Image Source: rediff
Around 15 days back, Soni Sori was in the limelight because this Adivasi school teacher turned political leader in Sameli village of Dantewada in south Bastar, Chattissgar, had been intimidated by three unknown men on a motorcycle on her way back to Jagdalpur to Dantewada. Corrosive material was smeared on her face.
An important incident to be noted here was the evacuation of lawyers, human rights activists, and media persons who were trying to cover the incidents, under Operation Eviction. The reason cited was that they were instrumental in aiding the Maoists under the garb of providing a helping hand to the Adivasis wrongly accused of aiding the Maoists. Among those evicted were lawyers Shalini Gera and Isha Khandewal from Legal Aid Group Jagdalpur (JAGLAG). Another member of this aid group is Parijata Bhardwaj, a 27 year crusader for the rights of the Adivasis.
Where Parijata Comes From
Having pursued her legal studies from SYMBIOSIS, Pune, Parijata had the option of joining a law firm and earning a handsome salary. However, something else drove her – the arrest of Soni Sori and her nephew Lingaran Kopodi on charges of ferrying extortion money between the Essar Group and Maoists. Arrested in Delhi, Sori was brought to Chhattisgarh and tortured in jail. However, the charges were unfounded and she was released for the lack of evidence in April 2013. It was then that human rights lawyers felt the acute need for a formalized legal aid in this area. “This [need] was born out of a realisation that the justice system in Bastar is dominated by a ‘security-minded’ approach,” says PUCL’s Bharadwaj.
Therefore, Parijata opted to earn a Master’s in Social Work in Dalit and Tribal Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and serve the Adivasis in this area. She did not want to get used to the exorbitant lifestyle her colleagues were leading. Her father is an ex-army man and is well aware of the excesses sometimes perpetuated by security forces in sensitive areas. Therefore, when she decided to come to their aid, he was the one who understood why she chose this vocation.
The Legal System In Jagdalpur and Dantewada
In the districts of Jagdalpur and Dantewada, the only time the accused walked out of jail was when they were acquitted. There is no concept of bail. The National Crime Records Bureau notes that the acquittal rate in Dantewada stood at 95.7% between 2005 and 2012. If there is no sufficient evidence of their crimes, then what is the reason behind keeping them behind bars for sometimes more than 5 years? This is what compelled Parijata to answer her calling in life, “I knew this was what I wanted. If I’d let this opportunity go, I’d have always regretted it.”
Indeed, the legal system is in shambles in this area. Instead of being an instrument to serve justice, it has become a system of penalizing the innocent. There is an absence of any normal Penal Code cases. The Adivasis are innocent of crimes such as theft, robbery, sexual assault, rapes, etc. Such cases are common elsewhere. Most of the charges were those of unlawful assembly to attempt murder and the Arms Act. There is no concept of bail, with the accused walking out of the jail only after they are acquitted. This is in stark contrast to the practice in the rest of the country where bail is granted to the accused much before their acquittal.
In a lot of cases, the witnesses, mostly policemen, would not turn up for any hearing for years and the legal system allows this to go on. The long periods of detention bore out the strength of the state while the defence lawyers often protested half-heartedly. In a lot of cases, the accused lost all touch with their families by the time they are acquitted, a phenomenon apathetically dismissed by a judge stating, ‘If you have no one left, you may as well stay on in jail.’
If the urgency of medical examination is stated on the fear of torture marks being erased, that too, falls on deaf ears. Sometimes, the presence of iron in the waters of Bastar is provided as the reason for the “hot-headedness” of the Adivasis. Even after mortgaging their lands to bear the cost of the legal process, many are not attended properly to, This despite the government ruling that the lower income groups and weaker sections of society have to be provided with free legal aid.
Role of JAGDAL
It is here that JAGDAL plays an important role. When Parijata interacted with the women of the remote villages, she had this surprising revelation: ‘The women were very clear — they had to fight. Remaining silent any longer was not an option.’ The legal aid group of which she is a part has compelled the public prosecutors to act fast, forcing the witnesses to appear.
There were challenges of course. A resolution was soon passed by the Jagdalpur Bar that lawyers from outside would not be allowed. JAGLAG had to go to the state bar to get a stay. Personally, Parijata faced lewd comments when she went to the cinema without dupattas, but like her peers, Parijata was undaunted. She continued with her social and legal service without any fear of being labelled as pro-Naxalite.
However, The Logical Indian community is concerned that if the situation goes on unchecked, all such legal cases will soon deteriorate into oblivion. “Until there’s a strong local movement supporting the Adivasis, outsiders can do only so much,” Parijata says in frustration. It is up to us to circulate such news around so as to bring it to the notice of the higher-ups in the legislative and legal system. Only then will the works of selfless human activists like Parijata will truly bear the desired fruits.
We laud the hard work, sense of selfless service to humanity and fearlessness with which Parijata and her peers are working to bring a ray of hope to this otherwise secluded area! At the same time, we urge our countrymen to come forward and take up their cause. After all, there is a difference between fighting the Naxalites and wrongly accusing and penalizing the innocents! It is a blot on democracy.