“It vindicates what we have been saying for a year now,” Gagan Dash said about the Odisha police’s affidavit to the Chhattisgarh High Court confirming his brother Niranjan Dash and his friend Durjoti Mohankudo were kidnapped by the Chhattisgarh police, and arrested on false charges.

In the sworn affidavit, filed on July 6 in response to a writ petition by Gagan Dash and others, the Odisha police stated that it cannot rule out the “involvement of Chhattisgarh police and its officials of Bastar district pertaining to the crime of forcible kidnapping and abduction” of Niranjan Dash and Mohankudo.

Niranjan Dash and Mohankudo were arrested on July 28 last year and charged with supplying explosives to Maoists. They are currently held in Jagdalpur Jail.

The next day, the Chhattisgarh police claimed to have made “one of the biggest explosive recoveries in the last few years” from them. “We recovered these items near Nagarnar police station area on Chhattisgarh-Odisha border,” SRP Kalluri, the controversial inspector general of police in Bastar, boasted. “We received information about the presence of two people with a consignment near Dhanpunji railway crossing after which forces rushed to the spot.”

RN Dash, the superintendent of police, claimed the two men had “confessed they were transporting the explosives for one Maoist Commander Vinod.”

Kalluri and RN Dash, both accused of overseeing atrocities by the police and orchestrating attacks on activists, lawyers, journalists and tribal leaders in Bastar, have since been shifted out.

Waylaid by the law

According to the Odisha police’s affidavit, however, Niranjan Dash and Mohankundo were abducted from Nuagaon in Odisha. Niranjan Dash, a resident of Telia village in Jeypore district, was a supervisor at Frontline Trading company that supplies stones for the Nagarnar steel plant in Chhattisgarh. He had been asked by the company to attend to some work in Nuagaon, and had taken his friend Mohankundo along. Mohankundo was a peon with the Jeypore Municipal Corporation for 15 years. He was his family’s sole breadwinner, his brother Manoj Mohankudo said.

In Nuagaon, their families learnt from the residents, Niranjan Dash and Mohankundo were separately bundled into two Bolero cars by armed men in civilian clothes. Seven witnesses from Naugaon later confirmed this in statements recorded before a magistrate, said Gagan Dash.

On July 30, their family members met the arrested men in Jagdalpur Jail. “They appeared in agony and kept crying most of the time,” Gagan Dash said. They narrated their ordeal thus: from Nuagaon, they were driven to a guest house in Chandni Chowk, Jagdalpur. At around 11 that night, the Bastar SP came and spoke with the men who had picked them up. After he left, the men tortured them, asking them to own up something wrapped in blue polythene. The next morning, they were put in the same Bolero cars and, escorted by two police vans, taken via Dhanpunji railway crossing to Tilia forest in Machkot area. They were stood near something wrapped in polythene and photographed.

The families petitioned the chief ministers and police chiefs of Odisha and Chhattisgarh to right the injustice, but received no response. They then approached the Judicial Magistrate First Class at Kotpad, Odisha. On August 10, the magistrate ordered the Kotpad police to “take appropriate action”. The police filed an FIR against Vijay Kumar Paikra, the head of Nagarnar police station in Chhattisgarh.

Then, nothing moved. Disheartened, the family prepared to approach a higher court. It was around that time that Gagan Das received an anonymous call, asking for a meeting to discuss the case of his brother and Mohankudo. He agreed.

Turning the tables

On August 30, Gagan Dash, his elder brother and two friends, and Manoj Mohankudo met two people, identified as Jagan Mohan Reddy and D Jitendra Reddy, at Hotel Apple Villa in Similiguda, nearly 50 km from Jeypore. According to the Odisha police’s affidavit, the duo had come “at the behest of highly placed police persons of Bastar district” to “manage and pressurise the family members for withdrawal of the legal proceedings”. They threatened Gagan Das and Durjoti Mohankudo to withdraw the case against the police, or face the same fate as their brothers. The emissaries also advised them against going to the High Court, saying senior officers will ensure release of the arrested men. Moreover, they said, Bastar’s IG and SP were influential men and no court could do them any harm.

Gagan Dash said they felt terrorised but quietly videographed the meeting. They then approached the Odisha High Court, seeking compensation of Rs 20 lakh and “CBI investigation against senior police officers of Chhattisgarh”. The High Court dismissed the petition on October 5, reasoning that the case was “not in its jurisdiction” as it was registered in Nagarnar, Chhattisgarh.

Gagan Dash moved the Supreme Court, which, on December 7, 2016, allowed them to approach the Chhattisgarh High Court for relief. They did.

On their writ petition, the High Court directed police of both Odisha and Chhattisgarh to respond. The Chhattisgarh police submitted the response on April 6, sticking to its story. The arrest of Niranjan Dash and Mohankudo, the police insisted, was “just, proper, legal and strictly in accordance with law and...well within its jurisdiction”. They had caught the two men while they were “waiting for someone with bags on their backs” on the evening of July 28, 2016, and recovered “25 bundles, each of which carried 25 pieces of detonators. A total of 652 pieces of detonators were recovered”. Later, based on the arrested men’s “confession”, the police recovered “1,838 pieces of gelatine rods, detonators in 4 boxes containing 397 pieces, 3 bundles of safety wires, 150 kg of ammonium nitrate” from Telia on Chhattisgarh-Odisha border.

The Odisha police countered this in the July 6 affidavit. “The last call detail at 5.10 pm was located at Nuagaon, thereby establishing their presence in Odisha state,” it pointed out, referring to the arrested men. The Odisha police also alleged that the Chhattisgarh police did not cooperate with their investigation, directed by the court, and instead made “efforts to frustrate” it. They also submitted the recording of the Hotel Apple Villa meeting.

Considering the “seriousness and gravity of the offence”, the Odisha police has asked “for appropriate investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation or the National Investigation Agency”.

Ray of hope

Gagan Dash would prefer investigation by a central agency. “After seeing the Odisha police drag its feet on the probe for over six months, how can we expect a foolproof investigation against such senior and dangerous police officers,” he said, referring to Kalluri and RN Dash. “The matter can be fearlessly taken up only by the CBI or the NIA.”

Asked about the demand for a central probe, DM Awasthi, Chhattisgarh police’s special director general for anti-Naxal operations, said, “As a senior police officer I can only say such things should not happen, innocent people should not be falsely charged. If the court orders a CBI or NIA enquiry, we will offer all the support.”

The High Court has listed the case for hearing on July 20. In the meantime, it has stayed the trial of Niranjan Dash and Mohankudo. But they remain in jail as the Jagdalpur court, where they were being tried, has rejected their appeal for bail. The families are now asking for the case to be moved out of Bastar.

“Lawyers attending to the case are facing the heat,” said Satish Chandra Verma, their lawyer in the High Court. “We are hoping the High Court will direct an independent agency to investigate the matter. We have two states presenting two different versions of the same crime, with one state accusing the other state’s police of committing the crime.”

Manoj Mohankudo said, “We hope justice is done and my brother is released at the earliest. He is the only earning member of our family and it has been a year since he was thrown in jail. I am worried he might lose his job.”

Gagan Dash, too, is hopeful his brother “will come out clean disproving the false claims made by the police”.