A theatre artist from Ahmedabad’s Chharanagar colony has accused local police officials of harassing him after he filed a case of assault and wrongful arrest against them. The Gujarat High Court has now stayed the police from investigating charges against Atish Indrekar, but Indrekar has claimed that the police harassment in court has cost him an important professional opportunity.

Indrekar works with the Budhan theatre group and is a member of the Chhara community, a denotified tribe with a history of being labelled and targeted as thieves, criminals and bootleggers by the State. On July 26, Indrekar was among 29 Chharanagar residents who were arrested by the local Sardarnagar police after a midnight police raid in the neighbourhood turned violent.

The police claimed that they were attacked by local residents during the raid that was meant to target bootleggers. They booked the 29 arrested residents under charges of robbery, rioting and attacking public servants on duty.

However, Chharanagar residents have alleged that it was the police who attacked them without provocation on the night of July 26, with nearly 400 policemen barging into the neighbourhood, trashing vehicles, dragging residents out of their homes and assaulting them. Scroll.in’s detailed interviews with residents indicate excessive police brutality that injured dozens of residents.

The 29 arrested residents were jailed for six days, after which Indrekar and two others filed individual First Information Reports against the police at the magistrate’s court. In Indrekar’s FIR, he accused eight police officials from Sardarnagar police station of assault, wrongful arrest and other charges. “The police tried to get us to withdraw our cases by saying that they would drop all charges against some of us,” said Indrekar. “But we told them to drop charges against all 29 of us, since we have CCTV footage to prove that none of us were involved in the violence. They refused, so we did not withdraw our cases.”

Atul Gagdekar, a cloth merchant, suffered a compound fracture in his arm because of a police beating during the police raid in Chharanagar, Ahmedabad, in July.

A false allegation

In the first week of November, Indrekar petitioned the Gujarat High Court to get the police’s FIR against him quashed. During the second hearing of the case on November 29, a Sardarnagar police representative told the court that Indrekar had a case of robbery pending against him since 2013. The police claimed that he had stolen Rs 2,750 from another Chharanagar resident, and even submitted an FIR number to the court.

“This was a completely false accusation against me,” said Indrekar. “If I had a robbery case against me, why did they not arrest me for five years? Why was I granted a passport in 2017?” Based on these arguments, the High Court bench ordered the police to submit a copy of the 2013 FIR at the next hearing on December 3.

When Indrekar and his lawyers looked up records of the FIR number furnished by the police, they found that it was a robbery case against another man. “I guess the police had not anticipated that the court would ask them to actually submit the FIR,” he said. On December 3, the police told the court that they had mistakenly named Indrekar as the accused in the robbery case.

“The court warned them to be more careful in the future, but the police did this with the intention of harassing me,” said Indrekar. The court also ordered a stay on the FIR that the police had filed against Indrekar. “The stay means that for now, the police cannot arrest, question or investigate me, although they will still put my name on the chargesheet, which they are supposed to file by December 26.”

The police’s false allegations against Indrekar, however, caused a delay in the hearings of the case. This delay, claimed Indrekar, has forced him to turn down an invitation from the United States government to conduct theatre workshops for refugees in early 2019 – an opportunity that would have given a significant boost to his career as a theatre artist and cultural activist. “It would have been a big exposure for me,” he said. “But now the FIR against me has not yet been quashed, and I will not be granted a visa with this criminal case against me.”

Identity stigma

Scroll.in made multiple attempts to speak to officers at the Sardarnagar police station in Ahmedabad, but did not receive a response. Meanwhile, Indrekar and other activists claim that the police harassment in this case is rooted in centuries of stigma against the Chhara community.

“The Chharas have historically been labelled as a criminal tribe, and they constantly live with the stigma of being thieves and illegal alcohol brewers,” said Hozefa Ujjaini, a member of Alpasankhyak Adhikar Manch, a non-profit collective working for minority rights. The collective has been supporting the Chharas with resources ever since July 26. “The police always targets the Chharas. That is their mentality.”

Indrekar’s colleague Dakxin Chhara, the head of Budhan theatre, claims that the city police tend to arrest Chhara youth whenever there is any crime in the surrounding areas.

“We are treated as anti-social elements,” said Dakxin Chhara, who believes the harassment of Indrekar in the Gujarat High Court was a part of a pattern of harassment. “They made a grave accusation in the court and then claimed they had made a mistake, but the damage was already done. The police needs to take responsibility for such a claim. If Atish Indrekar had not been an aware citizen, the police could have easily gotten away with this.”