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In a small victory for the Pardhi community in the state, the Madhya Pradesh High Court recently ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into the 2017 death of Indermal Bai, one of the members of the now de-notified tribe.
The Court’s order assumes significance in light of the history of harassment faced by the Pardhi community at the hands of the state machinery, particularly the police.
In the pre-independence era, the Pardhi community was branded as a “criminal tribe” by the British. This tag was shed in 1952, when they were denotified. However, the marginalised community faces discrimination to this day. A survey conducted in 2016 in the bastis of Bhopal among 189 Pardhi families found that 25 people of all ages had committed suicide, most of them due to harassment by the police.
According to sources, the police would habitually threaten to file cases against members of the “criminal tribe” if they failed to pay them off.
One of these cases came up before the Madhya Pradesh High Court in 2017, when the relatives of the victim filed a petition challenging the inaction of the authorities in the case. And two years later, it seems that the family has received a semblance of justice.
But it has not been an easy fight for Indermal Bai’s family and their lawyers. Last month’s order passed by a Single Judge Bench of Justice Vishal Dhagat came only after inaccuracies in the arguments and the evidence produced by the state and the police were brought to light during the course of the hearings.
Driven to suicide?
Four police officers used to harass and intimidate Indermal Bai, demanding Rs. 20,000 from her, failing which they would register a case of theft against her. She filed a complaint with the District Collector, to no avail.
On November 17, 2017, the officers came to her house and demanded the money from her. An exasperated Indermal Bai poured kerosene on herself and set herself ablaze, while the officers stood by and did nothing. Three days later, she succumbed to her injuries. The incident had sparked mass protests in Bhopal at the time.
After the local police failed to register the case, blood relatives of Indermal Bai filed a petition before the Madhya Pradesh High Court challenging the inaction of the authorities.
Inaccuracies in prosecution arguments
The respondents contended that Indermal Bai had set herself on fire by accident when she was burning clothes and polythene outside her house. The medico-legal report had stated that she was in an inebriated state when she was admitted to the hospital following the incident.
Moreover, the police report mentioned the criminal antecedents of Indermal Bai as well as the crimes committed by the Pardhi community in general.
However, these arguments were found to be inaccurate when a Bench of Justice Atul Sreedharan (before whom the case was earlier listed) asked for the documents to be placed on record. It was found that the respondents produced fake medical records from a hospital she was never admitted to, suppressing the medical records (including the Medico-Legal Case Report and the Post-Mortem Report) from Hamidia Hospital, where she was actually admitted.
Moreover, it was later found that Indermal Bai had been acquitted in all the cases filed against her.
Justice Vishal Dhagat noted in his order that no reason was given in the police report as to why the accounts of the eye-witnesses were disregarded. The witnesses had stated that no effort was made by the police officers to douse the flames or to take Indermal Bai to the hospital.
On the question of Indermal Bai’s antecedents, the Bench observed,
“The character of the deceased in not to be judged. The question before this Court is whether she caught fire accidentally or the Police personnels who were present there were harassing the deceased and incited her to emulate herself (sic) and therefore fair investigation is not done in the matter.”
Noting that the investigating agency failed to record many important pieces of evidence, and that the prosecution had not yet filed a charge sheet in Indermal Bai’s death, the Court ordered that an independent investigation be carried out by the CBI.
The petitioners were represented by Advocates Shikha Pandey and Shreyas Pandit.
[Read the order]