On April 24, Maoists attacked Central Reserve Police Force troops in Sukma district in south Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, killing 25 jawans and leaving six others injured. This attack was touted as one of the most lethal in the state in half a decade.

Less than two weeks later, on May 3, Communist Party of India leader and the former sarpanch of Sukma’s Chintagufa village, Podium Panda went missing. On May 12, his wife, Podiyami Muiye approached the Chhattisgarh High Court in Bilaspur, filing a habeas corpus petition, a recourse in law under which a person can report an unlawful detention.

Five days later, on May 17, the police produced Panda before the media in Jagdalpur, declaring he had voluntarily surrendered and confessed to having been actively involved with the April 24 attack. In the court, the police challenged Muiye’s petition, claiming that Panda had surrendered to the police on May 9. Its affidavit stated that 45-year-old Panda was the deputy commander (militia) of Duled Janatana Sarkar of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and had surrendered to the police “without any arms and ammunition”. It further said Panda would be granted all the benefits as per the government’s rehabilitation policy for surrendered Maoists.

On May 18, the High Court ordered for Panda to be produced before it on Monday.

Before the hearing, Panda’s wife Muiye told Scroll.in: “If the police has not fully broken his spirit, he [Panda] will stand by the truth – that he is not and has never been a Naxalite. I am only hoping his spirit is stronger than the police baton.”

On Monday, however, when the police presented Panda before the court around 10.30 in the morning, he told the magistrate he had surrendered voluntarily. He denied that he had beaten by the police. When asked by the judge whether he wanted to stay with the police or go with his family, he said he wanted to go back with the police.

On the intervention of the petitioner’s counsel, Panda was allowed to speak to his wife briefly in the court itself. Later, at a press meeting, Muiye said she is convinced her husband has been tortured. She said he was shivering and appeared to be under tremendous pressure.

‘White-collared Naxals’

The case is specifically important because in January the Chhattisgarh police claimed that it would take actions to stop “white-collared Naxals” from creating hurdles to Bastar’s development. They were referring to activists and others who have criticised human rights violations by security forces in the region.

According to the police, Panda has admitted to having been a vital link between Maoist leaders and human rights activists like Delhi University professor Nandini Sundar and Bela Bhatia. The affidavit stated that as the undisputed sarpanch of Chintagufa village for 10 years, Panda gained access to many Maoist leaders, which enhanced his social status as many social workers like Sundar and Bhatia would approach him to take them to Maoist leaders.

DM Awasthi, the Deputy Inspector General of Police, Naxal Operations, said Panda “was the link between the gun-wielding Maoists and those that support them from outside”.

Sundar was one of the key petitioners in the Supreme Court against the Salwa Judum, a state-backed civil vigilante group accused of widespread human rights violations in Chhattisgarh. Many Judum members were later absorbed in the state police, and regularised. In 2011, the Supreme Court deemed the group unconstitutional and held the state responsible for the atrocities its members have been accused of.

Bhatia was instrumental in bringing to light the sexual assault of Adivasi women by security personnel in the past year. The National Human Rights Commission investigated the cases and found prima facie evidence of serious human rights violations.

Responding to the police claims of Panda’s statement, Bhatia said: “Statements can be easily misinterpreted by the police. I met him [Panda] once in 2008. And he was a CPI leader then. There is nothing illegal about that.”

In an article in the news website The Wire, Sundar recounted what she wrote about Panda in her recently-published book: that he “is someone who commands instant respect from everyone who knows him – Maoists, police and villagers alike”. She told Scroll.in that she has known Panda for 15-odd years. “I can only speculate that the police needed to show that they were taking some action after Burkapal [the Sukma attack] and therefore they picked him up,” she added.

On Monday, after Panda made his statement to the court, Sundar pointed out in a press statement that the Supreme Court had in the past held that “a person should not be taken straight from long duration police custody to give a statement, without a cooling off period where they are not in police custody”. Sundar questioned why the High Court had not asked the police to explain the gap between when Panda went missing and when he was shown to have surrendered. “Why did the Court not order a medical examination despite his family’s claim that he was being tortured?” she asked.

Human rights defender or Maoist?

The police has claimed that Panda was involved in all the major Maoist attacks in the past decade. That claim is completely false, said Manish Kunjam, former MLA of the Communist Party of India and a leader of the Adivasi Mahasabha. Since Panda was a committed CPI worker and a member of the party’s Dantewada district council, the Maoists would never accept him, Kunjam said. The Maoists follow a strict regimen and Panda’s tendency to imbibe alcohol would instantly disqualify him, he added.

Residents of Chintagufa say that Panda had risked his life several times to help the armed forces. According to Sundar, Panda was instrumental in helping set up the CRPF camp in Chintagufa when he was the sarpanch of the village. Villagers told Sundar that he provided food and grains to the forces when they ran out of supplies as would happen often, since the area is far-flung.

However, the incident that has almost become legendary occurred in 2005, when Panda saved the lives of seven CRPF men who had been kidnapped by Maoists. Panda negotiated their safe return. In 2012, he also went on to mediate the release of Alex Paul Menon, the former district collector of Sukma, who was also kidnapped by Maoists.

But Panda would not be mum when it came to human rights violations by the police. He raised his voice against Salwa Judum’s atrocities on Adivasi people, said Kunjam.

In 2010, the Maoist attack near the village of Tadmetla left 76 CRPF men dead. Many local CPI leaders, including Kartam Joga, were arrested. “Panda too was accused in several cases and was advised to lie low till the heat dies down,” said Kunjam. Ever since, for the last seven years, Panda had been underground.

“With the fear of arrest by the police looming large, we built a house in Munda, village Minpa, and he began to live there,” said Muiye, Panda’s wife, who continued living in Chintagufa and has been a sarpanch since 2009.

Panda's wife, Muiye, in a photograph taken at her home in October 2015. (Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam).

Violence and intimidation

Panda was riding on his bike, going towards a fish pond, when he was picked up by the police on the morning of May 3, eyewitnesses told Muiye. The eyewitnesses also mentioned that along with Panda, four school-going boys – Podiyam Sushil, Podiyami Hurra, Vetti Malla, Hadma – were picked up on the allegation of having Maoist links.

There is little information about them. “When there is evidence that these boys are school-going, then why did the police arrest them?” asked Sundar. While the mothers of these boys accompanied Muiye to Chintagufa, Dornapal and Sukma police stations, they could not make the journey up to Bilaspur to knock on the doors of the High Court.

Back in Sukma, a police officer questioned Panda’s younger brother Podiyami Komal when he went to meet his brother on May 13. “He asked the reason for filing a habeas corpus when Panda was safe with the police,” said Komal, who also said he was beaten by the police. In the meantime, he was allowed to see Panda.

“My brother looked tired and appeared to be in fear,” said Komal. “He was limping and I could see his right heel was dark blue, showing signs of [him] having been beaten up. I felt he tried to say something, but was unable to as so many policemen were surrounding him.”

Muiye was reluctant to go to the police station, for fear of being beaten up or arrested. As the sarpanch of an area where officials of the civil administration are largely missing, she regularly interacted with the police and CRPF who sought her help to distribute supplies in the village as part of their civic action programmes. But she also faced harassment by the same forces, which suspected her family of colluding with Maoists.

As the sarpanch of Chintagufa, Muiye had to attend official events. Here, she is seated next to SRP Kulluri, the former Inspector General of the Bastar police, at a Maoist surrender ceremony in 2015.

In October 2015, when one of us had travelled to Chintagufa, Muiye had alleged that CRPF troops had barged into her house while she was taking a bath. Dragging her by the hair while she was still in a wet saree, they had searched her house, only to find Communist Party of India pamphlets. This incident was corroborated by policemen in a conversation at the police station. On the same trip, we had met Panda who was living the life of a fugitive.

“We are like the dumroo [drum],” he said, with a weak smile.Dono taraf se peete jaate hain. We are beaten on both the sides. Maoists think we are with the police, while the police think we are with the Maoists.”