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What Tushar Mehta means by threatening Degree Prasad Chouhan with prosecution

During a hearing on a petition filed by Degree Prasad Chouhan in the Supreme Court, Tushar Mehta accused several organizations of patronizing Naxalism and Maoism and said that Chouhan should be prosecuted for making false statements, says Manish Bhatt Manu

Does the Government of India want to use the judicial process as a tool to harass those raising their voice against atrocities on the common man, especially the Adivasis and the Dalits, and those fighting for their rights and securing justice for them in the courts? This question is uppermost in the minds of all those concerned about the plunder of natural resources in the name of development and atrocities against the common man by the government machinery. On 21 November, 2022, during the hearing on a petition seeking an independent enquiry into the so-called encounter by security forces at Edesmetta in Chhattisgarh, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta levelled serious charges against human rights activists and NGOs. 

During the hearing on a petition filed by Degree Prasad Chouhan, human rights activist and president of the Chhattisgarh unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Mehta accused human rights organizations of patronizing Naxalism and Maoism and said that Chouhan should be prosecuted for making false statements.

A one-member Judicial Commission comprising Justice V.K. Agarwal, a retired judge of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, in its report, has already said that there was no evidence to suggest that the eight Adivasis, including four minors, shot dead in an encounter in Edesmetta in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh on 17-18 May 2013 were Maoists. 

Degree Prasad Chouhan, president, PUCL, Chhattisgarh

It is worth mentioning that on many occasions in the past, security forces have been accused of killing innocent Adivasis, raping the women among them and burning down their homes in Chhattisgarh. In its report submitted to the Supreme Court, the CBI has held security forces responsible for setting 259 Adivasi homes ablaze in Tadmetla, Morpalla and Timmapur of Sukma district in 2011. Similarly, the report of a judicial commission, tabled in the Chhattisgarh Assembly on 2 December 2019, said that an encounter that took place on the intervening night of 28-29 June 2012 in the Sarkeguda area of Bijapur, was fake. The CRPF and other security forces had claimed that they had gunned down 17 naxalites in the operation. The report said that the killed Adivasis were innocent and were victims of unprovoked, one-sided firing by the security personnel. 

There are numerous complaints of fake encounters in Bastar including the killing of Badru Mandawi in the forests of Dantewada on 19 March 2020, of Lakshu Mandawi in Kirandul on 13 September 2021 and of Santosh Markam in Nilawaya Panchayat area of Dantewada district on 28 June 2021.

Human rights activists and organizations in Bastar say that the government is bent on crushing the Adivasis who resist its attempts to hand over iron ore deposits and other natural resources of Bastar to a handful of companies. 

The government and the security forces, of course, deny the charge. The security forces say that before initiating any anti-naxal operation, they take ample precautions to ensure that no innocent citizen is harmed or killed. The government often defends the security forces. Adivasis figure in the concerns of no one. When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Raman Singh was in power, the Congress party used to vociferously raise the issue of atrocities on Adivasis by the security forces. Now that a Congress party government, led by Bhupesh Baghel is in power in the state, the roles have been reversed, and it is the BJP that is training its guns on the government. But neither the number of security personnel deployed in Bastar nor the number of complaints of atrocities against Adivasis have come down. 

Adivasi leaders allege that all governments – no matter which party or ideology they owe their allegiance to – are in a tearing hurry to hand over the natural resources to a select group of industrialists, and the entire Adivasi populace of the state will have to pay a heavy price for it.

Tushar Mehta, Solicitor General of India

Responding to Tushar Mehta’s accusation, Degree Prasad Chouhan wrote in an open letter, “I was forced to approach the Supreme Court seeking an enquiry into this incident of extra-judicial killing as I was disappointed with the inaction of the government departments and institutions responsible for protecting human rights.”

Six years after the incident, in 2019, the Supreme Court took up the petition and ordered the CBI to constitute a special team of its personnel from outside Chhattisgarh to investigate the incident. Following this order, a case was registered by the Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh) unit of the CBI. 

“The Justice V.K. Agarwal Judicial Commission, appointed by the government, to probe the Edesmetta killings, in its report has said that the killed individuals were unarmed and innocent villagers, and that the police seem to have opened fire in panic. Despite that, the Solicitor General tried to mislead the court. He is obviously under pressure from the government to hush up the case rather than rely on the statements of the victims and the eye-witnesses recorded by the CBI,” Chouhan said. 

Be that as it may, what Tushar Mehta said reminds one of a comment by Justice Anand Narain Mulla, a judge of the Allahabad High Court, in the 1960s. During the course of a hearing, Justice Mulla had famously remarked, “There is not a single lawless group in the whole of the country whose record of crime comes anywhere near the record of that organized unit which is known as the Indian Police Force.” 

(Translated from the original Hindi by Amrish Herdenia)

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About The Author

Manish Bhatt Manu

Manish Bhatta Manu is a Bhopal-based journalist. He has been associated with the Hindi daily 'Deshbandhu' for a long time and has regularly contributed to other newspapers and magazines on issues concerning Adivasis

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