HRDA has issued an urgent appeal to the National Human Rights Commission of India on 25 May regarding the illegal arrest, detention and custody of Mr. Podiyami Panda, former sarpanch of Chintagufa village in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh. During his tenure as the sarpanch of Chintagufa village, he had opposed the Salwa Judum campaign which was supported by the state administration and has been termed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Mr. Panda went missing from his village since May 3, 2017. He was taken into custody by a joint team of CRPF and the district police from the forest near Minpa. A few villagers who were collecting tendu leaves witnessed this incident and informed his wife. They also reported that he was badly beaten up by the patrolling party.
Podiyami Muiye, wife of Mr. Panda, on knowing about her husband’s detention, tried to meet him at the Chintagufa Police Station where the police officers denied any information regarding the detention of Mr. Panda. She was threatened and made to sign on three blank papers. Ms. Muiye then went to the District Police Headquarters in Sukma, but she could not find any information about her husband’s whereabouts and whether he was detained by the police.
On May 10, 2017, Ms. Muiye visited the Sukma Kotwali Police Station to seek information about her husband. She also took some of his clothes to give it to him. The police authorities did not allow her to meet Mr. Panda but took his clothes and assured her that they will be given to him. In desperation, finally, the family filed a habeas corpus petition in the Chhattisgarh High Court in Bilaspur on May 12, 2017. On the same evening, the police summoned Mr. Panda’s brother; the next day, on May 13, 2017, the police took another brother into custody on the pretext of asking him to meet Mr Panda. Later, one of his brothers, Mr. Podiyami Komal, was permitted to meet Mr. Panda. He found him limping and one of his feet was swollen and blue, which clearly demonstrates that he was tortured in police custody.
On May 13, 2017, Mr. Panda made several calls to his wife telling her that he had ‘surrendered’ to the police on May 9, 2017, and did not want to return to the village, and that he is free to go wherever he wants but cannot come to Bilaspur to meet her because he has no money. Ms. Muiye felt that he sounded stressed. She was afraid that that these calls were being made under duress in police custody. Five days later, on May 17, 2017, the police produced Mr. Panda before the media in Jagdalpur, declaring that he had voluntarily surrendered and has confessed that he was actively involved in the attack on CRPF personnel on April 24, 2017. In the court, the police challenged Ms. Muiye’s petition. In its affidavit, the police falsely stated that Mr. Panda was the deputy commander (militia) of the Duled Janatana Sarkar of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and had surrendered to the police “without any arms and ammunition”.
On May 18, 2017, a Division Bench of the Chhattisgarh High Court in Bilaspur ordered that Mr. Panda be produced in the court on May 22, 2017. Upon the order of the court, the police produced Mr. Panda where he told the judges that he had surrendered to the police voluntarily and also said that he wishes to stay in the police camp as he fears for his life from the naxalites. The court ordered that Mr. Panda should be allowed to interact with his wife in the Court Hall. Finally, on the intervention of a court security officer, his wife and children could meet him briefly. His wife said that he was under tremendous pressure and tortured.
After the illegal detention of Mr. Panda, the police is now claiming that he has admitted that he was a vital link between Maoist leaders and human rights activists like Prof Nandini Sundar of Delhi University and activist Ms. Bela Bhatia. The affidavit stated that as the undisputed sarpanch of Chintagufa village for 10 years, Mr. Panda gained access to many Maoist leaders, which enhanced his social status as social workers like Prof. Sundar and Ms. Bhatia would approach him to take them to Maoist leaders. Both Prof. Sundar and Ms. . Bhatia have denied these allegations.
On May 23, 2017, there were demonstrations in Konta town against ‘safedposh naxalites’, based on Mr. Panda’s case, demanding the arrest of lawyers Ms. Shalini Gera, Ms. Isha Khandelwal, Ms. Sudha Bhardwaj, and Prof. Sundar and Ms. Bhatia. In short, the police is forcing Mr. Panda to make false accusations against human rights defenders.