‘Now they are not just coming after us, but also those with us’

Things though came to a head last week when their landlord was allegedly picked up by police, and his vehicle, his source of income as a taxi driver, seized. Within hours, he asked the lawyers to move out.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Raipur | Published:February 21, 2016 4:46 am
Khandelwal (left), Gera of Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, packing to leave. Mukta Joshi Khandelwal (left), Gera of Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, packing to leave. Mukta Joshi

In July 2013, three lawyers and one social worker arrived in Bastar recognising the lack of any civil society action or legal representation for tribals in the Maoist-dominated area. Much water has passed under the bridge since, with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group taking up cases of locals accused of Naxalism and of fake arrests and encounters, in a place where lines are very easily crossed.

Two and a half tumultuous years later, Isha Khandelwal and Shalini Gera, both classmates from the Law Faculty in Delhi who have stayed on since, are leaving Jagdalpur, forced out by pressure allegedly applied by the state police, at those associated with them.

Speaking to The Sunday Express hours before moving out from the flat that has served as both their home and office, Khandelwal said when they began, it was an attempt to fill the void in a space “where very little information was coming out”. “There was this realisation that despite scattered information about the number of undertrials in Chhattisgarh’s jails and so on, there was very little research on the subject. So when we first arrived, it was almost as a research group. As we looked into the cases, we saw that there was a huge number that were going nowhere, people had been in jails for years without proper representation. So we began assisting local lawyers. It was only in the second year that we properly began looking at cases of police excess,” she said.

It wasn’t easy from the start. “We first used to get ‘friendly warnings’. Bastar IG S R P Kalluri held press conferences where he said we were Maoist sympathisers. In October 2015, the Jagdalpur Bar association passed an order saying they had a complaint about our degrees and that we couldn’t fight cases in court. We challenged this, and later the bar said they had never passed such an order, “ Khandelwal said.

Incidentally, on the same day, scroll.in journalist Malini Subramaniam’s landlord was called to the police station and also asked his tenant to leave. Subramaniam moved out of Jagdalpur two days ago.

“The problem is that now they’re not just coming after us, they’re coming after people associated with us. We are afraid of what will happen to a man whom we love and respect if we don’t leave his home,” Khandelwal said.

Police are vague on the details, admitting they had called the landlords, but refusing any role in intimidation. When asked about the matter by The Sunday Express at a press conference on Friday, a visibly furious Kalluri said the collector had issued orders that tenants and servants be checked, and that police had nothing to do with the eviction of the two lawyers or Subramaniam. “I have even gone to meet the lawyers and Malini Subramaniam and spoken to them,” he said.

At the same time, Kalluri talked of “danger” to Khandelwal and Gera. “I have information there is great anger among the Bastar bar association. They have said cases should go to unemployed lawyers, and not to outsiders. We have intelligence they may even be attacked. It is my responsibility to tell the government,” he said.

Asked if it was not his responsibility to prevent a law and order situation, he repeated it was “to tell the government”.

Congress president Bhupesh Baghel, who headed a “save democracy” protest in Bastar last week, said this was a clear case of lawyers being hounded and that the party would take up the cause in the Assembly. “The Constitution rules supreme, and it assures the right of anyone to work anywhere in the country. Police are harassing these lawyers and this is a form of dictatorship by the state government,” Baghel said.

Alok Shukla of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan said this was nothing short of ensuring that “no contrarian voice comes out of Bastar”. “What were these lawyers doing? They were fighting cases for tribals that would never have been heard otherwise, (they were) framed in cases. This is a planned, calculated move, which looks to clamp down on any voice that deviates from the official narrative,” Shukla said.

Amnesty International has also taken up the matter.

Recounting all the cases they had taken up, Khandelwal said their first big one was the Sarkeguda encounter in Bijaput. In the alleged encounter, that took place in 2012, 17, including women, were killed. Police claimed to have attacked a Naxal meeting, but the encounter is still under investigation.

The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group also took up cases of jailed journalists Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag, both imprisoned for their links to Naxals, as well as allegations of sexual violence by security forces in Bijapur and Sukma this year.

Khandelwal and Gera are determined to return to Bastar. “There are so many cases in which we haven’t even been able to tell our clients what is happening. We haven’t had time to think about what to do next and when we will return depends on the situation here. But we want to come back.”

Soni Sori attacked, hospitalised

Raipur: A “semi liquid” substance was thrown on AAP leader Soni Sori late on Saturday night, causing intense burning and injuries to her face, after which she was referred to a hospital in Jagdalpur.

Officials said it was unclear if the substance was acid, grease or some other ointment. The incident took place near Bastanar at 10.30 pm, as the tribal activist was returning home after visiting the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group. A police officer said, “Sori was travelling on a motorcycle with another woman. Two men on a bike stopped them near Bastanar ghati, and applied the substance to Sori’s face.” ENS