred to me that I never lost a friend.

I may have lost quite a few to betrayal

To time and growing up

To my ego

To my need for selfish abandonment

To anger

To my reckless desire for solitude

Yet I never lost a friend to Death.

I seem to be a little sheltered; I believe this is youth; to grow up you’re not just aware of death but you experience it in the gut of your soul.

When Balagopal passed away, something went off in my head. I barely knew him yet I knew what he meant to those around him. At his funeral I watched them weep – those people who I admired, who I worked with, who knew that the world lost something when it needed it the most. That was the greatest loss; that was the beauty of the man. He was irreplaceable.

yet mortality,

you bastard, death,

you liberator, come, let us go, you and I, where the evening is a bedspread.

Don’t take anymore.

Now anxiety follows me through to what used to be Srikakulam. Here, a long time ago, people fought and people died and all I could think about was Dantewada and what they are attempting to do to my friends. They want to break our spirits. They want to shatter us.

And as long as they keep us all apart it is only a matter of time till we bend and break and give up.

So much for my reckless desire for solitude.

* * *

I remember I had this extremely intense conversation with Kopa at Bairamgarh in April. Kopa is, of course, half a clown. If he isn’t mumbling and grumbling about something you’re saying, he’s having a laughing fit or indulging in obvious slapstick humour.

For instance, he’s pretending to sleep on the backseat of the VCA bus with his shirt-off. The bus hits a bump, he leaps into the air and goes crash bang and bursts into loud spontaneous laughter.

Yet on that day on Bairamgarh, Kopa was frustrated, angry and furious about it all – the fate of the Adivasi.

Four of us – Bela and myself, with Sukhdev and Kopa were supposed to go to a village that was burnt down but the weather and the security risk seriously hindered us. Kopa questioned my enthusiasm: ‘you want to die no?’

‘Of course not, I want to work, I want to do whatever I can.’

‘No, you want to die.’

And somewhere in the middle of that he finally told me: ‘How many complaints we have lodged, how many times we go to court and how many times we go to burnt villages and what happens? Nothing! Nothing ever happens.’

‘So what? Would you rather do nothing?’

He kept quiet.

‘What else is there really?’ I said, ‘You’ve done this for so long, and yes, we’re fighting a losing game, of course I know that, maybe something good will happen, maybe it won’t. But what else is there?’ Then, I went on, like an idiot, knowing Kopa knew all of it, “Someone once told me, ‘What is there in riches? What is there in a safe life? In comfort? What is there in fame? In power? In prestige? What is there in love? What is there in anything but truth? What is truth then? The truth is, if you didn’t do what you thought was true, you’d just die. You just won’t be able to live with yourself. It just doesn’t matter what it shall bring you, victory or loss, it’s the call of conscience.’ And who told me this? Some rickshawalla in Bombay! And I believe in it…… to fight for the truth, knowing that if you didn’t, you’d just die.”

How silly do I feel now.

A night before he was arrested, Kopa Kunjam was asked by the Superintendent of Police to take Rs.25,000 to stop working for the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram. He, obviously, did not.

* * *

This article appears in The New Indian Express on the 20th of December, 2009.


Kopa Kunjam, an activist and Alban Toppo, an advocate with the Human Rights Law Network were called on by the Bairamgargh police on the 10th of December, Human Rights Day, for ‘interrogation’ and were eventually kept in the police station overnight. By morning, a severely-beaten Alban Toppo was released and Kopa Kunjam was booked for murder of a man whose life he had tried to save.

Kopa Kunjam himself was mercilessly beaten and ‘requested’ to leave the Gandhian-NGO Vanvasi Chetna Ashram that has been working in Dantewada and Bijapur District for over seventeen years on healthcare, education and watershed development. Recently, the VCA has been active in exposing state brutalities and the violations of the human rights of the people of Bastar. By the ruling of the Supreme Court, they have also undertaken the rehabilitation of the villagers who had been displaced by the Salwa Judum-Maoist civil war.

Kopa Kunjam worked for the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram for over thirteen years and was involved in the Right To Food and the anti-liquor campaign. He had helped to organize over 750 rural health workers called Mitanins who form the backbone of the rural healthcare infrastructure of Bastar.

Since the inception of the Salwa Judum, Kopa Kunjam has worked for the procurement of the basic rights of the Adivasis. He had worked to collect evidence and testimonies during the Singaram encounter that left fifteen tribals dead on the 8th of January of 2009, and on the Matwada Salwa Judum camp case, where three tribals were killed right in front of the police station on the 18th of June, 2008. At Matwada, the police claimed the tribals were killed by the Maoists and their bodies were left in front of the police station. Witnesses and family members claimed they were murdered in cold-blood by the police themselves.

Kopa Kujam was instrumental in motivating the widows of the deceased to lodge complaints in the respective police stations. None of the complaints were lodged as FIRs.

Kopa Kunjam was also instrumental in the rehabilitation of the IDPs of the village of Lingagiri and Basaguda. He acted as a human shield volunteer for the returning villagers who were at risk from both warring parties – the Salwa Judum and the Maoists. He helped to act as the civil administration when there wasn’t any – considering he’d often take the complaints of the villagers to the respective departments – we need ration, we need bus services, we need our handpump repaired. Both Basaguda and Lingagiri are on the frontlines. On one end, there’s a police camp, on another end, there’s the alleged ‘liberated zone.’ There hasn’t been a single casualty amongst the villagers of Basaguda and Lingagri. They are relatively, free from violence.

Yet with the initiation of Operation ‘Tribal’ Hunt, the violence augments elsewhere and Kopa Kunjam would again be involved in bringing the victims of violence into the legal and constitutional fold. The Vanvasi Chetna Ashram has already filed more than 600 complaints regarding arson, theft, rape and murder. The Supreme Court has accepted the Writ Petition of the recent victims of violence from the villages of Goompad and Gachanpalli and have issued a notice to the Chhattisgarh government. Advocate Alban Toppo was also involved in providing legal help to the Adivasis of Bastar.

‘How many complaints we have lodged, how many times we go to court and how many times we go to burnt villages and what happens? Nothing! Nothing ever happens.’ Said Kopa Kunjam, during a visit to a village that was attacked in April of 2009.

‘No one is above the law.’ – is what  the Director General Of Police Vishwaranjan had to say, regarding the arrest of Kopa Kunjam on Human Rights Day.

Kopa Kunjam was arrested for the murder of Punem Honga of Hirapur who was abducted by the Maoists on the 2nd of June, and subsequently killed. Kopa Kunjam was nowhere near the site of the abduction but was with another man Nagesh Jadi of Hirapur who was abducted on the same day as he was traveling with Kopa Kunjam.

While Nagesh Jadi was eventually released unharmed, Punem Honga who was involved with the Salwa Judum was killed. Kopa Kunjam himself was almost killed by the Salwa Judum at that time for they thought he was involved in the abduction. In fact, Kopa Kunjam was the first to lodge a complaint with the police about the abduction and along with the director of the NGO, Himanshu Kumar, had gone into the jungle to make their own inquiries about the abductions of the two men. Yet their frantic inquiries led them nowhere.

And as they were in the jungle, certain SPOs and members of the Salwa Judum announced that they would be killed if the Maoists do not release the two men. Unknowingly, both members of the VCA would be vetted out punishment for the crimes committed by the Maoists. However, the police of the adjoining camp had warned them about the intentions of the Salwa Judum and both Kopa Kunjam and Himanshu Kumar manage to escape into Andhra Pradesh, while other VCA volunteers were beaten.

Kopa would however have one more confrontation with the police. On the 3rd of August, on the way to his home at Aalnar, he was questioned and beaten up by a contingent of police on a combing operation. His mother who had run out to protect him, was also manhandled.

‘The arrest and harassment of the only people working for peace in the area is a clear cut message by the state that it doesn’t want peace.’ Says Vanvasi Chetna Ashram director, Himanshu Kumar, whose own life is said to be in danger.

Meanwhile, the Salwa Judum has also taken out a rally on Human Rights Day against the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, where the following slogans were heard: ‘Himanshu ko maro’, ‘Himanshu bhagao, Bastar bachao’, ‘VCA ke karyakarta bhagao, Dantewada Bachao’ and ‘maro salon ko.’

On the very same day, six gangrape victims were meant to depose before a judge at Dantewada district court, where Salwa Judum leaders and SPOs stand accused. The victims were not able to make it to the court.

The Salwa Judum also held a press conference where they had called for the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram to be shut down for they believe they are Maoist sympathizers.

‘What Maoist sympathizer? I’m a tribal sympathizer and sympathizer is a weak expression!’ responds Himanshu Kumar, who is busy trying to organize a Padyatra that is meant to be held on the 14th of December. At the same time, a group of 39 activists who were meant to join him at the Padyatra were repeatedly stopped by the police at Kanker district from proceeding towards Dantewada. At first they were told there was a problem with the documents of their private vehicles and could not be allowed to go any further. And when the activists got onto buses, the buses were stopped. They were eventually detained, allegedly for their own safety by the police and only released once they decided to return to Raipur.



  1. Cannot find words, but Thanx for reporting, Thank God for VCA.

    What ‘development’ are Tata & others bringing? Adivasi culture is extremely highly developed! Is Goonda Raj development?

  2. Very powerful. There may be evil in the world but there are definitely some very brave people. Thank you!

  3. May your anger make you stronger, Javed.

    Thanks for sharing

  4. […] Binayak Sen is sentenced to life for Section 124A Sedition, there is human rights activist, Kopa Kunjam who has been in jail for over a year now for the murder of a man who every witness has so far […]

  5. […] Binayak Sen is sentenced to life for Section 124A Sedition, there is human rights activist, Kopa Kunjam who has been in jail for over a year now for the murder of a man who every witness has so far […]

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