While addressing mediapersons in Raipur on 13 February 2020, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Chairperson Justice H. L. Dattu said that human rights violation complaints received from Chhattisgarh were not many – they were a minimum. Many Adivasi leaders and human rights activists have criticized this approach of the NHRC. Manish Kunjam, national president of Adivasi Mahasabha and former MLA from Konta, has been the petitioner in the Supreme Court on the Salwa Judum matter. He observed that “institutions like the NHRC are not independent today. Earlier it was independent and took up cases. Since Modi came to power at the Centre, all these institutions function as BJP branches. They in fact want to erase Adivasis and thus the effort by the NHRC is only to fill the columns [as a formality].”
As noted in the earlier FP report, the NHRC had restricted these hearings to only “fresh” complaints of Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) against public servants. The commission had clarified that cases from conflict zones would not be entertained. “This directly gives the impression that they are hardly interested in human rights questions of Adivasis, who suffer the worst today,” observed Adivasi leader Soni Sori.
Recently, on 13-14 February 2020, the NHRC held a camp-cum-open-hearing in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, on complaints related to SCs and STs. A section of social activists took on the NHRC during the latest round of sitting in Raipur against its indifference to SCs and STs from conflict zones.
In past years, human rights organizations like the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Chhattisgarh have brought various issues of human rights violations in the state to the attention of the NHRC. The affected persons in most of these cases have been from the most marginalized sections of society like Dalits, Adivasis and women. Yet, the NHRC didn’t care to take on such cases.
State PUCL President Degree Prasad Chouhan reacts in strong words. “It is unacceptable that the NHRC rejects cases of violations against SCs and STs. We have placed several petitions before the Commission for which there has been no relief.” Many of those applications have been put into cold storage. “They don’t want to take up cases of gross human rights violations in Bastar and also some other similar cases. Once in a while they take up one case and don’t take up the rest. Thus the NHRC seems to be concealing serious crimes of human rights violations for which the state and its security forces are responsible,” adds Chouhan.
Lawyer Shalini Gera says, “The experience of working with the NHRC, both in collaboration and as an appellate/redressal authority has thrown up concerns regarding its functioning and responsiveness in the special context of Chhattisgarh. We tried to meet with the hearing panel to raise some of these issues. But they didn’t show any interest. Finally we had to submit our memorandum and leave.” Here, FORWARD Press tries to make sense of the gravity of issues highlighted by social movements.
Encounter deaths and custodial deaths
Several government reports, investigation commission reports and media reports suggest innumerable encounter and custodial deaths of Adivasis and Dalits particularly in conflict zones like Bastar. Adivasi researchers say that these excesses by security forces in the context of insurgency and counter-insurgency form the bulk of complaints. According to a PUCL memorandum, in Chhattisgarh alone, 171 civilians in 2016, 108 civilians in 2017, 191 civilians in 2018 and 103 civilians in 2019 lost their lives during encounters with security forces.
High Court lawyer Asish Beck says, “Dealing with these cases in the courts, we mostly find that the victims of such encounters are innocent Adivasis. The government tries to brush off such cases and portray the victims as Maoists. Then such encounters won’t be fake and the deaths won’t be that of an Adivasi, rather a Maoist rebel.” The NHRC holds the right to investigate any unnatural deaths, particularly that of the STs. Researcher Ankita Andhare says, “The NHRC should ensure the safety of Adivasis, help the people to gain confidence in the system.”
The activists alleged that many important cases get delayed and victims are denied relief. Twelve years after the incident of 2007, involving the killing of seven people and the burning of 95 huts in Kondasawali, Karrepara and Kamaraguda villages of Sukma district, the NHRC, on 23 September 2019, slammed the state police and other security forces for “abetting” the crime as part of Salwa Judum’s anti-Maoist activities. Later, NHRC, in an order dated 23 December 2019, declared a compensation of Rs 5 lakh for the next of kin of the deceased identified as Madvi Bhima of Kondasawali; Barse Nanda, Barse Suklu, Kunjam Boda of Karrepara; and Sundam Bhima Mangdu, Sundam Bhima Goga, Midiam Aiti of Parlagutta. The victims haven’t got any compensation to date.
High Court lawyer Rajni Soren says, “The delay in cases by the NHRC makes taking action against criminals difficult, because immediate investigation is critical to any criminal case. After so many years there is bound to be loss of evidence. We haven’t seen a single trial begin, let alone a conviction, in the conflict areas in Bastar.”
Given the inaccessibility of areas from which many of the complaints originate, and the lack of regular methods of communication with the victims living in these remote areas, it makes following up on these cases very difficult when significant updates and replies from the victims are required many years after the initial complaint. Manish Kunjam notes, “NHRC is not performing its real job anymore. Many of our complaints get closed when we are unable to reach the victims for their responses to the questions of the state authorities, and these complaints remain unaddressed.”
Journalist Mangal Kunjam from Dantewada says that agencies like the NHRC never get on the ground. “They come and sit with government officials in Raipur and leave, all in the name of hearing complaints of Adivasi human rights violations. For that they may take the support of some Adivasi bureaucrats too who have no connection with the ground realities,” adds Mangal Kunjam. There are many cases of encounter killing that has been disproportionately delayed by the NHRC. Here are a few instances:
- In the case of encounter killings of two brothers Jai Singh and Phool Singh (Case No. 466/33/18/2013-AFE tagged with Case No. 433/33/18/2013-AFE), the requisite reports from the state government were handed over to the Director General (Investigation) of NHRC vide order dated 8.10.2014 for analysis. Five and half years later, on 7 January 2020, the NHRC issued a show-cause notice to the state government with the recommendation of compensation to the victims.
- In the case of villagers of Kondasawali, Karrepara and Kamaraguda villages (Case No. 657/33/3/2013), the complaint against the burning of 95 houses and murder of 7 persons was made on 16 August 2013. The incident was already 7 years old at the time of the complaint. It took NHRC another 6 years to issue a show-cause notice on 23 December 2019.
Perpetrators as investigators!
Activists have raised questions on the lack of independent investigation agencies. Usually, NHRC returns the cases to the same state agency/authority against whom the complaint has been made. The most sensitive and grave complaints are against the police establishment, which go back to them for investigation. The police often threaten the victims against speaking the truth. Under such circumstances, it is with great difficulty that people muster up the courage to register complaints.
In Adivasi regions like Bastar, where there is such great asymmetry of power between the complainant victim and the alleged victimizer, the problem gets compounded when the NHRC deputes the same authority against whom the complaint is made in the first place, to investigate the matter and submit a report. In such instances, the same policemen or other security personnel visit the victim once again on the pretext of carrying out an investigation, and extracts an acknowledgment from the victim that the original complaint is false, thus defeating the entire purpose of the exercise. In most such cases, the NHRC then closes such complaints.
Some examples are given below:
|Follow-up by police
|Victim Harim Markam, deputy sarpanch of Burgum village, Dantewada district, had complained to the Collector about a false case against three villagers. Thereafter, a large posse of police came to his village and looted people’s houses and beat them up, as they searched for the victim. The complaint requested security for the victim.
|NHRC sought responses from Dantewada police about why they were searching for Harim Markam. The officer under question leads an operation to the village, where he rounds up the villagers and extracts statements from them, and an affidavit from the terrorized victim that there was no incident at all in the village.
|NHRC closes complaint without any further inquiry.
|Two instances of picking-up, illegal detention and beating of young men (villagers) from Burkapal and Tadmetla villages of Sukma district, on 22 and 30 September 2018, by the police and CRPF.
|NHRC sought a report from the police. SP Sukma submits report that on enquiry by the police, the villagers have said that they were “called to the camp”, but there was no torture by the police or CRPF.
|NHRC closes the complaint without any further inquiry.
|A five-month pregnant Adivasi woman from Bijapur district was gang-raped by the security forces inside her house, while being photographed and videographed, and was then taken to the police.
|NHRC seeks reply from the Bijapur police and CRPF. The police again visit the village and coerce victim into giving statements that no such incident took place.
Victims allege that in all the above cases the investigation was done by the same agency against whom the complaint was registered. “In the name of an investigation, the police and other security personnel came and took signatures by force on statements and affidavits that there were no threats, violence or intimidation. They even warned us not to speak to the media about anything, else there would face “dire consequences,” said one of the victims. It can be reasonably argued that the guilty policemen and other security forces officials take these statements under duress.
NHRC refuses any criminal prosecution or disciplinary action
Activists also alleged the NHRC has only recommended monetary compensation to the victims in those cases of gross human rights violation that it investigated. “The commission failed to hold any official or authority accountable for such violation and take disciplinary action,” says Gera. Chouhan adds, “Mere monetary compensation to the victims or victims’ kin cannot compensate for the grave crimes committed by public authority officials. It is important to hold the larger official and administrative structure accountable, especially when the actors are easily identifiable and their culpability has been noted by the NHRC itself in the relevant order sheets.” Some examples of such cases are noted below.
|Authorities allegedly involved
|Death of two brothers Jai Singh and Phool Singh in a police encounter on 30.04.2013 in the Kachora jungle under Chote Dongar police station of Narayanpur district.
|Rs 2 lakh to the families of the victims. No punitive action against anyone recommended.
|On 12.02.2014 Lakhmu Madavi, Vijay Madavi and Ramsay Kowda were killed in an encounter in the jungle of Nelnar in Narayanpur District.
|Rs 5 lakh to the families of the victims. On 21.12.17 the DGP was directed to institute an enquiry against erring police officials. In the final order of 27.07.2018 there was no mention of the enquiry.
|Vanjami Hadma was kept in illegal custody of police for over three days
|Rs 50,000 to the victim. No punitive action against the arresting/ investigating officer in the case.
|95 huts burnt by Salwa Judum and SPOs in 2007, killing seven villagers. Harassment of the sarpanch for filing a complaint and one villager killed in 2013.
|Rs 5 lakh to families of the seven killed, and adequate compensation to victims of arson. No disciplinary or punitive action against anyone.
Kalluri’s free rein contested
The NHRC has not held S.R.P. Kalluri, the most controversial police officer in Bastar in recent times, responsible for any of the alleged crimes. He was last the Inspector General in Bastar in charge of the anti-Maoist operations.
- On 16.11.2016, the NHRC registered case number 667/33/20/2016 against Kalluri taking note of PUCL’s complaint against his actions. Kalluri arbitrarily filed a malafide FIR (FIR No. 27/16) against Archana Prasad, Nandini Sundar, Sanjay Parathe and two others for the murder of an Adivasi. The complaint was later dismissed.
- Forcible eviction of Advocates Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal from their house in Jagdalpur.
- Stone-pelting at and eviction of journalist Malini Subramaniam from Jagdalpur.
- Arrests of 7 members of a fact-finding team of Telangana Democratic Front.
- Eviction of Researcher Bela Bhatia from her house in Bastar district
“All of the above incidents have occurred during the tenure of S.R.P Kalluri as IG, Bastar Range, and his encouragement of abuse of power, impunity and silencing of human rights defenders is well-documented,” says Gera.
Chouhan adds: “An investigation team of NHRC visited Bastar from 1-7 March 2016 and documented the problems faced by Human Rights Defenders [HRDs] there, but its report is mentioned nowhere in the order sheets. Furthermore, the withdrawal of FIR No 27/16 by Chhattisgarh police and the acquittal of the seven members of the Telangana Democratic Front is further proof that these false implications were made with the intent to silence HRDs. The coarse and arrogant SMSes sent by Kalluri on requests to provide protection to Bela Bhatia are a matter of record, and have been well covered by the national media.”
Trial of Soni Sori
Soni Sori has come to symbolize the unbreakable warrior spirit of the First Nation. Her story is not hidden from the rest of the world. She has been fighting for Adivasi Human Rights in Bastar over the last half a decade. The unbelievable torture and violence she underwent in police custody on allegation of being a Maoist has been talked about again and again. Sori has been consistently receiving threats even after being released from jail.
It was observed that a string of complaints regarding the intimidation, threats and physical attacks against Sori, over a period of four years, were clubbed together as complaints received on the same incident. “They only cared to dismiss my complaints without doing any investigation. I am losing faith in NHRC with such blatant dismissal of complaints,” said Sori. These included the following cases:
- Complaint No 592/33/3/2015 dated 5.8.2015 stated that Soni Sori and many of her associates have received multiple death threats for exposing the case of the false encounter of Podiya Hemla in Nahadi, Dantewada. The local police had refused to file an FIR or conduct any inquiry into these incidents.
- Complaint No 633/33/3/2015 by Soni Sori dated 1.08.2015 stated Kalluri, then Inspector General of Bastar Range Police, held a public meeting calling for her excommunication along with Linga Kodopi. He also made a false allegation that she had been providing information about local traders to the Naxalites, which instigated many people to gherao her house and intimidate her children.
- Complaint No 123/33/3/2015 by Henri Tiphagne of Human Rights Defenders Alert dated 20.02.2016 stated that Soni Sori had been attacked by three men on a motorcycle, who rubbed a corrosive substance on her face and verbally abused her for working for Adivasi rights. This attack required hospitalization of Sori for over two weeks, and caused physical disfigurement that lasted many months. Many other complaints followed the so-called investigation into this incident by the Bastar police, which only served as an excuse for harassing the family members of Sori.
To arrive at its conclusion, the NHRC only looked into the case of threats to one of Sori’s associates, Arvind Gupta, and accepted the uncontested version provided by the Dantewada police that it was merely mischief of “childish elements”. “Not only does this trivialize the serious threats faced by HRDs working in an environment of hostility and fear, it completely derails the idea of any meaningful protection being accorded to HRDs,” says Kishore Narayan, who had been Sori’s lawyer in the High Court.
Soren, who represents Adivasis in the High Court, says, “After the Supreme Court verdict regarding the Manipur armed forces killings, the NHRC and courts should have evolved a mechanism to speed up all such cases. At present it takes more than a decade for investigation to even begin. NHRC needs to move beyond simply recommending compensation.” The NHRC hasn’t ever followed up on the recommendations on criminal prosecution. Victims have had to wait a long time even for the compensation. The NHRC has a bigger role to play in conflict zones to make sure international standards and procedures of justice delivery set in place by various UN forums are complied with. Else, this would set a wrong trend with respect to the Adivasi population in India.