Tasked To Recommend Withdrawal Of Cases Against Adivasis, Panel Ignores Serious Offences

The panel has so far looked only into routine offences like the Excise Act and has not examined even a single Naxal-related case under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and National Security Act that see the maximum and the longest incarceration of the adivasis in Bastar.

Acquitted adivasis at their interior villages of Sukma district in Bastar.

As the recent acquittal of 121 Adivasis by a special court in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada hit headlines, it is instructive to note that in March 2019, months after coming to power, the Bhupesh Baghel government had formed an eight-member committee to reexamine cases filed against Adivasis in the state. 

Headed by Justice AK Patnaik, the committee was tasked to recommend the withdrawal of cases against adivasis. It marked the implementation of the Congress’s poll manifesto in which it had promised to secure the release of innocent adivasis languishing in jails. 

The committee was asked to look into a variety of cases registered under severe laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and National Security Act (NSA) to routine IPC crimes and offences under the Excise Act. However, records accessed by Outlook show that while following the committee’s recommendation, as many as 622 cases have been withdrawn till date, benefitting 740 adivasis, not a single one of them has been released so far. The committee has so far looked only into routine offences like the Excise Act, and has not examined even a single Naxal-related case that sees the maximum and the longest incarceration of the adivasis in Bastar. Over 3000 adivasis are languishing in jails of Bastar on charges that may not stand any scrutiny. 

“Since the NSA and the UAPA are Central laws and their withdrawal is not possible without the Centre’s permission, the committee didn’t consider these cases,” a senior functionary in the Chhattisgarh government told Outlook. It is not clear why the state government included these cases in the terms of references or did not approach the Centre to seek its permission. 

The Burkapal acquittal

The 121 Adivasis were accused of participating in an April 2017 Naxal attack in Burkapal area of Sukma district in which 25 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were killed, making it the second-biggest attack on security forces in Bastar after the killing of 76 personnel in April 2010. A joint team of CRPF’s 74th battalion and the Chhattisgarh Police came under an ambush when it was deployed to guard the ongoing construction of Dornapal-Jagargunda road. 

Soon after the 2017 attack, the police arrested adivasis from several adjoining villages including Gondapalli, Chintagufa, Tadmetla, Koraigundam and Tongaguda. Among the arrested adivasis were several minors and a young woman. Each and every accused was acquitted after a special court of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) found that there was no evidence against them. 

“None of the witnesses presented by the prosecution has made any statement that contains a credible fact to prove that the accused were members of a banned Naxal organization and were involved in the incident,” said Justice Deepak Kumar Deshlahre in his judgment delivered on July 15.  

The judge also noted that there is no evidence to suggest that the accused were even present at the site. 

He said, “There is no statement by the prosecution witnesses about the presence…of the accused during the incident. No lethal weapon or firearm was recovered from the accused. Thus, none of the charges can be established against the accused.”

In other words, these adivasis spent over five years in jail without any reason. 

The FIR was registered against them on April 30, 2017 at Chintagufa Police Station of Sukma, with the chargesheet filed on October 26. The police continued to add several serious charges against them before the recording of the witnesses’ statement began on August 8, 2021. Besides being slapped with the UAPA, they were charged with several serious offences including Sections 302 (murder) and 396 (dacoity with murder) of the Indian Penal Code along with sections of the Arms Act and the Explosive Substances Act.

While seven of them were minors who had been released earlier on bail, an accused named Dodi Manglu (42) died in October 2021 during the trial. Almost all of them were 19-30 years of age, with the eldest being one Madkam Bhima, 50, a resident of Tongguda village in Sukma. 

The villagers narrated their ordeal to Bastar journalists after their release. Padam said that the police had arrested him and several other residents of his village after the incident and accused them of participating in the attack. “We had no idea about it,” the acquitted adivasis said. 

Madkam Hunga, a resident of Burkapal, said that soon after the incident, security forces came to his village and killed his brother Madkam Baman on the pretext of being a Naxal. A few days later, security personnel brought several residents of his village to their camp and later arrested them. 

Commenting on the judgment, Chhattisgarh’s former Special DGP RK Vij expressed concern about the “seizure witnesses turning hostile”.  

He told Outlook, “We lost 25 CRPF jawans. The judgment clearly concludes the deaths to be homicidal in nature. The judgment is quite sketchy and nothing substantive is mentioned to explore the possibility of filing an appeal.

“It is a fact that many Maoists belong to that tribal region, and villagers may not always want to identify them. Considering the hostile environment in that region, witnesses must be apprehensive about the consequences of speaking truth.”

It’s the second major acquittal in Bastar this year. In March, a special court in Dantewada acquitted former teacher Soni Sori and three others in a case filed against them in 2011. 

Sori was accused of supplying money to Naxals and acting as a conduit between the insurgents and the Essar Group. The court acquitted her, her nephew Lingaram Kodopi, civil contractor BK Lala and Essar official DVCS Varma. The Dantewda police had alleged that Lala had given Rs 15 lakh to Sori and Kodopi, which was to be paid to Maoists as protection money from the Essar Group.