Gomia, Jharkhand: Orphaned as a boy, Birsa Manjhi, 50, worked for years as a daily wage labourer, travelling by train from his village to Ranchi city for an hour every day to get work that paid Rs 150 per day.
When a brick kiln was set up in 2019 near his home in Chorpaniya village of Gomia block in Bokaro district along the state’s eastern border with Odisha, Birsa began to work there, earning Rs 250 per day in the months when work was available.
A maternal uncle’s residence that he had lived in since childhood was bare, except for a wooden cot, some utensils, a few threadbare blankets and paddy straw that his wife, three young daughters and a 20-year-old son spread on the floor in place of mattresses.
In the second week of November 2021, Birsa was summoned to the Jageswar Vihar police station in Gomia where he was told that he was a wanted Maoist, an absconding criminal, with a prize of Rs 100,000 for his capture.
The officer in-charge looked at his Aadhar card, and asked if he was Birsa Manjhi.
Birsa said he was. The officer asked for his father's name.
“I said my father's name was Rameshwar Manjhi," said Birsa, a Santhal tribal, who constitute 35% of Bokaro’s population. "To this, the officer said I was lying.”
He was made to call his sisters, who confirmed to the station house officer (SHO) that their father's name was Rameshwar. Birsa was allowed to leave, but was summoned again on 15 December and ordered to surrender to police in February 2022.
Sukhram Hansda, a local body elected representative who accompanied Birsa this time, told Article 14 that deputy superintendent of police (DySP) Satish Chandra Jha called on the SHO’s phone while they were at the police station. Birsa was sent to meet the senior officer at the latter’s office in Tenughat, about 20 km away from Jageswar Vihar. "DySP sahab (sir) told him to go home, live comfortably, get his son married and surrender in February," Hansda said. Jha reportedly said “benefits available under the surrender scheme” would be given to Birsa.
Jha was unavailable for comment despite repeated attempts. Article 14 tried to contact Bokaro SP Chandan Kumar Jha, who requested queries to be sent to him via WhatsApp. He did not respond to those queries or to an email.
Thickly forested in parts, located about 50 km west of Bokaro Steel City, Gomia block is known mostly for an explosives factory and frequent reports of Maoist violence and arrests of Naxals. The Naxalism-affected Jhumra mountain region of Gomia is populated by poor Adivasis, most illiterate or semi-literate.
In a spate of recent cases, men alleged they were implicated on false charges as Maoists.
A History Of Stage-Managed, Fake Arrests
In the past year alone, apart from brick kiln worker Birsa Manjhi, a mason was threatened with attachment of his home and declared an absconder despite living in the same home for years; a daily wage worker arrested in 2015 was summoned by police and threatened afresh; two men named as police witnesses said they never gave their consent to being witnesses in a case against a fellow villager.
Three cases investigated by Article 14 are not the first instances of stage-managed ‘surrender’ by men purported to be Maoist operatives in Jharkhand. In 2016, the National Human Rights Commission said its probe corroborated allegations that more than 100 ‘Naxals’ who surrendered in 2011-12 were neither left- wing extremists nor sympathisers. They had reportedly been lured or threatened by police and paramilitary force personnel to boost the state’s surrender figures.
“Twenty-five to 30 recent cases invoking serious laws such as Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA) and ‘17CL’ in various police stations in Gomia block should be thoroughly reinvestigated,” said Dinesh Murmu, who works with the Bokaro unit of the Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha, a non-profit organisation headquartered in Ranchi. (The ‘17CL’ law, applied in most cases pertaining to Maoists, is section 17 of the Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1908, pertaining to membership of unlawful associations.) Murmu claimed these cases were based on false allegations.
Asked which sections of the law had been invoked against Birsa, Hansda said the Jageswar Vihar SHO told them there was no case at his police station, but there were “many cases” against Birsa at neighbouring police stations.
Asked if he could explain how police had come to accuse him of being a Naxal, Birsa Manjhi told Article 14, “The DySP sahab told us the name of the accused is Birsa Manjhi, son of Buddhu Manjhi. I told sir that I am Birsa Manjhi, son of Rameshwar Manjhi.” According to Birsa, the police officer told him: “Aye boka (hey idiot), you will benefit, you will get a reward from the government.”
Jageswar Vihar SHO Kanhaiya Ram told Article 14 he had been posted there for a year, his police station’s jurisdiction covering the Jhumra Pahar area, considered a Maoist stronghold.
“In the case of the Naxal with a bounty of Rs 1 lakh, the name of the accused is Birsa Manjhi, But his father’s name is different,” Kanhaiya Ram said. “Investigation is going on in the case regarding the father's name.”
No innocent would be sent to jail, said the officer.
Article 14 sent a detailed questionnaire regarding the false Maoist cases against Adivasis in Gomia to Jharkhand’s director general of police and home secretary via WhatsApp and email, but neither responded.
Surrender Or Else: Threatened With Property Forfeiture
For some unlettered villagers, the fear was not only of being arrested but also losing the meagre assets they own.
A mason, 52-year-old Sanjay Manjhi of Lalgarh village was paid a visit by four policemen on 23 December 2021. He said they asked his name, about his two sons and two daughters, whether they were attending school, and then left.
“On 27 December, I was called to the Jageswar Vihar police station, where the SHO Kanhaiya Ram told me that there is a warrant against me for attachment forfeiture.”
‘Attachment or forfeiture’ of property is initiated through a court directive when there is reasonable ground to believe that the property is derived or obtained through the commission of an offence. The policemen who visited his house had not mentioned the property attachment warrant, nor had Sanjay received a notice regarding it.
“When I said this, the SHO said that I could either surrender and seek bail,” Sanjay told Article 14, “or else there would be attachment forfeiture of my house.”
He was facing a case under section 17 of the Indian Criminal Law (Amendment) Act for being associated with the Maoists, he was told. The case was registered against him in connection with the blowing up of a section of railway track in October 2014 in the Mahuatand area, approximately 25 km from his residence.
Sanjay Manjhi said his last run-in with the law had been in 2014, a case of coal theft that he said was a false case. “It was when the police came to my house and said I am an accused in a coal theft case and that I should apply for bail that I did so.” When he was summoned to the police station in December 2021, he did not know of any other case against him.
Sanjay’s eldest son Sunil, 25, who works as a private land surveyor in the area, said that the Jageswar Vihar police passed an order on 30 December to attach the house registered in his father’s name, though no notice had been served to them. The property to be attached was a two-room mud house with an exterior brick wall.
“We were stunned when we accessed the verified copy of the record of this case,” Sunil told Article 14. According to the records, until the track explosion case was being investigated by the Mahuatand police station, a Sanjay Manjhi was named among the accused, but no name of the accused Sanjay’s father was given.
Around 2016 or 2017, when the case was transferred to the then newly established Jageswar Vihar police station, the case diary was written to show the name of the accused as Sanjay Manjhi, son of Babua Manjhi, said Sunil.
Also, a case diary entry dated 18 February 2020 said a notice had been pasted on the house of Sanjay Manjhi, son of Babua Manjhi.
Two witnesses had signed against the case diary entry, Sadaram Manjhi and Mukesh Manjhi. Both told Article 14 they had not consented to being witnesses in the case, and had signed on a sheet of paper for another case.
Sadaram Manjhi said his mother had been branded a witch and murdered in 2020. Accompanied by his brother-in-law Mukesh Manjhi, he had visited the Jageswar Vihar police station some time in 2020 to check if there had been any progress in the case.
“There, after a conversation regarding our matter, a paper was given to us and we were asked to sign it,” Sadaram said. “We thought that it might have been needed for my mother's case.” They were also asked for copies of their Aadhar card.
He said when they realised they had been named as witnesses in the police notice for forfeiture of Sanjay Manjhi’s property, they were surprised. “How can someone make us a witness in a case like this without informing us? This is very wrong,” he said.
Sanjay Manjhi said he had been worried that the attachment procedure would be conducted in January 2022, but there was no word from the police about it later.
According to Sanjay, in 2016, two years after he procured bail in the coal theft case, he was detained by the CRPF and taken first to their camp in the Mahuatand area where he was assaulted, and later to Mahuatand police station and Petarwar police station, where he was told there was a case against him, but was eventually allowed to leave. He said he overheard policemen discussing among themselves in Petarwar police station that he was not the wanted Sanjay Manjhi. “The accused was some other Sanjay Manjhi.”
In this case, Jageswar Vihar SHO Ram said the matter was in court, adding that “he (Sanjay Majhi) is an accused in the case, so the order of attachment forfeiture has been given by the court”. Investigation in the case was underway, he said.
Rohit Thakur, a lawyer with the Human Rights Law Network, a legal advocacy group, said Sanjay Majhi had been regularly attending court hearings after receiving bail in the coal theft case.
“How can the police call him absconding in another case?” asked Thakur, among those who raised the issue of false arrests of Adivasis in Naxalism-related cases in Jharkhand, under the banner of the Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha.
‘We Would Have To Kill Ourselves’
Anxious and afraid since being told there was a bounty for his arrest as a Naxal, Birsa has struggled to work, eat or care for his family. “I told the SHO that I have small children, there will be nobody to look after them,” he said. “I told him people like him trouble us so much, we would have to kill ourselves.”
Weeping, Birsa told Article 14 that the SHO had promised he would be released from jail 20 to 25 days after the arrest.
It would not be Birsa’s first arrest.
In 2005, he was arrested from a meeting called to discuss allegations that witchcraft was being practised in their vicinity.
“Somebody informed the police that ‘party walas’ (Naxalites) were at the panchayat building,” he said. “The police caught everyone. We were beaten mercilessly in the police station, we fainted, we could not walk.”
The next day, they were sent to judicial custody. While they had been arrested on suspicion of being Maoists, the FIR invoked Jharkhand’s Prevention of Witch (Daiin) Practices Act, 2001, a law to prevent witch practices and the identification and oppression of women as witches, a crime prevalent mostly in tribal areas. Birsa was booked under sections 3,4 and 5 of this law, pertaining to identifying a woman as a witch, causing her physical harm and abetting such identification. Other charges against him were under sections 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 341 (wrongful restraint), 387 (extortion) and 34 (crime in furtherance of common intention) of the IPC.
No section of law pertaining to Maoist crimes was invoked.
Out on bail, he was arrested again in 2019 for missing court dates—he had mistaken bail to be a final release—and was in jail from 8 June to 13 August. “Now I attend court on every date,” he said. He was being harassed once again, he said, just when his son was about to be married.
Advocate L Prasad who represented Birsa in the Tenughat court in 2019 said the 2005 case against him did not include any sections of law pertaining to left wing extremism. “Birsa and other villagers told me the case in which they’re trying to arrest him is against Birsa Manjhi, son of Buddhu Manjhi,” he said. “My client’s father's name is completely different.”
The lawyer said he has come across a spate of cases like that of Birsa in local courts, of misidentified tribals in cases pertaining to Naxalism.
Unable to afford the lawyer’s fees upon being released on bail in 2019, Birsa paid Prasad in kareli (a wild vegetable) gathered from the forest, a fresh batch at each hearing.
The possibility of a case, arrest and the expenses this would mean put intense pressure on the accused men. Sanjay Manjhi said his daughters were undergraduates, and he was hoping to ensure they completed their education. “With these allegations against me, hurdles will emerge in getting them married,” he said.
If the case was registered as far back as 2014, why was he not arrested earlier, he asked.
Jailed In 2015, Harassed And Threatened Again
In 2015, 15 days before he was to appear for an examination for recruitment into the Jharkhand state police, Hiralal Tudu, now 26, was arrested.
“On 4 September 2015, the police suddenly came to my house, surrounded it from all sides, and arrested me,” said the resident of Tuti Jharna village in Gomia. He had not been told until then that there was a case registered against him. On his arrest, he was told the police were searching for two boxes of guns belonging to the ‘party’ (the Communist Party Of India - Maoist) that he had hidden.
Tudu, who could not complete his graduation but had done several short-term computer-related courses and a course on animation, tried to tell the policemen that he did not work for the Maoists.
“They dug my house to a depth of four feet and searched for the guns, but did not find anything,” he said. “I was then beaten. They urinated in the pit and pushed me into it. But I had not done anything wrong, so what would I tell them?”
According to Tudu, he was then taken to Dhaniya railway station the same day, where the DySP was present, and then to Gomia police station, 15 km from Tuti Jharna, where he was kept all night, before being beaten and interrogated for two days. “I fainted due to the beating,” he said.
Tudu said that when Prakash Murmu, a village senior, reached Gomia police station, the SHO told him there was “pressure from above” to make arrests, and Tudu was therefore being sent to jail on a less serious offence.
Tudu was accused of being involved in a blast on the Gomia-Lalpaniya road in the foothills of Lugu hills during the 2014 parliamentary elections. According to the police, he worked closely with the Santosh squad of the CPI-Maoist in Jharkhand. A case was registered in this matter at Mahuatand police station.
Tudu claimed that the SHO of Gomia police station Virendra Ram told him he would be released from jail after a few days. “I told the SHO in frustration that I had applied for a constable’s post, but had ended up being labelled a Maoist,” he said. “After coming
out of jail, I will carry arms. You have made me one, so I will do this work (for Maoists)."
The day before his arrest, Tudu’s sister-in-law had been arrested too, from Gomia railway station. She was accused of delivering letters to Maoists.
Tudu was granted bail on 2 February 2018, after he had spent 29 months in Tenughat jail. His sister-in-law, who the family said was still a minor then, spent 30 months in jail. His mother died in 2016, but Tudu was unable to see her during her final days.
“After I was released, the CRPF harassed me a lot. They ask if I will get Maoists arrested,” he told Article 14. “They say if I do not help them, they will send me to jail again.”
Since being released on bail, Tudu has worked as a labourer at sites offering work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act. He also began activism on behalf of tribals, mainly against acquisition of tribals’ land for industries.
More than six years after his ordeal with the police began, on 29 September 2021, Krishan Kumar Mahato, an officer from the Special Branch (a local intelligence department of the Jharkhand police) telephoned Tudu on his cellphone.
Dreading what was to come, Tudu took a few relatives along to meet Mahato at his Bokaro office.
According to Tudu, Mahato asked him what objection he had to the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) project being established in the region. “I replied that despite various industries on tribals’ land, the condition of tribals remains poor. They are losing their land but are not getting jobs,” he said. He told the officer that the company should negotiate directly with tribals instead of engaging a broker. After that, Mahato called him repeatedly, he said.
No fresh case was filed against Tudu, but he said he lives in fear of being arrested again, this time for his opposition to the DVC project on tribal land.
Yogendra Prasad, a former member of the legislative assembly from the Gomia constituency and a prominent leader of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, said he had met Birsa Manjhi at the latter’s home. “He is absolutely innocent, he has been implicated by the previous administration,” he said, adding that he had informed chief minister Hemant Soren of the attempt to falsely implicate a tribal in a Naxalism case.
“When we spoke to the SP, he said the investigation was going on. After a fair investigation, Birsa Manjhi will get justice,” Prasad told Article 14.
On the cases against Sanjay Manjhi and Hiralal Tudu, the former MLA who represented Gomia in the state assembly between 2014 and 2019 said he was not aware of the details but if victims approach the government, they would be given a fair hearing.
“If all these people are innocent then our government will give justice to all of them… Victims should contact us, and discuss each and every point openly, then we'll talk about this issue with the honourable CM,” Prasad said. He said Naxalism in the Jhumra mountain area, which had been rising since the 1990s, was now on the wane.
Arrested As A Teen, Facing An Uncertain Future
About 3 km from Lalgarh is the village of Tuti Jharna, home to the young woman arrested in 2015 a day before Tudu.
Her 58-year-old father claimed that when the girl was arrested on 3 September 2015, she was a minor. She had been on her way to visit a relative's house along with her mother. When the mother and daughter alighted from the train at Gomia station, they were detained by Gomia police. The next day, police arrested his son-in-law Hiralal Tudu from his house.
“I was helpless, because I'm illiterate and have no idea about courts or police stations,” he told Article 14. "She was only 15 or 16 years old at the time of being arrested.”
In the FIR registered at Gomia police station, her age was given as 22 years, and her Aadhar card recorded her year of birth as 1994, making her 21 years old in 2015. But Tudu said illiterate villagers’ Aadhaar cards frequently record their age inaccurately.
“Our family made several requests to the administration to check her admission register in the school where she studied till class three, but no one helped,” he said.
Thakur, the human rights lawyer, said the Aadhaar card should not have been used as evidence of age. The police should have checked the records at the government school where the girl studied, or they could have conducted a medical test.
“The administration did not take either of these steps,” said Thakur. “It should be investigated and if it is found that she was really a minor at the time of her arrest, then the trial should be under the Juvenile Justice (Care And Protection Of Children) Act, 2015.”
She would also be eligible for compensation if it emerged that she spent 30 months in jail despite being a minor, Thakur said.
The father said the girl suffered the “stain of going to jail” and has remained unmarried as a consequence. “After coming out of jail, she barely talks.”
When Article 14 tried to speak to her, she fell quiet after giving her name, eyes brimming with tears.
Land, House, Animals Sold: The Cost Of Justice
In Ranchi, Jharkhand’s capital city, Father P M Antony, a close associate of the late Father Stan Swamy, said thousands of tribals and also those belonging to scheduled castes and other backward classes are in Jharkhand’s jails under false cases.
Antony said tribal families, already suffering economic hardships, are driven to penury by such cases and the rounds of courts. “... during this process they are forced to sell their house, land, animals to arrange money to fight the case,” he said.
Fr Antony did a survey of undertrials in Maoism-related cases out on bail. He said, “In 97% of the cases, I found that the accused had no links with Naxalites.”
In some cases, he said, if a murder had taken place in a Naxalite area, then police rope in non-tribals to investigate. Old rivalries or disputes lead them to name some tribals, who are then summoned to police stations and threatened. “To confess, those innocents are beaten, police make up stories in their FIR that weapons were found in their houses,” Antony said.
Antony’s research formed the basis for a public interest litigation filed by Swamy in the Jharkhand high court.
Using the Right To Information (RTI) Act, 2005, Anthony sought details of prisoners in various jails of the state who were arrested under sections of the UAPA and 17CL. Data for 682 cases from 12 jails was made available.
According to this data, the tribal-dominated districts accounted for the bulk of these cases. There were 100, 118, 237 and 171 cases respectively in the tribal-dominated districts of Khunti, Simdega, Hazaribagh and Latehar. Data from the remaining jails in Jharkhand was not made available despite the RTI.
Antony said it was sad that poor tribals were facing years in jail in false cases and fake surrenders. He said Father Stan often worried about the region’s young men spending their best years behind bars.
“Stan would ask,” said Antony, “what will be the future of our young men?”
(Mohammad Sartaj Alam is an independent journalist based in Lucknow.)