120 tribals in jail under anti-terror law for 3 years, trial yet to begin

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Deep inside the Sukma jungle, the serenity of the small village Burakapal, situated just 200 meters from nearby security forces camp, is disturbed only by women nonchalantly engaged in their chores and kids boisterously playing with slingshot.

A few men can be spotted in the village but they fear interacting with outsiders.

For more than three years, things have not been normal in the village since 37 tribal residents of this village were arrested and booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act ( UAPA).

In April 2017, just 100 meters from this village, Burkapal, 24 personnel of 74th battalion of the CRPF, including an inspector-rank officer, were killed in a deadly Maoist ambush.

After the brutal killing of 76 personnel of CRPF in 2010, the ‘Burkapal Attack’ is one of deadliest hits on security forces in the last decade in the Bastar region.

The troopers were guarding the Dornapal-Jagargonda road construction work near Burkapal village when the Maoists attacked.

In the next few days, the Chhattisgarh police registered a case in Chintagufa police station and booked 120 tribals of six villages – Burkapal, Gondapalli, Chintagufa, Talmetla, Koraigundum and Tonguda – under UAPA and other IPC sections.

A memorial for the CRPF personnel who died in the Maoist ambush.

A memorial for the CRPF personnel who died in the Maoist ambush.

“Within a few days after the attack, 37 residents of my village were booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and other sections of Indian Penal Code and were sent to jail,” said Muchaki Handa, a 30-year-old newly elected sarpanch of the village, whose elder brother is also in jail for his alleged involvement in the attack.

The sarpanch claimed that every male who was present in the village that day was booked.

“Every male and even some teenagers who were living in the village were booked under UAPA and other sections of IPC and only those who were working in cities were left unnamed, more as a matter of chance than design. I was working in a grocery store in Andhra Pradesh therefore was not named, but my brother was booked. Not a single person was involved in the attack but police have booked them accusing them to be Maoists,” said the sarpanch.

For more than three years, the trial in these cases is yet to start and bail has not been granted even in a single case registered under the UAPA.

As per the police records, total 120 villagers of three villages, including 37 of Burkapal, were booked under UAPA for their involvement in the attack.

“Seven juveniles of my village were also picked up and booked under sections of the IPC. After spending eighteen months in Dantewada jail they have been released,” said the sarpanch.

“The incident took place when I was playing just outside the village with some friends. We heard gunshots and rushed towards our huts. Few days after the attack, my father was picked up and later one day when I was sleeping in my house in the afternoon, security forces took me to the police station,” said Bheema Sodi, pointing towards the area where he was playing.

Sodi’s father Muda is in jail and was booked under the UAPA.

Residents of the Burkapal village.

Residents of the Burkapal village.

Bela Bhatia, a human rights activist and lawyer of some of the accused booked for the attack, said 120 innocent people from villages around Burkapal were booked under the act in this case.

“Till now the trial has not started and has been delayed solely for the reason of the large number of accused and the police expressing its inability to make arrangements to produce them before a court regularly. The police said they did not have enough constables. And the court was initially not willing to entertain them in batches,” Bhatia said, adding that the police arrested people without necessary investigation and culpatory evidence.

Bhatia said that during the lockdown period they should be given bail and after that they should be produced in court regularly.

“The police framed innocent people under the UAPA and other sections of IPC from the area where the Maoist action occurred. The trial is still in the initial stage of “framing of charges”. It is now three years since the 120 accused are in Jagdalpur jail. Such prisoners should also be categorised as political prisoners. They should be granted bail during lockdown and subsequently the trial should be carried out in fast track mode,” Bhatia added.

Bastar police have denied the allegation.

“Due to Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, there was hindrance in the trial of the case. Bastar Police are committed to ensuring a just and speedy trial of the case,” said IG Bastar Sunderaj P, rubbishing her allegation.

“In April 2017, we lost 24 of our CRPF jawans in one of the cruelest attacks by Maoists on security forces, who were out on an operation to facilitate the road construction work. During the course of investigation we have arrested more than 120 Maoists cadres and their supporters. This stringent action has not only broken the network of Maoist cadres in the area, but also provided tactical advantage to the security forces during “Operation Prakhar” which was conducted in 2017-2018. As far as prosecution of the case in the court is concerned, Bastar police would extend its sincere cooperation in this regard,” he said.

The activists said availability of only one trial court for the UAPA cases in Jagdalpur was a major reason for delay in start of trial.

“In my view, these cases should also be tried in other sessions courts so that such cases get distributed over various courts and the trial moves faster,” said Bhatia.

Another lawyer, Sanjay Jaiswal, who is the advocate for most of the accused in Burkapal case, said this is an undeniable fact that the inordinate delay is due to the tardy process in the court.

“The trial will start after everyone is chargehseeted,” said Jaiswal.

Soni Sori, who has been raising her voice against the arrest of tribals, said the government is not listening to the anguish of innocent tribals.

“There are no men left in the village. After the attack, the security forces put innocent tribals of Burkapal and other villages in jail without any evidence. I visited the village twice. Quite unsurprisingly, women and most of the remaining tribal persons ran away to Andhra Pradesh or in the jungle due to the fear of police atrocity. The security forces gave the gullible women an assurance that they know that people of Burkapal village are not the accused and hence the men returned. The forces then did a volte face, cordoned off the villages and arrested them without any evidence. Can you imagine that even the trial has not started in the last 3.5 years after their arrest? Is this justice? Why is the government not intervening?” said Sori.

DM Awasthi, Director General of Police, Chhattisgarh, said that the accused have the right to have a fair trial in the court and he will instruct police in this regard.

“I have not been told about the delay in trial and no one has complained to me. I will enquire about the issue and give necessary instruction so that the trial would start. Everyone has the right to have a fair trial in the court,” Awasthi said.

Sujata Jaswal, the government counsel, Jagdalpur said that the challan has been submitted in the court in May and June in Burkapal case.

“The trial has not started yet due to the lockdown. As per instructions of the high court, only the necessary cases are being heard in the court. The trial of the case will start after further instructions by the court regarding the routine work,” said Jaswal.

Back in Burkapal village, Jogi Sodi (25), whose husband is in jail is worried and asked the sarpanch about the case.

“I have not seen my husband since three years… Will he come this year or will we have to wait more …” she asked Handa, who nodded his head in reply and started consoling her.

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