The five-year-old son of Niranjan Das has asked the same question for 11 months. The session for the new year in his school in the Odisha town of Jeypore has begun, but Dhakkas Das remains with mother Dimple Sahu at her parent’s home in Behrampur. “What do we tell him when he asks for his father?” says Niranjan’s brother Gagan Das. “That he was kidnapped by the Chhattisgarh Police and is in jail on false charges? That so, for now, we want him to stay away from home?”
In a sworn affidavit to the Chhattisgarh High Court on July 5, the Odisha Police said its investigation had found that Niranjan Das and Durjoti Mohankundo were taken from Odisha, not Chhattisgarh, without processes being followed, and that there is “sufficient evidence that shows and indicates abduction and false registration of cases”. The affidavit also said that senior Chhattisgarh Police officials had impeded the Odisha investigation, and attempted to pressure the family into withdrawing their case.
Sitting at his village Telia in Odisha, Gagan Das remembers that Niranjan was picked up an year ago, on July 28, 2016. He says that Niranjan, a supervisor at Frontline Trading Company that supplies stones for the Nagarnar steel plant, and Mohankundo, a clerk at a municipal office, were drinking tea at a stall in Jeypore that day when Niranjan’s colleague called him asking him to go to Nuagaon. “The colleague said that a company vehicle had met with an accident, and that he should collect the papers of the car from Nuagaon and then go to Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh to file a vakalatnama. Both left for Nuagaon around 4 pm.”
When Niranjan did not return or answer calls, Dimple called up Gagan. The next day, Gagan left for Nuagaon. He found his brother’s Scooty parked outside a row of shops. “When I asked those who lived nearby, they said my brother was talking on the phone when men in civil clothes emerged from two Mahindra Bolero vehicles, assaulted him and Mohankundo, dragged them into the vehicles, and took off. I rushed to the Kotpad police station in Odisha and asked if they were behind it. They said they had no idea.”
The same day, the families were told that the two men had been arrested by the Bastar police and were to be produced in a court in Jagdalpur.
Gagan says when he met Niranjan in police custody the next day, he showed signs of torture. “He told me he had been brought to Jagdalpur by nightfall, and assaulted for hours, as police asked him to confess to a crime he had not committed. And that early next morning, Mohankundo and he were taken to a jungle where photographs were taken of them surrounded by explosives.”
Later that day, on July 30, the Bastar police held a press conference to announce the arrest of the men on charges of supplying explosives to Maoists. The two remain in jail. Multiple officers of both the Odisha and Chhattisgarh Police that The Indian Express spoke to, on condition of anonymity, say this isn’t any other case of inter-departmental rivalry. “It is different for two important reasons. One is that the family is fighting the case when others don’t. Secondly, this is not just a case of Chhattisgarh picking up men from Odisha without informing us. The case against them is that they were found near the Dhanpunji railway crossing in Bastar district with explosives.
However, the investigation has shown that they were at Nuagaon when picked up, and witnesses remember them being picked up. This punctures the entire Bastar police case,” an officer says.
On a plea by Niranjan’s family’s seeking a case against the Chhattisgarh Police, the Judicial Magistrate First Class in Kotpad ordered an FIR on August 10, 2016, under sections covering criminal conspiracy, confinement by an official contrary to law, voluntarily causing hurt to exhort confession, wrongful confinement, criminal intimidation and kidnapping. Dimple Sahu also wrote letters to both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Home Affairs, seeking an independent inquiry. Both offices forwarded the complaint to the chief secretaries of Odisha and Chhattisgarh; copies of these are with The Indian Express.
The affidavit filed by the Odisha Police also talked about a meeting arranged “at the instance of the Superintendent of Police Jagdalpur, and the Inspector General of Police” at Hotel Apple Villa in Simliguda, Odisha, where the families of the two men were pressured to withdraw their complaint. The IG and SP at the time, S R P Kalluri and R N Dash, who faced charges of intimidation of journalists and activists, have been transferred out since.
Gagan says that at the meeting, they were told by the representatives who met them that the path they were taking “would not help Niranjan at all, and that we were better advised to take back the case”. “They told us that they would ensure that my brother and Durjoti were acquitted and the process would be faster if we withdrew the case. They even said that we were no match for the might of officers, and if we didn’t withdraw the case, we could be picked up too. They said that people more powerful than us had bowed to pressure before. They said that if we withdrew the case, we would see some relief within 15 days.”
Gagan says that while they wanted to get Niranjan out, they were afraid. So, they quietly recorded the proceedings of that meeting, and handed it over to the Odisha Police. The Odisha affidavit mentions the recording. The family next knocked at the doors of the Chhattisgarh and Orissa high courts, as well as the Supreme Court, finally resulting in that sworn affidavit from the Odisha government. Gagan says it’s disheartening that Niranjan continues to be in jail, but adds that it is the 32-year-old who gives them the strength to carry on. “Whenever we meet him, he always says, ‘We will fight this to the end’.”