PREDICTABLY, the recent jailbreak at Dantewada in Chhattisgarh has prompted calls for greater security measures, and the district has been sealed off while police undertake massive combing operations. Someone should monitor whether those who are ‘brought back’ are actually those who escaped. Certainly, when such a large number can walk out along the main road in district headquarters, in broad daylight, and that too, in a ‘sensitive’ district with such a large concentration of paramilitary forces, the administration needs to engage in some serious introspection. And while the jailor has been arrested and showcause notices issued to other cops, the man who is really responsible for the mess, Chief Minister Raman Singh, remains unaffected.
The jailbreak is only the latest in a series of incidents that show the Chhattisgarh administration in a poor light. The government claims it is protecting people from Naxalites by housing them in Salwa Judum camps but it took only one Errabor incident to show that being forcibly corralled in ‘base camps’ from which attacks were mounted on surrounding villages, actually made people more vulnerable to Maoist counterattacks. It burned village after village as part of its Salwa Judum counterinsurgency campaign, but now its own forces can’t go into those areas, because the affected people are solidly with the Maoists.
What needs to be asked, moreover, is how many of those who escaped had good reason to be in jail to begin with. Ever since Salwa Judum started in 2005, anyone not directly supporting the campaign is vulnerable to being branded a Naxalite, arrested, and even killed. Indeed, the most recent victim of such branding was the Congress MLA of Konta, Kawasi Lakhma. The district collector threatened to remove his security cover because he opposed Salwa Judum. In his case, Congress pressure got the Collector transferred, but most others have not been so lucky.
A few months before he was arrested, the General Secretary of the PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties) Dr. Binayak Sen, told me about his meetings with prisoners in jail, part of his routine work as a civil liberties activist. Less than one percent, he estimated, had anything to do with the Naxalites, and yet they were all in jail on charges of being hardcore Naxalites or sympathisers. How ironic that Binayak now finds himself in the same circumstances in Raipur jail, arrested on the flimsiest of charges! One of the reasons advanced by government counsel for his alleged Naxalite connections is that he kept no medical equipment at home (never mind that he has been awarded by his alumni, the Vellore Medical college, and that he advised the state government on its Mitanin programme for health workers). Another ‘irrefutable proof’ according to the police is that he received letters from prisoners addressed as ‘Dear Comrade Binayak’! Sure, he met the Naxalite leader, Narayan Sanyal, in jail, but always with the permission of the jail authorities and occasionally, even at their request. Despite several eminent people vouching for him and calling for his release, he has been refused even bail.
A recent investigation by the International Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL) revealed the farce that is the criminal justice system in Chhattisgarh today. On May 17th this year, one Kawasi Baman was arrested after an ‘encounter’ in Nayapara ward of Dantewada town, and displayed to the media as a dreaded Naxalite. Eyewitnesses said that he was part of a group of migrant workers from Basaguda, seeking work in Dantewada town. They had just finished their morning meal when they were attacked by the police. Two men were killed, four managed to run away and this poor youth was caught because he was too scared to move. Local children testified that after the shooting, the police took out a muzzle- loader and put it next to the dead bodies.
Even more absurd is the case of Dodi Nanda, who was ‘lying drunk on the roadside near Jagargonda when a mine blast took place at Tarrem. He was transported by army helicopter and when he came to, he found himself in Dantewada jail!’ The IAPL found from the records, however, that he had been charged under five separate and serious criminal cases, such as attacking police stations and killing policemen. Although these cases had been assigned to various lawyers in the Legal Aid Panel, and two were at advanced stages, no lawyer had ever met him.
Both these prisoners at least have families who came and looked for them, unlike 25-year-old Dabba Bommaiah from Bhopalpatnam, who had been in jail for six months when the Independent Citizens Initiative met him last year. A labourer on a lift irrigation project, he had guided some Border Roads men to the nearest police station. When asked to join the Salwa Judum, he refused, saying he had a family to support. This was evidently enough to have him arrested. He hadn’t seen his wife or children since. When asked why, he answered: ‘They haven’t ever seen even Dantewada. How will they come to Jagdalpur’?
One could go on with several stories - young girls who were picked up on their way to market; women who were cultivating their own fields in villages which happened to be suspected as Maoist strongholds, a sick woman who could not run away fast enough when the Salwa Judum came, and was caught, raped and dressed in a Naxalite uniform in order for the police to be able to present a prize catch.
Even in ordinary cases, the legal system does not cater to adivasis, who are unfamiliar with Hindi or the kind of documentary evidence that courts require. In Chhattisgarh alone, 2.5 lakh cases were registered against adivasis for minor forest offences. Across India, many thousands languish in jail on minor charges because they cannot find the money required for bail or get any legal help. Even when their families summon all their reserves and come up with the Rs. 10,000-20,000 that lawyers charge, they are often taken for a ride. So-called Naxalite prisoners face even more serious problems - they are not produced in court on security grounds, and are routinely denied bail. Even if they are finally acquitted, most of them have already spent years inside. Apart from overcrowding, local newspapers have reported deaths in Dantewada jail recently owing to bad food and lack of medical attention.
The rate of incarceration of members of a community is one of the surest indicators of their unequal status in society. The arrest of Muslims under POTA in Gujarat just after the 2002 pogrom added to the widespread insecurity they were already feeling. In the US, the criminal justice system disproportionately targets young black men, while in France, immigrants are the target of anti-poor policing. It would be interesting to get a caste wise break-up of the jail population of India.
None of this is by way of justifying the jailbreak, or suggesting that Naxalites should not be arrested and tried for the crimes they have committed. But the law, in order to command respect, demands that those who enforce it be held to the same standards. While that is, perhaps, too much to expect, the least the state government ought to realise is that its policy of indiscriminate arrests - like every other aspect of its counter-insurgency campaign - is self-defeating.