What made Gadchiroli adivasis protest?
Last week, adivasis from villages in Gadchiroli's Bhamragad taluka protested against misidentified arrests by police made after a Naxal-linked incident.
Somji Pusu Vidpi waited outside the Dhodraj police outpost in Bhamragad taluka in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district from February 23rd. All he wanted to know was what happened to his younger brother, Prakash Pusu Vidpi. On February 21st, Prakash, who is a college student, was arrested by the Dhodraj police in the middle of the night without any explanation.
Somji was among close to 1,000 adivasis who protested outside the police outpost, demanding the release of Prakash and several others arrested by the police citing Naxal ties. While the protest was called off by the adivasis on Sunday evening after the family members of those arrested were allowed to meet them, activists have pointed towards the grievous problem of increasing police presence and such arrests in Gadchiroli's Adivasi belt.
The current arrests were triggered by an incident that took place on January 21st, wherein some Naxalites had allegedly burned around 21 vehicles in the nearby village, where road construction is going on. It constituted a loss of around Rs 2 crore, as per the police. Apart from Prakash, Rakesh Mahaka, Somji Mahaka, Subhash Mahaka, Massu Mahaka, Dalsu Mahaka, Raju Micha and Ramji Pungati have been arrested at the moment in the case.
Naxals set on fire 11 tractors, 2 earthmoving machines engaged in road construction work in Maharashtra's Gadchiroli district: Police— Press Trust of India (@PTI_News) January 22, 2022
“Several of these people were working when the incident took place. In fact, Prakash, who is a first-year B.Com student at a college in Nagepalli, was not even in the village at the time. The police still arrested him. This has been happening here for years. Anything in connection with Naxals happens, the police come and arrest the tribals,” said Adv. Lalsu Soma Nogoti, activist and Gadchiroli Zilla Parishad member, alleging that the arrests are baseless.
“The incident took place on January 21st. On February 21st, exactly one month after the incident, police arrested some of our tribal villagers, slamming them with stringent laws like UAPA,” Nogoti said.
However, the police maintain that the arrests were not false. “We have made the arrests based on video evidence. We had proof that showed that it wasn’t just Naxals who burned the vehicles. The videos of the incident that have been released show all civilians present at the site. We believe that just one person, who is speaking in the video is a Naxalite. The investigation is in progress. Apart from Prakash, everyone else has even confessed to the crime,” PSI Rajesh Ghadge of Dhodraj police outpost said.
Recalling the day his brother was arrested, Somji said, “Prakash had just come back home after finishing his examinations, two days before he was arrested. Police just came to our house at 4 am and took him away. They did not even bother to tell us why they were arresting him.”
As far as Prakash’s arrest is concerned, Ghadge said, “Prakash Vidpi’s name was mentioned by someone in their statement by mistake, based on which he was arrested. After we interrogated him, we found out that he was not involved. When we realised this, we submitted a proposal to the Aheri Magistrate court for his release under section 169 of Criminal Procedure. However, we had charged him under UAPA. So the judge said that the proposal could not be processed at the Magistrates Court and it had to be forwarded to the Sessions Court.
However, while the discussion took place on Friday, the weekend and the subsequent court holiday on Monday and Tuesday on account of Shivratri, the hearing for Prakash’s release can only take place on Wednesday, March 2.
Prakash’s arrest has triggered action from the district authorities as well. “Primary investigation has shown that Prakash was innocent and his arrest was a mistake. So we have started the process for his release at the earliest. Prakash will be released soon. But the rest will be produced before court as per the due procedure,” Bhamragad Tehsildar Anmol Kamble said.
Credit: Lalsu Soma Nogoti/Facebook
While this case has received attention due to the obvious mistake of Prakash’s arrest, Nogoti says that such arrests are very common in the districts. “The number of adivasis that police arrested or killed here after independence is much more than even the British. Anyone who opposes police is labelled as a Naxal here. Our youth are killed in fake cases,” he said.
But Ghadge insists that nothing of that sort has happened in this case. “In fact, most of the vehicles that were burned in the January 21st incident belonged to other adivasis. Hardly a few were owned by big companies. Those whose vehicles were burned have also recognised those whom we have arrested. So this discussion, that we have been arresting tribals without any reason is not true. I don’t know about others, but I have been helping people since I got posted here in 2020,” he added.
Nogoti also added that every monsoon, during the Naxal Saptah in the area, several adivasi villagers are illegally detained by the police. “They call them ‘Jan Maitri Melava’. During the period when Naxal Saptah is organised, the police call the same people from the village every year and detain them at the police station for seven-eight days. They don’t call them detention though. They say these are the camps where police call the villagers to inform them about government schemes. Since when do police do that? It’s just an excuse to detain those who are more vocal against the police,” he says.
The activists have also pointed out the increasing number of police stations in the region. “No one here is asking for more police stations. However, at a distance of every 3-5 km, a new police station is being built or proposed. There is no need for police stations here. As per Article 244(1) in The Constitution of India, the government needs the approval of the Gram Sabha to open new police stations here. But police stations are forced upon us. Of course, it’s not for the tribals but for the capitalists and the multinational companies so that they cut down trees, dig our mountains and take away our resources safely,” Nogoti said.
The activists said that the police had met the protesters and assured them that those found to be innocent will be released. “Chargesheets have not yet been filed against anybody yet. So the police have it in their power to take people’s names out of the FIR. However, this has never happened here before,” Nogoti added.
“All that we want is to be treated like human beings. The government must understand the problems of existence and identity that the people here have been facing,” Nogoti added.