For nine years, Pandu Mandavi lived on the edge, knowing that Dantewada police could knock on his door anytime. His name featured in a case relating to a Maoist attack that took place in 2010.

Twice before, the police took him away – torturing him once, extracting a bribe the other time, he alleged. But eventually he was released.

This March, however, the 30-year-old Adivasi man was formally arrested.

He would have become yet another Adivasi to languish in jail in southern Chhattisgarh had his lawyer not successfully secured bail in April.

The lawyer pointed out giveaway signs of fabrication by the police: Mandavi’s name had been added to the first information report after whitener ink was used to conceal the original text. He also alluded to a possible identity mix-up. A man by the same name lived in Madadi village in Dantewada’s Kuakonda block, which sounded similar to Mathadi village in Katekalyan block where Mandavi lived, but was actually closer to where the crime had taken place.

While Mandavi was released on bail, the case against him, despite glaring holes, still stands. In fact, a police officer who dealt with the case admitted to that Mandavi had been falsely implicated.

This comes at a time when the newly elected Congress government in the state has set up a committee to review police cases against Adivasis in the seven districts of Bastar. The region lies in southern Chhattisgarh. The Communist Party of India (Maoists) has been fighting a protracted, low-intensity war against the Indian state here for decades.

The state’s crackdown against Maoists has resulted in the incarceration of innocent Adivasis. Chief minister Bhupesh Baghel admitted as much, when he accused the previous Bharatiya Janata Party government of foisting fake cases on Adivasis and promised to bring “justice and freedom” to them.

The committee appointed by the government is headed by a former Supreme Court judge and includes senior officials from the police, home and tribal welfare departments. It held its first meeting in the state capital Raipur on May 13.

But as Pandu’s case shows, the committee’s task is difficult: a lucrative industry exists in Bastar, which thrives on the detentions, arrests, surrenders and murders of Adivasis in dubious Maoist-related cases. Its chief beneficiaries are the police, but it also supplies lawyers with hefty fees and journalists with an endless stream of photo-ops.

The change in government seems to have done little to change this reality. Adivasis like Pandu Mandavi continue to pay a steep price.

Here is his story.

The 2010 case

Pandu Mandavi lives with his wife and two children in Mathadi, a serene village surrounded by hills, forests and streams, about 50 kms from Dantewada town, and 10 kms from Katekalyan block headquarters.

About a decade ago, he had to abandon his aspiration to become a graduate when pressures to contribute to his family’s farm work forced him to drop out of college.

In August 2010, he found work as an anudeshak or contract teacher at a newly established porta-cabin school in the nearby Gatam village. Porta-cabin schools are residential schools set up by Chhattisgarh government for children affected by the Maoist conflict.

Months later, on the night of October 29, 2010, he woke up from sleep to find policemen had surrounded his house. They took him away to the city police station in Dantewada.

He had been arrested on the suspicion that he had participated in a Maoist attack in July that year.

About 50 kms from his home, early morning on July 8, 2010, armed Maoists had opened fire on the house of Congress leader Avdesh Gautam in Nakulnar village of Kuakonda block.While Gautam escaped, two people were killed in the attack, and his son and bodyguard were injured.

The police filed a case against 45 people. The chargesheet, which was submitted in court four months later, said 22 had been arrested while 23 others were still absconding. One of the names listed among the absconders was Pandu Mandavi – a fact that he discovered only after he was taken into police custody in October.

“I live with my wife and two children in Mathadi and there is no reason for me to abscond,” said Mandavi. “The police is well aware of this.”

He was held in the Dantewada police station for one whole month – locked up inside a cell for the first 15 days, then allowed to walk within the police station compound, he said.

“The first 15 days I was brutally beaten with sticks, kicked with shoes by drunken policemen who would enter [the cell] late in the evening,” he recalled.

The beatings left a mark. “I still can’t use my shoulders fully and my wrist nerves were numbed for three years as I used my arms to protect myself from the blows,” he said.

The officer who was heading the Dantewada police station would loudly ask his subordinates to make him put on a Naxal uniform, sling a gun across his shoulder and take him to the forests, Mandavi recalled. It was the officer’s way of threatening him with an extrajudicial killing, he surmised.

Despite all his fears, Mandavi did not escape from the police compound, even though he was given the freedom to walk around without supervision.

As journalist Lingaram Kodopi, who was arrested in the same case but later acquitted, explained: “This is a very common tactic used by the police: beat up the person, cause unbearable pain, leave him free to escape... This will be followed by an ‘encounter killing’ or re-arrest as an assured Naxal who escaped from prison.”

His eyes brimming with tears, Mandavi said: “Though I could not sleep at night, having nightmares of being taken away and shot, I somehow told myself to stick to the truth I have held so far.”

He recalled the police station head also tried to lure him into joining the police force by offering him a job as a Special Police Officer. A low-paid, irregular position, it had been created by the Chhattisgarh government to absorb armed vigilantes of the state sponsored anti-Maoist Salwa Judum movement. In 2011, the Supreme Court struck down the policy as unconstitutional, asking the state to refrain from using Adivasi youth as “cheap cannon-fodder” in the fight against Maoists.

Knowing this pattern well, Mandavi turned down the police officer’s offer: “Any other job sir, but not with the police.”

After a month, Mandavi was produced before the Dantewada district superintendent of police, SRP Kalluri, who later rose to become Bastar region’s Inspector General of Police. His tenure was mired in controversy over police excesses.

But when he was presented before him, Kalluri appeared sympathetic, Mandavi said. The superintendent claimed the police had arrested him only after two boys from his village had revealed his name. On their part, the boys said they had been subjected to severe beatings by the police, forcing them to reveal the names of persons who held “meetings” in the village – a term usually reserved for gatherings organised by the Maoists.

Mandavi, however, explained that as a worker of the overground Communist Party of India, he had organised meetings to discuss panchayat-level matters while supporting a sarpanch candidate in 2009.

Hearing him out, Mandavi claimed, Kalluri dramatically tore his case papers and declared to his juniors that the Adivasi man’s name should be struck off the case. He gave Rs 1,000 each to 11 of Mandavi’s relatives who had come to Dantewada to plead for his release.

That day, Mandavi went back home thinking the case against him was over.

Pandu Mandavi's wife and children. Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam

More trouble in 2014

Mandavi continued to work as a contract teacher in the government school until he got a job as a rozgar sahayak (employment assistant) under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in 2013.

The police reappeared at his doorstep in July 2014. He was asked to report to the Katekalyan police station. So were two other residents of the village, Gobeli Mandavi and Budhram Mandavi, both distantly related to him.

At the police station, Mandavi was surprised to see an arrest warrant pending in his name in the 2010 case.

Gobeli and Budhram were booked in two cases – one, a landmine blast in Gatam village in June 2011 that killed 8 police personnel, while the other related to road construction vehicles being set on fire in 2013.

All three men were taken to meet the district superintendent of police Kamlochan Kashyap. For the second time, Mandavi convinced a senior officer that the case against him was fake.

“Hearing me out, the SP threw his file down, looking at his subordinates angrily,” recalled Mandavi. Kashyap reportedly asked them not to file false cases and told Mandavi his sympathies were with him since he was Adivasi too.

Relieved, Mandavi was about to leave, when the police station head, Vijay Kumar Patel, asked him to stay back for photographs with Kashyap. “Before we knew what was happening, some cloth was wrapped around us and few photographs were taken.”

Only the next day, Mandavi discovered what the exercise was all about: the police had presented all three men as surrendered Naxals in a press statement released to the media.

Well before the state had drafted a policy for surrendered Maoists in 2015, mandating that the police give them cash incentives, Dantewada police had adopted the practice of giving Rs 10,000 in cash, as well as dropping the cases against them.

Despite being presented as a surrendered Maoist, Mandavi did not receive any money. Gobeli and Budhram were given Rs 5,000 each.

But straight from the meeting with the police superintendent, both the young men were taken to a court and sent to jail. Later, they found the police had slapped charges against them in an altogether different case: the murder of a surrendered Maoist in 2010.

Kashyap, now the police superintendent of Rajnandgaon district, was unable to recollect the case of the three men, but said in principle surrendered Maoists are not arrested, instead cases against them are referred to a state-level committee.

It took more than a year for Gobeli and Budhram to walk out free after an acquittal in August 2015. Four other Adivasis had been arrested in the same case at different points of time. All six accused were acquitted.

Three years later, many of them were still coping with mental health problems, said the deputy sarpanch of Mathadi village.

Budhram’s wife was three months pregnant when he was sent to jail. “I heard while in prison that I have a daughter,” he recalled.

Gobeli was about to get married, but the wedding was cancelled following his arrest. “No family is coming forward to give their daughter in marriage to Gobeli,” said his father, Pandru Mandavi.

Unlike Gobeli and Budhram, Pandu Mandavi was taken to the court but not presented before a judge. Instead, the police station head, Vijay Kumar Patel, asked him for a bribe of Rs 50,000 to get him off the case. Mandavi pleaded his inability to pay but ended up giving away the Rs 2,000 he was carrying.

Back in his village, Mandavi raised Rs 8,000 by mortgaging one acre of his five acres of land, which he claimed he gave to Patel in Katekalyan police station. It took him one and a half years to free his land from the mortgage. He once again hoped that the case against him had been dropped.

Vijay Kumar Patel, now a sub-inspector at Tongpal police station in nearby Sukma district, denied having taken a bribe from Mandavi, but accepted that the case against him was false. He claimed he realised this after he saw the chargesheet filed in the court.

So why was Mandavi shown to be a surrendered Maoist? “Those were the days of massive arrests [of Adivasis] and I only wanted to help this innocent villager,” said Patel. “I thought that by showing him a surrendered Maoist, he can be saved from arrest.”

Gobeli Mandavi and Budhram Mandavi. Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam

What happened in March this year

For the next five years, no one bothered Pandu and he continued to work as an employment assistant, until the police reappeared with an arrest warrant in the same case in March this year.

On March 24, Mandavi was at home, busy with morning chores, when a policeman showed up. He said his boss wanted Rs 5,000 to “kill the case” against him. Mandavi had only Rs 1,500, which the policeman took away. The next day, several policemen rode into the village on bikes, with an arrest warrant against Mandavi in the 2010 case. Mandavi went to the police station as asked.

The next morning, newspaper reports cited the police version of the events as: “After inputs from a police informer, the police meticulously planned the arrest of absconder Pandu Mandavi s/o Fagu from his home in Mathadi village under Katekalyan thana.”

In the police station, Mandavi repeated what he had said over the years: he was innocent, and perhaps the police was mixing him up with a namesake who lived in the similar sounding village of Madadi in Kuakonda block.

Mandavi alleged the police station head, Salim Khakha, responded by saying he faced pressure from his seniors to demonstrate greater success with Maoist cases and this was the easiest case to showcase. Khakha disputed this account. He told that he was merely acting on instructions to execute pending arrest warrants ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.

The same day, Mandavi was presented before a magistrate in Dantewada and sent to the district prison. The policeman who had taken Rs 1,500 the previous day, returned the money, said Pandru Mandavi, the village deputy sarpanch adding with a smile that, unlike others, Khakha was “principled”.

Fortunately for Mandavi, his family found an experienced lawyer, Sukaram Kashyap, who was able to successfully get him bail on April 10, two weeks after his arrest.

“Bail is never given in Maoist cases,” said Kashyap, who has been practising law in Dantewada court for the last seven years. He said what worked in Mandavi’s favour was the use of whitener ink on the FIR and the deliberate confusion over names.

Mandavi had to furnish a personal bond of Rs 25,000 and pledge assets worth the same amount.

Along with the lawyer fees, this meant a financial shock of Rs 40,000. Worse, he lost his job as an employment assistant and with that his monthly salary of Rs 4,000.

The trial is still to begin.

Other arrests

While the newly elected government of Chhattisgarh continues to reassure Adivasis that old police cases against them will be reviewed, on the ground, fresh cases continue to be filed against them, often on the same sketchy grounds.

According to South Asia Terrorism Portal, a website that maintains data on the Maoist conflict, 53 arrests have been made in Maoist cases across the seven districts of Bastar until June 2. Of these, 33 arrests have been made in Dantewada district alone.

It is difficult to ascertain the facts related to all the cases. But, apart from Pandu Mandavi, this reporter tried to investigate the arrests of three Adivasis made by Dantewada police on April 14.

The police claimed to have arrested “three lower rung cadres who were jan militia members of the banned Maoist party” from a weekly market in Katekalyan block. It claimed it had seized electronic detonators, five gelatine rods, bundle of electric wire and Naxal related material from them.

But Dhurvaram Podiam, the sarpanch of Tummakpal village, which lies close to the weekly market, had another story, which Katekalyan police denied.

Podiam said he did not know the identity of two of the men arrested, but could vouch for the innocence of the third – Baman Mandavi, a resident of the nearby Telam village.

The sarpanch said Mandavi was ploughing his field when policemen approached him asking him for liquor made of chhind (dates). Finishing up their drink, the police took him to the nearest police station and declared him to be a Maoist.