Over the past few years local newspapers have been reporting almost on a daily basis one or two or more suspected naxals or ‘sympathisers’ of naxals being arrested. Often their photos (mostly with faces covered) together with pistols, some ammunition, ‘maoist-literature’ are also being shown. The local print-media are just publishing the police version without verifying facts on their own. In February 2012 to everyone’s shock a prominent English daily reported: “There are now about 6000 Adivasis in jail.” The charge against the majority of them is that “maoist literature” was found in their possession and that they are “helpers of Maoists”.
We realized that even if that was true, they cannot be arrested as per the Supreme Court verdicts: (1) “Mere membership of a banned organisation will not make a person a criminal …” (Supreme Court on February 3, 2011 (Criminal Appeal No(s) 889 OF 2007). (2) “Mere possession of maoist literature does not make a person a maoist” (Supreme Court, while granting bail to Dr Binayak Sen on April 15, 2011).
The members of Bagaicha, a centre for training and research, thought it necessary to find out the veracity of police claims. A scientific study was worked out and we sought permission from jail authorities to visit the different jails in Jharkhand and interview the under trial prisoners. Our request was flatly refused. The next best thing was to send an RTI petition to the superintendents of the 26 jails in Jharkhand seeking specific information as per an enclosed questionnaire. Only 12 of them responded, mostly with inadequate information. Then we felt it necessary to visit as many undertrials presently out on bail in their own villages.
Under the guidance of a well-qualified and competent researcher we formed three teams and visited 18 of the 24 districts of Jharkhand over a period of three months. Our teams met with 102 undertrials in their own homes/villages, met with their family members as well as some village folk. The following are our findings: 1) 98% of those arrested as naxals had nothing to do with naxalism: Only two out of 102 (about 2%) undertrials accused and arrested as naxals have accepted they had any relation with any of naxal-groups. The rest say they have been falsely accused and arrested for daring to speak assertively against violation of their constitutional and human rights, such as right to possess and protect their land and livelihood resources.
This is indeed a very serious situation where the constitutional right to dissent is being treated as an offence despite the SC judgments on the matter. A grave injustice is being committed against the poorest of the poor adivasi people.
Adult life ruined, families reduced to destitution
Of the undertrials we met 68% are young and middle-age group and 78% of them are married. Income to the family, whether through agriculture (63%) or casual labour (17%), comes by their labour. This is also the period when their children are small and schoolgoing age and need the care and affection of their father. But alas their sole bread-winner is in jail or has to be attending to the trial court hearings. When there is no earning, with never ending trials in court, sometimes out of their own district, the only way is sell the little assets they have such as cattle and even their land or borrow money from local money-lenders at very high rates of interest. All this for no fault of theirs but because the police have made them ‘naxals’. A human tragedy indeed.
Why this cruelty on the weakest sections of society, the SCs and STs? These two groups make 69% of the undertrials in our sample study. With low literacy rates and high poverty rates, the SCs and STs in Jharkhand are economically weak and socially on the margins of society. Their life runs on a day-to-day basis. All government development plans including the special plans have not brought any betterment to them. Even the funds allotted specifically for these plans have been diverted to general infrastructural projects.
Their insecure socioeconomic condition has made them vulnerable at every level to become easy prey to exploitation and state repression. So false cases can be conveniently lodged on them, arrest them and subject them to prolonged legal procedure destroying their personal, family and communitarian life.
It is crucial to note that 97% undertrial-families have an income less than Rs 5,000 per month thus falling in the BPL. Most of them are not yet the beneficiaries of the Right to Food Act the implementation of which the state government has been dilly-dallying for over a year. Their old ration cards have been declared invalid but new cards have not yet been given to most.
A visit to interior tribal villages in Jharkhand reveals the heart-rending situation of people living without their basic needs met and complete apathy of the local administration. But when it comes to getting at socalled naxals the police and para-military forces are at their most efficient performance in surrounding villages, breaking into houses, destroying vessels, molesting women, throwing out food grains etc. Any and every male member regardless of their age becomes a suspect and thrashing them mercilessly and marching them to the police station, keeping them herded like cattle for long periods without food or water, and finally releasing some and jailing others is the normal practice. All this is done in the name of containing naxalism.
Were these naxal-suspects caught after a hot pusuit by the police? That is the impression given by the media. The fact is a total of 87% were arrested in normal circumstances; 57% were arrested from their homes when they were resting or having their meal or spending time with their family, and 30% from nearby towns or on travel. Certainly they were not running away from the police.
To conclude, the government must come clear and admit that its real intention is not ending naxalism but open up the mineral-rich Adivasi land to mining companies. The so-called ‘Red Corridor’ is also the Mineral Corridor. More young men are arrested in these corridors compared to other areas where mineral storage is less. State/police repression is more intense in the villages which are like open jails with people’s right to freedom of assembly, speech, movement is restricted. Lot of young men are migrating to far off states like Kerala as casual labour and send some money home.
Migration of adivasi girls to metropolitan cities as domestic help is going on unabated. However, people are struggling to keep their jal, jangal, jamin through local as well as broader people’s resistance movements. Consequently few corporate houses are able to make inroads in Jharkhand. To the extent corporate pressure on the govt is increasing, State repression on the poorest of the poor Adivasi People is also on the rise in the guise of containing naxalism. Urgent need to call a spade a spade.
*Jesuit human rights activist associated with NGO Bagaicha