Last week, the Chhattisgarh High Court ordered the constitution of a Special Investigation Team to ascertain the truth behind the controversial arrests of Niranjan Dash and Durjoti Mohankudo, two friends from Odisha, on charges of supplying explosives to Maoists in Chhattisgarh.

In a petition before the court, the families of both men have alleged that the Chhattisgarh police abducted the men from Nuagaon in Odisha on July 28, 2016, only to later claim that they were arrested from the Nagarnar thana in Chhattisgarh and then charge them falsely.

Dash and Mohankudo have been booked under the Explosives Act as well as sections of the Chhattisgarh State Public Security Act, 2005. They have been in prison for the last 15 months, and are currently lodged in Jagdalpur jail.

The court has directed that the Special Investigation Team comprise two senior police officers from both states. It said, however, that the officers must be “unconnected in the matters relating to the police stations of Nagarnar [in Chhattisgarh] or Kotpad [in Odisha].”

Dash’s family has welcomed the court’s decision, but with some trepidation as the matter will now be handled by the very police departments against whom the complaint has been lodged.

“We would have rather had an independent investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation or National Investigation Agency,” said Gagan Dash, the brother of Niranjan Dash, and petitioner in the case. “But before we petition for a review of the order, our first priority is to have both Niranjan and Durojit out on bail as their wives and little children are finding it difficult to deal with the situation any longer.”

The story so far

Niranjan Dash, 32, a resident of Telia village in Jeypore, in Odisha’s Koraput district, is employed with a private firm, while Durojit Mohankudo, 45, has worked as a peon with the Jeypore Municipal Corporation for the last 16 years.

According to their families, the two friends travelled on a motorcycle to Nuagaon on a personal visit in July last year when they were accosted by armed men in two SUVs, abducted and brought to Nagarnar thana in the neighbouring state, and charged with aiding Maoists.

When the men failed to return home, their families approached the police in Kotpad thana of Odisha’s Korput district but were met with nonchalance, forcing them to approach the Koraput district court. On August 10, 2016, a Judicial Magistrate, First Class, directed the Kotpad thana to record the statement of the villagers from Nuagaon who witnessed the abduction as well as to register an offence of kidnapping against the thana in-charge at Nagarnar, Chhattisgarh. The families say that they were subsequently threatened by emissaries of the Chhattisgarh police, who warned them to withdraw the case. In September, they filed a writ petition in the Odisha High Court. The following month, the High Court dismissed the plea as the matter did not fall in its jurisdiction. The distressed families then moved a Special Leave Petition with the Supreme Court, which, on December 7 last year, permitted the petitioners to approach the Chhattisgarh High Court. The family filed a writ petition before the High Court in Bilaspur on December 20 in which they requested an independent probe into the matter. The High Court directed the police of both Odisha and Chhattisgarh to respond.

The Chhattisgarh police, which responded on April 6, stuck to its version of events. Attempting to justify the arrests of Dash and Mohankudo as part of its efforts to curb the rise of what it called the “urban Maoist network”, it submitted to the court a list of six cases with similar offences – including the arrest of 17 persons – that were registered since 2013 from the neighbouring district of Koraput. However, has found that most of these 17 persons, who were arrested on serious charges of aiding Maoists, were let off by courts for the lack of evidence.

The Odisha police responded via a sworn affidavit filed before the Bilaspur High Court on July 6. The police stated that it could not rule out the “involvement of Chhattisgarh police and its officials of Bastar district pertaining to the crime of forcible kidnapping and abduction” of Dash and Mohankudo, as well as the subsequent efforts of the Chhattisgarh police in “settling the matter” with the families.

Lawyer sceptical

Last week, the High Court ruled that the matter called for a “high level enquiry…to ascertain and find out the truth behind the claims, allegations and the cross-allegations” made by the police in both states.

However, advocate Satish Verma, who represents the families in court, was sceptical of any investigation to be conducted by “senior police officials of Chhattisgarh”. He said that both the Chhattisgarh police and Odisha police were made respondents in the writ petition. “How can any fairness in investigation be expected by the Chhattisgarh police?” he asked.

Verma said that the case called for a higher integrity in investigation and therefore an appeal for an independent investigation would be made with the High Court.