Six months after they were arrested by Chhattisgarh police, seven members of the Telangana Democratic Forum returned home in the first week of July. Charged under the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act for allegedly carrying demonetised notes worth Rs one lakh to aid the Maoists, their bail application was rejected three times. Finally, they secured bail on June 30 from the High Court in Bilaspur.
In a conversation on the sidelines of an event organised by the Forum in Hyderabad on July 3, Balla Ravindranath, one of the seven members, alleged both Telangana Police and Chhattisgarh police had worked in tandem to fabricate a case against them. He also recounted the harrowing experience of imprisonment in Sukma jail.
An unexpected arrest
The Telangana Democratic Forum came together in 2015 as a collective of 376 independent organizations, political parties, intellectuals and retired judges to protest against human rights violations in Telangana and neighbouring states.
On the night of December 24, seven activists of the Forum left Hyderabad to travel to Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur and Sukma districts, which share borders with Telangana’s Khamman district. The team included lawyers Balla Ravindranath and Chikkudu Prabhakar, journalist Rajendra Prasad, activists Durga Prasad, Duddu Prabhakar, R Laxmayya, and student activist Mohammad Nazeer.
Their aim was to investigate three separate incidents of violence, said Ravindranath. In all three incidents, villagers had accused the security forces of killing civilians and passing them off as Maoists. Among those dead was a 13-year-old boy and a block president of the Congress.
No sooner had the team reached between Dummugudem and Parnasala in Khammam, a jeep without a number plate overtook their vehicle, blocking its path, said Ravindranath. Five men in civilian clothes emerged from the jeep. They took away the phones of the activists and asked them to board the jeep. The team refused to go with unknown people. Later, they discovered the five men were plainclothes policemen from Chhattisgarh, Ravindranath said.
About half an hour later, Telangana police arrived. They asked the activists to board the unnumbered jeep, assuring them that they would be taken to the Dummugudem police station. However, they were driven straight to the Konta police station in Chhattisgarh, he added.
When called for a response, the police sub-inspector at Dummugudem said the Telangana Democratic Forum members were intercepted by Chhattisgarh police and taken straight to Konta. He claimed Telangana police had no role in the arrests.
But the officer heading Konta police station, Saurav Pandey, insisted that the seven activists were arrested from a location close to a canal in Dharmapenta, which is well within the Chhattisgarh police jurisdiction.
The night at Konta police station was distressing, said Ravindranath. The team was made to sign blank sheets of paper as well as statements written in Hindi, he alleged, even though they could neither read nor write the language. The police intimidated them into signing the statements by holding guns and batons menacingly. On one occasion, when he argued with the police, a policeman threatened to take off his clothes, allegedly saying: “If you don’t sign we know how to get the signatures.”
As lawyers, they were aware that signatures extracted in the police station could be challenged in the court, said Ravindranath, and therefore, they signed the statements. “However, I shudder to think what the situation for the local Adivasis must be,” he added.
The next day, around 8 am, they were produced before the magistrate in Sukma, the district headquarters. They were refused bail because they had been booked under the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act.
A draconian law
Passed in 2005, the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act has been criticised as draconian – it gives the police wide powers to make arrests even before any crime has been committed.
Section 8 (5) of the Act states:
“Whoever commits or abets or attempts to commit or plans to commit any unlawful activity in any specified area shall be punished with an imprisonment for a term up to seven years as well as fine.”
Legal experts have pointed out that this amounts to making thoughts punishable.
Courts are often reluctant to give bail to people charged under the Act. The Dantewada district court rejected the bail plea of the seven activists on January 3 and so did the High Court in Bilaspur on March 22. What eventually secured them bail was a challenge to the charges under the Act. On April 12, the trial court in Sukma dropped Section 8 (5) of the Act, in response to a petition filed by them.
The defence lawyer challenged the section in court by arguing that the Act had not defined ‘specified area’ nor had Chhattisgarh issued a notification delineating any particular area as ‘specified area’.
The lawyer also argued that section 8(4) of the Act had been violated by the police as the mandatory permission of the district superintendent of police was not sought.
The police had claimed that all seven members had been seen in the Kishtaram area on December 1, 12, 20, 24, where they travelled “to propagate Naxalism”. The police claimed Maoist literature and demonetised notes worth Rs one lakh were found on them.
Alleging the daily police diary was false, the defence lawyer produced mobile phone location records of the accused in the court. The records as well as bus tickets showed that till 11 pm on the night of December 24, all the accused were in Hyderabad. An order sheet from the High Court in Hyderabad revealed that Ch Prabhakar, one of the accused, was attending to a hearing in the court on December 24, and another accused, Mohammad Nazeer had attended a university examination on the same day.
The applicants also brought to the notice of the court that the first information report dated December 25 was filed at Konta police station but two days later, the case was transferred to Kishtaram police station. This was an afterthought, they alleged. The police had realised their gaffe of showing the arrests in Konta while claiming that the activists had been seen in Kishtaram, said Ravindranath.
Dismissing the allegation, Pandey, the police officer at the Konta police station, said the crime was first registered in Konta since Kishtaram was in the remote interiors and the accused had to be produced before the magistrate within 24 hours.
Challenging the Public Security Act
Welcoming the bail as “rare yet encouraging”, Sudha Bharadwaj, lawyer and general secretary of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties said the case once again highlighted the abuse of the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act. The law had been framed in 2005 to silence any criticism of Salwa Judum, the state-sponsored armed vigilante group that had taken shape that year, she said. Most prominently, the law was used to arrest the national vice president of the organisation Dr Binayak Sen. “The law needs to be taken off the statute books without delay,” Bharadwaj added.
The People’s Union of Civil Liberties had challenged the constitutional validity of the Act in the Supreme Court in May 2008. The case was transferred to the High Court which dismissed the petition in April 2014. A Special Leave Petition against the High Court order has been filed in the Supreme Court. The matter has been admitted and a notice has been issued to the Chhattisgarh government, said Bharadwaj.
Life in prison
The arrests gave the activists a chance to closely observe the conditions inside Chhattisgarh prisons.
In Sukma jail, Ravindranath saw a floating population of undertrials. Most of them were young Adivasi men who were commonly charged for murder and under the Arms Act and Explosives Substances Act.
In the six months spent in the jail, he said they saw 123 people added to the list of undertrials. This meant on an average about 15-20 people were brought into the jail every week. Once the chargesheets were filed, they would be moved to the larger Dantewada prison, making way for the next lot.
“The barracks where I stayed had the capacity of 35 undertrials but it was overflowing with 65-80 undertrials,” said Ravindranath.
The official heading the Sukma jail, NK Deheria, accepted that the jail was overcrowded, attributing it to the fact that the building was still under construction. Until the first week of July, the jail had 150 inmates but only three barracks were functional. One had capacity for 35 inmates and the other two for 20 inmates, he added.
A striking feature inside the jail, said Ravindranath, was the large number of minors brought there. At one instance, he recollected identifying along with the Juvenile Justice Board members who had come on an inspection, 18 minors from among the undertrials. Deheria was unable to confirm the number since he had assumed charge only a month back.
“The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” said Duddu Prabhakar, one of the seven activists, quoting Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Food in the jail was inadequate and unappetising, he said. Breakfast meant two rotis while lunch and dinner were merely rice with watery dal, and occasionally vegetables. For the six months they spent in Sukma jail, they were mostly confined to the barracks, allowed to step out for food and chores just three times a day, said Ravindranath.
In the event of an illness, medicines were given and if someone fell seriously ill, they would be taken to Sukma district hospital. An Adivasi prisoner who was diagnosed with cancer was taken to Raipur for treatment. Barring a few instances of humane treatment, he said most prisoners including undertrials were seen by the jail staff as “criminals who deserve nothing better than what is given”.
“Speaking to the undertrials [in jail] with us, we realised what was happening in the villages,” said Ravindranath. He gave the example of four people arrested from a village near Jagargunda who had supported the Salwa Judum but were now arrested and charged by the police for aiding the Maoists.
“The social fabric of the region is in tatters, undergoing a cruel change where not just community members but family members are pitted one against the other,” said Ravindranath.
The seven human rights activists will be required to travel to Sukma to attend their trial.
“We are happy that the honourable court has granted us bail,” said D Prabhakar. “As an advocate, I have implicit faith in the court and will legally fight the police’s false claims.”
Out of the 12 witnesses to be examined by the court, only five have appeared in the court in the last six months.
“The police will drag the case and we are prepared to fight this in the court of law,” Prabhakar said. “In the meantime, we will continue to raise our voices against human rights violations and state repression.”