In Chhattisgarh, for more than three decades the government has been fighting a bloody battle with a leftist guerrilla group commonly referred to as Maoists. The mineral-rich areas of the state have attracted large corporations from all over India.
While the government quells all opposition to mining, some Maoists fight to keep industrialization out of the jungles. This battle drives a wedge between those who support the government and those who support the Maoists. These divisions are quiet, however, because if they took sides openly, they would risk the ire of the opposing party.
False arrests are just one tactic used to scare people from speaking out against government policies, according to Alok Shukla, the community organizer for Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, a cluster of nonprofit organizations working in the state. “The authorities are trying to ensure that the Maoists get as little support from the local population as possible,” he said.
Most of these cases need not be tried at all, said Gera. The courts reserve the right to dismiss them on the basis of inconsistencies in the first information report and the charge sheet filed by the police. In Narayan’s case, for example, the report, filed in February 2008, indicates he was arrested for possessing a bow and three arrows and being present in the jungles in the midst of a police gunbattle with Maoists. Al Jazeera America has seen the documents, which appear to be hastily handwritten notes.
But Narayan lives in those jungles. And it is common for Adivasis, India’s indigenous people, to use bows and arrows to hunt. Since the report does not say that he was wielding a gun or participating in the battle, the court could have dismissed the case or instructed the police to dig for more evidence before they booked a case.
But “courts won’t risk dismissing cases in these areas, for the fear of being termed pro-Maoist,” said a local lawyer who requested anonymity to avoid possible reprisals. “In other parts of the country, a case such as Narayan’s would hold no water, as it is weak in its details and evidence. In Bastar, such cases are abundant.”
Narayan’s account of that day differs significantly from the police version. He said he was sitting on a cane cot in his hut, sipping black tea when half a dozen paramilitary forces approached him. He said they shot two bullets in the air to scare his neighbors away and then informed him that he was being arrested for “anti-state activities” and being a Maoist supporter.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bastar in May and witnessed the signing of multimillion-dollar agreements for Ultra Mega Steel Plants and railway lines to aid those plants. According to Shukla, there has been an escalation in such arrests since then, although official figures are not available.
Gera’s phone is constantly busy with calls from all over Bastar from people seeking her help for what they say are false arrests. “We can’t take on all the cases, even though they are equally important,” she said. “We are happy on the days when we get less than half a dozen distress phone calls.”
The local people have been forest dwellers, and the forest is their main source of livelihood. “Locals are with the Maoists in this. We do not want industry that would destroy our livelihoods and render us unemployed,” said a resident of Rowghat, in eastern Bastar, speaking on condition of anonymity because he fears he would be targeted by the government for speaking out.
Bastar’s inspector general has not responded to Al Jazeera America’s questions and interview requests.