In a small victory for human rights activists in Jharkhand, the Giridih District Jail has removed activist Damodar Turi and three other inmates from illegal solitary confinement during daytime. The four inmates had been on a hunger strike for nearly a week in protest against their confinement in dark, airless solitary cells since March 23, even though the law prohibits solitary confinement of undertrials.

“Because of public outcry, the administration that had put Turi and three colleagues in isolated, dungeon-like cells has now allowed them to go out the whole day, but at night they are put back in the dungeons,” said Stan Swamy, convener of the Loktantra Bachao Manch, a political rights organisation in Jharkhand.

Turi, convener of the Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan, had been at the forefront of several protests against forced land acquisition and displacement of Adivasi communities in the state. He was arrested on February 15 and is facing trial for charges under the controversial Unlawful Activities Prevention Act as well as for being a member of the recently-banned trade union Mazdoor Sangathan Samiti.

Even as various human rights bodies condemned Turi’s arbitrary arrest, the jail authorities put him and the other inmates in solitary confinement. His wife Baby Turi, who was allowed a brief meeting with him on March 26, claimed his cell was filthy, dark and difficult to breathe in.

The Supreme Court’s guidelines allow solitary confinement only for convicted prisoners – that too after a court approves it. Forcing undertrials into solitary cells thus clearly violates the law. could not contact the Giridih jail authorities for comment despite repeated attempts.

Arbitrary arrest

Turi, a resident of Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district, had travelled to Giridih for a Loktantra Bachao Manch conference on February 15. He was arrested as soon as he left the event and was slapped with charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act even though the Mazdoor Sangathan Samiti, which the police claim he belongs to, is not banned under this particular law. In fact, members of the Loktantra Bachao Manch claimed that Turi was not involved with the Mazdoor Sangathan Samiti, a registered union which the state government banned suddenly in December 2017 on the grounds that it was allegedly a front for the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

According to Swamy, Turi’s grassroots work for Adivasi land rights across Jharkhand “has been a thorn in the flesh of the government”, and he had already spent eight months in jail in 2011 on charges that were eventually dismissed by the courts.

Adivasi rights activists said Turi had grown particularly vocal since 2016, mobilising local communities to protest the amendments proposed to the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act. These two laws from the colonial era have been instrumental in safeguarding the land rights of native communities by restricting the sale and transfer of Adivasi land to non-Adivasis.

‘State-corporate nexus’

In 2016, the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Raghubar Das proposed two major amendments to these laws: one would allow owners and tenants of Adivasi land to use it for non-agricultural purposes and the other would allow transfer of Adivasi land for building roads, canals, educational institutions, hospitals and other “government purposes”.

In July 2017, facing protests by Adivasi groups across the state – many led by grassroots leaders like Turi – the government withdrew the amendments. A month later, however, Jharkhand passed its version of the Centre’s controversial Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, also known as the Land Acquisition Act. This law, among other things, waives off the need for conducting a social impact assessment in the process of acquiring land for schools, hospitals, colleges, railway lines and other government purposes.

Opposition parties and Adivasi activists alleged this law will again expose Adivasi land to easy acquisition by the government, including for projects under public-private partnership, especially in the wake of initiatives such as the Momentum Jharkhand Global Investors Summit of 2017, to bring private investment.

“In recent years, Turi has been raising his voice against this very government-corporate nexus,” said Gladson Dungdung, an Adivasi rights activist in Jharkhand. “So the government perceives him as an anti-state Maoist.”

Dayamani Barla, another activist who has been facing death threats for her work on land rights, said Turi had been pointing out that Adivasi land is under threat from the hundreds of memorandums of understanding that the government signed with private companies at the Momentum Summit. “Anyone who does this work and fights for the rights of Adivasis, Dalits, farmers and labourers is a threat to the government nowadays,” said Barla.

In the months since Turi’s arrest, Swamy said the Loktantra Bachao Manch has been supporting several Adivasi land displacement struggles. “The struggles of the people are still going on,” he said. “We have appealed to the Jharkhand High Court for Turi and his colleagues’ release.”