Friday, June 14, 2024

Chhattisgarh: Adivasi woman fighting extra-judicial killings arrested as ‘Maoist’; UN rapporteur demands release

Just a day before the announcement of the General Election 2024 results, an Adivasi human rights defender, known for leading protests against police and paramilitary abuses on Adivasis in Bastar, was arrested by the BJP-led Chhattisgarh government on accusations of having ties with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

On Monday morning, Chhattisgarh police, under the command of Bijapur’s Deputy Commissioner of Police Garima Dadar, apprehended 25-year-old Sunita Pottam, a resident of Korcholi village in Bijapur district. The arrest took place in Raipur, the state capital, and she was subsequently remanded to judicial custody at Jagdalpur Women’s Central Jail.

Pottam serves as the vice president of Moolvasi Bachao Manch, an umbrella organization representing 30 mass movements in Bastar, which oppose the corporatization of their Jal, Jangal, and Jameen (Water, Forest, and Land) and militarization of their habitat.

The organization grabbed headlines in 2021 for leading protests against the establishment of paramilitary camps in Silger, situated on Adivasi land, without the consent of the Grama Sabhas and in violation of the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996. These protests intensified after Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel fatally shot three villagers on May 17, 2021.

A press release by the Chhattisgarh police on Monday accuses Pottam of being an important link in the urban network of CPI (Maoist) and alleges that she was hiding her identity while living in Raipur.

Shreya Khemani, the organizing secretary of the Chhattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), dismissed the allegations against Pottam and refuted the claim that she was hiding in Raipur. Concerned for Pottam’s safety after the forcible arrest without following proper procedures, the Chhattisgarh chapter of PUCL made the news of her arrest public.

Khemani, who also witnessed the incident, recounted to Maktoob,”Sunita was in Raipur to pursue her formal education through open schooling. She has not completed 10th grade. So to prepare for exams, she was staying with other girls, also there for academic purposes, in a space managed by a women’s collective, of which I am also a part. On Monday morning by around 8.30 am, two men and a woman in plain clothes arrived at her place. The entrance to the house is shared with another rented space. They knocked on the door, introduced themselves as relatives of the girls to the neighbour who opened it, and then proceeded directly to Sunita’s room to apprehend her. Sunita sought refuge in another room where another girl was present. One more girl tried to intervene, but the police restrained both girls by locking them inside. Then they forcibly took Sunita with them by dragging her on the floor and putting her into a vehicle.”

Khemani told the reporter that the neighbour was threatened by the officers not to open the door they had locked. Subsequently, the officers themselves opened the door and interrogated the two girls about their whereabouts.

She continued, ” After being informed, I reached there. I requested to see the warrant from the officers, but they barely showed it. When I attempted to take a photo of it, the police forcibly took it from me. They didn’t even provide an arrest memo. I was then taken to see Sunita, who was being held inside a vehicle that lacked a registration plate.”

Khemani shared a photo of the alleged vehicle without the registration plate with the reporter.

“The police party, which came in two vehicles, was led by DCP Garima Dadar. When I questioned him about why the vehicle lacked a number plate, he threatened to arrest me as well,” recounted Khemani.

Slamming the accusation that Sunita was absconding, Khemani said, “How can she be considered an absconding accused when she has been meeting with the Governor, Chief Minister, and senior administrative officials?”

Bijapur Superintendent of Police Jitendra Kumar Yadav told Maktoob, “There are 12 court warrants pending against her, issued by different courts in Dantewada and Bijapur. She faces various charges, including attempted murder and charges related to firearms.”

When asked whether the UA(P)A was invoked, he replied, “I don’t think there is UA(P)A, but Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005, which is parallel to UA(P)A, is invoked.”

According to the police, there are seven permanent warrants pending in Gangalur police station, four in Mirtur police station, and one in Bijapur police station against her. Legal proceedings against her in Gangalur, Mirtur, and Bijapur police stations have been presented before the court. Other charges against her include arson, robbery, inflammatory speeches, inciting the public, and causing damage to government property.

Pottam, who is also a member of PUCL and Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), gained national attention when she filed a public interest litigation (PIL) at the age of 17 along with another Adivasi girl, Munni Pottam, at the Chhattisgarh High Court in 2016 against the extrajudicial killings of six Adivasis by government forces in the villages of Kadenar, Palnar, Korcholi, and Andri in Bijapur district.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, has tweeted condemning Sunita’s arrest and went on to say the arrest was a result of her peaceful advocacy for the protection of Adivasi rights and against systemic violations.

Soni Sori, an Adivasi leader from Bastar who has faced abuses from the government, including sexual assault by police, told this reporter that she would be visiting Pottam in jail today.

Within the first six months of 2024, the Chhattisgarh government, headed by Vishnu Deo Sai, an Adivasi member of the BJP, has been accused by human rights activists, including Pottom, of killing more than a hundred people, including Maoists and unarmed Adivasis. This includes a 6-month-old infant, allegedly killed by drunken government forces on January 1, 2024, in Mutvandi village of Bijapur district, as well as a deaf girl, an intellectually disabled boy, a grade 5 student, and teenagers in other instances.

According to data compiled and sent by the Forum Against Corporatization and Militarization (FACAM), an organization based in Delhi, to this reporter, as of May, 55 non-combatants have been killed by security forces in Bastar since January 2024. Additionally, the report states that a fifth instance of aerial bombing using drones in Bastar since 2021 was recorded on April 7, 2024.

Advocate Ehtmam-Ul-Haque, a member of FACAM, told Maktoob that the pivotal role played by Pottam in organizing Adivasis against illegal mining, demanding justice, and holding the government accountable for extrajudicial killings and aerial strikes is the sole reason for her arrest.

He added, “Sunita has exposed the paramilitary forces’ role in Adivasi genocide and sexual violence, collaborating with civil society and democratic rights groups to campaign against state repression in Bastar for many years. Currently, around 20 indefinite protests are underway in Bastar by her organization. People like Sunita are a headache for the state because they reveal the brutal reality behind so-called development in Bastar. Her arrest aims to weaken the democratic resistance of Adivasi peasants and create an information vacuum by severing the link between capable Adivasi leadership and the larger civil society.”

PUCL also reported that there were previous attempts to arrest Pottam. According to them, on February 9, 2024 while Pottam was assisting villagers injured in an accident, she was pursued by police who attempted to forcibly take her on their motorcycle. But the police were forced to withdraw after local journalists and villagers who were present nearby demanded that the officers produce an arrest warrant.

Criticizing the repression, Ehtmam added, “The state is crushing the democratic struggle of Adivasi peasants against militarization and corporate exploitation. In the past six months, it has destroyed four mass protest sites and arrested six Adivasi leaders, including Sarju Tekam. This is not an isolated case but part of a larger pattern. The state claims it wants dialogue to resolve the Naxal question, but instead, it kills, arrests, and beats unarmed Adivasi villagers, and destroys protest sites. This is part of the state’s genocidal policies like Operation SAMADHAN-PRAHAR and the Surajkund Scheme, which target democratic resistance as ‘Urban Naxals’.”

Calling for dialogues between Adivasis, Maoists, and the government, he said, “While the Maoists are engaged in armed struggle, movements like Moolvasi Bachao Manch are not. Yet, the state refuses to engage in talks with them. If this continues, the situation in Bastar will likely escalate, and the state will be responsible for not utilizing the opportunity to engage with Adivasi leadership, listen to their demands, and create a conducive environment for a political resolution.”

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