Monday, Aug 15, 2022

Adivasi Life In Bastar: Burkapal Is A Tip Of The Repression

The Burkapal case is a symbol of the grave injustices being done to the adivasis of Bastar on a daily basis in the name of anti-Maoist operations.

A court this month acquitted 121 adivasis after they had spent five years in jail
A court this month acquitted 121 adivasis after they had spent five years in jail Shutterstock

After the Burkapal incident on 24 April 2017, in which 25 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans and one Maoist were killed and seven CRPF jawans were injured in an encounter with the Maoists, 120 Adivasis — mostly young men in their 20s or 30s besides three minors — were arrested over a period of time. The name of a woman 'Naxalite' was added, bringing the total number of arrested accused to 121. The charge sheet also mentions 119 other named accused and 100-150 “unknown Maoists” who are said to be absconding. 

The FIR mentions Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections 147, 148, 149, 120(B), 307, 302, 396, 397; sections 25, 27 of Arms Act; and Sections 3 and 5 of the Explosive Substances Act. In the charge sheet, further charges under Sections 8(1)(3)(5) of the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA) and Sections 38, 39 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) were also added.

After nearly four years when the case was being heard in the NIA (National Investigation Agency) court at Jagdalpur, the case was transferred to the newly-designated NIA court at Dantewada in early 2021 and the trial finally began in August 2021. Twenty-six prosecution witnesses were examined from then until 28 June 2022. The judgement was delivered on 15 July 2022, acquitting all the accused.

By then, they had spent five years behind bars. They were brought for court hearings only twice during this period —once at the framing of charge stage and once for examination— when it is mandatory to produce the accused in person at every hearing. Despite Bastar being the most militarised zone in the country — next only to Jammu and Kashmir, the reason given was that there were not enough police personnel to accompany the accused to court. The possibility that they be brought to court by turn in batches was not entertained by the NIA court judge at Jagdalpur until November 2019 when the court procedure for framing of charge began. 

During much of 2020, the functioning of courts ground came to a halt and visits of families in jail were also suspended due to Covid-19 restrictions. One of the accused, 46 years-old Dodi Manglu, died in prison in October 2021. Five years thus went without any relief since bail was denied in the designated NIA court at the district level as well as in the High Court.

The police investigation in the case was done shoddily. For example, the seven injured CRPF jawans were not made witnesses. Without any evidence, these 120 Adivasis were arbitrarily picked up from Burkapal and surrounding villages in Sukma district as well as a few villages in Bijapur district, many when they were asleep at home, and arrested. This way of rounding up local residents after a Maoist ambush, IED blast or other incident is a routine affair in Bastar.

The Burkapal case is a symbol of grave injustices being done to Adivasis of Bastar on a daily basis in the name of anti-Maoist operations. To my knowledge, this case had a larger number of accused under the draconian UAPA than any other case in the country so far.

While 121 accused in a single NIA case charged under the UAPA is dramatic, it must be understood that around 200-275 similar cases with smaller numbers of accused have been disposed of and around 154 cases are pending.  At present, there are over 3,000 undertrials, many under UAPA, CSPSA, the Arms Act, the Explosive Substances Act and stringent sections of the IPC, in the jails of Bastar Division — the central jail at Jagdalpur, district jails (at Dantewada and Kanker) and sub-jails (at Bijapur, Sukma and Narayanpur). Typically cases drag on for years for no good reason; for example, because police and security forces, who are often complainants as well as investigating officers and witnesses, fail to turn up in court.

Meanwhile the accused’s families endure the worst hardships. They have to make frequent long trips to the courts and jails, often in vain. Sometimes the back-and-forth journey takes several days, with no place to stay en route and no money for food. Most are Gonds who may not speak or understand Hindi and have difficulties in the city to communicate with the non-Gondi speaking lawyers, and have no clue as to what is happening in the court since lawyers may not take the time to explain court procedures and reasons for delay to them. Often they have to sell their cattle or other meager belongings to cover all the court-related expenses.

A case like Burkapal with a large number of accused is an attractive proposition for the lawyers and court staff. Lawyers especially charge extortionate and arbitrary fees for simple services such as a bail application. In the Burkapal case, when different lawyers —non-Adivasi as well as Adivasi lawyers— have handled the case at different times, many families have had to pay multiple times. The habitual functioning of the legal system has become such that it is imbued with arbitrariness rather than accountability. A lawyer can charge whatever he or she wishes without any qualms about norms, transparency, empathy or similar concerns. Courts in Bastar, as in other parts of the country, are a den of irresponsibility and corruption. For an honest lawyer or court functionary, this environment causes frustration and discouragement on a daily basis.

The Burkapal case raises several pertinent questions: Should the state police not be also accused of criminal conspiracy to make ordinary villagers a scapegoat in their fight against Maoists? Is such unjust punishment likely to make them join the Maoists' war against the police and state or wean them away from possible Maoist influence?

After acquittal, people return to their homes and pick up pieces of their lives and try to live "normally". The government has no package that involves compensating them for the time spent in prison, lost earnings, or other consequences on family members, especially old parents, young wives and children. In some cases, they have to come to terms with illness and death in the family or community in their absence. Their own state of mind may also have been affected.

The Congress government of Chhattisgarh had promised the release of "nirdosh adivasis" (innocent tribals). But the efforts of the Justice Patnaik committee that was constituted for this purpose did not extend to adivasis caught in such "Naxali" cases.

The Burkapal case underlines the urgent need to do so since a very large majority of adivasis behind bars in Bastar are those who were also arrested in similar circumstances. This unjust targeting of residents of areas under Maoist influence must end. Arresting people arbitrarily, foisting false charges on them, sometimes in a totally fabricated case, is a crime.

Bela Bhatia is a human rights lawyer based in Dantewada. She was one of the defence lawyers in the Burkapal case.