Burkapal (Chhattisgarh): After spending five years in jail for a crime he did not commit, 25-year-old Madkam Hunga returned to his village on the southern tip of Chhattisgarh to start life afresh, only to discover that he was a free man, with no freedom.
The rains destroyed Hunga's house. Bushes and weeds overran his five-acre farm. His animals were either dead or had been sold off. His wife was married to another man. His six-year-old daughter had no clothes on her body. His eight-year-old was chopping wood to cook the food his impoverished sister sent from another village. His brother was dead.
When Article 14 met him in Burkapal village on 23 July, Hunga faced an immediate dilemma: whether to find work as a daily wage labourer and start putting food on the table or to borrow money to buy a bullock and start ploughing his farm.
Sitting outside a mud house with a thatched roof, Hunga said, “Before going to jail, my one-and-half-year-old daughter was fine and healthy. After returning, I see her disabled. Due to the lack of money, my mother could not get treatment for her. Today she can neither speak nor walk or even eat by herself. But I don't have money to get her treated.”
"This year, I have come out of jail, but I cannot farm because I need money and bullocks,” he said.
Arrested when the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power in Chhattisgarh, 125 people from the tribal villages of Sukma district, a hotbed of the violent Naxal movement, were charged in the killing of 25 paramilitary soldiers of the Central Reserve Police Force on 24 April 2017.
One month ago, on 18 July, they were acquitted by a court of the National Investigation Agency after the prosecution in the Congress Party-run state failed to show they were involved in the ambush carried out by Maoist rebels, also known as Naxals.
Returning home to Burkapal village after five years in the central jail in Jagdalpur, 200 km from Sukma district, were Gondi-speaking tribal men who made ends meet by planting rice, picking and selling the mahua flower used for making liquor, or working as labourers. They returned to worse economic woes, broken homes, sick children and parents, with little or no resources to rebuild for the future, and no hopes of the state helping them compensate for the gross injustice they have suffered.
Far removed from any notion of demanding accountability, those whose lives have been obliterated want to sink into oblivion, away from the wrath of the police they believe can easily come and arrest them in any other case.
This fear is not new.
Living in the heart of the Naxal movement, caught between the insurgents, the Indian security forces and the police, the tribal villages of Sukma live with the constant fear of arrest and retaliation.
Naxals have carried out three horrific attacks in the past 15 years: Rani Bodli where 55 policemen were killed in 2007, Tadmetla where 76 soldiers were killed in 2010, and Darbha where 27 people including tribal leader Mahendra Karma, Congress Party state president Nand Kumar Patel, former union minister Vidya Charan Shukla were killed.
The problem of wrongful imprisonment is not a new one.
“There is a government policy to compensate those who are victims of Maoist violence but nothing for those who are victims of state excesses like fake encounters or who have been framed in false cases and lose many years of their lives in jail before acquittal,” said Bela Bhatia, a human rights lawyer based in Dantewada who was a defence lawyer in the Burkapal case. “Some provision of monetary compensation should be made.”
Burkapal, inhabited by the Gond tribe, is also desperately poor. Most children do not attend the government primary school, a five-minute walk from the village near the main road. There is only one teacher. If someone falls ill, they must go to a hospital primary health care centre in the nearest town of Dornapal, 36 km away, for treatment. The nearest hospital, Sukma district hospital, is 76 km away.
Most of the 125 families in the village live in mud huts, and no houses were built under the central government scheme Indira Awas Yojna said Madkam Bhima, a 24-year-old paddy farmer, said, “Even after waiting for two years, the work on this scheme has not even started today.”
Even though he felt angry and broken, Hunga said he would not seek compensation from the government. “No, whatever has happened has happened,” he said.
Prosecution Has Failed To Establish
The 125 people arrested from Burkapal included 122 adults and three minors who received bail in 2019. Of the 122, one man, Dodi Mango from Kondapalli village, died from an illness. Following the NIA court’s decision on 18 July, 110 were released, while 11 remain behind bars in connection with other crimes.
The accused were charged under eight sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1869, including murder in furtherance of a common intention, the Arms Act, 1959, the Explosive Substances Act, 1908, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1969, India’s anti-terror law, which makes it much harder to get bail at the trial court level.
The NIA court and the Chhattisgarh High Court rejected bail for the accused, Bhatia said.
After a trial that lasted four years, moving glacially in the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, judge Deepak Kumar Deshlahari said in his order:
“No evidence or statements recorded by the prosecution was able to establish that the accused were members of the Naxal wing and was involved in the crime. No arms or ammunition seized by the police were proved to be found from the accused.”
Advocate Bichem Pondi, the Sukma-based lawyer who also appeared for the accused, said, “Investigation should be done based on facts. But often action is taken under formalities on the instructions of higher officials, so the culprits are not caught?”
Noting how many accused are unaware of the laws they are charged under because of the low level of literacy where they live, Pondi added that statutes like the draconian UAPA were misused to keep people in jail when there was a lack of evidence.
Underlining the need for experienced police officers to carry out such investigations and for the investigating officer to speak the language of the accused, Pondi said the investigating officer, in this case, spoke Hindi, not Gondi, spoken by the men Burkapal.
“The IO did not know the Gond language spoken, and the tribal men they had arrested did not speak in Hindi,” said Pondi. “How can there be an honest and transparent inquiry if the IO does not speak the language of the accused?”
While it is unclear where the state plans to appeal the decision, Bastar inspector general of police, Sundarraj Patillingam, said the acquittal does not mean the accused were innocent, and witnesses often change statements out of fear of the Naxals.
“Acquittal of 121 accused does not mean this investigation is over,” he said, adding that the police were still hunting for Naxal commanders like Hidma, Situ and Sonu who were named in the first information report (FIR) registered after the ambush.
Claiming a decrease in the recruitment of Naxals in the five years since the 25 paramilitary soldiers were killed, Patillingam said, “Their area is shrinking.”
The violence perpetrated by the Naxals reduced by 41% and deaths by 54% in the country from 2013 to 2020, and 30 districts accounted for 88% of all Maoist violence, according to the annual report of the Ministry of Home Affairs for 2020-21, but a rise in the destruction of public property was reported, with Naxals prioritising disrupting construction work, especially in villages bordering Chhattisgarh and Telangana.
Manish Kunjam, the Ex MLA from the Konta constituency and a leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI), said, “The region’s tribals are living between two forces—the Naxalites and the armed forces. Now to say who is right and wrong—both have guns, and both kill the tribals. The tribals fight two battles every day. The irony is they both call them supporters of the other side.”
‘I Was Not A Naxalite’
Hunga said the day after the ambush on 24 April 2017, the men in Burkapal village were made to assemble at one point of the village and taken one kilometre away to a CRPF camp where he was beaten.
Article 14 reached out to Arvind Rai, CRPF, Deputy Inspector General of Police in Sukma, regarding the allegation of beatings but did not receive any response.
Hunga also alleges that CRPF personnel killed his brother in the aftermath of the ambush; taking him from his home, killing him, and burying him in a pit on the side of a road that was under construction near Burkapal village. But the family never made a complaint, and no FIR was registered.
The inspector general of police in Bastar, Sundarraj Patillingam, called it a “baseless allegation” and said it would be impossible to cover up such a crime given how many reporters were in the village after the incident. Now, Hunga said, he was just happy to be out and did not want to rake up anything else.
After the alleged beating at the CRPF camp, Hunga joined other young men fleeing the village. He went to Andhra Pradesh but returned in June to plant paddy in time for the rains.
Hunga said it was four in the morning, and he was sleeping when the CRPF surrounded the village. He was taken to the CRPF camp and handed over to the police.
“I was not a Naxalite. I was never involved in Naxalite activities. I was innocent and used to live by farming,” he said.
Muchaki Mukka, a 40-year-old paddy farmer and a father to a son, who was acquitted, said, “I do not understand what the allegations against me were. Now, whatever has happened, has happened. I was innocent, and now I'm with my family.”
Two years after being jailed, Kawasi Bhima, a 40-year-old paddy farmer and father to four children, lost his father to an illness that he had never heard of and was unable to name. Then, he heard his daughter had married a man his family disapproved of and moved away with him.
While he was away, there was no one to farm the land. Gradually as the legal costs of the fighting mounted, his family sold off the cows and bulls they kept for milk and farming, and his wife took out a loan from a lawyer.
“After the news of my father’s death, I could not recover from the grief. Then, I got the news that my daughter married of her own free will. After this, I was living in embarrassment,” he said. “Now, when I'm home from jail, my daughter did not even come to see me when I'm home from jail.”
Kawasi, who has to support three sons and his wife, said, “Taking care of them is a big challenge for me. If the government helps us, it will be good because we have nothing to eat or wear right now.”
Recalling that his wife visited him four times in jail, Vamjam Linga, 40, said she died of an illness that he had not heard of and he could not name, a week before he was released, leaving behind four children in his care.
Before he went to jail, Linga made a living by picking Mahua flowers from the forests and selling them to make liquor. After he completes the rituals for his wife’s passing, Linga said he will join his brother-in-law in the paddy fields.
“I have to take care of one boy and three girls without my wife,” he said.
Father and son
After the ambush of the paramilitary soldiers of the CRPF on 24 April, Sodi Ganga, 25, said CRPF personnel took him to their camp 15 km away, where he was beaten and broke his hand.
Ganga, who was jailed along with his 65-year-old father Sodi Nanda, said they used to grow paddy and pick mahua flowers and tendu leaves used to make beedis.
With both men jailed, no one was left to work their three-acre farm.
Ganga said his wife and infant son died of an illness because they had no money to get the treatment. He heard in prison that his wife’s face, eyes and body had swollen up, but he could not name the disease that inflicted them. His mother took her to a tantrik (witch doctor) and then the primary health care centre in Dornapal.
Ganga now wants to remarry but sees no way of earning a livelihood. “I want government help so that I can start farming again,” he said.
Those left behind
Remembering her grandson who died and how he used to play in her son Ganga’s lap, 56-year-old Sodi Maade said that it fell to her to raise her two surviving grandsons while also fighting the legal case.
Maade recalled that after villagers started getting jailed, the village’s young men left, leaving behind the children and the elderly.
Maade picked mahua flowers, using the income to run the house and pay a lawyer to get her son and husband out of prison. When she ran out of money, she took small amounts of money from her married daughter living in another village and a Rs 60,000 loan from her brother.
“I have promised my brother that I will pay his debt by doing labour work,” she said.
Still uneasy, Maade asked what was stopping the police from falsely accusing her son and husband after another violent incident.
“Yes, I'm afraid my husband and son will be killed,” she said. “What will I do? I see less. I have become old, and so I will remain silent.”
Maade isn't alone.
Hunga’s 62-year-old mother, Madkam Ayte, also fears another arrest that her family may be unable to fight.
“My son was innocent. Before he was acquitted, he was in jail for a long time,” she said. “But if he is arrested in any other case, I’ll just die because I will not be able to do anything to save my son.”
(Mohammad Sartaj Alam is an independent journalist based in Lucknow.)