Field Notes: Breaking The Will To Demand Justice

MOHAMMAD SARTAJ ALAM

Five years after they were wrongfully incarcerated for the Naxal ambush that killed 25 soldiers on 24 April 2017 in Chhattisgarh's Sukma district, 121 Adivasis were set free by an NIA court that found no evidence they were involved. After travelling to Burkapal village to meet some of those released, I found these men of the Gond tribe had returned to further impoverishment, broken families and illness. What struck me was how crushed they seemed, too discouraged to demand accountability and compensation from the state that had robbed them of five years of their life and was responsible for their dramatically reduced circumstances. 

While the men needed help to support themselves and their families, they didn't think they mattered enough for the state to take notice. Poor and crippled by a lack of education, they cannot contemplate mounting a legal battle. At the mercy of the state and vulnerable to its excesses, they were just grateful to have been released for a crime they did not commit. And they were terrified of being picked up in another case by the police. 

While I was speaking with 25-year-old Madkam Hunga, recently released from the central jail in Jagdalpur, some men came to call him to a village meeting to discuss the release of the wrongfully incarcerated and how much everyone had paid in legal costs, selling off land and livestock to find money to do it. 

At the meeting, I asked some recently released men whether they would see compensation from the government. They remained silent. 

A colleague told me that the village elders were telling them not to answer such questions from reporters, and if they had to, they should do it after the meeting was over. Speaking in a hushed tone after the meeting, the men said it would be good to get some monetary help from the government to buy bullocks and start farming again, but they did not want a legal fight on their hands. 

I tried again. 

I asked if they were not angry at the state for robbing them of five years of their life when they were innocent. They persisted in their silence.

Things became more evident to me when I asked them about the future. The men replied they didn't want to challenge the state because another arrest would destroy their shattered families. 

And so, when I spoke with the Chhattisgarh home minister Tamradhwaj Sahu the next day, and he said he did not know about the Burkapal incident, I was momentarily at a loss for words. 

You can read Mohammad Sartaj Alam's full story here

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