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Chhattisgarh: Free, but Burkapal tribals too broken to even hold grudge

Acquitted for lack of evidence five years and two months after they were jailed, the tribal men of Burkapal have returned to upended lives, empty homes, and a bleak future.

Accused of carrying out the 2017 Burkapal Maoist attack, the tribals were acquitted for lack of evidence. (Express Photo by Gargi Verma)

When Madkam Hunga was arrested under UAPA in the 2017 Burkapal Maoist attack case, he had a wife — and two little girls aged 3 and 1. After being acquitted along with 112 other accused last weekend, he went to visit his mother.

“There was a girl sitting next to my mother, and I asked who she was,” Hunga said. “When my mother replied it was my younger daughter, I could not hold back my tears.”

In the five years he spent in prison, Hunga has lost part of his vision, much of his strength, and his wife. “Tribal custom gives women the freedom to leave a marriage. With no one to take care of them, why would they stay? Almost all our wives left for other men,” he said.

Acquitted for lack of evidence five years and two months after they were jailed, the tribal men of Burkapal have returned to upended lives, empty homes, and a bleak future. On Saturday, when The Indian Express visited the village, the men were sitting together discussing finances — and the lives of the children their mothers had abandoned in the village.

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“In these five years, everyone has had to spend much more than they can afford. We are working out who owes how much to whom,” Hunga said.

Burkapal, located 72 km from the district headquarters Sukma, is close to where Maoists killed 25 personnel of the CRPF’s 74th battalion on April 24, 2017, and looted their weapons and ammunition. Police subsequently arrested 127 people, including 6 minors, from several villages in the area for allegedly helping the attackers.

Hunga said security personnel had taken away his elder brother Baman Madkami from his hut the day after the incident. “I never saw Baman after that. Almost a week later, I was told by the village kotwar that Baman’s body had been found in a ditch close to where the attack had occurred,” he said.

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Hunga himself fled to Andhra Pradesh, where he worked as a daily-wage labourer for about a month. Then, when he felt things had quietened down somewhat, he returned to the village.

On June 3, according to the villagers, local CRPF personnel sent word of an important meeting. “Our sarpanch said it was mandatory to attend. We thought we would get jobs to build a road — and when my name was called out from a list, I was elated,” Linga Sodhi (38), one of the acquitted men, said.

Names of 38 other men and 2 teenagers were called out that night, and they were called to the CRPF camp. “There, we were bundled into a police vehicle and taken for a medical test,” Sodhi said. “Even at that time, I did not realise we were being arrested. I thought it was part of the recruitment process.”

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Hunga too was in the group of 39 men. “I realised what was happening when we were taken for the medical check-up,” he said.

Then began the tribals’ long struggle for justice. The village rallied around to fight for the men in jail. “We sold our cows, pigs, our land, and whatever else we had that was of value. We raised whatever we could to help those who were in jail,” Madkami Linga, a village elder, said.

Muchaki Nanda, now 20, had to drop out of school after his father, Muchaki Mukka, was arrested. He had some education, so he became the village’s principal point of contact with the imprisoned men.

“I attended court hearings, went to meet my father and the others, and talked to the lawyer. I had no time left for studying any more,” Nanda said. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit and public transport stopped, he walked for three days to the central jail in Jagdalpur, 180 km away.

In September 2020, then Chhattisgarh DGP D M Awasthi wrote to Bastar IG P Sundarraj asking him to ensure a fair trial for those who had been arrested. The trial, which had been crawling, thereafter picked up pace. The case of the tribals was strengthened after 20 out of the 45 prosecution witnesses turned hostile in court. Finally, on July 15 this year, the NIA court in Dantewada acquitted 121 accused.

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“We got to know on July 16, a day after the order was passed. We were told that we would be allowed to leave the following day. After I was released, I borrowed some money and went straight to my home, only to find that my land and pigs had been sold. I have nothing left. My body has aged and become weak in these years, and farming seems too strenuous now,” Madkami Linga (42) said.

With both her parents gone, Hunga’s older daughter suffered an illness and turned into a paraplegic. Baman’s wife had died in 2015, and his children, then aged 8 and 6, left the village to fend for themselves in Geedam, 75 km away. “The older boy works after school to take care of his and his sibling’s needs. I don’t have anything to offer them,” Hunga said.

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There is disappointment over lost years and destroyed lives, but those who have been released do not want to blame anyone. “We are in no condition to hold grudges. At least we are alive. I am glad we finally got out, it thought I would die there,” Sodhi Linga said.

Human Rights activist Bela Bhatia, who legally represented some of the acquitted men, said: “There are several such cases where following an attack, local tribals are booked alongwith named Maoists. This case, in which 121 have been acquitted, underlines the draconian powers that UAPA gives the police, where one can be arrested merely on suspicion. Once arrested, they become embroiled in the complicated legal procedure, which takes time and resources to fight through. These people have managed to come out, but several others are still languishing in jails.”

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Bastar IG P Sundarraj said: “The case is not yet closed as over 139 named Maoists are absconding. We had arrested these people based on evidence that they were aiding a banned organisation. Once we get the certified copy of the order, we will take legal opinion on the future course of action. As of now, we are trying to nab the main culprits, the Maoists.”

First published on: 25-07-2022 at 03:47:14 am
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