An All-India fact-finding team of Civil, Democratic and Human Rights organisations visited the state of West Bengal during 12-15 January 2003. The purpose of the visit was to ascertain the facts and the context pertaining to the widespread allegations of violation of civil and democratic rights of the people of certain parts of the southern and northern districts of the state.
The organisations which were part of the team are Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC, Andhra Pradesh), Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR, West Bengal), Human Rights Forum (HRF, Andhra Pradesh), Organisation for Protection of Democratic Rights (OPDR, Andhra Pradesh), People’s Democratic Forum (PDF, Karnataka) and People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR, Delhi).
The team was divided into two. One visited the North Bengal districts of Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar, and the other visited the South Bengal districts of Midnapore West and Bankura.
The North Bengal districts have been witnessing a movement among the Kamatapuri or Rajbanshi people for the last six years. The movement has stressed the cultural and economic deprivation of the Rajbanshi community that is perceived as the original inhabitants of the North Bengal districts Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur, Malda and parts of Darjeeling. The movement has taken up the demand of protection of their cultural and linguistic identity, and expansion of the opportunities for economic development. It has also demanded the creation of a separate state. While these aspirations are widespread among the Rajbanshis, political organisations such as All Kamatapuri Students Union (AKSU), Kamatapuri People’s Party (KPP) and Kamatapuri Liberation Organisation (KLO) have been spearheading the political movement for their realisation. The first two are legally functioning organisations whereas KLO is an armed underground organisation. However even the KLO is not banned under any law.
The South Bengal districts have been witnessing agitations for fulfillment of basic needs. They are demanding payment of statutory minimum wages for agricultural and other labour, increase in the prices of minor forest produce collected by them. They are also demanding provision of electricity, drinking water, communications, educational and health rights, and right to land and forest resources. These agitations are being organised by Majur Kisan Sangram Samiti (MKSS) and Gana Pratirodh Manch (GPM).
While these agitations whether in the northern or the southern districts arise from genuine needs and felt dissatisfaction of the oppressed masses, the police and the administration in general are making an excuse of extremism and extremist violence to come down upon the agitations of the people with a brutal hand, violating all civil and human rights on an extensive scale in the process. We give below the nature of these violations with a few telling examples in each case. These examples which we have gathered in the course of our visit are only illustrative and not exhaustive.
Invoking Severe Penal Charges:
In both the areas we found that the police are registering First Information Reports (FIRs) under the most severe penal provisions of the Indian Penal Code, including sections 121, 121A, 122, 123 and 124A. These provisions pertain to ‘waging war against the state’, ‘gathering arms to wage war against the state’, ’conspiring with foreign countries to wage war against the Indian state’, etc. These offences are punishable with life imprisonment and even the death penalty. While we do not wish to deny that incidents of violence have taken place in the course of these agitations, it is ridiculous to equate them with waging war against India. The courts have repeatedly held that these provisions can be invoked only where there is an organised armed challenge to the very authority of the Indian state. It is nothing short of an abuse of power to claim that such is the nature of the agitations referred to above. Evidently these provisions are being invoked to impress upon the courts that the accused should be shown no leniency even in the matter of grant of bail. The poor peasants and labourers who are jailed under such provisions that carry the penalty of death are also likely to be terrorised into giving up their agitation for just demands, whether it is minimum wages or protection of their language and culture. Such a method of breaking the hopes and aspirations of the common people is condemnable.
Defeating Bail Orders:
We are told that the Left Front government ruling West Bengal has declared its intention not to use preventive detention laws in the state. That is laudable, but what we have found is that the administration has devised a very effective substitute for preventive detention, namely rearresting persons released on bail or issuing fresh FIRs as soon as they are enlarged on bail, thereby keeping them in remand for periods longer than permissible under any preventive detention law. In North Bengal we have found many persons who are in jail for more than two years without being charge-sheeted in any case by virtue of rearrest and timely issuance of fresh FIRs. For example, Nurma Das of Changmari in Jalpaiguri district was arrested in one offence, rearrested as soon as he was released on bail for another offence and further shown as accused in two more offences. Needless to say, all these offences are under sections 121 to 124A IPC. Due to the experience of one rearrest he is scared to take bail again, and so continues to be in detention. We found that a large number of youth who have been granted bail are not signing the bail bond because they are afraid of rearrest outside the jail gates. For this reason, hundreds are languishing in jail even though not a single chargesheet has been filed. An instance from the South is Ksitish Mahato from Paluboni village of Midnapore West district, who was rearrested twice after being granted bail. The High Court of Calcutta, in CRM no. 3086/2001, took note of this widespread abuse and commented as follows:
’In these circumstances with a heavy heart we are constrained to direct the learned public prosecutor to produce a complete list of the cases registered in all the police stations of North Bengal for similar offences where petitioners were wanted or shown arrested from time to time or are likely to be arrested or wanted in future or the petitioners might have already been shown to have been arrested. We can not tolerate that our orders for bail should be frustrated in this manner by arresting the petitioners from the jail gate soon after they are sought to be released’.
Unfortunately this sharp comment made by the High Court of Calcutta as far back as 10-9-2001 has not taught any lesson to the administration of the state. They have gone to the Supreme Court challenging the High Court order and are continuing with the objectionable practice which is nothing but an abuse of the process of the penal law. The consequence is that on a rough estimate, about 350 Rajbanshis are in jail, in the prisons at Jalpaiguri, Alipurdwar, Coochbehar, Toofanganj and Mathabhanga for prolonged periods without being charge-sheeted in a single case. The same is the situation in Midnapore, Alipore, Jhargram and Bankura jails in the South with regard to the poor peasants and agricultural labourers detained there.
Roping in a Number of People in Conspiracy Charges:
The police are using the penal provision of criminal conspiracy (Sec. 120-B, IPC) to rope in a large and unspecified number of people into offences which may have been committed by two or three persons, thereby jailing them and depriving them of their liberty. In North Bengal, on the night of 27-11-2000, a total of 39 FIRs were booked in a number of police stations. The FIRs have an identical text accusing the persons named therein of ’conspiring to wage war against India’ and of having conspired to commit certain other offences for which separate FIRs were already booked and people arrested. This batch of FIRs was in fact the starting point of mass arrests of sympathisers of KPP and other persons of the Rajbanshi community. Since the list of accused in these FIRs was left open-ended, others who were not named in the FIRs are being arrested and shown as offenders in these cases to this day. This is nothing but a mass deprivation of the right of liberty by arbitrary and illegal means. In one instance from the South, similarly, about 486 persons were accused of the murder of Ramapada Majhi, a local leader of the CPI-M, and arrested from different places across the districts of Midnapore West and Bankura.
Abuse of Rights in the Course of Arrest:
The power given by the law to the police to arrest a person accused of a cognisable offence is being widely abused to humiliate and terrorise people, and to destroy their household property and livelihood. Chanchala Sardar’s house in Banshpahari of Midnapore West was gutted during a police raid. In the Northern district of Jalpaiguri, Narendranath Burman of Shuripara was accused of sheltering KLO militants. In the course of arresting him the police not only severely beat him but also broke his bicycle, burnt the mattresses and woollen garments in the house and also burnt the documents relating to his land. They cut down 40 areca nut (supari) trees that yield him an annual income of Rs 8000. From the house of Bidubhusan Mahato, a 75-year old man of Paluboni village in Midnapore West district, the police looted cash and potato bonds (for 80 quintals of potatoes).
The police of the state are supplemented by the CRPF, the Eastern Frontier Rifles (ERF) and the Rapid Combat Force (RCF). These heavily armed forces are creating terror in the villages.
Assaults on Women:
In the course of raids on houses and search and seizure, the police and armed forces are regularly humiliating women. Behula Kalindi, a 35-year old woman of Pachapani village in Midnapore West district, was humiliated by the SP of Bankura during a midnight raid in which more than 40 police vans were used. She was beaten severely and has lost the use of her fingers. She was hesitant to recount the humiliation she suffered at the hands of the SP. Archana Mahato, the wife of Anjan Mahato of Paluboni village in Midnapore district, was arrested after throwing her one-and-a-half-year-old child from her lap. Two policemen stripped her and dragged her by her breasts to the police van.
Police Hand-in-Glove with the Ruling Party:
We found a number of instances of the police working hand-in-glove with the CPI-M, the main constituent of the ruling Left Front. Chanchala Sardar’s husband Lochu Sardar was taken into custody in connection with the murder of Sudhir Singh, a local CPI-M leader. When she went to the police station to get her husband released, the police asked her to first obtain a certificate from the local CPI-M leadership to confirm that her husband had no connections with the Peoples War (PW). In Paloiboni village in Midnapore West district, people revealed that at the time of polling people have to show the stamped ballot paper to a local CPI-M worker before casting it in the ballot box. Any villager who resists this illegal rule faces instant retaliation. In Midnapore villages we heard that the land deeds given to the people by the government are kept in the custody of the local CPI-M leaders, and that people can use it only if they are obedient to the leaders. In the Northern districts we heard repeated complaints that activists and sympathisers of the KPP are being pressurised by the police to leave that party and work for the CPI-M. Not only ordinary cadre but also the general secretary of the Jalpaiguri district committee of the KPP, Dhirendranath Roy, who was arrested and rearrested and kept in jail for nine months, was pressurised by the police to join the CPI-M. As a consequence of this assault on the political freedom of the Rajbanshi community in favour of the CPI-M, practically all but a handful of the top leadership of the KPP are absconding from the villages, if not already arrested.
Conditions in Prisons:
We spoke to the prisoners lodged in Midnapore jail. They said that there is no access to newspapers and books for undertrials, they are not permitted to freely discuss their political views and activities. This is an unacceptable violation of the freedom of expression and information. The prisoners also complained of poor conditions of health and hygiene. They complained that visitors who come to visit prisoners are forced to pay bribes to the prison staff, and are harassed by the police in the name of interrogation. Though the prisoners of Midnapore jail went on hunger strike demanding improvement in prison conditions and the status of political prisoners and at that time the SDO of Midnapore promised that their demands will be looked into within a week, nothing has happened till now. In North Bengal Kalidas Roy of Bagribari village of Coochbehar district was murdered in Makhliganj prison on 31-1-2002. He was a KPP activist. The prison authorities and the police have accused a fellow KPP prisoner of the murder, but the local people suspect foul play and are demanding an impartial inquiry.
Killing alleged militants in the name of encounters is a very common practice of the police and armed forces all over the country. These are allegedly instances where the police have killed in self-defence but no investigation is ever conducted to verify the claim. Our team has noted that nine persons were killed in North Bengal in 2002 in the name of encounters, and one person was killed in South Bengal. In two of the North Bengal cases we have sufficient information to suspect prima facie that the victims were first taken into custody and then killed. Baripada Roy and Kalyan Roy of Dhupguri in Jalpaiguri district were taken into custody at the very same place and killed on 25-8-2002 within the police station limits of Matabhanga in Coochbehar district. On 14-5-2002, Nitai Sarkar was intercepted by army personnel on the outskirts of Siliguri, Darjeeling district, and killed almost instantly. In the South, Subash Karmakar, a 25-year old activist from Baragarrah village in Bankura district, was killed after he surrendered to the police in Metala forest. Such killing by the police in self-proclaimed self-defence is nothing but a violation of the right to life unless there is an independent investigation into the claim and a competent court goes into the justification. For this reason the National Human Rights Commission issued a circular in March 1997 addressed to all state governments directing that every encounter must be treated as a case of culpable homicide and should be investigated by an agency independent of the local police. No state government is following this direction, and the state of West Bengal is no exception. No investigation has been held into any of the cases of ‘encounters’ referred to above. This amounts to giving the police the impunity to kill and get away with it.
This is only an overview of the violations of civil and democratic rights that we found in the course of our brief visit. We tried to meet the local officials to get their response. But the Superintendent of Police of Midnapore refused to meet us, and the Sub-Divisional Police Officer of Alipurdwar (Jalpaiguri district) refused to answer any of our questions. The Chief Secretary of the state refused to meet us even though we gave him three days’ notice. We condemn this attitude of the police and other officials.
The repression that we have described above appears to be aimed at suppressing the legitimate agitations and struggles of the concerned areas. The colour of maintaining law and order is assumed to camouflage this reality. The statement of the Chief Minister that he will suppress the ’mischievous propaganda’ of the PW and MCC who are ‘misleading the innocent and peace-loving people’ shows that the real concern is not violence as it is made out but alternative or dissenting politics which his government will suppress in total disregard of the people’s democratic rights.
In this background we place the following demands before the government of West Bengal:
1. The government should forthwith put a stop to the suppression of social, economic, cultural and political struggles. It should recognise these movements as the expression of the democratic aspirations and hopes of the people and deal with them democratically.
2. The role of the police should be confined exclusively to the prevention and investigation of cognisable offences by means that are within the limits of the basic civil and political rights of the people. The police should not under any conditions be used to suppress popular struggles.
3. All cases booked for alleged conspiracy to wage war against the state under sections 121 to 124-A IPC should be removed.
4. The practice of rearresting people released on bail or booking fresh cases as soon as they are released on bail should be given up and the view of the High Court of Calcutta should be strictly respected.
5. All cases of alleged encounters should be registered as cases of culpable homicide committed by policemen and should be investigated by an agency independent of the West Bengal police as directed by the National Human Rights Commission.
6. In view of the fact that many eminent public personalities of the state have condemned this repressive policy, we demand that the government should constitute a body of eminent social personalities to go into the issue and submit a report, which should be respected and given effect.
S.S.C. Bose, C.H.L.N. Murthy, Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC, Andhra Pradesh)
Dr K. Balagopal, G. Mohan, Human Rights Forum (HRF, Andhra Pradesh)
Prof N Babaiah, Dr GK Ramaswamy, People’s Democratic Forum (PDF, Karnataka)
R. Rama Kumar, P.P.R.V. Prasad, Organisation for Protection of Democratic Rights (OPDR, Andhra Pradesh)
Satyadeep, People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR, Delhi)
Amitadyuti Kumar,Tapas Chakraborty, Sitanshu S. Chakraborty, Tapas Bhattacharya, Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR, West Bengal
16th January 2003
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