Justice remains elusive for central India’s tribal populations

    On a visit to Jagdalpur in India, DILNAZ BOGA discovered how differently the laws in this conflict region are applied to tribal people.

    My visit to the neatly tucked away Jagdalpur town in Bastar district of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh last May was unplanned. After spending a few hours on a sleeper bus, I finally arrived at my destination without an agenda. My aim was to familiarise myself with different issues that the people were dealing with in the region.

    I had several questions on my mind. For example, the average irrigated land in the state of Chhattisgarh was 20% and water was being diverted to power plants. What was the impact on the people there? I had seen horrific stories in north Chhattisgarh almost a decade ago. Wonder how the southern part of the state had been coping, I thought to myself.

    In Bastar, (south Chhattisgarh) what was the impact of the security forces whose ratio was 1,170 per 100,000 civilians?

    What was happening to the local journalists who were covering these difficult issues? If the state had its way in Chhattisgarh, what would happen to the 33% of India’s land that was covered by forests? Would the forests and its people pay the ultimate price for the country’s “development goals” and its pride, its GDP? A friend’s friend worked there and so I decided to explore the area.

    After meeting the amazing lawyers, Shalini Ghera, Guneet Kaur and Isha Khandelwal, who formed Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLag), I decided to just go with the flow and wait for whatever turned up on their plate. The wait was not long. We got news of multiple abductions of villagers from a few spots by the police.

    The stories that were streaming in were sketchy and incoherent, with faulty timelines.

    The deliberate confusion generated from accounts of incidents is an intrinsic part of any conflict region in India. This is carefully engineered to delay a rescue response. I was about to find out how the state’s law and order machinery functions for the common adivasi (tribal).

    The story of Karan

    On 16th of May, 2015, 17-year-old *Karan (name changed), was returning to his village in the forest somewhere in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district. Karan was going home from the market after selling his goats. Along the way, his pick-up truck, the forest people’s mode of transport in this area, stopped and Karan alighted to urinate. Mysteriously, the truck left without him, forcing him to walk through the forest.

    Somewhere along the way, on his way home, Karan was picked up by the police force patrolling the area. Karan’s father, *Vikram (name changed to protect juvenile’s identity) received information that his son was being detained at the school. Chhattisgarh, like other conflict zones in India, has schools that double up as police or paramilitary camps – directly in contravention with international laws and a supreme court judgement. At the school, the police told him that they would leave Karan after questioning him.

    By the time a very worried Vikram returned to the school, the next morning, Karan had already been whisked away to a nearby police station. It’s not uncommon for families of detained persons to get this kind of runaround. At that point, poor Vikram did not know the condition his underage son was in. In these parts of the country “affected by naxalism (communism)”, a night of interrogation in a camp may result in irreversible physical or mental damage and sometimes, even death.

    The police told Vikram that Karan would be taken to court the following day. The JagLag team and I rushed to court. Karan was finally produced in court on the 18th of May, in violation of law which states that an accused be produced in court within 24 hours of arrest. In Chhattisgarh, those who have been appointed by the state to uphold laws – that includes the clandestine security agencies, police and the paramilitary, along with state-sponsored civilian actors – break them with impunity.

    The same laws that were designed to protect the rights and dignity of the people.

    Karan looked tired, scared and dirty. With his bloodshot eyes, he stared at his father in the courtroom. Standing there with his hands tied, without any footwear, it was clear that he had been instructed not to talk about what had transpired when he was in custody. Next to Karan stood a boy almost his age – a teenager, in a t-shirt and sneakers. The boy’s body language was very different from Karan’s. It was obvious to me who he was.

    Feeling sorry for both the teenagers, my friend in court whispered that we should find out what happened to the unidentified boy and where he was picked up. I stopped her from approaching him and explained to her that he was probably with the police.

    Child soldier?

    “He’s just a kid. How can he be a policeman?” she asked, refusing to believe me and very eager to intervene. I asked her to wait a bit before approaching him. The state absorbs the young boys even before they turn 18 to “wean them away from naxalism”. Hours later, when Karan was being led to Jagdalpur Central Jail from court, the same kid was seen holding an AK-47 by the police van. Hiring child soldiers in an international crime. I recalled a similar practice years ago in Gadchiroli district, a naxal-dominated district in eastern Maharashtra.

    As the arguments proceeded in court, Karan’s lawyer Guneet was asked why she did not fight cases in her home state of Punjab and why she was defending tribals in Chhattisgarh in court. There is no law in India which bars a lawyer from practising anywhere in the country. Since then, the local Bar Association has created hurdles for JagLag, threatening them from representing tribals in court.

    The police stated in court that Karan, whom they claimed was 30 years old had participated in an IED blast in April 2014. Some CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) personnel had taken a lift in an ambulance, which is against protocol. The Maoists blew up the ambulance and five jawans (solidiers) and two ambulance staff were killed.

    Since Karan’s home was at a great distance and a couple of hours away, the lawyers were unable to produce his school identity card or summon his principal that would have proved that he is a minor and not 30 years old. It was a case of mistaken identity. “The police was looking for someone else who was called Karan, but there was no evidence that it was this tenth class student,” Isha explained. Isha tried to transfer the case to the juvenile board. That took three months. Till then, Karan was in jail, which is in violation of the Juvenile Justice Act.

    At the Juvenile Justice Board, the judge was on maternity leave and the two social workers that were present refused Karan bail, which is his legal right under this Act. After the judge resumed her duty, Karan was given his transfer to a juvenile home.

    “There was no evidence against him in the charge sheet of planting that bomb. However, his name was mentioned in the confession of a co-accused where Karan was described as a 30-year-old man,” elaborated Isha. Despite this, Karan’s bail plea was rejected by the social workers who stated that since Karan hailed from a “sensitive area” it would be better for his studies of he was not released.

    “The whole of Bastar is a sensitive area. Does that mean all children should be put in jail?” asks Isha.

    The fact that no one had seen Karan plant the IED became clear after 35 to 40 witnesses were produced before the board. In December 2015, the lawyers applied for bail. “I argued for an hour. The JJ Act states that bail for juveniles is a compulsion, except in cases where the juvenile is in contact with criminals. That was not the case here,” she elaborated. Finally, after seven months, Karan made bail. The case is still going on in court and Karan has to appear on every hearing.

    Karan’s case is not an aberration. In an area that is rich in minerals, the state is attempting to “sanitise the Maoist-dominated region” and usher in industry and business. The population that was dependent on forests for their livelihood are in their way.

    Mining has not only been detrimental to the health of the tribals and the migrant mine workers, but has irreversibly destroyed the environment. Security forces that are a part of the tribal population are being used to drive out the other half. This highly militarised society is poised to set India’s GDP soaring through mining in the forests that are covered in soot. Under the garb of providing employment, the government is building roads, connecting areas to each other in order to easily transport extracted minerals, further penetrate virgin forests and displace the tribals.

    Adivasis are not the only ones being displaced for their mineral-rich land. “Hostile” (to the state) judges have been transferred, non-government organisations educating people about forest rights and environmental degradation have been threatened by state-sponsored mobs. Lawyers of the JagLag team too dealt with a lot of hostility before their hasty departure upon receiving threats from state-sponsored groups.

    The police also threatened tribal leader Soni Sori and her family when she documented cases of mass rapes by the security forces in Bastar and unsuccessfully tried to file a case under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against IGP SRP Kalluri. Days later, she was attacked by unknown persons. The police also evicted journalist Malini Subramanium of Scroll.in. Her home was stoned by Samajik Ekta Manch, a group of BJP and Congress workers, ex-Salwa Judum members, openly supported by the police, while four other journalists languish in prison for reporting on grassroot-level issues.

    As the fight for land between a well-armed state and the indigenous people intensifies under the garb of exterminating Maoism, experts expect a massive exodus from this region to the cities.

    Featured image via Wikimedia Commons