FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT


  • March 17, 2024
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On July 28, 2016, the Chhattisgarh Police arrested two people at the Chhattisgarh-Odisha border, and claimed recovery of a massive haul of explosives from them in the state’s Maoist-affected Bastar district. The arrested individuals were identified as Niranjan Das and Durjati Mahangkodo, both residents of Koraput district of Odisha. Senior police officers told the media that interrogations of the two have revealed that the explosives were meant for Maoist operating in the area.

 

Niranjan Das and Durjati Mahangkodo, are among the thousands of Adivasi men, who are routinely arrested by the security forces and framed in false cases of being Maoists operatives or sympathisers or suppliers of arms and explosives to them, and thrown into prison for years. Both Niranjan Das and Durjati Mahangkodo were acquitted of all the charges by the trial court on 28th February, 2024. But it took them a seven year long legal battle to prove their innocence in the court.

 

We publish the story of their arrest, how they were framed by the police and their fight for justice, and how they were ultimately acquitted by the trail court, as narrated by Niranjan Dash to Malini Subramaniam, an independent journalist in Bastar.

 

 

I, Niranjan Dash, 39 write this note with great relief and gratitude to the honourable courts for acquitting us from all charges filed against me and my friend 53-year-old Durjoti Mahangkodo, by Chhattisgarh Police seven and half years back.

 

Accused of supplying explosive substances to some Naxal leader in Machkot, we, i.e. my friend Durjoti Mahangkodo and I, were arrested on 28th July 2016 on charges u/s 8(1) (3) (5) of Chhattisgarh Public Security Act, Section 4 and 5 of Explosive Substances Act.

Niranjan Dash (Left), Durjoti Mahangkodo (Right)

We were arrested at Nuagaon village where we had gone on official work around 5 in the evening. In fact, we were asked to come to that place by the accountant of the company – Frontline Trading Company, where I worked as a supervisor, to collect some documents. The directors of the company,  I must mention here, were not only influential people in the city of Jagdalpur, but closely connected to the then ruling BJP party’s elected Members of the State Assembly, as well as to senior police officers.  Had they wanted they could have defended me as their employer, but most disappointedly no one turned up despite my family’s pleas to the company.

 

Was it a trap, I wondered in hindsight.

 

As we reached Nuagaon, Odisha around five in the evening waiting for the person to give us the documents I was supposed to pick up, we were completely taken aback when we were suddenly surrounded by armed civilian men and bundled into their Bolero vehicle. Kept in a room close to the SP office, we were beaten up badly asking us to own up something bundled in blue coloured polythene.

 

Bruised and in a state of shock, we were once again huddled into a Bolero the next morning around 9 AM to Machkot forest region in the Odisha-Chhattisgarh border. We were kept in the vehicle for a while, until the police including the Thana In-charge, Vijay Painkra, supervised the spread of explosives, boxes containing detonators, several pieces of gelatine rods, bundles of wires, etc. We were then dragged out, made to stand in front of the spread and pictures of us were taken. After two hours or so we were then driven back to Jagdalpur at the SP Office.

 

We shuddered as it gradually dawned on us what we were being accused of – that we are regular suppliers of explosives to Maoists!

 

We were shockingly running over the nightmarish experience that we endured since the previous evening, when we saw further drama unfold, as we waited in the vehicle. We saw a swarm of journalists reaching the SP Office. There was a debate among the officers whether to present us before the media or not. We crouched in fear. We knew of the Naxal problem in Chhattisgarh, but had no clue about who they were; leave alone meeting anyone or having ‘deals’ with anyone.

 

We were thankfully spared from being produced before the media, but much later we were aghast at the lies the newspapers carried about us, purely based on what the police had to say. Bastar police seizes explosives and electronic detonators from two ‘Maoist operatives’ as they were waiting at Dhanpunji railway crossing to hand over the explosives to Maoists, screamed the news the next day. The entire lie was backed with such elan with senior most police officers, including then Director General of Police, D M Awasthi, Inspector General of Police Bastar Division, S R P Kalluri, Superintendent of Police, Bastar district, RN Dash, as well as the state home secretary, BVR Subramaniam.

 

Bastar SP R N Dash and IG SR P Kalluri did come the previous evening to take a look at us – their ‘catch’.  Dash is an Odiya speaking IPS and we thought we could explain to him in our mother tongue of the horrible mistake the police might have committed, but he brushed past our attempt.

 

I wondered if the story was created for them, and we were perhaps convenient characters available to fit their narration.

 

In the company of many like us in the prison

 

After the day’s ordeal we were briefly presented before the magistrate and sent inside the lockup. We cringed as we entered Barrack no. 6 – a crowded place with about 40 persons staring at us – some jeered at us, some were indifferent but many looked at us in sympathy. As we stayed incarcerated for one-and-half years, 533 days to be precise, we came across several who were pushed into the prison like us. Picked up by police and declared a Maoist supplier, supporter, informer and what not. Everyone waited to be taken to the court, so they could prove their innocence.

 

As they saw my family make the necessary legal moves, the young and elderly men, who thought we would leave the prison early, approached us requesting us to reach their families to take them out, as translated by nearby well-wishers. I had no clue where these villages were from. Their families live far away, they said. It would take them many days to reach here through the forest path. Hardly anyone visited them, I almost felt guilty as my family members visited me fairly regularly often bringing with them some snacks.

 

We were lucky, we had a family that was willing to spend time, borrow from extended family members to garner financial resources to fight the case.

 

Determined to fight to clear my sullied character

 

I was determined to fight this through and not live with this ignominy of having engaged in supplying explosives to Maoists which is then used to kill others. My four-year-old son will never grow up listening to ‘suspicious’ stories about his father, I decided.

 

The first thing my brother, Gagan, did was to petition the chief ministers and senior most police officers in both Odisha and Chhattisgarh of the wrong that had happened. We also approached Kotpad Thana simultaneously. Sensing hesitation from Kotpad Thana, he filed a petition at the First Class Judicial Magistrate court at Kotpad, Odisha in August 2016. Things began to move. In less than a week, the court ordered the Kotpad police “to take necessary action”, which led to the Kotpad Thana filing an FIR against Station Head, Nagarnar, Chhattisgarh, Vijay Painkra u/s 120-B (criminal conspiracy), 22 (commitment for trial or confinement by person having authority and knowingly acting contrary to law), 330 (voluntarily causing hurt to extort confession), 342 (punishment for wrongfully confining a person), 365 (punishment for wrongfully kidnapping, abducting and confining a person) and 500 (punishment for defamation) of the IPC.

 

No sooner, pressure began to build on my family to withdraw the case. A certain Jaggan Reddy, said to be close to the then IG Bastar region, SRP Kalluri, called over my brother to a hotel in Semiliguda threatening him to withdraw the case as the senior police officers are very influential and could do a lot of  harm to the family. As regards my case, they said, it will be settled soon if we remain quiet.

 

Not on the defensive anymore but this meant lengthy court procedures and beyond …

 

We decided not to be on the defensive any further. We had moved a writ petition in the Odisha High Court in November 2016. Aghast and further infuriated at the illogic and meaningless threat by the police operative, my brother, who had secretly video recorded the entire meeting, handed this over to the High Court. Citing non-jurisdiction, Odisha High Court declined to admit the case. Dejected, my brother approached the Supreme Court the very next month in December 2016, which asked them to approach the Chhattisgarh High Court for relief. In response to our petition, Chhattisgarh High Court in November 2017 sought the constitution of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) involving high ranking officials from both Odisha and Chhattisgarh states.

 

My trial has been put on hold until the SIT report is made available. However, we had approached the High Court for our bail which finally came through in January 2018.

 

Out on bail, I was in a complete state of flux. I did not know where to pick up my threads. I was seen in the neighbourhood as a criminal. My tears would roll down every time I held my son. I felt a distance from my in-laws. Although I did not pin too much hope on the SIT, as this was to be conducted by the very police that threw me inside the prison, I hoped the court would see through the lies.

Days, weeks, months and years rolled by, but there was no SIT report in sight. We filed a contempt case with the Chhattisgarh High Court. Finally responding to contempt notices, after four years, the SIT report was submitted in January 2021.

 

We petitioned before the Chhattisgarh High Court challenging the shoddily conducted investigation report. The report hardly had any semblance of ‘investigation’ but picked up the matter from the charge-sheet. Through our petition we sought instead an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the matter. The Chhattisgarh government, maintaining its original story, instead requested the case to go through trial, which the High Court conceded to.

 

We were indeed worried. But we knew the truth was on our side and braved the trial.

 

Exactly after seven years on 17th July 2023, our case moved into trial. Our acquittal order was pronounced on 28th February, 2024. During the seven-month trial the court examined five witnesses – three police personnel and two private witnesses – were examined. All the five turned hostile.

 

The two private witnesses – a footwear shopkeeper and another one who runs a tea stall near Dhanpunji railway crossing – were picked up by the police and made to sign up as witnesses. Both the private witnesses stated they never went to the Machkot forest area with the police nor were any explosives seized in their presence. They were only asked to sign a certain number of papers which they did out of fear. Of the three other police personnel as witnesses, two turned out to be stock witnesses, whom the court rejected outright, and the other witness claimed he forgot most of the important things noted in the statement. In addition, the court found gaping holes in the seizures, which were not sealed thereby casting doubts on the veracity of the seizure; the description of the bag in which the seizures were made was missing; there was no mention of how the two ‘alleged Maoist operatives’ reached the forest. In fact, the court observed there was no mention in the seizure list as to where the confiscated seizures were kept in the storehouse. The court also observed that the prosecution did not present any evidence to prove both of us were Naxalites thus acquitting us as the ‘prosecution failed to prove beyond doubt’ their claims that we were Naxalites supplying explosives to Maoists.

 

Fought the good fight …But with a huge personal setback

 

Well, we did fight to disprove them, but at a huge personal cost. My in-laws were worried for their daughter and their grandson, who was only four then, and decided to leave. The long incarceration, the threats that followed, the constant visits to Bilaspur, Jagdalpur, Bhubaneswar and even Delhi was too traumatising to handle for my immediate family. My friend, Durjoti Mahangkodo, is the lone earning member, working as a peon with the Jeypore Nagar Nigam. No sooner the case was slapped on him; the department froze his salary to half – withholding perks, benefits, promotions and all. The family of eight – including his wife, three children, two brothers and elderly parents, had a literal hand-to-mouth existence. We hope it will be restored now.

 

I think of the many young boys and elderly men, most of them from the Adivasi community, still languishing in the prison. I know they do not have the wherewithal to fight back the way I could. My fight was for my son, who I want to grow up being a fighter. I wanted him to feel proud that his father fought back when they arrested him on false charges.

 

Of course, given the shoddy investigations, most cases would fall through, and those falsely charged would walk free on technical grounds. Probably, the police also know that everyone would walk out with an acquittal order eventually, but at what cost …. After spending harrowing time behind bars for a substantial number of days and months of one’s life cut off from your family and all.

 

While there is grandiose hype in the media over such arrests, when the court acquits these very men and women, the matter is hardly ever reported! The social cost – losing trust in neighbourhoods, families feeling alienated in social and family functions, loss of jobs, no finance to pick up threads, etc. – is so high that well before the court, the society has declared us to be guilty of something we had no clue.

 

Probably, those involved in deliberately creating such horrendous stories about us, will ‘move on’ with promotions, awards, better salaries … I wonder if they are able to look into the eyes of their own family and children who must be proudly hailing them as successful police officers working hard to keep their State safe from terror.

 

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