HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS BEATEN IN POLICE CUSTODY
Kopa Kunjam, an activist and Alban Toppo, an advocate with the Human Rights Law Network were called on by the Bairamgargh police on the 10th of December, Human Rights Day, for ‘interrogation’ and were eventually kept in the police station overnight. By morning, a severely-beaten Alban Toppo was released and Kopa Kunjam was booked for murder of a man whose life he had tried to save.
Kopa Kunjam himself was mercilessly beaten and ‘requested’ to leave the Gandhian-NGO Vanvasi Chetna Ashram that has been working in Dantewada and Bijapur District for over seventeen years on healthcare, education and watershed development. Recently, the VCA has been active in exposing state brutalities and the violations of the human rights of the people of Bastar. By the ruling of the Supreme Court, they have also undertaken the rehabilitation of the villagers who had been displaced by the Salwa Judum-Maoist civil war.
Kopa Kunjam worked for the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram for over thirteen years and was involved in the Right To Food and the anti-liquor campaign. He had helped to organize over 750 rural health workers called Mitanins who form the backbone of the rural healthcare infrastructure of Bastar.
Since the inception of the Salwa Judum, Kopa Kunjam has worked for the procurement of the basic rights of the Adivasis. He had worked to collect evidence and testimonies during the Singaram encounter that left fifteen tribals dead on the 8th of January of 2009, and on the Matwada Salwa Judum camp case, where three tribals were killed right in front of the police station on the 18th of June, 2008. At Matwada, the police claimed the tribals were killed by the Maoists and their bodies were left in front of the police station. Witnesses and family members claimed they were murdered in cold-blood by the police themselves.
Kopa Kujam was instrumental in motivating the widows of the deceased to lodge complaints in the respective police stations. None of the complaints were lodged as FIRs.
Kopa Kunjam was also instrumental in the rehabilitation of the IDPs of the village of Lingagiri and Basaguda. He acted as a human shield volunteer for the returning villagers who were at risk from both warring parties – the Salwa Judum and the Maoists. He helped to act as the civil administration when there wasn’t any – considering he’d often take the complaints of the villagers to the respective departments – we need ration, we need bus services, we need our handpump repaired. Both Basaguda and Lingagiri are on the frontlines. On one end, there’s a police camp, on another end, there’s the alleged ‘liberated zone.’ There hasn’t been a single casualty amongst the villagers of Basaguda and Lingagri. They are relatively, free from violence.
Yet with the initiation of Operation ‘Tribal’ Hunt, the violence augments elsewhere and Kopa Kunjam would again be involved in bringing the victims of violence into the legal and constitutional fold. The Vanvasi Chetna Ashram has already filed more than 600 complaints regarding arson, theft, rape and murder. The Supreme Court has accepted the Writ Petition of the recent victims of violence from the villages of Goompad and Gachanpalli and have issued a notice to the Chhattisgarh government. Advocate Alban Toppo was also involved in providing legal help to the Adivasis of Bastar.
‘How many complaints we have lodged, how many times we go to court and how many times we go to burnt villages and what happens? Nothing! Nothing ever happens.’ Said Kopa Kunjam, during a visit to a village that was attacked in April of 2009.
‘No one is above the law.’ – is what the Director General Of Police Vishwaranjan had to say, regarding the arrest of Kopa Kunjam on Human Rights Day.
Kopa Kunjam was arrested for the murder of Punem Honga of Hirapur who was abducted by the Maoists on the 2nd of June, and subsequently killed. Kopa Kunjam was nowhere near the site of the abduction but was with another man Nagesh Jadi of Hirapur who was abducted on the same day as he was traveling with Kopa Kunjam.
While Nagesh Jadi was eventually released unharmed, Punem Honga who was involved with the Salwa Judum was killed. Kopa Kunjam himself was almost killed by the Salwa Judum at that time for they thought he was involved in the abduction. In fact, Kopa Kunjam was the first to lodge a complaint with the police about the abduction and along with the director of the NGO, Himanshu Kumar, had gone into the jungle to make their own inquiries about the abductions of the two men. Yet their frantic inquiries led them nowhere.
And as they were in the jungle, certain SPOs and members of the Salwa Judum announced that they would be killed if the Maoists do not release the two men. Unknowingly, both members of the VCA would be vetted out punishment for the crimes committed by the Maoists. However, the police of the adjoining camp had warned them about the intentions of the Salwa Judum and both Kopa Kunjam and Himanshu Kumar manage to escape into Andhra Pradesh, while other VCA volunteers were beaten.
Kopa would however have one more confrontation with the police. On the 3rd of August, on the way to his home at Aalnar, he was questioned and beaten up by a contingent of police on a combing operation. His mother who had run out to protect him, was also manhandled.
‘The arrest and harassment of the only people working for peace in the area is a clear cut message by the state that it doesn’t want peace.’ Says Vanvasi Chetna Ashram director, Himanshu Kumar, whose own life is said to be in danger.
Meanwhile, the Salwa Judum has also taken out a rally on Human Rights Day against the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, where the following slogans were heard: ‘Himanshu ko maro’, ‘Himanshu bhagao, Bastar bachao’, ‘VCA ke karyakarta bhagao, Dantewada Bachao’ and ‘maro salon ko.’
On the very same day, six gangrape victims were meant to depose before a judge at Dantewada district court, where Salwa Judum leaders and SPOs stand accused. The victims were not able to make it to the court.
The Salwa Judum also held a press conference where they had called for the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram to be shut down for they believe they are Maoist sympathizers.
‘What Maoist sympathizer? I’m a tribal sympathizer and sympathizer is a weak expression!’ responds Himanshu Kumar, who is busy trying to organize a Padyatra that is meant to be held on the 14th of December. At the same time, a group of 39 activists who were meant to join him at the Padyatra were repeatedly stopped by the police at Kanker district from proceeding towards Dantewada. At first they were told there was a problem with the documents of their private vehicles and could not be allowed to go any further. And when the activists got onto buses, the buses were stopped. They were eventually detained, allegedly for their own safety by the police and only released once they decided to return to Raipur.