The change of government in Chhattisgarh in December sparked hope of a reduction in police excesses in the conflict-ridden region of Bastar. Under the Bharatiya Janata Party, the police had filed cases against several Adivasis that human rights defenders alleged were false. When challenged, the police targeted activists, journalists and lawyers, hounding out several of them.

Has the situation started to change under the newly elected Congress government?

On Wednesday, as reports emerged of the activist and lawyer Bela Bhatia sitting on a protest after being denied information regarding her clients’ court appearances by the jail authorities in Jagdalpur, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel expressed regret on Twitter. He claimed his government stood with all social activists and human rights crusaders.

But in rural Bastar, the change is yet to arrive. Lakshmayya Kursam, 25, found this out around New Year’s. He was visiting his daughter at the Kanya Ashram residential school in Usur, Bijapur, when he was accosted by policemen, arrested and charged with an offence he allegedly committed while being locked up.

The school had closed for New Year holidays but since she would have to walk some 25 km through jungles to her Pedda Utlapalli village, Kursam’s daughter, who is eight, was advised by her teachers not to go home.

So, early on December 30, Kursam set out on a motorcycle to see his daughter, taking along his nephew Nagesh Sori, a Class 11 student at the Government Higher Secondary School in Usur.

Sori and Kursam were talking to the child near the school’s gate when three men approached and demanded to see their identification. “We promptly showed our Aadhaar cards, which they took away from us,” Sori said. “Then, they told us to follow them. It was only when we reached the Usur police station that we realised they were policemen in civilian clothes.” It was around 8.30 am.

The policemen took Kursam in and directed Sori to wait outside. An hour passed; Sori grew anxious. He went and fetched Kursam’s cousin, Krishnamurthi Taati, 16, who is in the same school as Sori.

The teenager went straight into the station. “Why have you kept my brother here?” he asked. “He has done nothing. He came to see his daughter.”

The query was met with a loud slap across his cheek, Taati said. He was told to sit quietly and not ask questions.

A picture of Lakshmayya Kursam released by the Bijapur police after his arrest.

By sunset, Kursam and Taati were still inside while Sori paced up and down outside. Sori said he didn’t dare utter a word lest the police beat him up and take it out on his relatives.

At around 7 pm, the police told Taati to leave but not before making him sign a blank paper. Kursam would be released after an hour, they told him. Taati walked out and joined Sori to wait for Kursam.

When he did not come out even after two hours, they hesitantly asked a passing policeman going off duty when their relative was being released. The next morning, the policeman replied.

Taati and Sori sent word to their sarpanch, Somdu Muchaki, urging him to reach the police station as quickly as possible. “I could get there only a day later,” Muchaki said, meaning January 1.

He is used to being called for such emergencies, Muchaki said, for detentions of villagers are not uncommon in Pujari Kanker gram panchayat under which Pedda Utlapalli falls. “Pujari Kanker and nearby villages are considered ‘highly Naxal sensitive’ and merely mentioning the villages is enough to make you a suspect,” the sarpanch explained.

Muchaki asked the Usur police why they were holding Kursam. The police would not disclose what his offence was, but every few hours they would promise to free him soon. Finally, they said he would be released the next day. But in the morning, they told Kursam’s family to enquire at the Bijapur police station, 45 km away, where a case was pending against him.

It turned out Kursam had been arrested for planting an improvised explosive device in the forests near Usur on the morning of January 2. “A crime was committed in the jungle some 5 km from Usur by a person who was in police custody at that time,” the sarpanch said.

Sarpanch Somdu Muchaki with Lakshmayya Kursam's family members. Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam

‘Suspicious man’

On the afternoon of January 2, the Bijapur police announced the arrest of a “suspicious man” during a “Naxal search operation” in the jungles of Nadpalli and Galgam villages. The man was carrying a tiffin bomb, a detonator, a detonation cord, electrical wires and batteries, the police alleged in a press note. He confessed to being a member of the Maoist’s Jan Militia, the statement claimed and credited the Usur police station’s Inspector Shashikant Bharadwaj and Assistant Constables Subhash Chandra and Gaurav Kumar for playing a major role in the arrest. He was charged under the Explosive Substance Act.

The press note was shared on a journalists’ WhatsApp group along with two pictures of Kursam dressed in a bright orange sweatshirt. One picture was his close-up and the other showed him squatting by the arsenal allegedly recovered from him and laid out neatly on a sheet.

His family realised they could not get Kursam out without moving the courts. So, his wife Chilkamma, brother Nagesh Rao, elderly mother Sitamma, Taati, Sori and the sarpanch went to Bijapur to find a lawyer. “Since the chargesheet has not been filed yet, we do not know what charges have been slapped on him,” Venkatesh Sallur, the lawyer they hired for Rs 1,000, told the family.

They had reached Bijapur late on January 3 and decided to stay the next day to share their plight with local journalists and activists. They wrote a complaint and – with the help of journalist Pushpa Rokde, advocate Nikita Aggarwal and Bhatia – submitted it to Bijapur’s collector on January 5. The collector promised to discuss the matter with Superintendent of Police Mohit Garg, who was not available that day.

Lakshmayya Kursam's brother Nagesh Rao, mother Sitamma and wife Chilkamma. Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam

Having left behind their homes, farmland and cattle, the family could not afford to stay in Bijapur any longer. Soon after meeting the collector, they boarded a bus for Basaguda town, from where they would trudge over 25 km through forests to reach their village.

Two days later, when contacted Garg, he confirmed receiving the family’s complaint. “If their complaint is correct, such an arrest should not have happened,” he said.If our investigation confirms this, then we will take action against the police personnel concerned.” The enquiry is expected to be completed within a week, he added.

Now, every few weeks, some family member will make the long trip to Bijapur in the hope of meeting Kursam, who may or may not be produced before a magistrate. Like so many others in Bastar, he may languish in jail for years before he is made to stand trial. Perhaps, in the end, he will be acquitted for lack of evidence. If that happens, he may well return home to see his daughter has long dropped out of school to help her mother run the household.