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Earlier this week, the Chhattisgarh High Court ordered the authorities to produce Podiyam Panda in a habeas corpus petition filed by his wife. The press release sent by the Sukma Police to various WhatsApp groups following the production and testimony of Panda illustrates the impunity with which the Chhattisgarh police not only maligns and intimidates advocates seeking accountability for police excesses, but also resorts to actions amounting to contempt of court.
On May 12, Podiyami Muiye, the Sarpanch of Chintagufa in Sukma, along with her family, approached us, the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group. She sought legal representation as her husband Podiyam Panda had been picked up by the police on May 3 and had not been heard of since. It is not routine for Adivasis in Bastar to come to Bilaspur seeking legal help, and this case was no different. Legal intervention was only resorted to after having exhausting all possibilities of negotiation with the police and the district administration.
Muiye had gone to the police station several times demanding an audience with her husband, but the police denied having any knowledge of his whereabouts. She had visited members of the state administration and the higher police authorities of Sukma along with other members of the CPI, of which Panda had been a member, to no avail. On May 10, she went to the Sukma Kotwali Police Station once again, accompanied by other family members. The police maintained their stand that they did not know where Podiyam Panda was, but accepted clothes for him, reassuring the family that they would reach the intended recipient.
We engaged Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj to appear in the case and a writ petition was filed in the High Court on the grounds that Panda had been in illegal police custody since May 3. The petition prayed for an urgent hearing, bearing in mind the time sensitivity of the case at hand as the petitioner feared that Panda was being tortured in police custody. The petition was filed and admitted on May 12.
The learned counsel for the police, on May 15, submitted an oral reply that Panda had not been arrested, but had surrendered and was willingly in police custody as he apprehended his own safety. We insisted that Panda be produced to prove to the court and to the petitioner, his wife, that he was not under any duress and had surrendered of his own volition. The writ was issued by the High Court on May 18 and on May 22, Podiyam Panda was produced before an open court escorted by police personnel and was asked to testify.
As he approached the Bench, he was asked to give his statement. The police officers accompanying him were asked to step back a little, but not too much. Panda gave a statement that he had surrendered voluntarily and wanted to live in police custody as he feared that he would be killed if he were to go back to his village. He said that he was giving this statement independently, and was free from any form of police pressure and was not beaten up by the police during this period.
Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj prayed that since the petitioner was illiterate and unable to follow the court proceedings, Panda be allowed to speak to her and assure her alone. The prayer was most graciously granted. The police officer accompanying Panda was called to approach the Bench. He identified himself as ASP Jitendra Shukla and was ordered by the Court to provide to the petitioner the right to access her husband and visit him and to ensure her safety. The ASP responded that Podiyam Panda was a free man and his wife could visit him. In fact, they blamed her for not visiting him thus far. The petition was therein disposed of.
Not only must Justice be done, it must also be seen to be done. When Podiyam Panda was being escorted out of the courtroom, we asked him if he would like to speak to his sons, eight and fourteen years old. The ASP interjected aggressively, shouting at us, and telling us that if we were the ones who had filed a habeas corpus, then we have to file another habeas corpus to meet Panda.
We insisted that Panda is a free man and should have the right to speak to his own children and his wife. Panda was most brusquely ushered out of the area. Finally, Panda’s wife and children were allowed to meet with Panda in private, at the intervention of LIB, i.e., the court security staff. The impunity and arrogance with which the police officer shouted at us women lawyers was most disrespectful, especially to Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj who is a senior lawyer and is far older to him in age.
This altercation within the court premises was shocking to us as well as to the onlookers. It disregarded court protocol in an absolute manner and was an insult to us lawyers and to the entire lawyers’ community. The message of the police was crystal clear: anyone who dared to file a perfectly legal and constitutional writ/application/petition in the court or represent the marginalised or demand accountability from them would be facing their wrath and power.
As soon as the hearing was over, the same ASP Jitendra Shukla sent out a WhatsApp message alleging that the lawyers representing Podiyam Muiye, along with Prof. Nandini Sundar, have been exposed by Panda in front of the Court as he has stated that the lawyers have lied to and influenced the petitioner into filing this case and have restrained the petitioner from leaving Bilaspur.
On the same day 22.05.2017, the Sukma Police issued an official press release containing information on the court proceedings. The press statement stated:
(Translated: Surrendered Naxalite Podiyam Panda outed in front of High Court Bilaspur, “Shalini Gera, Isha Khandelwal, Nandini Sunder, Sudha Bharadwaj were unmasked in front of High Court:–A habeas corpus petition was filed by Podiyam Muiye, wife of Podiyam Panda in the Hon’ble Court, Bilaspur, in which the Hon’ble Court ordered for the production of the surrendered naxalite Podiyam Panda on the Court on 22.05.2017 and Panda was presented before the Hon’ble Court on 22.05.2017. Podiyam Panda said that he has surrender wilfully without any pressure, after being tired of the excesses of the Naxalites. Panda said that he was not harassed by the police in any ways nor was he beaten up and he wants to stay with police after surrendering. Podiyam Panda also said that Isha Khandelwal, Shalini Gera, Sudha Bharadwaj, Nandini Sundar lied to his wife Podiyam Muiye and restrained her in Bilaspur. For the same, Podiyam Panda has also submitted a complaint to the police against the female lawyers.)
It is pertinent to note here that the allegations made in this statement against us are absolutely false as such a statement was never made in court. The court order mentions no such statement. Podiyam Muiye was present in every court hearing with her brother-in-law Komal Singh Podiyam. She independently held press conferences and gave statements to the media. She was accompanied by her brother and sister-in-law, children, relatives and they freely moved around, in and out of Bilaspur.
Komal Singh Podiyam, younger brother of Panda, went to meet with Advocate Bhima Podiyam, who practices in the Sukma Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, and returned to narrate stories of being picked up by the police and threatened into signing documents alleging that Advocate Isha Khandelwal and Bhima Podiyam have abducted Podiyam Muiye and kept her in Bilaspur.
Isha Khandelwal was in Geedam town in Dantewada this entire time, getting some affidavits from our clients on a separate case altogether and had never met with or interacted with Podiyam Panda, Podiyam Muiye or Komal Singh Podiyam. To allege that Bhima Podiyam had abducted his own family members while he was sitting in Sukma is not only absurd but also far-fetched and a clear conspiracy to silence the tribal lawyer.
The statement given by Podiyam Panda in the Court was the basis on which the entire case was decided. His statement is the most crucial part of the case and misreporting this statement amounts to dishonoring the sanctity of court proceedings, thereby amounting to contempt of court. Such fabrication furthermore sets a dangerous precedent where the legitimacy of the court can be used as a tool to legitimize false claims against advocates and parties alike. This, in effect, opens up a Pandora’s Box of intimidatory tactics to defame and threaten lawyers and parties.
The present misrepresentation has cast a huge stain on our dignity as advocates working in the Chhattisgarh High Court, thereby violating our fundamental right to life with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution. Our reputation as lawyers in the area is at stake. It is also a direct threat to our right to practice our profession which is an inalienable right under Art. 19(1)(g) of the Constitution.
Every person has a right to a fair trial, and has the right to legal counsel in his/her case. As lawyers, we are duty bound to provide legal representation in our utmost capacities. Such tactics of the police to threaten, defame and intimidate us is unfair, arbitrary and unjust not only to us, but also to the petitioner, whose capacity to gauge the situation and exercise her agency to pursue legal action and to stick by it through the odds, is being denied altogether.
The intent behind such defamatory misreporting is also one of building a false narrative around our work and our presence in Chhattisgarh, especially Bastar. The press release does not only serve as an intimidatory tactic, it also helps build a hostile working and living environment for us, as it effectively incites people against us.
On May 23, the day after the judgment, a gathering of 40-50 persons decked in saffron held a demonstration against us in Konta town of Sukma district on the grounds that Podiyam Panda’s statement has exposed us members of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG) and Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, along with scholar and activist Bela Bhatia and Delhi University Professor Nandini Sundar as having links with the Naxalites, and demanded that we be arrested.
In Bastar, the lives of the tribals are under siege, and any accountability demanded from the police has been responded to by a very aggressive counter-attack. The attitude of the police is symptomatic of a hyper-aggressive masculinity where it perceives itself to be above and beyond the Rule of Law and Part III of the Constitution. It does not think twice before trampling over the sanctity of the Judiciary and judicial procedure. Any voice which seeks to call the police out for the utter disregard of these foundational tenets of our democracy, the principles of natural justice and the basic structure of our Constitution, is sought to be silenced.
When the protector turns perpetrator, when an entire system seeks to extort basic fundamental rights from heavily marginalized persons, there is only the Judiciary to resort to. What, then, is to be done when the right to legal recourse also comes under attack?
Nikita Agarwal is an advocate with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group which was first approached by the petitioner. The group approached Sudha Bharadwaj, an advocate with a decade of litigating experience to argue the case in the Chhattisgarh High Court.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bar & Bench.