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Seven activists from Telangana have been arrested by Bastar police. A complaint has been filed against lawyer Shalini Gera.

A representative image from Bijapur district, Chhattisgarh. | REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

On December 25, seven members of the Hyderabad-based civil rights body, Telangana Democratic Front, were arrested by Chhattisgarh police. The group included three lawyers, an independent journalist and three research scholars from Osmania University. The police charged them with assisting the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and claimed to have recovered demonetised currency notes worth Rs 100,000 from them.

The Telangana Democratic Front has denied the charges. The seven men were part of a fact-finding team that was on its way to Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district to investigate the alleged encounter of a hearing impaired teenager, said N Narayana Rao, general secretary of the Civil Liberties Committee, which is part of the Telangana Democratic Front. The team was not carrying such a large amount of currency, he said, and the police has framed them to prevent them from reaching Bijapur.

Two days later, Shalini Gera, another lawyer who travelled to Bijapur to investigate the same encounter killing, was informed by the Bastar superintendent of police that a complaint had been filed against her. The complainant accused her of exchanging old Rs 1,000 notes worth Rs 10 lakh for the Maoists.

Gera described the accusations as “a continuation of the harassment” faced by human rights activists in the region.

The encounter killing

On December 16, Bijapur police announced that a team of security forces had killed an “unidentified and armed Maoist in uniform” in the jungles of Metapal in Gangalur thana after a “fierce gun battle”. The residents of Metapal recognised the teenager as 13-year-old Somaru Pottam and carried the body to Gangalur police station, demanding an enquiry.

Receiving no response from the police, the parents of the teenager petitioned the Chhattisgarh High Court in Bilaspur. In the petition, Pottam’s parents said that the teenager was returning to Metapal on the morning of December 16 with another boy. While they stopped to gather forest produce that is considered to have medicinal properties, the security forces ambushed them. Pottam’s companion managed to escape but Pottam, who is hard of hearing and suffers from skin ailments on his lower body, could not run fast enough. He was captured.

The petition alleged that Pottam had been interrogated for an hour. Being hard of hearing, he could not answer many questions. In full view of the villagers, three security personnel shot the teenager from a distance of less than five feet, killing him instantly, the petition said. Pottam was then dressed in a Maoist uniform and a 12-bore gun was placed next to the body.

The parents decided to bury the body of their child, instead of following their custom of cremation, so that the evidence could be preserved. On December 23, the Chhattisgarh High Court in Bilaspur ordered the exhumation of Pottam’s body for another postmortem, which was done on December 26.

Activists working in the area claim that this rattled the security forces.

Arrests and intimidation

On December 25, a day ahead of the court-ordered postmortem, the seven-member team of the Telangana Democratic Front was on its way to Bijapur from Hyderabad. Narayana Rao said he received a call from one of the team members, 48-year-old Prabhakar Rao, a lawyer in Hyderabad High Court. Prabhakar Rao told him that the Telangana police had arrested them in Dummugudem village in the state’s Khamman district around 9.30 am, and handed them over to Chhattisgarh Police in the Konta area of Sukma district by 7 pm.

“We think they wanted to show the arrest in a state which has a Public Security Act,” said Rao.

The seven men were booked under the Chhattisgarh State Special Public Security Act, which vests law enforcement agencies with draconian powers. The activists have been charged under sections 8(1), 8(2), 8(3) and 8(5) of the Act for allegedly assisting the Maoists. The police has claimed they possessed banned currency notes worth Rs. 100,000 and Maoist literature.

Rao dismissed the charges. “It is normal for people to carry some amount of cash while travelling,” he said. “It was certainly not a heavy amount. It was obviously not a lakh of rupees.”

He also questioned the police’s move to arrest anyone on the basis of possession of old notes. “Why is it wrong to carry currency notes? After all, the government said old notes can be exchanged till December 30,” he said.

In a statement on December 27, the Chhattisgarh police claimed that the activists had been arrested from Dharmapenta village in Sukma district and not in Telangana. The police alleged the activists were members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and assisted the organisation financially. The seven men were presented before a court in Sukma, which sent them to judicial custody. “We are opposing their bail application,” said Jitendra Shukla, additional superintendent of police, Sukma.

Lawyers from Hyderabad have reached Dantewada to take legal action to secure the quick release of the seven activists.

Another complaint

A day after the Telangana activists were arrested, less than 200 kilometres away in Bastar’s commercial capital Jagdalpur, about a dozen police personnel stormed a community hall named Goel Dharamshala. They demanded to search a room which had been occupied by three members of a legal team – Shalini Gera, Rishit Neogi and Nikita Agarwal. Gera was representing Pottam’s parents in the High Court, and the team had just returned from Bijapur where his body had been exhumed for a repeat postmortem. Since the police did not have search warrants, the lawyers refused to comply.

Later, in an undated letter to the Superintendent of Police, Bastar, a complainant Vinod Pandey alleged that one of the lawyers, Shalini Gera, had exchanged old Rs 1,000 notes worth Rs 10 lakh for the Maoists that day in Goel Dharamshala.

Gera is a founding member of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid group that arrived in conflict-ridden Bastar in 2013. Since then, the group has provided legal representation to several Adivasis free of charge. In February this year, Gera and her colleague Isha Khandelwal were forced to exit Bastar after sustained intimidation by civil vigilante groups.

“I fear that this is a continuation of the harassment already faced by us, and other human rights workers, academics, lawyers, writers, tribal rights activists in the Bastar Division,” said Gera in a December 27 letter to the National Human Rights Commission.

In an email, she also pointed out that the arrangements for the legal team’s stay had been made by the Divisional Commissioner of Bastar. The team had travelled to Metapal village with Pottam’s parents and government officials. “The complaint against me is a rather imaginative one,” she said, “but considering that I had spent the entire Sunday in the company of officials from Bijapur – the SDM [sub-divisional magistrate], Dy Collector [Deputy Collector] and the Tehsildar of Bijapur, it is altogether impossible to imagine how I could have found time to sprint across to the jungles of Dantewada to meet topnotch Naxalites to take their demonetised currency notes for exchanging.”

History of intimidation

Somaru Pottam’s case is one of the many cases of alleged police excesses in Bijapur that have come to light in the past few months. The district had emerged as a flashpoint in the conflict between armed guerrillas, commonly known as Maoists, and security forces in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region. Ordinary Adivasis, who are viewed with suspicion by both the security forces as well as the Maoists, have borne the brunt of the violence.

Road connectivity in the district is poor and many villages are nestled inside the forests, making it tough to investigate human rights violations. Even when villagers make the arduous journey to the district headquarters to lodge a police complaint, they are often dismissed. In September, two young Adivasi human rights activists from the region were reportedly harassed by the police for filing cases alleging the security forces had killed innocent people.

In December 2015, the Bastar police declared they wanted to rid the region of Maoists and announced Mission 2016. Since then, four journalists have been arrested and two others, including Scroll.incontributor Malini Subramaniam, have been harassed and forced to relocate from the region. Activist-scholars Bela Bhatia, Nandini Sundar and others have been threatened and cases have been slapped against them by Chhattisgarh police.

“Bastar is proving to be an island of anarchy in the heart of democratic India,” said Rao of the Telangana Democratic Front. “The situation is more dire than we can imagine.”

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Published on: 29 December, 2016