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Members of the Chhattisgarh police, it would appear, are finding new ways to intimidate lawyers, journalists and activists in the embattled region. Three separate incidents which took place over the past week show that the police force and other extraneous elements are working hand-in-glove with a view to maligning anybody who dares stand up for the rights of the Adivasi community in the Naxal-ridden area.
The first incident pertains to a People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) meeting held in the Dantewada on December 19. The meeting, which was held to give members of the Adivasi community an opportunity to express how they have been affected by insurgency and counter-insurgency operations in the region, was attended by a number of lawyers, activists, and journalists from across the country.
The very next day, five of the attendees, including advocates Atindriyo Chakrabarty, Priyanka Shukla and Nikita Agarwal, were stopped by police officials. Despite having no warrant, the officers took down their personal details and took photographs of them.
Much to their horror, their photos were circulated on a WhatsApp group by one Farukh Ali, member of Bastar Sangharsh Samiti and a new vigilante group called the Action Group for National Integration or AGNI.
Along with the photos was a post alleging that the five were Naxal supporters “from JNU”, despite the fact that none of them were from the University. It is also pertinent to note that there were several police officers on this group.
Priyanka Shukla, an advocate who practices in Bilaspur, has since written to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), in the hope that this harassment will be addressed.
The second incident affects Shalini Gera, member of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, which has been providing legal assistance to the members of the Adivasi community for the last few years.
Gera was representing the family members of Kumma Toppam, a villager who was allegedly gunned down by security forces on the pretext of being a Naxalite. During the hearing of a writ filed by the family members, the Chhattisgarh High Court, had on December 23 directed the exhumation of the body for a second post-mortem.
For this purpose, Gera had travelled to Jagdalpur two days later. Pursuant to this, the Commissioner of Bastar, Dilip Wasnikar, made arrangements for the stay of the villagers and the legal team.
However, on December 26, several police personnel entered the accommodation of the legal team, claiming that they were staying there illegally. They also tried to search the lawyers’ belongings without having a warrant. It was only after around forty-five minutes of intimidation that the lawyers were able to contact the Commissioner, who confirmed to the officer conducting the raid that he had signed off on their stay.
But things did not end there.
Later that day, Gera got a call from an unknown person, who gave the phone to someone who claimed to be the SP of Bastar, RN Dash. The same person proceeded to threaten Gera, accusing her, among other things, of visiting Jagdalpur with the purpose of exchanging old notes for Naxalites in the region. Gera later found that the number belonged to Farukh Ali, the member of AGNI. When she called the SP’s official number, he confirmed to her it was indeed him who had spoken to her previously.
Gera has also written to the NHRC, stating,
“I fear that this is a continuation of the harassment already faced by us, and other human rights workers, academics, lawyers, writers, tribal rights activists etc. in the Bastar Division, and this requires urgent intervention from the NHRC.”
This is not the first time Gera has been the victim of police intimidation. In February this year, she and fellow JAGLAG member Isha Khandelwal were forced to evict their residence, following constant threats from the police and vigilante organizations like the now defunct Samajik Ekta Manch.
And this harassment is not limited to lawyers working in Chhattisgarh.
Two days earlier, members of the Telangana Democratic Front (TDF) – including lawyers CH Prabhakar, D Prabhakar and B Ravindranath – were arrested by the Chhattisgarh police.
According to TDF Secretary General Narayana Rao, the team, which was on their way to conduct a fact-finding mission into an alleged encounter case in the fledgling state, was picked up by the Telangana police and handed over to the Chhattisgarh police in Sukma district. This was presumably done to bring them under the draconian Chhattisgarh State Public Security Act, which gives state police unbridled powers of arrest.
They have been charged with carrying “Maoist literature” and illegally possessing demonetized currency notes worth Rs. 1 lakh. The TDF has since demanded the unconditional release of all seven members.
These only add to the innumerable instances of harassment of civil society members in the state over the past few years.
Most recently, Delhi University Professor Nandini Sundar was accused of being involved in the murder of a young tribal from the Sukma district.
View Shalini’s letter to the NHRC:
View PUCL’s letter to the NHRC: