In July this year, the Chhattisgarh High Court was confronted with an unusual matter involving the arrest of two men from Odisha. The Chhattisgarh police claimed to have caught Niranjan Dash and Durjoti Mohankudo with a consignment of arms and explosives meant for Maoists from Nagarnar in Bastar district in July 2016. The Odisha police countered that the men had been abducted from Nuagoan in Kotpad, Koraput, the Odisha bordering strife-torn Bastar. In their affidavit, the Odisha police did not rule out the “involvement of Chhattisgarh police and its officials of Bastar district pertaining to the crime of forcible kidnapping and abduction”.

Still, the Chhattisgarh police justified Dash and Mohankudo’s arrest as part of a crackdown on “growing support” for Maoists in Koraput. They had arrested 21 people from the district, the police informed the court, seven of them in 2013, three in 2014 and 11 in 2015, and charged them primarily with providing material support to Maoist rebels. They had been booked in six cases, all registered at Bastar’s Nagarnar police station.

What the police did not tell the court was that four of the six cases had already resulted in the acquittal of 11 accused persons by lower courts. The outcome of the other two doesn’t look promising for the police either.

So, why did the cases come undone despite the Chhattisgarh police insisting the arrested men had “frightening links” with the Maoists?

To get to an answer, studied three of the cases in detail – examining court papers and speaking individually with some of the men who have been acquitted or are out on bail. What emerged was a pattern of dramatic arrests, confiscation of explosives, wide media coverage, glaring procedural lapses, cases falling apart in court and, eventually, acquittal.

‘Urban Maoist networks’

On September 26, 2015, the Chhattisgarh police arrested seven men and claimed to have recovered 750 kilos of gelatin and 1,000 kilos of ammonium nitrate – worth Rs 3.2 lakh and with “the capacity of exploding 70 anti-landmine vehicles” – from them. The recovery, the police declared, was a “clear expose” of the “urban networks of Maoists” stretching from Odisha to Karnataka. It made front-page news in the regional press and prompted the state government to launch the second phase of its assault against Maoists, which, a local paper reported, would primarily involve busting the rebels’ urban network.

The arrested men, all from Odisha, constituted two urban Maoist networks, the police said. Surjit Padhi, Uttam Swain and Rajendra Kumar formed one; Kamlakant Swain, Gaurishankar Mohanti, Anil Kumar Jena and Bhushan Kumar Gonda the other. Padhi and his associates were supposedly arrested from a hut in Machkot Tiriya forest on the Chhattisgarh-Odisha border, while Kamlakant Swain’s group was taken from Darbha-Pakhnar Road.

SRP Kalluri, then Bastar’s Inspector General of Police, claimed the confiscated gelatin had been obtained from a factory in Bengaluru while the ammonium nitrate had been manufactured in Odisha’s Rayagada district.

The two groups were separately charged. Padhi, Uttam Swain and Kumar were held under the Explosive Substances Act as expected, but also the Chhattisgarh State Public Security Act, 2005, which human right lawyers have denounced as a “draconian law”. A minimum of two years in prison is all but assured under these laws. However, the evidence against Padhi, Uttam Swain and Kumar was so weak they were acquitted by the Jagdalpur Sessions Court within a year, on August 9, 2016. The police had produced 17 witnesses, mostly policemen, against the three men, but none of them could convince the court.

Kotpad town in Koraput district of Odisha. The Chhattisgarh police have justified arresting people from across the border as part of a crackdown on 'urban Maoist networks' in Koraput. Photo credit: Bhawani Padhi

Case 1: ‘Easy prey’

So, was the police’s story cooked up? Of course, said one of the men, who only agreed to speak anonymously, fearing reprisals. This is his story.

On September 24, 2015, friends Padhi, Uttam Swain and Kumar went for lunch at a dhaba in Borigumma town, Koraput. They also drank, “a little more than we should have”. Staggering out of the dhaba, they found themselves surrounded by a group of armed men who forced them into a waiting jeep. One of the armed men called Mohan took Rs 13,000 from the narrator’s pocket and told them to pay Rs 2 lakh if they wanted to be let off. Not sure how to react, the friends kept silent until, that is, they were driven into Nagarnar police station.

Why had they been brought to a police station, they asked? “You will know everything tomorrow morning,” came the reply.

At around 4 the next morning, they were again bundled into a vehicle, the licence plate of which he still remembers as reading MP 08 2809. They were driven for about 15-20 km, their vehicle tailing another full of armed policemen. A short distance after the railway crossing between Jagdalpur and Odisha, the vehicles stopped, the policemen pulled out some filled white sacks and laid them on the ground. Then, the three men were stood near the sacks and photographed. “It is then we realised we had been made scapegoats,” he said. “It appeared the police had a clear plan of getting cases registered against some persons and we were easy prey.”

In jail, he met several inmates who had been similarly arrested and charged for serious offences. There were around 1,800 people in the jail and close to 1,000 were in for “Naxal-related cases”. “I was overwhelmed as I heard their stories,” he said. “Most of them were innocent villagers.”

Why did he not file counter charges against the Chhattisgarh police for implicating him in a false case and seek compensation? “None of us have the means to fight the mighty,” he said. “The high-ranking police officials of Bastar are too powerful.”

Surjit Padhi, Uttam Swain and Rajendra Kumar were taken by the Chhattisgarh police from outside a dhaba in Borigumma town in Koraput district. Photo credit: Sushil Sarangi

Case 2: ‘Unable to prove offences’

The other “urban network” included a mining engineer, Kamlakant Swain. Kalluri had claimed the engineer spent his vacations in Goa with Deva, military chief of the Maoists’ Darbha Divisional Committee, and Sonadhar, a senior commander accused of masterminding the ambush that killed over 30 people, including several top leaders of the Congress, in Darbha Valley, Sukma, on May 25, 2013. Sonadhar had been killed by the Odisha police about a week before Kamlakant Swain and others were arrested.

Kamlakant Swain was captured in an elaborate operation involving a policeman posing as a Maoist wanting to buy explosives, or so the police claimed. After the deal was struck and Rs 30,000 transferred in his account, Kamlakant Swain called the buyer to a place between Bispur and Kudumkhodra on Darbha Pakhnaar Road. When the police reached there, they found four people in an Indica car with three boxes of explosives, a bundle of detonating cord and licence plates with numbers printed on both sides. There was also a Bolero pick-up truck packed with 27 crates of explosives and more double-sided licence plates. Upon interrogation, Kamlakant Swain led the police to a hut in the forest between Machkot and Tiriya where he claimed to have hidden more explosives. There, the police claimed they also found Padhi and his associates.

Kamlakant Swain, Mohanti, Jena and Gonda too were charged under the Explosives Substances Act as well as the Chhattisgarh State Public Security Ac. Seven months later, on April 20, 2016, after examining 10 witnesses, District Judge SK Singh freed them because the prosecutor was “unable to prove the offences beyond doubt’’. The key witnesses not only failed to recognise the accused, they denied the police had confiscated explosives in their presence. Two of them, a computer operator and an Emergency Medical Technician from Darbha, told the court they had been called to the local police station one morning and made to sign some papers. They were not told what the papers were and they did not dare ask. Another said he had gone to take his motorcycle, confiscated by the traffic police, from Jagdalpur Kotwali thana, where he was made to sign what he later learned was a witness statement.

Niranjan Dash's brother and parents at their home in Telia village, Jeypore, Odisha. Photo credit: Sharanya Nayak

Case 3: ‘That godforsaken place’

Akash Patra, Raj Yadav, Seebaram Panigrahi and Nagabandhi Srinivas were arrested on May 15, 2015. Srinivas was accused of being the original supplier of a cache of 200 pieces of gelatin and four bundles of detonating cord that Patra and Yadav were caught transporting by scooter at Nagarnar check post. Patra and Yadav, the police claimed, confessed to purchasing the contraband from Panigrahi for Rs 14,000.

Srinivas is a partner in Raghvendra Traders, a licensed dealer in explosives. Srinivas said he had sold the cache the police claimed to have confiscated from Patra and Yadav to one K Shishupal Reddy, who runs a partnership company licensed to purchase explosives. As for Panigrahi, Srinivas said he first met him in jail.

“My accountability ends once my explosives leave my premise for another that has the necessary license,” Srinivas said, sitting in his office in Hyderabad. “Of course, I have to make sure the explosives are transported in PESO approved vehicles.”

PESO is the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation, the agency under the commerce and industry ministry for granting licences to firms dealing with explosives.

Srinivas had been in the business for 10 years and knew well the protocol for trading explosives. So, he was taken aback when, on June 1, 2015, a team of policemen from Chhattisgarh and Telangana landed at his office and asked him to accompany them to Jagdalpur. There, he was promptly arrested.

A year later, the Jagdalpur court acquitted him after he produced records showing he had sold the cache of explosives to K Shishupal Reddy and had no knowledge how it ended up with Panigrahi.

The court, however, convicted Panigrahi, Patra and Yadav. They have since appealed to the High Court and are currently out on bail.

Although Srinivas spent only 10 days in jail before he was bailed out, the experience left him so shaken he vowed “never to visit that godforsaken place – Chhattisgarh”.

Panigrahi, who stays in Borigumma, Koraput, said the Chhattisgarh police came to his house in the middle of the night on May 15, 2015, and took him away without explaining why. He later learned the police had found a deposit slip for Rs 14,000 on Patra. Panigrahi said the money was for a trolley he had sold Patra.

The police insisted that it was payment for explosives Patra had bought from Panigrahi, who, in turn had procured the cache from one Jitendra Reddy. How this man came to acquire the explosives the police did not explain, other than saying they had originally been bought from Srinivas.

In support of their claim that Patra had bought the explosives from Panigrahi, the police produced in court “self-attested statements” from the two men and Yadav. Panigrahi, however, alleged they had been forced to sign the statements in Nagarnar thana.

Also, Panigrahi asked, why wasn’t Jitendra Reddy, who the police claimed had supplied the contraband to the accused, investigated? Jitendra Reddy had been called to Nagarnar thana for the initial enquiry and, in his statement, he admitted to having a business association with Panigrahi but denied selling him any explosives since he did not have the necessary licence.

AK Khan, head of Nagarnar thana who investigated the matter, said Jitendra Reddy had indeed declared in his written statement that he supplied explosives to remote areas of Chhattisgarh, including Bastar and Bijapur. Then, why didn’t he find out where Reddy procured the material from? Khan didn’t explain.

Interestingly, Jitendra Reddy appeared a year later as one of the emissaries sent by Kalluri and then Bastar Superintendent of Police RN Dash to “settle the matter” with the families of Niranjan Dash and Durjoti Mohankudo when they moved court. The emissaries also threatened the families against pursuing the case any further. The threats were secretly recorded on video, which was later submitted to the High Court.

Kalluri and RN Dash are accused of overseeing atrocities by the police and orchestrating attacks on activists, lawyers, journalists and tribal leaders in Bastar.

Dash and Mohankudo are still in Jagdalpur jail even though the Chhattisgarh High Court has stayed their trial in the lower court pending an “independent investigation into the very arrest”.

As in the other cases, the two independent witnesses produced by the police against Patra and Yadav turned hostile. They too had been made to sign papers of “confiscation, arrests and other documents” without any explanation, they told the court.

Clearly, there is a disturbing pattern here. So, the question is: what did the Chhattisgarh police seek to achieve? Were they really trying to bust the “urban networks of Maoists”? If so, why were they operating in Odisha without so much as informing the police there? Or, possibly it was all done for money, medals and promotions?

These questions need to be answered urgently, for the sake of the innocent people who have suffered – many continue to languish in jail – and for the credibility of the criminal justice system.