Human Rights defenders harassed in Bastar, Chhattisgarh
Stop Harassing Human Rights Defenders in Bastar
The People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Chhattisgarh strongly condemns the acts of the Chhattisgarh police in harassing, intimidating and suppressing the voices of Human Rights Defenders, particularly in the Bastar region. Lawyers, journalists, researchers and civil liberties activists visiting Bastar have been very much on their radar recently since they have exposed many illegal, inhuman and unconstitutional acts of the police and security forces, which are now well known to human rights institutions both nationally and internationally. Instead of applying corrective measures and adhering to the law of the land, the state police has reacted by hounding and intimidating them further. The latest instance is that of lawyers Shalini Gera, Priyanka Shukla, Nikita Agrawal and others.
The case at the centre of the controversy
The State Police and CRPF in a joint anti-Maoist combing operation had gunned down a minor Adivasi youth Pottam Somaru on 16th December in Bijapur district under Gangalur police station. The villagers protested with the dead body in front of the Gangalur police station claiming that the said encounter was fake and that the young boy was actually tortured and killed in cold blood by the security forces.
Relatives of Pottam Somaru filed a writ petition before the Bilaspur High Court, and the Court directed the State to conduct a re-post-mortem in the presence of two forensic experts following the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court and human rights bodies.
Advocates Shalini Gera, Priyanka Shukla and Nikita Agrawal were the counsel for the parents of Pottam Samaru in the High Court. Accordingly a four-member team of Shalini Gera, Priyanka Shukla, Nikita Agrawal and another male researcher Rishit Neogi – reached Jagdalpur on 25th December and went to the village with the permission of the District Collector to exhume the body of Pottam Somaru. The body was brought back the same evening to Jagdalpur by the relatives.
On 25th evening Commissioner Dileep Wasnikar arranged for the stay of the above four persons in Goyal Dharmashala with the help of the SDM Jagdalpur. Next day on 26th December the re-post-mortem of the body of Somaru was conducted in the presence of parents, forensic experts and lawyers.
The harassment of lawyers
In the evening at about 7pm, while the lawyers were about to leave Jagdalpur, a team of police personnel under the leadership of TI Archana Dhurander reached Goyal dharmshala and began to harass the lawyers. They used inappropriate words to address them, even after being told that they were counsels for the High Court petitioner and were there based on the order of the Honourable High Court as well as according to the arrangements made by the Commissioner Mr. Dileep Wasnikar.
TI Archana and her entire team of some 15 police personnel – women and men began to pressurise the lawyers to come to the police station claiming that they had been staying in the dharamshala illegally. It should be noted that she gave no notice and no warrant for searching their belongings when requested. Even when the lawyers spoke to the Commissioner, the officer remained adamant to take them to the police station. One of the constables shouted at the woman lawyers saying ‘e ladki bahar aa’ (hey you girl, come out). This went on for an hour with recordings, videography, photography and audio recording.
Then on 27.12.2016, at about 6.30pm Advocate Shalini Gera received a call from an unknown number where a male voice told her that the SP Bastar wanted to speak to her. Another male voice then came on the line, introduced himself as SP Bastar, and said that he had received a complaint against her. He first claimed she had been to Paalnar Samudayik Bhavan where she had incited villagers against the Aadhaar card, which she denied. Then, he wanted to know what she had been doing in Matenar and she explained that PUCL had organized a small meeting in Matenar (district Dantewada) on adivasi rights on 19.12.2016 in which national delegates from PUCL had come to meet with Bastar villagers and hear their experiences and grievances. The local authorities were well aware of the same. He then claimed in an extremely aggressive manner that she was spreading false stories of police atrocities in front of young children, and he asked her whether any JNU students were present at the meeting, to which she replied that to her knowledge, there were no students from JNU there. He then also asked in a very offensive tone why she was coming to Bastar again and again – and such questions which clearly had no bearing on any kind of “investigation” that he could be conducting, but were only meant to intimidate her.
Finally he claimed that he had received a written complaint against Shalini Gera that she was in Goyal Dharamshala the previous day, exchanging “old notes” for Naxalites. Advocate Gera again denied this and told him that she had been in Goyal Dharamshala the previous day, duly authorized by the Commissioner of Bastar Division, to follow up on orders of the Hon’ble High Court of Chhattisgarh.
After the call ended the Advocates found by checking on the TruCaller app that the number was registered in the name of Farukh Ali. A person by the same name belongs to the vigilante group “AGNI” active in Bastar who has also threatened journalists earlier, and he had recently sent defamatory and inflammatory messages from the same phone number against some attendees of the PUCL meeting in Matenar village. A few hours after these phone calls, the same Farukh Ali posted news of a complaint by one Vinod Pandey against Shalini Gera given to SP Bastar, claiming that she had been visiting jungles of Dantewada to exchange notes of Naxalites in Goyal Dharamshala in Jagdalpur.
The PUCL Chhattisgarh expresses its outrage at this incident and the way the lawyers have been subjected to harassment, investigation (almost a raid), intimidation and threat of being implicated in a patently false case. These are clearly terror tactics and an abuse of power on multiple counts. The action was not only directed against the lawyers team but also was a direct threat to the family members of Pottam Somaru. This act of the police is in violation of the fundamental rights of free speech, free movement, and the right to legal recourse. We are of the opinion that this action against the PUCL members has come as a retaliation against their exposure of cases of fake encounters, rape, arson and other forms of human rights violations under the pretext of anti-Maoist operations in Bastar of Chhattisgarh – and particularly through the recently organised Public Hearing in Village Matenar, Dantewada on 19th December which had been attended by nearly 20 members of the National PUCL. It also comes on the heels of the incident of implication of academician Nandini Sundar and others in a murder case by the Chhattisgarh police, the legality of which has been questioned by both the NHRC and the Supreme Court; the harassment of Shri Sukul Prasad Barse who had organised a public meeting in Village Matenaar; as well as the recent malicious detention and arrest of 7 human rights activists of Telengana.
PUCL Chhattisgarh demands strong action from the State Government against such intimidation, threats of implicating in false cases, raids and misbehaviour with lawyers and other human rights defenders and the initiation of criminal prosecution against such police officers. It also reminds the government and the police force to strictly follow the guidelines set forth by the Supreme Court, the National Human Rights Commission as well as other constitutional bodies.