This blog is to chronicle the illegal detention of Kopa Kunjam, a tribal activist in Chhattisgarh, and work towards securing his release.
© Javed Iqbal
Kopa Kunjam is an adivasi youth leader working with Vanvasi Chetana Ashram (VCA) for the past 13 years for justice, peace and democratic rights in the tribal villages of Dantewada and Bijapur in the Dandakaranya forest area of Chhahttisgarh.
Kopa was involved in the Right-to-Food and anti-liquor campaigns. He had helped organize over 750 rural health workers who form the backbone of the rural healthcare infrastructure of Bastar. He was also working to implement the 2008 Supreme Court order calling for full compensation and rehabilitation of displaced adivasis from their homes and lands. He acted as a human shield volunteer for the returning villagers who were at risk from both warring parties – the Salwa Judum and the Maoists.
Since 2005, Kopa, along with Himanshu Kumar, has been chronicling the killings, rape and loot by Salwa Judum, and human rights violations by Chhattisgarh police. His work has therefore invited the ire of Chhattisgarh government and on 10 December 2009, he was detained and subsequently incarcerated by Chhattisgarh government and falsely charged with the murder of a Salwa Judum activist Punem Honga.
Chronology of the witch hunt by Chhattisgarh police:
20 April, 2009:
Some survival rations were being carried in a jeep by Kopa to one of the villages rehabilitated by VCA as part of the Right-to-Food Campaign in the Bastar region. The jeep was stopped at 1:30pm at the Bijapur Forest Check Post by the Town Police officer, instead of a Forest Department officer.
“Since the ration is being carried on free distribution basis to the villagers and not on commercial, it is directly taken to VCA for documentation, but if you insist I’ll ask them to bring you the receipt right away. Moreover, the SP and Collector have already sealed positively on our written application on informing the same.” said the Campaign Co-ordinator Kopa Kunjam on being questioned regarding the receipt.
The Inspector still went on to seize 1200kg of rice, 50lr. of edible oil and a bag of salt on the SP’s order over the phone. The receipt was brought within 2 hours of being stopped, while the ration was anyway seized and Kopa was told to go to the Civil Court of Bijapur District in order to release the goods.
17 May, 2009 (6.30 AM):
About 50 CRPF Jawans arrived and took positions around VCA’s premises. After a while, some 500 security personnel and sub-divisional magistrate Ankit Anand had arrived. Kopa Kunjam, an employee of the ashram, asked the magistrate for the letter granting permission from the Gram Sabha authorising the demolition. The Magistrate blatantly ignored this imperative procedure and ordered the demolition to proceed by 8 am.
2 June, 2009 (evening):
Kopa Kunjam the rehabilitation coordinator of the VCA was returning from Basaguda camp on his motorbike. He had as pillion Nagesh Jhari, Panchayat Secretary of Dharmapur village and Punem Honga, the Deputy Sarpanch of Dharmapur. They were both abducted by the Maoists in front of Kopa, who was allowed to go free. The Panchayat Secretary and the Deputy Sarpanch had both been members of Salwa Judum.
3 June, 2009:
Himanshu lodged a report with the local police station. He told his family and colleagues and also called Rajendra Sail that he was proceeding with Kopa to Lingagiri. Then on the 5th of June, came the following message from Himanshu “Trapped in Lingagiri village. Kopa and me will be either jailed or or killed by Salwa judum if both those abducted are not released. Rehabilitated villagers too in panic. Whole rehabilitation process in Danger, May revert. Himanshu”. Salwa Judum at that time thought Kopa was involved in the abductions. Certain SPOs and members of the Salwa Judum announced that they would be killed if the Maoists do not release the two men.
6 June, 2009 (early morning):
Kopa and Himanshu managed to escape Lingagiri on a motorcycle, through dense forests, all the way upto Bhadrachalam, AP, 250 kms away from Dantewada.
3 August, 2009 (around 6.30 PM):
Kopa’s house in Aalnar was raided by CRPF. They searched his house without any papers of such search and then asked Kopa to show them the way to Dantewada and to come along upto the nearby river. When Kopa reached near the river with CRPF group they started beating him with rifle butts and slapped him from all sides. They threatened him to quit VCA immediately. His mother who had run out to protect him, was also manhandled. Kopa filed a complaint against the attack in Bilaspur.
10 December, 2009:
The Chhattisgarh police whisked away Kopa, and a young lawyer of Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), Alban Topo, who was working on the Right to Food ongoing case in the Supreme Court and was then visiting Dantewada, violating India’s Supreme Court guidelines issued in the D. K. Basu vs State of West Bengal case and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which India is a state party. Article 9 of the ICCPR guarantees the right to liberty, which includes freedom from arbitrary detention.
The two were not informed by the police as to why they were being detained and where they were being taken. Alban was brutally beaten up in over 18 hours of illegal detention and released by the police in deep interior forests of Bijapur in Dantewada. Kopa was very badly beaten and had received serious injuries on his chest, back and leg, due to which he was even unable to walk, sleep, or breathe properly. I have got injuries on front portion of elbow of right hand, biceps and back causing severe pain and swelling.
12 December, 2009:
Kopa Kunjam appeared before a local court where he was charged, under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, with the murder of Punem Honga, a local leader and member of the Salwa Judum, who had been abducted by the Maoists on 2 June 2009.
In fact, Kopa Kunjam was the first to lodge a complaint with the police about the abduction and along with the director of the NGO, Himanshu Kumar, had gone into the jungle to make their own inquiries about the abductions of the two men. Yet their frantic inquiries led them nowhere.
Independent civil society bodies, including human rights organisations like Amnesty International believes that Kopa Kunjam is being targeted because he exposed human rights violations by the security forces, including the extrajudicial executions of 15 Adivasis at Singaram on 8 January and three Adivasis in front of the Matwada police station on 18 June 2009. Besides the Matwada and Singaram massacres, Kopa had exposed many lacunae and frauds in the implementation of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act(NREGA), Integrated Child Development Services(ICDS) and Public Distribution System(PDS).
The Superintendent of the Police, Amresh Mishra frequently visits Kopa Kunjam in jail, and it has been confirmed that the police met him the day before he was arrested, had ‘requested’ him to leave the VCA, and become a police informer.
‘I have seen with my own eyes, what it is that you do,’ he had allegedly told his tempters.
January 1, 2010:
Himanshu went to Dantewada jail to meet Kopa, who broke down upon seeing Himanshu. “Kopa told me that he had been told that he was deliberately framed in a murder case which he hadn’t committed. He also said that he had been beaten up many times; he was even hung up from his feet upside down and beaten,” said Himanshu.