A protest that began last Monday with about 1,000 people has now swollen to more than 5,000. As Scroll reported last week, the arrest of a primary school cook, Hadma Mutchaki of Hamirgarh village, brought 1,000 adivasis to demonstrate outside Tongal police station in Chhattisgarh's Sukma district on February 16. The police had charged Mutchaki with aiding the Maoists in the murder of a police informer. But the protestors said he was innocent and had been wrongly framed. Men, women and children sat on the national highway outside the police station, blocking it for 17 hours, and bringing all road traffic between Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh to a halt. 

The next day, activists Soni Sori and Bela Bhatia persuaded the protestors to move from the highway to a ground near the police station. But the protest itself did not dissipate. It gained strength after the police detained three of the protestors, Hidma Kawasi, Ramji Mandavi and Podiyami Budhra. The final straw came when the three men emerged from police custody with injury marks. They alleged they had been beaten up while in custody. As the news spread, thousands of adivasis from villages across Darbha, Kuakonda, Chhindgarh and Sukma blocks of Bastar and Sukma districts converged on Tongpal on Thursday.  

Injuries on the backs of Kawasi Hidma and Ramji Mandavi. Photo credit: Jeet

Kawasi Hidma alleged that the policemen had hit all three of them with heavy sticks. Apart from gashes on his back, his right hand was swollen. He could not move it much. Ramji Mandavi alleged that his head was dunked inside a bucket of water several times. A policeman cocked a rifle at his forehead and threatened to shoot him, he added. The men said that they passed out due to the beatings. When they regained consciousness some time later, the policemen brought the government doctor in Tongpal to administer them injections. They were taken to the office of the sub-divisional magistrate, who sent them to Dantewada prison, where they stayed until Thursday, which was more than 24 hours since they had been detained.

"No one can be detained for more than 24 hours," said Shalini Gera, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Group, a collective of lawyers based in Jagdalpur, which provides pro-bono legal support to adivasis. "The men were still in prison on Thursday due to unexplained, extraordinary administrative delays. For instance, the release order communicated by the magistrate on Wednesday late afternoon did not reach the prison till Thursday afternoon."

Officers at the Tongpal police station denied that the men had been beaten while in custody. "Our secret police informer was murdered in Hamirgarh, which is why Hadma Mutchaki has been arrested (on charges of aiding the Maoists and murder). The other three were only detained and released the next day," said Aditya Keshav, the station supervisor. "The injury, as claimed by the villagers, was due to the stampede that erupted as the police began clearing the chakka jam they had called for at the national highway," said Shishupal Singh, the police sub-inspector of Tongpal. "But if they do a chakka jam now, there will be real action – after all, there is a huge gathering and anything can happen," said Keshav, shaking his head vehemently.  

But the police needn't have worried. The protestors did not block the highway. On Saturday, they walked in a brisk and silent rally that went a good 3 kms, but without any chakka jam or sloganeering. The placards that they carried bore slogans like 'Hum bhi Insaan hai, hame jeene do' (We are also human beings, let us live), 'Nirdosh adivasiyon par police apna daman band karen’  (Police should stop subjugation of innocent adivasis). At the end of the rally, the protestors assembled in a ground near the Tongpal police station. The sub-divisional magistrate came to the ground in the evening, and Soni Sori presented a list of demands on behalf of the protestors.

The protestors took out a silent rally

Apart from asking for action against the policemen who had allegedly beaten the three men, the protestors reaffirmed their demand for the release of Hadma Mutchaki, the primary school cook from Hamirgarh village. They also put up wider demands, including a complete halt to the arbitrary arrests of villagers without warrant and compliance with the rule of having women personnel while conducting any enquiry among women. 

"Women are not spared when the force walla come to the village during search operations. There are no police women. It’s the men who barge into our homes when we are alone," said one of the women, who sat in the gathering, which had a very large representation of women. "It is impossible to lead normal lives in our homes in the villages or go to the market.  There is constant fear of being rounded up for some enquiry or the other or under suspicion of being Naxalites," said Muda Kawasi , sarpanch of Pendalnar village of the same block.

"This is the same story in villages in neighbouring blocks of Sukma, Darbha and Kuakonda as well, which is why so many have gathered to stand in solidarity," said Kawasi Hidma, who had rejoined the protest after his release from detention.

It's been a week since the protest started. People have not returned home. Thousands more have joined. "This time the people seem determined. They want to be heard and refuse to be treated in this manner," said Soni Sori, a former school teacher who had been arrested in 2011 on allegations of acting as a conduit for Maoists. During interrogation, she alleged she was tortured, and a medical report subsequently backed her claims. Sori went on to join the Aam Aadmi Party. She contested and lost the Lok Sabha election from Bastar in 2014. She has been holding the peace amongst the protesting adivasis and is being looked upon as their leader. 

The police, however, continues to believe that the real leadership of the protest lies elsewhere. When asked how he explains such a huge gathering of adivasis, the Tongpal station supervisor Aditya Keshav said, "Come over to the thana once this is over. I will make you listen to  the recorded conversation we have of this gathering being guided by those people." By those people, he meant the Maoists.

On Sunday night, as the protestors settled in the open ground, Sukda Mutchaki, sarpanch of Doleras village, said, "We will stay put until we get satisfying answers from the authority, even if this takes a month."

The protestors cooked and slept in an open ground in Tongpal