Guilty Until Proven Innocent

A FACT FINDING REPORT ON UNLAWFUL POLICE ACTIVITIES IN TWO PANCHAYATS OF NORTH BASTAR, CHHATTISGARH 

Executive summary
A team consisting of lawyers, civil liberties and rights activists went for a fact finding mission to the panchayats of Edanar in Kanker District and Khadkagaon in Narayanpur District of North Bastar. The goal of the mission was to investigate and document the unlawful police activities that came to light through the voices of the Edanar villagers before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on 12th April, 2013 in Raipur, and to examine the associated legal issues, and the overall context in which the violence occurred.

On 18th April 2013 the team visited Edanar and Malmeta villages of Edanar Panchayat. The panchayat is located in the southernmost part of Kanker and is a Scheduled Tribe (Gondi) settlement. There are 393 families with a population of 1400, spread across eight villages (Edanar, Malmeta, Maspur, Chhote Dhosa, Bade Dhosa, Gunjinar, Padbeda, Mahurpad). A public meeting was held at Edanar which around 100 villagers attended. Subsequently the team conducted individual visits to the homes of more than 15 affected persons of Edanar and Malmeta to speak with the victims' family members, and understand the socio- economic impact the atrocities may be having on their households.

During the course of the discussions the team had at Edanar Panchayat, the case of a small mountain village, Anjrel, in the Khadkagaon Panchayat, of Narayanpur District, at the border of Kanker District, was repeatedly brought to our attention. Situated in the Mahadevgiri Mountains of the Raoghat Hills, the panchayat contains five villages (Anjrel, Paralbhat, Supgaon, Khadkagaon, and Kairabhat). Anjrel Village currently has 28 families all belonging to the Gondi Scheduled Tribe. At Edanar, the team was informed that it is a well known fact in this region that the police are intimidating families into leaving Anjrel and forcing them to settle in Narayanpur Town. We also heard that in the past people have been violently attacked and killed in Anjrel Village. On 19th April 2013, this team decided to travel to the village of Anjrel to confirm these allegations. Here the team engaged with over 20 villagers and recorded their stories about the unlawful police activities happening in their locality.

The incidents that are described in the representation to NHRC by the Edanar village are only some examples of what appears to be a larger history of police repression in the above villages and in the region at large. In Kanker District there are already six Border Security Forces (BSF) deployed, along with several Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camps. There are active plans to deploy at least four more paramilitary battalions (both BSF and CRPF) with the construction of 22 barracks between Dalli Rajahara and Raoghat Hills in Kanker to facilitate Bhilai Steel Plant's iron ore mining at Raoghat Hills. This is being justified by both Central and State governments by citing the alleged threat of Naxalite activities to the welfare of civilian population and industrial activities. While, on the one hand, there is a clear Naxalite presence in the area, it is also evident that violent acts are being disproportionately perpetrated by the police, paramilitary and Special Police Officers (SPOs).

The extent of excessive militarization is illustrated by the case of Edanar Panchayat, which falls within the jurisdiction of the Tadoki police station. Here the police station is combined with a BSF camp and there is also a CRPF camp nearby. In this Panchayat, security forces (CRPF and BSF), accompanied by local police and SPOs, conduct regular combing operations in which homes are looted and villagers are assaulted, threatened, labeled as "Naxalites", arrested, charged with very serious offences and some of them even killed. In the Khadkagaon Panchayat, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Narayanpur police station, the CRPF-led combing operations are fewer, while the villagers are routinely terrorized by local SPOs. The team recorded over 20 of such incidents in both places.

In addition to the brute force being carried out in these villages, the team observed a systematic subversion of the law and the judicial process. Reopening of old cases, use of standing warrants to arrest anyone anytime, denial of bail, false encounters, false charges, and incarceration of minors are all common place. SPOs are routinely used despite the Supreme Court judgment banning them. During court hearings the investigating officer often absents himself, for which there is no penalty imposed.

The misuse of draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005; and the detention of individuals in police remand for more than 24 hours, have become usual practices in these areas.

The physical terror combined with the threat of severe legal action has created a scenario where villagers are afraid to carry out their usual livelihood activities in the forests, fields, and marketplaces. In Edanar Panchayat, villagers live in constant fear of arrest, as many have been arrested for extended periods of time, and there are "standing warrants" for the arrest of hundreds more. Meanwhile, in Anjrel Village, over the course of a few years, 17 families out of 45 families total have left this village out of fear of the police.

Women, children, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable. Women, in addition to being harassed and targeted during the raids and arrests, are having to simultaneously earn for the entire family and maintain the household. Children are facing severe emotional trauma, particularly those who have lost a family member in the "encounter" killings conducted by the police. Both children and elders are being forced to work due to the economic crisis caused by arrests and the loss of wage earning family members. Legal expenses are adding to the financial crises of many families, which in turn has severe consequences on the health and overall wellbeing of the society.

Lastly, all of the incidents mentioned in the following report should be looked at in the context of Bhilai Steel Plant's (BSP) plans to train and deploy 4,000+ paramilitary personnel in over 22 barracks to protect its 2,028 ha Raoghat iron ore mining project. While BSP claims the project will bring jobs and economic growth to the region, the team feels that the broader impact that the long term presence of paramilitary forces will have on already mar-ginalized adivasi population of this area must be immediately studied. It is also alarming that people of Anjrel, a village which would be completely dislocated due to BSPs mine, have virtually no information about the pending mining project and are also being strategically targeted and evicted by SPOs.

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The methodology of the team was to speak to the directly affected villagers of the three aforementioned villages to document their qualitative accounts, first in large groups to get an overall picture of the abuses, and then in individual home visits. Where possible, the team engaged Sarpanches and other Panchayat representatives. In several cases of severely traumatized victims the team engaged in one-on-one discussions. On 18th April we also met with one local Antagarh lawyer, Mahesh Darro, who is handling the cases of several of the victims, and on May 7th we spoke over phone with SP Kanker, Rajendra Narain Das, and SP Narayanpur, Amit Kamble, at 12 pm and 5 pm, respectively. For background details of the locality, the team resorted to online news reports written within the past three years.

TEAM MEMBERS INCLUDE:

Shishir Dikshit (Lawyer, Janhit Legal Center), Lakhan Singh (People's Union for Civil Liberties, Chhattisgarh), Somdutt Upadhayay (Lawyer,Bilaspur Social Forum), Tathagata Sengupta (People's Union for Civil Liberties, Chhattisgarh), Samantha Agarwal (Sanhati), Pinki Verma (Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha-Mazdoor Karyakarta Samiti), and Keshav Sori (Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan). The above report has been jointly prepared by the members of the fact- finding team.

Note: The report contains the actual names of people only where people granted the team permission to do so. Some of the inter-viewees were apprehensive to reveal their identities because of the prevailing state repression in their communities. In these cas-es, names were either left out entirely or changed to symbolic letters (i.e. X, Y, and Z)

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