By Anushka Singh and Cijo Joy*
People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) strongly condemns the intimidation of Shalini Gera, an advocate and member of Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JAG LAG) by the Chhattisgarh police. On 27th December 2016, she received a phone call from Mr. RN Dash SP Bastar, informing her that he has received a written complaint stating that she has exchanged notes worth Rs. 10 lakhs for Naxalites in the Goel Dharamshala in Jagdalpur on Monday, December 26, 2016. She was also accused of meeting Naxalites in Dantewada jungles. Later she came to know through a Whatsapp message about the complainant who happens to be a member of a vigilante group AGNI.
Shalini was indeed present in Goel Dharamshala in Jagdalpur from the night of 25.12.2016 to the evening of 26.12.2016 along with her colleagues for attending an exhumation of the body of Somaru Pottam of Metapal village in Bijapur district for a repeat post mortem to be conducted in Maharani Hospital, Jagdalpur under the directions of Hon’ble High Court of Chhattisgarh.
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, recognized him as 13-year-old Somaru Pottam. His parents petitioned the Chattisgarh High Court demanding an enquiry claiming that their son has been murdered by security forces.
Shalini is representing the petitioners in this case. In connection with this case, Shalini and her colleagues had travelled to Jagdalpur. They 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. This shows that her visit and stay at Jagdalpur was official and not a secret one as claimed by the SP and her accommodation was arranged by the state officials.
Further on 26th evening she was threatened, intimidated by SI Archana Dhurandhar claiming that they were staying there in an unauthorized manner and insisted on taking them to the police thana for interrogation, and also insisted on searching the entire room. Since SI was not carrying any papers or orders or warrants, the team refused to allow her access to room. Meanwhile, the team managed to get the Divisional Commissioner to talk to SI Dhurandhar and only after his confirmation she left the room.
It is not the first time the members of Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JLAG) were intimidated. JLAG has been active in Bastar since 2013 taking up cases of poor Adivasis many of whom were falsely implicated in cases for raising voices against the high handedness of the police and the state. It is obvious that the government and its forces find their activities undesirable. The local Bar Association, clearly prompted by the police, took out a resolution on October 3rd 2015 prohibiting them from practicing in the local courts.
On their complaint, the State Bar Council of Chhattisgarh passed an interim order allowing them to practice again. Despite the order, the harassment has continued. For the past year and a half, both advocates Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal were being hounded by the local police. They have been faced with thinly veiled threats at press conferences insinuating that the police are closely monitoring NGOs providing “legal aid to Naxalites”. Their clients were also warned. Visiting journalists and researchers have been told that they are a Naxalite front. On 20th February 2016, JLAG members forcibly evicted by police under orders from SP Dash and IG SRP Kalluri.
In a similar incident of harassment of rights activists, a 7 member Fact Finding team of Telangana Democratic Front (TDF) were arrested by the Telangana police at Dummagudem village of Bhadrachalam district and handed over to Sukma police which put them in Sukuma Jail, Chhattisgarh, on 25th December 2016. The ploy used by the police was the same that they were exchanging old notes for Maoists. Chhattisgarh Police foisted false cases against the Fact Finding team members under Sections 8(1), (2) (3)and (5) of the draconian Chhattisgarh State Public Security Act.
The police misled the court by making false allegations against the team members by calling them Naxalites who had come there to aid the activities of the Maoists. Incidentally the TDF activists who were arrested were also planning for a fact finding on the killing of Somaru Pottam. All the members of the Fact Finding Team are leading democratic rights activists who have been in public life since three decades in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
PUDR has received information of another act of intimidation of civil rights activists by the Chhattisgarh police which took place on 20th December. A one day conference was organised on Adivasi rights by People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) on 19th December in village Matenaar of Dantewada district. Around 100 villagers from 3 districts, i.e Dantewada, Sukma and Bijapur, comprising of family members of various adivasis who have been killed in fake encounters, victims of sexual violence and other human rights abuses by the police and security forces spoke at the conference.
The event was locally organised by Mr. Sukul Prasad Barse. Activists, when they were returning from the conference on the following day were stopped by police for verification. They were questioned about the meeting and were allowed to go only after verification of their names and identities. The photos of the activists and the meeting taken by the police were handed over to vigilante groups who circulated them alleging that some students from JNU had entered Bastar for provoking the people, when none of the activists who attended the meeting is from JNU.
The police officials from Kotwali thana, Dantewada, since then, have been consistently making rounds at Mr. Sukul Prasad’s house and threatening him for organising this event even though a prior information was given to the local authorities. Mr. Sukul Prasad Barse is a near 70 year old well respected local social activist from Maatenar, who works closely with Soni Sori and has been continuously raising issues of human rights violations by the police forces.
To recall another instance of vindictive action by the Chhattisgarh police against activists, in November the state police and district administration had registered a case on charges of ‘criminal conspiracy and murder’ against Dr Nandini Sundar, Department of Sociology, Delhi University; Dr Archana Prasad, Professor, JNU; Vineet Tiwari of the Joshi Adhikar Sansthan; Sanjay Parate, Secretary, CPM, Chhattisgarh and Manju Kawasi of the CPI. They were not present anywhere near the spot of the killing of Shamnath Baghel for whose murder they were charged. They were part of a fact finding team in May this year which 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 above incidents in quick succession point towards an escalation in instances of suppression of democratic voices in Chhattisgarh that expose the lawless nature of the state increasingly violating the rights of the people. The nexus between the state police and the vigilante groups in scuttling such voices, only becomes more apparent through such cases. The pretext of demonetization has provided a new ploy for the police to harass activists on alleged charges of monetary help to Maoists. PUDR denounces the police actions and expresses solidarity with all those who are raising concerns of democratic and political rights of the Adivasi people.
- Immediate stop to witch hunting, intimidation, arrests of Activists, Journalists, Lawyers, Doctors, Teachers, and Students
- Release all Social and Civil Rights Activists arrested so far and drop charges against them.
- Action against state police and local vigilate groups for malicious targeting