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‘Congress govt has failed us’ — Bastar villagers demand release of jailed ‘innocent tribals’

Tribal leaders allege there was police brutality ahead of a rally, organised to demand the release of those in jail, on 13 September. They are now threatening to step up their agitation.

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Raipur: Tribals leaders in Maoist-infested Bastar district are threatening to launch a massive agitation if the Chhattisgarh government does not release “innocent tribals lodged in the state’s various jails”.    

The protesters are demanding the release of tribals they claim are being held without charge for over three years and those who have been falsely branded as naxalites. 

They also allege that the Congress has not lived up to its promise, made before the 2018 elections, to release tribal prisoners wrongly incarcerated.

The tribals had held a rally at Dantewada Sunday but allege the police brutally prevented at least 7,000 to 8,000 of them from reaching the venue. 

According to the tribal leaders, one night before the rally, several villagers coming to Dantewada after walking 150 to 200 km on foot, were stopped mid-way by the police and were forced to turn back. They also claim that 15 people were arrested and that police threatened and assaulted them. Six have since been released. 

Soni Sori, activist and vice-president of Jail Bandi Rehai Manch, claimed that District Reserve Guard personnel assaulted those coming for the protest. “Families of the jailed innocent tribals wanted to  protest peacefully in Dantewada on 13 September and express their anguish but the DRG personnel lathicharged, arrested and forced many of them to go back,” she told ThePrint. “Police officers must tell us what was the fault of those women, girls and elders who were beaten mercilessly.”

The Chhattisgarh Police have, however, denied the charges. “The organisers were advised by the administration not to hold the rally in view of currently prevailing conditions of the corona epidemic,” Bastar Inspector General of Police Sundarraj P said.

“Despite this, on 13 September, some villagers from Dantewada, Bijapur and Sukma were travelling to attend the rally promoted by the organisers. They were intercepted and sent back as per the coronavirus infection prevention protocol,” he said.

“The reports about the use of force against the villagers are falsified and baseless,” the IG added. “Strict legal action will be taken against those who endangered others health by misleading them at the time of corona infection.” 

Dantewada Superintendent of Police Abhishek Pallava said nine tribals still in jail were Maoists arrested on 12 September. “These were members of frontal organisations and contents related to Naxalite propaganda have been recovered from their possession,” Pallava said.

“All kinds of accusations are being levelled against the police force, but the reality is that after the public meeting on 13 September, some Naxalites, disguised as villagers, managed to escape after beating up 26 other villagers, including five family members of DRG  personnel,” the SP added.  

Also read: Bastar tribals back CM Baghel’s move, oppose privatisation of NMDC steel plant

Villagers threaten massive agitation

The villagers are now threatening to step up their agitation against what they call police of ‘high-handedness’.

They are being led by former union minister Arvind Netam, a tribal and a Congress leader himself.  

“The state government has failed to fulfil the promise it made to the tribals before the 2018 assembly elections,” Netam told ThePrint. “Hundreds of youth who are sole breadwinners of their families have been lying in jail for the last 4-5 years. Prior to the elections, our party had made a promise to release them, but it has done nothing for the past two years.” 

The Bhupesh Baghel government had in March 2019 constituted a high-level committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge Justice A.K. Patnaik to review more than 6,000 cases against tribals falsely indicted as naxals by the former BJP government in the state. In December 2019, the Patnaik Committee had recommended the release of 300 tribals languishing in jails in eight naxal-hit districts. 

Sori and other tribal leaders, however, claimed that the government’s move was an attempt to hoodwink them as none of those released were falsely indicted as naxals but for other charges.

Lingaram Kodopi, a local activist and a member of the organisation Frontline Defender, warned that villagers will step up their agitation.

“In the days to come, a massive confrontation with the government and police is inevitable,” he said. “Several tribal youths have been imprisoned for the last three to four years on the false charges of being Naxalites. The tribals have been forced to hit the streets.”

Villagers told ThePrint that police initially arrested 15 people but released six after Netam and activist Soni Sori intervened.

“At first the police chased and thrashed us, then they arrested us and took us to Kuakonda police station. They were calling us naxalites but later released us,” said 25-year-old Hurra Kunjam from Bijapur, who was among the 15 arrested villagers.  

Also read: ‘Bastar Cho Awaaz’ — Chhattisgarh Police wages poster war to ‘expose’ Naxals through memes


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