Gadchiroli/Nagpur: It was only the story of ‘Naxalite surrenders’ reported in local newspapers of Gadchiroli that made ‘Wire’ pick up this story that shows how Maharashtra police in far flung areas of Vidarbha play with the lives of the simple unsuspecting tribals.
Ironically, the police thought it would be a ‘win – win’ situation for this man and his family. They – the police – would get credit for reforming a Naxal and he would get Rs. 2 lakhs for ‘coming back to the fold’. Only condition being – he would have to stay locked up for two months and be ready to be labeled a terrorist – a Naxalite.
Well, Dasharath Gawde and his wife Sunita did not agree to this and fought their way through. This is their story:
Gadchiroli itself is where forest cover begins and urban Maharashtra ends. The 110-kilometre drive from Gadchiroli district to the village Lawari on the Kurkheda tehsil is on a tricky road, the last part of it being just mud. Can easily become inaccessible in monsoons.
But the remoteness of this area did not deter the villages from taking on the state’s most powerful police unit – the anti-Naxal cell – when 27- year old Dasharath Gawade, a tribal from the Gond community, was picked up after a “Naxal surrender” on December 15, 2017. The surrender was organised by the district’s C-60 commandos (the Maharashtra police’s special anti-Naxal unit) and Gawade was kept in illegal confinement for 65 days.
Gawade’s wife, Sunita, didn’t let the matter go. She says the so-called surrender was clearly illegal and moved the magistrate’s court, which agreed. In possibly the first instance of the kind, on February 17, magistrate N.C. Borphalkar of Judicial Magistrate First Class (JMFC) court in Gadchiroli ordered Gawade’s immediate release.
On December 22, almost all the local media in Gadchiroli had written about the ‘major feat’ of the district police in getting the “senior Naxalite” Gawade’s decision to “voluntarily surrender” before the ‘screening-cum-rehabilitation committee’ headed by the district collector Shekhar Singh. This was eight days after his actual detention. Gawade, according to the Gadchiroli police’s Naxal cell, was involved in an armed movement between 2012 to 2015 and had participated in at least “two fire exchanges”. His “disillusionment” and the “police’s sustained follow-up” had made Gawade take this decision, the police had claimed.
The fake surrender
On December 15, 2017, when a team of 10 men dressed in casual clothes, knocked on his door at 5.30 am little did Dashrath suspect what was in store for him.
“They identified themselves as C60 (commandos) and two of them claimed to be from the nearby Purada police station. They called it a routine inquiry and asked me to come along to Gadchiroli police headquarters. They said I would be released by 3 pm the same day,” Gawade said. “But, I knew that if I go with the police, I am never returning home again.”
The police officials did not mention any reason for singling him out, nor did he go to the police station voluntarily. He was not charged with anything, just dragged to the police station. Gawade said he resisted his detention. As the police began dragging him, Sunita clung on to her husband and demanded that she be taken along too.
“I did not let the police enter the house. I was afraid they would plant something and later call it an evidence against my husband. When they tried to forcibly take my husband away, I insisted they take me along too. I began howling, and fearing commotion, they let me come along,” Sunita says.
On reaching the Gadchiroli police headquarters, Sunita was stopped at the entrance and Gawade was ushered into a room, which Sunita says looked like an “enquiry room”. “They asked me to return home and get his ration card and Aadhaar card. I kept insisting that they tell us the cause for his detention. The police would not respond. Then at around 2 pm, we were told he would be shown as a surrendered Naxal,” Sunita recalls.
Police tried to coerce a confession
Soon after the fake surrender, the torture, both physical and mental began.
“I was kept confined in a dingy room for two months. They would question me for hours about my Naxal connections. When I told them I was innocent, they beat me severely,” Gawade told The Wire, four days after his release.
The Atmasamarpan scheme for Naxals
Surrendering, or as the state government calls it, ‘Aatmasamarpan’, of a Naxal is a long-drawn-out process. As per this scheme, launched in 2005, a person, who has been involved directly, or has indirectly supported the arms movement, gets a ‘chance’ to return to normal life on undergoing rehabilitation at the police’s camp for two months, and spending the next 10 months outside the village limits. The surrendered person is paid Rs 4.5 lakh as a reward, in instalments, for this decision. In the past decade or so, the state has allotted a large sum for this programme, along with separate central funds, and over 700 armed rebels have surrendered “voluntarily”, as per official claims. The state home department recently approved extension of the ‘Aatmasamarpan’ scheme for Naxals till August 2019.
It is now emerging that police, instead of going after real Naxalites are targeting villagers for this ‘scheme’.
The villagers are vouching for it. Every villager that the Wire reporter spoke to confirmed, that he had never left the village for more than a day or two, leave alone enter an armed movement and live in the forest for three years.
Gawade lives with his wife and a 10-month old girl child in his family home in Lawari village. The eldest of four sons, Dasharath is responsible for tilling the four-acre farm family land and sells the produce in a local market. He has hardly left the village for a day or two in the past; so there is no question of his having gone to the forest and becoming a trained Naxal.
Sunita fights for her husband’s innocence alone
Sunita says at the superintendent of police (SP) Abhinav Deshmukh’s office, they kept tempting her with money.
“They said, I will become a lakhpati (millionaire) overnight, if I stayed quiet.” The police, Sunita claims, asked her and other villagers to “cooperate” and let Gawade be at the camp for two months. “I could have chosen to stay quiet, take lakhs of rupees, let my husband return after a year and lead a contented life. But I also knew this came at the cost of my dignity and a permanent blot on my husband’s character. I did not want that to happen to us at any cost,” Sunita says emphatically. Outside the police headquarters, with her husband in some sort of police custody without any legal reason, she decided she would fight back.
“The police insisted I hand over my husband’s identification documents. I did not yield to their pressure. I took my in-laws and other villagers in confidence and told them we had to together foil their (the police’s) nefarious plan.” While Sunita went on meeting local leaders and then lawyers in Gadchiroli and Nagpur, her husband remained clueless of the efforts she was making. “Before leaving from Gadchiroli (police headquarters), I told my husband, I will get him out soon and that he should have faith in me. That was the last time I spoke to him in those two months,” Sunita recalls. From December 15- 21, the police did not declare Gawade’s detention and on December 22, they called for a press conference and spun a story around his voluntary surrender, and this was widely carried in the media in the area.
A tricky case, says Gawde’s lawyer
Gawade’s lawyer Jagdish Meshram says it was a tricky case. “Sunita was ready to fight, but we had no clue if the police would be able to break Dashrath’s spirit. He was after all kept in a confinement for two months with no contact with his family members or with anyone in the outer world.” Unlike the usual process of filing a habeas corpus in the high court, Meshram moved the JMFC court in Gadchiroli under section 97 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Since this section is most commonly used in cases of child’s custody in matrimonial discord cases, the police considered this as a feeble attempt by Sunita and her lawyer. “They are usually alert when we move the high court and come prepared. Extra care is taken to cover up. But since we moved the magistrate court, the police took it lightly. And this worked in our favour,” Meshram claims.
On February 17, the magistrate ordered Gawade’s immediate release and concluded he was kept under illegal confinement for 64 days. This was done after Gawade told the court he was detained against his will. “I did not surrender to the police. I was never involved in any Naxal activities,” Gawade had told the court during his examination.
The court observed, “It is clear that the stay and observance of Dashrath seems to be confinement. So, he deserves to be released forthwith. Hence, I pass the following order in the interest of justice.”
Since then the police officers concerned have not responded to Wire’s queries claiming they were away for ‘training’.
Villagers are still apprehensive about what is in store for them. A battle has been won, but the war against them is still on…