When the state turns against its people in an attempt to break movements, it targets society’s most vulnerable segment – the youth. In the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, laws protecting juveniles are flouted daily. Recently, there has been a rise in the detention of juveniles – both male and female – in Bastar district.
Describing the situation of the strife-torn region in a report, lawyers from Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group wrote:
‘Once a person is arrested, the gradual process of dehumanization begins. His or her identity is stripped layer by layer till the individual is reduced to a mere file comprising of numbers – the prisoner number, the case number, the FIR number, the number of years in prison… Like any other government establishment, these files suffer significant wear and tear over the long course of being shelved; many are forgotten and simply gather dust. They only resurface during some odd event like a court hearing once in two or three months. Even at these points, the undertrials are nothing more than mere case numbers which need to be assigned yet more numbers, i.e. [the] date for the next hearing, and promptly forgotten immediately after.’
This explains the high number of undertrials in the overcrowded jails in the state.
Isha Khandelwal, one of the lawyers, was prompted to lodge the complaint over the harassment and ill-treatment of three juvenile adivasi (tribal) girls on 27 April 2015 from Sukma by the District Security Force and Special Task Force. As per the law, juveniles have to be produced before the Board within 24 hours of apprehension. Police picked up the three minor girls (two are 14 and the third is 16) from the Muria tribe and kept them overnight for interrogation in Kukanar police station, in Sukma district.
This was the fourth time in April that the police had detained juveniles illegally. There has been a marked increase in the number of juveniles being targeted by the state, opined a lawyer. Lawyers have been baffled by the abductions by plain-clothes police officers and officials from various security agencies as well as by the illegal detentions and random charges pressed against those arrested to delay release.
‘The police believe that any “fleeing tribal” is a Naxalite [a member of India’s Communist guerrilla group] and has something to hide. When the forces enter a village, naturally people flee. What do they expect them to do’? asked one human rights campaigner. In some juvenile cases, the names of the juveniles are leaked to the media. This is not legal, she explained.
On 16 May, 18-year-old Arjun Ram was returning to his village, Chandameta, from the market after selling his goats. Along the way, the pick-up truck he was travelling in stopped and Arjun got off to urinate. The truck left without him and he was forced to walk. Somewhere along the way, the police picked him up. Arjun’s father, Sulo Ram, received information that his son was being detained at a school in Koleng. This violates a Supreme Court order, which says that the forces cannot occupy school buildings. But this rule has not been observed in any conflict zone from Chhattisgarh to Kashmir.
At the school, the police told Sulo that they would release Arjun after questioning. By the time Sulo Ram returned the next morning, Arjun had already been moved to Netanar Chowki and then to Darbha police station.
The police have implicated Arjun in the Jeeram Ghati massacre of April 2014, at which time Arjun was a minor. On 20 May, the lawyers filed an application in court in Jagdalpur about Arjun’s illegal detention by the Darba police, his overnight detention in a school and how he was taken to Jagdalpur jail – which is for adults, not minors.
On 26 May, the court sent Arjun’s case to the Juvenile Board.
Meanwhile, another complaint about the three juvenile girls stated: ‘Juveniles should be kept near family members for proper care. The only observation home available for girl juveniles in Chhattisgarh is in Rajnandgaon, which is inaccessible for the families of juveniles in South Bastar. Also, owing to the conflict in the area, appearance of juveniles before the Board for their hearing is also infrequent, resulting in longer incarcerations, which are against the basic tenets of the Juvenile Justice laws enacted in our country.’
Lawyers in Bastar lamented how they have found courts locked and magistrates on leave after travelling the length and breadth of the district for their clients. ‘We rush to court anxious to see if the tribals have been beaten, tortured or simply killed, and then we find the court locked!’ said a young lawyer.
‘Such breach of juvenile rights in the procedural processes for adjudication, disposition and placement of children needs to be taken seriously. Such ill-treatment of these juveniles results in irreparable damage to [their] psychological and physical health.’