Archive for the ‘Vanvasi Chetna Ashram’ Category

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Exile And The Kingdom

May 16, 2010

Villagers from Basaguda returning to their homes after spending three years as Internally Displaced Persons. They had just passed a CRPF outpost as this picture was taken.

This article appears in The New Indian Express on the 16th of May, 2010 here. And here.

The Supreme Court had asked petitioners who challenged the legality of the Salwa Judum to submit a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for the Internally Displaced Persons of South Bastar. The same petitions have listed over 129 villages where killings have allegedly taken place, and in many cases, the FIRs haven’t even been registered by the police. On the 6th of May, 2010, the Supreme Court denied the proposal to set up a monitoring committee to overlook the registration of complaints, yet it has given the state of Chhattisgarh, four weeks to respond to the demands of the petitioners to set-up an independent monitoring committee to overlook rehabilitation and compensation.

Meanwhile, the village of Basaguda that was rehabilitated by private citizens in 2009 has survived the trials and tribulations of reclaiming itself in a district torn by war.

‘Basaguda! Basaguda! Basaguda!’ – The cry rang out at Jagdalpur bus station, on the 13th of April, 2010. Yet in 2006, the village of Basaguda had been wiped off the earth.

A Salwa Judum camp and a CRPF outpost looked across the bridge over Talpedu river, that led to Basaguda that no one had crossed since 2006. Beyond the bridge was unofficial ‘Maoist territory’, according to officials. It was just one of the official 644 villages that were empty, where there was arson and looting, murder and mayhem.

On the 5th of March, 2006, four villagers were killed by the Maoists with axes and hatchets yet it would be a simplification to believe that that was the only reason the village was empty.

On the 6th of April 2009, ten days after the village of Basaguda was rehabilitated with the help of local NGOs and activists, armed with the recommendations of the Supreme Court, a few villagers complained that their story was being misreported in the local press. It was common knowledge that the Maoists had killed four people yet the villagers wanted the world to know the whole complex truth. They collectively wrote a letter to the editors of all local newspapers, detailing a long history of brutality, violence and retribution – causes and effects and causes, ad infinitum.

We, the villagers of Basaguda make a sworn statement that we have been misrepresented by the Press, regarding the reasons why we left our village in 2006. Navbharat Times and many other newspapers have printed that the villagers of Basaguda left their village due to the Naxalite forces, whereas we have not committed this to any of the newspapers.

On the 5th of December, 2005, the workforce of Salwa Judum and the CRPF visited Basaguda and stuck posters that said that a Salwa Judum meeting is going to be held at Avapalli on the 1st of January, 2006, and if the villagers do not turn up, they shall be called Naxalites. We attended the meeting on the 1st of January 2006. We were told that, if those who are members of the Sangam (village-level Naxalite groups) do not surrender right away, all of us will be killed. Nine of the villagers who were not members of the Sangam were forcefully made to admit that they were members of the Sangam. After this, we stayed till the meeting ended and came back to our village. After some days, on the 21st of February 2006, the Salwa Judum workforce came to Basaguda and asked us to deliver a speech against the Naxalites, and those who would not, would be deemed as a Naxalite.

Two days later, villagers from (names withheld) were made to carry out a rally at Lingagiri, Korsaguda, Sarkeguda, Mallepalli, Borguda, where many houses were burnt, people were beaten and many women were raped. Out of rage, a few days after the rally, the Naxalites came to Basaguda on the fifth of March, 2006 at 9pm. They attacked the villagers and killed four people. The villagers then went to the police station to file a report, and after the post-mortem of the deceased, they returned back across the river. Meanwhile, the Salwa Judum and CRPF came and beat us, grabbed us from our necks and took us to the camps on the other side of the river, where we were kept for two months, and the mistreatment continued.

Suddenly, around this time, some 100m away from the CRPF, there was a bomb explosion. Though none of the Salwa Judum and CRPF suffered any casualties, they still brought the villagers out of their houses, and beat people till they were unconscious. They also verbally abused the women and warned us that if they don’t inform them about the movements of the Naxalites, they would unclothe the women, and put everyone in jail.

Villagers who were injured in this bomb explosion were Savaragiro Ramanna, Sarke Chandreya, S.G. Shreenivas, Panke Dinesh, Sarke Venkateshwar, S.G. Raj, S.G. Chinn, and Erragalla Lakshmaiya who died a few days later even after receiving medical care. Inspite of all of this, some people were still living in the village, and on June 2006, the C.R.P.F. and the Salwa Judum workforce re-entered the village and caught three villagers and accused them of being Naxalites. They also started to threaten villagers, claiming that we did not inform them about the recent movements of some armed Naxalites who were passing by. We told them that we did not see any armed Naxalites, so they arrested three villagers, who were Paslet Krushnarao, Hanumant Rao and Dapka Babulal. The police then took them to the jungle and asked them to run. The captives fearing they would be shot if they’d run, did not run and pleaded that they were innocent. They were later freed, instead of being taken to the Police Station. Due to all these problems, all the villagers of Basaguda left the village.

On the 28th of March, 2009, the villagers of Basaguda block – the Mahars, Telgas, Murias, Muslims, Halbas, Kunbis and Kalars started returning to their homes after three years living as IDPs in Salwa Judum Camps, in the towns of Avapalli and Bijapur in small rented rooms, and in Cherla in Andhra Pradesh.

For the first time in three years, the villagers of Basaguda crossed the bridge over the Talpedu river as a CRPF sentry with a LMG looked on.

The villagers returned home to find their homes vandalized and looted. All the doors had been ripped out, the roofs had collapsed, and a majority of homes had been burnt down and were nothing but cinders. There was no electricity, numerous handpumps weren’t working, pathways were blocked by uncontrolled growth of vegetation, and there was Maoist graffiti calling for voter boycott over the walls that were still standing, while on one wall, ‘Naxali chorr’ (Naxalites are thieves) was scribbled with black charcoal.

People were cheerful yet they were wary, as they rummaged through the remains of their lives. They were too many memories of violence in Basaguda block – four villagers in Boreguda were also killed by the Salwa Judum, three more were killed at Maharpara by the Maoists and there are no certain estimates of how many were killed when the Salwa Judum held its rally in the ‘interior’ villages. Those were the days when every village expected an attack, and villagers slept en masse in one large home or in a ‘para’ or village that they believed was safe. Such was the case of the villagers of Lingagiri who slept in Pathanpara – the village of the Muslims, believing it would be safe. Yet there was no safety. And it was just a fragile hope that it would be safe in 2009, as they were rehabilitated.

Home Is Where The War Is

Basanti Motiram of the village of Lingagiri in Basaguda block. Her husband was allegedly murdered by the Salwa Judum.

Basaguda was the third village to have been given a second chance at history – the first being Nendra in Dantewada district that was rehabilitated in 2008 and the other being Lingagiri that was rehabilitated eight days before Basaguda, two kilometres away. All were rehabilitated by the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram and NGOs from Andhra Pradesh, that provided relief materials, mediation with government officials. The recent rehabilitation plan that has been submitted to the Supreme Court calls for not just the freedom of villagers to return home but that ‘the village community as a whole has to be rehabilitated and restored as a functioning unit, with all necessary infrastructural provisions.’ The village of Basaguda had none of that. They were dependent on the NGO for not just provisions but also for a sense of security.

VCA volunteers would live amongst the villagers and voice their every grievance and requirement from the government. The villagers of Basaguda who returned home had no food nor shelter, and would sleep en masse under a banyan tree in the middle of the village.  By day, they would work together to clean their village, clearing pathways, and reconstruct their homes, one home at a time. They were entirely dependent on relief, and the idea was that they’d remain dependant, until agriculture and government services could be jump started again.

Yet the government was not forthcoming. Not only did the government not act on the recommendations of the Supreme Court, they directly thwarted efforts to provide relief when they confiscated 15 quintals of rice that was meant for the villagers of Basaguda block. They would only release the rice some five days later after activists and the owner of the vehicle were made to appear in the Bijapur Sessions Court. 35 kilograms of cooking oil that was a part of that relief material disappeared from the van kept in the police station.

Apart from that, they repaired one handpump in Basaguda block. And for the first five weeks, their presence was just negligible. So when bus services to Basaguda resumed through initiation of the government over a month ago, a year after the rehabilitation, it was a sign that things had changed a long way. The resumption of the bus services wasn’t something that anyone took for granted.

Basaguda used to be a thriving market that drew traders from Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, yet women needed to walk 17 kms to Avapalli to bring back ration that was supposed to reach the camp across Basaguda. Rice that every family was entitled to at Rs.3 per kg was available at Rs.10 per kg at Avapalli (it was being siphoned off by corrupt traders). Even children who lived in the Salwa Judum camp across Basaguda had to walk 17 kms to get school.

The road itself was treacherous. It had seen six IED blasts, mostly targeting civilian vehicles in the long years of terror and counter terror since the inception of the Salwa Judum. The bombs were allegedly built by a man the police refer to as an ‘angutachap’. And to prevent Maoist ambushes, there was irregular felling of trees for 100 metres across, on both sides of the 48km road from Bijapur to Basaguda.

Today, two daily buses go to Basaguda. The markets are running again, NREGA work has started through initiation of the administration and the villagers of the entire block are self-sufficient.

Down The Barrel Of The Gun

Samtul Janki at her home in Basaguda. Her husband was killed by the Maoists in 2000, while her uncle was killed on the day of the raid in 2006.

Four days after the villagers of Basaguda were rehabilitated, it had become evident that their safety entirely depended on how the villagers in the ‘interiors’ would react. It also came to light that there were Maoists from Andhra Pradesh present in the group that attacked them, and many villagers described it as an execution more than an attack. Nevertheless, relatives of the murdered still chose to return, such as Samtul Janki whose husband was killed by the Maoists in 2000, and her uncle who was killed during the 2006 raid on her village.

None of the men of her family had returned initially, it was just her and her daughters. Interestingly, none of the men of Pathanpara felt it was safe to return to their village either, no matter how much their wives or mothers tried to convince them. Sofia Begum whose husband was beaten by both the Maoists and Salwa Judum on different occasions had no luck convincing her husband to return with her and she went back to Avapalli after salvaging what she could of her home.

Of course, it wasn’t entirely safe for men because many of them were under suspicion by the Maoists. As it is, there were many SPOs from Basaguda block.

The same SPOs would still go along and intimidate villagers of Lingagiri just a few days after they returned to their villages. According to the Maoists, many SPOs themselves were involved in the burning of the villages in the interior areas of Basaguda. But again, ‘Naxali ghatna se bachne ke liya SPO banna hi  tha.’ (to survive Maoist attacks, I had to become a SPO.) Said one young teenager who was an SPO in Basaguda police station. Another one, Suresh from Dharmapuram village in Basaguda block would be killed by the Maoists in May, 2009.

None of the families of SPOs returned to Basaguda. And when the Sarpanch of Hirapur, Punem Hoonga who had implicit ties with the Salwa Judum was killed in June 2009, the entire village of Hirapur left their village, cursing the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram who failed to protect him from the Maoists. VCA volunteer Kopa Kunjam would eventually be arrested for his murder in December even as he attempted to save him from the Maoists. This was Kopa Kunjam’s only failure, overlooking the entire fact that the reason Basaguda stands right now, is because he had gone into every village that was attacked by the Salwa Judum rally in 2006, convincing them that the villagers of Basaguda had nothing to do with the attack.

‘We can deal with them,’ One villager of Basaguda points towards the police station and the Salwa Judum camp, ‘But we’re afraid of them.’ he pointed towards the jungle.

At one point, just a month after they were rehabilitated, a few ‘andarwale’ had called a villager from Basaguda into the jungle and interrogated him about how many policemen were in the police station. The villager claimed he didn’t know much and he was left unharmed after that. Yet that incident spooked the whole village and it was all they could talk about. They remembered in 2006, how they were beaten for not ‘informing the police’ about the movements of the Maoists, and if they do, then what would the Maoists do to them?

The local cadre would eventually arrive, inquire and issue threats, insinuating that ‘tum salle Salwa Judum ka chaawal kha rahe ho’ – the rice was actually bought with the funds acquired through NGOs but no one tried showing the receipts to a bunch of illiterate angry tribals with axes whose houses were burnt down by the Salwa Judum.

Then a few months later, Raju, an area commander, and Apparao, a Dalam commander would eventually arrive and interrogate the VCA human shield volunteers, of their intentions, their employers, their histories and whether they’re police spies. A volunteer explained that he is apolitical and neutral and is only going to help people rebuild their lives, and work to communicate the villagers needs with the government.

‘Tum log hamara ladayi khatam kar doge,’ ‘(You will destroy our struggle),’ One of them said, ‘Tum log janta ko sarkar ke godh mein dal dongey.) (You will just put these people into the lap of the government.)

Finally, a top Politburo member would voice his assent with the rehabilitation process and promise that the Maoists wouldn’t hinder the rehabilitation process nor harass the VCA volunteers. A few days later, two VCA volunteers were beaten and robbed by local Maoist cadre.

Peace is fragile when anarchy is king.

At one point, I remember sitting with a group of villagers from Basaguda, and I asked them the one question that was on my mind the entire time, ‘What would you do if the Maoists attack your village again, or if the Salwa Judum burns it down again?’

‘We will never leave.’ – was an instant unanimous response, ‘We know, there is nothing else out there for us, we will have to die here.’

As it is, the villagers of Basaguda have endured hell and exile. And there are limits to human endurance.

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Villagers Rehabilitated Through Apex Court Order Beaten By Security Forces

February 13, 2010

Sukdi, the mother of Pujari Motiram who was allegedly killed by a joint force of SPOs and the CRPF in 2006. She was rehabilitated in her village of Lingagiri in March 2009 along with all the villagers of Lingagiri who lived in abject poverty as landless labour in Cherla, Andhra Pradesh.

This Article Appears in The New Indian Express on the 14th of February, 2010.

The village of Lingagiri of Basaguda Block, Bijapur district was allegedly attacked by members of the COBRA on the 31st of January, 2010 during the panchayat elections held in the village. Six villagers were allegedly beaten for not voting. They duly filed their complaints in Basaguda police station and the Basaguda Police have registered a FIR. Yet there are reports that a few of the villagers have left their village again.

Tokay Ramaiya from Doleguda was the only candidate for Sarpanch in the village of Lingagiri and won by default. He lives in Bijapur town that is 57 kilometres away from Lingagiri. On the day of the polls, COBRA forces found a number of villagers at their homes around eleven in the morning and asked them to show their hands and their fingernails. None of them had voted and they were duly abused and beaten with sticks.

Interestingly, the thanedaar of Basaguda police station had told the villagers of Lingagiri that voting is completely optional and that the villagers needn’t vote if they didn’t want to. He told them that he is aware of their fear of incurring Maoist displeasure.

Earlier, in December 2006, the village was attacked by a joint force of SPOs and CRPF and four people were allegedly killed. Pujari Ramaaih (40), Pujari Motiram (45), Gantal Shridevi and Gantal Kanaiya (50) were killed in broad daylight. Gantal Shridevi was allegedly raped before she was killed, as was Gantal Chandni (name changed) who was allegedly raped but managed to survive. All the villagers left their village in 2006 after burying the bodies of the deceased.

Soyam Ramalu, who was beaten on polling day, was stabbed thrice by security forces in 2006 but managed to survive, being taken to the hospital at Cherla by bullock-cart through the jungle. Gantala Beby was pregnant during the day of the attack, and gave birth to a boy on the way to Cherla through the jungle. The boy was later to be named, ‘Aadavi Ramadoo’, – ‘boy born in the jungle.’

61 villagers of Lingagiri had submitted their testimonies to the National Human Rights Commission’s Enquiry Team at Cherla, Andhra Pradesh in June 2008 yet the NHRC recommended no further need for an investigation. Similar testimonies that detailed Maoists atrocities were accepted by the Enquiry Team that consisted of fifteen police officials. The NHRC eventually visited Lingagiri in 2008 and found all the houses burnt yet could not verify the killings since the village was abandoned.

Eventually, on the 20th of February, 2009, the village of Lingagiri was rehabilitated by social activists and NGOs armed with the Supreme Court recommendation ‘with reference to petitions regarding the Salwa Judum,’ filed before the Supreme Court by Nandini Sundar and others vs. State of Chhattisgarh, Writ Petition (civil) 250 of 2007.

Rights activist Kopa Kunjam who is now in jail was instrumental in the rehabilitation process of Lingagiri and a number of other villagers in Basaguda block, ensuring safe passage to villagers from both the Maoists and security forces.

Since his arrest in December of 2009, the villagers of Lingagiri have lived without any semblance of security from the Maoists or the security forces.

Soyam Ramalu of the village of Lingagiri was stabbed thrice by the security forces in December 2006, and beaten again by COBRA forces on the 31st of January, 2010.

The Fifth Schedule

“The Forest Rights Act gives a guarantee to every tribal for ownership of his land. However, to be given a title (patta) to this land, the tribal must be in possession of it and if not, then it goes to the state. So when villagers are taken at gun point and resettled in Salwa Judum camps, or forced to flee to other areas in fear; they lose possession of the land. Possession of the land then goes to the Government, who merely leases it to mining companies/MNCs.”

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Gompad Encounter Baby Missing

January 26, 2010

Katam Suresh (20 months) with his father Katam Dulaiya (20 years) were last seen on the 14th of January at Konta Police Station, Chhattisgarh.

20 month-old Katam Suresh who lost three of his fingers during a fatal attack on his mother during a combing operation on their village of Gompad on the 1st of October, was last seen at Konta police station, along with his 20 year old father Katam Dulaiya.

They were apprehended by the police from the botched public hearing on Operation Green Hunt to be held in the town of Dantewada and were last seen on the 14th of January, 2010 at Konta police station. Along with them, were two other villagers Soyam Dulaaih and Soyam Ramu, relatives of victims Soyam Subaiya and Soyam Subhi of Gompad village.

Police have denied detaining them but relatives in Khammam District have complained for days now that they have been missing. Reports started to surface that more than twenty-five villagers who had come for the public hearing were detained by the police. The villagers from Gompad were seen at Dantewada police station and later seen at Konta Police station.

Previously, on the 1st of October, security forces had raided the villages neighbouring Gompad and the Superintendent of Police, Amresh Mishra had announced that two Maoists had been killed in an encounter and nine villagers for detained for interrogation.

Yet amongst the dead were the maternal grandparents of Katam Suresh – his grandfather Madvi Bajaar (50), his grandmother Madvi Subhi (45), as well as his mother Katam Kanama (20) and his aunt Madvi Mooti, (8) who were killed, as their home was the closest to the approaching forces, according to the villagers.

His grandmother Madvi Subhi had lived for three days after the attack before she succumbed to her injuries from lack of medical assistance.

Their neighbours, Soyam Subaiya (age 20) and Soyam Subhi (18) were only married for a year before they were killed. Madvi Yankaiya (age 50), and two visiting villagers from the village of Bandarpadar were also killed on the same day.

The matter of the killings of the village of Goompad was taken to the Supreme Court, against the State Of Chhattisgarh, Respondent no.1, via social activist and petioner no.1 Himanshu Kumar of Vanvasi Chetna Ashram and the victims of violence.

Sodhi Sambo, petioner no.13 of the said Writ Petition (Criminal) No.103 of 2009,  had also disappeared from AIMS in Delhi after receiving treatment for a bullet wound that she received during the said day of attack. She had no access to the outside world once she was detained by the police on the 3rd of January 2010, and is now missing.

This article appears in The New Indian Express as…

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The Tribal ‘Ruchikas’ Of Dantewada

January 14, 2010

This story first appeared in The New Indian Express on the 7th of January, 2010.

The Muria don’t know anything about rape, as they say, their word for it is closer to ‘baalatkaar’ than anything else. But when four tribal girls were allegedly gang-raped by SPOs in the village of Samsetti in 2006, neither does the entire state machinery of Chhattisgarh.

Recently, the same girls were beaten by the very accused and forced to give their thumb-prints on blank papers. They were then detained for five days in Dornapal police station, where the very accused are stationed. Once the girls were released they flatly refused to talk to anyone, let alone their lawyers. The villagers of Samsetti had told the victims to let go of the matter as well. Previously, throughout September, the Sarpanch of Samsetti would ask the villagers to withdraw the cases and to put their thumbprints on blank papers otherwise the police and the SPOs would come to their village again. They did not heed to his threats.

According to victim testimonies, on the 6th of July 2006, in the village of Samsetti, in the district of Dantewada, three girls, aged 19, 22 and 23 were gang-raped by government appointed SPOs and members of the Salwa Judum during a raid on their village. Another girl had been raped in January of that very year.

When the girls had gone to file a complaint at the police station, they were threatened and chased away. Time would pass. It was discovered that there were allegedly 24 cases of rape in the entire Konta block, out of which, only six of the women were willing to speak up. Four of them were from Samsetti, one from Arlampalli and another from Bandarpadar.

The girls first wrote their complaints straight to the Superintendent of Police and the Collector on the 27th of March, 2009. Nothing happens. Then a complaint case was jointly filed to the Judicial Magistrate First Class, Konta on the 29th of April, 2009.

Interestingly, while statements were being recorded at the court on the 16th of June, 2009, the accused were loitering around the corridors. On the next court date, the 17th of July, when the testimonies of the victims were meant to be heard, the Magistrate was absent, allegedly, ‘called away to headquarters.’ The Magistrate also magically disappears on the next court date, the 12th of August.

The Magistrate, Amrit Karkate nervously rides his bicycle to court everyday from his house in Konta – the bastion of the very accused. A warrant for the thirty accused is finally issued by the court in October to the police stations of Dornapal, Konta and Bhejji. Yet no arrests are made. The accused are missing. One of them is even giving speeches. The accused SPOs are on duty yet for some reason they’re missing too.

Harassment of the victims still continued, the women fled their village and began to live on the premises of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram. They had even approached the Collector Reena Babasaheb Kangale on the 11th of August to ensure the safety of the women. Yet nothing would happen. There would be no security. They returned to their village. They’d be beaten. They’d be dragged to jail. Irrespective of the fact that once a warrant is issued, the accused cannot withdraw the case unless the accused are brought to court and the matter can proceed. What’s the point of beating them now? What can they do?

Take the case of Madkam Madvi (name changed) of Bhandarpadar, Konta block, who was allegedly gang-raped by SPOs at Konta police station in April of 2008. According to her testimony, she claims that she was taken to the police station by the Salwa Judum, robbed of some Rs. 25,000, then kept alone in a room. She was first raped by a SPO in an isolated room in the police station, then blindfolded and gang-raped over two days at the station by three more unidentified persons.

Eventually, she was set free and after further harassment she escaped to Andhra Pradesh. She had hoped to start over and had even married.

At this point, members of the Salwa Judum traced her down in Andhra Pradesh and the harassment continued. According to her husband, they had threatened him saying, ‘we were going to sell this girl and earn some money but now that you married her, we have suffered a loss that you shall now have to payback.’ They then stole Rs.3500, one cow, three goats and two chickens to ‘make up for their loss.’ After further threatening them, they went back to Chhattisgarh, ensuring that Madvi would sleep in a different room in a different village every night.

Finally, through the Gandhian NGO Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, a complaint was written to the Superintendent of Police, Dantewada. There was no reply for months. The matter was then taken to the court as a private complaint. There was a request to shift the case from Konta to the Dantewada sessions court on the 9th of March, 2009.

Harassment began soon after. SPOs crossed the state border and searched Madvi’s house on the 10th of April, 2009. And on the 2nd of December, 2009, Madvi’s father and a boy who shared her husband’s name were apprehended and taken to Chintur Police Station in Andhra Pradesh. There, the father was threatened and the boy was beaten. They were told to bring Madvi to Konta police station. At this point, she had gone into hiding, knowing that her next appearance at court was to be held on the 10th of December when she had to depose.

The deposition didn’t happen. On the very day of the hearing there was a rally against the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, who used to support her emotionally and financially. As of January 6th the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram has ceased to exist, it’s workers arrested, it’s employees threatened, it’s director missing.

The day after, prominent activists Medha Patkar, Sandeep Pandey, D. Gabriele, Kavita Srivastava along with some twenty others were attacked by a mob comprising of members of the Salwa Judum who referred to themselves as ‘Maa Danteswadi Adivasi Swabhimaan Manch’. According to activists, the entire mob was orchestrated by police. And according to local media reports, one of the accused in the Konta Rape case was also part of the mob. 

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The Case of Sodhi Sambo

January 13, 2010

This Article has been written for The New Indian Express.

Witness and Supreme Court petitioner Sodhi Sambo at the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram.

The bullet that traveled through Sodhi Sambo’s leg didn’t just shatter her bone. It didn’t just leave her without medical care for twelve days of writhing agony in her village of Goompad, Dantewada District, where nine of her neighbours were killed in an alleged encounter on the 1st of October. It didn’t just take her to Delhi, to AIMS, to the Supreme Court, away from her four children and her husband. It didn’t just ensure that she’d become an intrinsic character of a drama that is played out between activists, the press, the police and the supreme court.

She was initially detained at Kanker on route to Delhi for treatment, on the 3rd of January and two days later she was found under guard at Maharani Hospital in Jagdalpur.

‘It is a medico-legal case. We haven’t arrested her, nor have we detained her, we’ve just brought her to collect her testimony on the said incident of Goompad. The police is accused, I understand but the whole police is not accused.’ Said Superintendent of Police Amresh Mishra, who had given journalists the permission to visit Sambo when they were in Dantewada to collect her own version of the story.

But by the time the press got to Maharani Hospital in Jagdalpur, this permission was mysteriously denied. Tehelka journalist Tusha Mittal was literally pushed out of the ward by policewomen. The journalists had gone back to the SP, the DIG, the IG, the Collector, from both Dantewada district and Bastar district yet no one was forthcoming. The plain clothes police personnel would ask for written permission. Every official who was contacted, forwarded responsibility to another. Many didn’t take calls, others mysteriously transformed into some other individual when informed they were speaking to journalists. Many of them refused to meet the press, IG Longkumer of Jagdalpur mysteriously leaves from the back as the press wait for him.

The red tape for the journalists was a gagging order on any testimony of Sodhi Sambo. No one shall be allowed to talk to her and there was never any intention to let anyone talk to her. The Director of the Hospital, Dr.Paikra had given full permission for journalists to talk to Sodhi yet the plain clothes police still refused permission. The head constable at the hospital admitted his fear of his superiors, DIG Sitaram Kalluri and S.P. Mishra, not the law. Advocate Colin Gonzalvez, Sambo’s lawyer, armed with a supreme court order that the State of Chhattisgarh is directed not to prevent or create any obstacles to Sodi
Shambo, was not allowed to meet her either. Chief Secretary Joy Oomen had told lawyer Kavita Shrivastava, ‘I can’t meet you, and I don’t want to meet you.’

Sodhi Sambo stayed in ‘protection’ of the plain-clothed police, who called every visitor ‘a naxalite’ or ‘naxalite sympathizer’. The S.P. Amresh Mishra had also claimed that her parents were with her yet when informed that her parents had passed away, her relatives who were attending to her, had turned into a mysterious ‘maasi’ and ‘maasa’. Yet the other attendants or nurses in the ward have little notice for any such ‘maasi’ or ‘maasa’. Her doctor Sudeep Thakur would only communicate with her, via the translation provided by another patient’s attendant, not any ‘maasi’ or ‘parent’.

Sambo is shy, vulnerable and barely talks to anyone, and the police say she is free to go where she pleases and she did not protest to come with them in the first place. Yet she still has no access to anyone but the police.

She was eventually referred to Medical College Hospital, Raipur for bone-grafting surgery, or limb-lengthening, as Maharani Hospital in Jagdalpur had no such facilities. Yet she stayed in Jagdalpur for three days, uselessly waiting for treatment she could not receive in the hospital. She was only taken to Raipur at Ramakrishna Care hospital where she was again referred to AIMS. At the whole time, neither the press nor her lawyers were allowed access to her. At one point, she was said to be in Delhi by Director General of Police Vishwa Ranjan, when she was actually still in Raipur. As of now, it is confirmed that she is in the private ward of AIMS in Delhi, and has no access to the outside world.

Meanwhile, her husband and one of her children had arrived for the Jan Sunwai on the 6th of January and had been taken away by the police. More than 25 villagers had arrived for the Jan Sunwai and there is no news of them. According to Supreme Court lawyer Colin Gonzalez, ‘Apparently all the 12 tribal petitioners from the writ petition have been picked up and are in custody of the police, and it is possible that they will be coerced to withdraw from the case.’

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Jan Sunwayi at Dantewada: shush now.

January 4, 2010

This article has been written for The New Indian Express.

Market day at Bijapur: the dichotomies and the many shades of greay.

JAN SUNWAYI AT DANTEWADA

Activists, social workers, ex-justices, ex-bureaucrats, policemen, journalists, intellectuals and citizens from all across India are descending into the jungles of Dantewada, Chhattisgarh for an independent public hearing held on the Salwa Judum, Operation Green Hunt and the Adivasi struggle for justice.

Home Minister Chidambaram had showed initial signs that he may also be present on the 7th of January public hearing, yet was advised by governor and former Director of the IB, E.S.L. Narsimhan  to reconsider his position. Meanwhile many observers claimed that he probably wouldn’t be expected for the very reasons the Jan Sunwayi was being organized.

For instance, in the summer of 2007, twelve-year-old Hungi Madkam, daughter of Kesha Madkam, disappeared after a workforce of the CRPF and SPOs had raided her village of Kottanendra at Dantewada, Chhattisgarh. The FIR on her disappearance was not registered at the local police station. A complaint was written to the National Human Rights Commission that would forward the complaint dated 22/09/2008, received from her brother Lakhmu Madkam to the Director General, CRPF on 25/10/2008.

The Director General recommends that the local police investigate into the matter. Instead, they threatened and beat up the petitioner Madkam Lakhmu and then claimed that he wasn’t co-operating with them in the investigation.

Case closed. A young girl who disappears ceases to exist.

Two years would pass and as is the story of the adivasis of Bastar, she is not where she belongs – for she is neither with her family, nor in her home, nor on her land. She was neither booked, nor taken to a juvenile home, nor a Salwa Judum camp. She simply vanished.

Her brother Lakhmu Madkam would probably want to have a word with Home Minister Chidambaram in the upcoming Jan Sunwayi.

‘Where is my sister?’ Of course, Mr. Chidambaram wouldn’t know, nor have any power to do anything about it. Nor would he know about Vanjam Deve’s 20 year old daughter Vanjam Jogi of the village of Arlampalli who was allegedly abducted by the Salwa Judum in January 2008. Nor would he even know about the whereabouts of 22 year old Kumari Baiko of the village of Dharmaguda who was abducted by SPOs in the summer of 2008. Nor would he know about the killing of her father Chinna Baiko at Errabore camp. This particular case was eventually taken to the High Court of Chhattisgarh at Bilaspur by activists and family members of the victims.

The court has asked why it took eight months to register the first complaint against the police at the police station. As of now, the original petitioner of the complaint is hiding in fear of police/Salwa Judum reprisal. If he doesn’t resurface, the story would be eventually thrown out of the court.

Yet the pattern of hopelessness and threats to the lives of victims and their family members is widespread in the face of the complete lack of any semblance of a witness protection program.

Take the case of Madkam Madvi (name changed) of Bhandarpadar, Konta block, who was allegedly gang-raped by SPOs at Konta police station in April of 2008. According to her testimony, she claims that she was taken to the police station by the Salwa Judum, robbed of some Rs. 25,000, then kept alone in a room. She was first raped by a SPO in an isolated room in the police station, then blindfolded and gang-raped over two days at the station by three more unidentified persons.

Eventually, she was set free and after further harassment she escaped to Andhra Pradesh. She had hoped to start over and had even married.

At this point, members of the Salwa Judum traced her down in Andhra Pradesh and the harassment continued. According to her husband, they had threatened him saying, ‘we were going to sell this girl and earn some money but now that you married her, we have suffered a loss that you shall now have to payback.’ They then stole Rs.3500, one cow, three goats and two chickens to ‘make up for their loss.’ After further threatening them, they went back to Chhattisgarh, ensuring that Madvi would sleep in a different room in a different village every night, living in constant fear.

Finally, through the Gandhian NGO Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, a complaint was written to the Superintendent of Police, Dantewada. There was no reply for months. The matter was then taken to the court as a private complaint. The case was shifted from Konta to the Dantewada sessions court on the 9th of March, 2009. Harassment began soon after. SPOs crossed the state border and searched her house on the 10th of April, 2009. And on the 2nd of December, 2009, Madvi’s father and a boy who shared her husband’s name were apprehended and taken to Chintur Police Station in Andhra Pradesh. There, the father was threatened and the boy was beaten. They were told to bring Madvi to Konta police station. At this point, she had gone into hiding, knowing that her next appearance at court was to be held on the 10th of December when she had to depose.

She would probably have a lot to say at the Jan Sunwayi as well, provided someone comes to listen.

And the stories would go on. No one in Dantewada has forgotten Ranibodli where 55 policemen were slaughtered. Those who survived the attack were protected by local tribals. That no one remembered.

No one has forgotten the forceful expulsion of villagers from 644 villages. No one has forgotten the issue of security from Maoist violence. No one has forgotten the attack on Errabore camp that was burnt down by the Maoists and 25 people, including a woman and her baby were killed. The Maoists claim that the majority of those killed were SPOs. And no one has forgotten that quite a few of the SPOs themselves are forced to join the service. The fact is, for the majority of the displaced the only option of employment and sustenance is the SPO service – Rs.2,100 a month. The villagers of Bastar have little choice in the face of the complete destruction of their agrarian way of  life – agriculture has all but stopped in the greater parts of Bijapur and Dantewada district.

Yet, disturbingly, a majority of the villagers were intimidated and threatened to become SPOs. And this continues even now.

Take the instance of Lingaram Kodopi, 24, from the village of Sameli, Kuakonda Block who was arrested on the 31st of August, 2009 and was being forced to join the SPO service. The rationale behind it is simple. Once Linga Kodopi is shown in close proximity to the police, the Maoists themselves might suspect him of being an ‘informer’, and thus he’d live in further fear of them. Once he’s an SPO, he can supply the security services a wealth of information of the ‘interior’ areas. Therefore he was allegedly kept in a toilet in the police station for over 40 days. First, Superintendent of Police Amresh Mishra denies that he was in their custody, then eventually, they accept that they have an SPO by the name of Lingaram Kodopi.

Through activists, the family filed a Habeas Corpus petition in Bilaspur High Court, asking the police to present Lingaram Kodopi at Court. At Court, Linga told the judge that he did become an SPO but he would like to leave the service. The Court directed the police to release him, and he was released on the 7th of October, 2009.

On the way back home to his village, the police detained his older brother for petitioning the High Court and released him after two days. They also detained his father Joga Ram and had asked him to revoke the affidavit that was detailing custodial torture. He was released after a week.

Lingaram Kodopi, out of fear of further harassment, doesn’t live in Dantewada anymore.

Similarly, the police had also taken 17 villagers from Goomiyapal, Kutrem, Phirnaar, Hiroli and Darpa from Kuakonda block and kept them in forced confinement over a period of two weeks, forcing them to become SPOs.

Maybe they’d like to have a word with the Home Minister as well.

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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

rape

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.

HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS BEATEN IN POLICE CUSTODY

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.