February 28, 2016

AARM Leaders Write to Chhattisgarh CM Over Harassment of Lawyers

Below we reproduce the letter to Raman Singh, chief minister of Chhattisgarh written by Brinda Karat, former MP and vice-president of the Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch, Jitendra Choudhury MP, treasurer and Bal Singh, central executive member of AARM on the harassment of lawyers in Bastar and the continued functioning of vigilante groups like 'Salwa Judum', in the state in violation of the Supreme Court Judgement. The letter was sent on February 19, 2016.

WE are writing to you to express our deep concern at the various anti-democratic methods, with the direct patronage of the administration in Jagdalpur to prevent lawyers from Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group from practicing their profession.

The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG) is a small group of women lawyers from various parts of India who provide pro-bono legal services to the socially and economically disadvantaged groups in Bastar, primarily the adivasis of south Chhattisgarh. We know that innocent tribals are caught between the State forces on the one hand and the Maoists on the other. They have no legal support systems. This group is providing the innocent adivasis with legal support which is otherwise denied to them.

The group has meticulously documented the situation of adivasi undertrials and is representing many adivasi villagers who have been falsely detained and implicated. They are representing the victims of fake encounters before Judicial Enquiry Commissions and Magisterial Enquiries. Currently, JagLAG has two advocates – Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal, who are being forced out of Jagdalpur through various machinations, the most recent being the repeated interrogation and harassment of their taxi-owner landlord, also a member of the minority community, by the police who has now been compelled to serve them eviction notice.

Some time ago, in 2015, the local Bar Association had passed a resolution barring them from practicing in local courts, even though they had repeatedly presented their certificates and credentials, since they were “outside” lawyers. The State Bar Council was approached which passed an interim order allowing them to continue their practice, but the local Bar Association is now threatening to pass strictures against local lawyers who sign vakalatnamas along with them, a requirement for an outside lawyer to practice.

This is happening at a time when there are reports of rapes, razing of villages and terror on tribal villagers in the name of anti-Naxal operations both by the security forces and vigilante groups. Teams of women activists have documented at least three cases of mass sexual violence in the past three months itself, “where security forces have run amok in the villages, stripping women, playing with their naked bodies and indulging in gang rape, looting their precious food supplies, and destroying their homes and granaries.” When reports of mass gang-rapes in Bijapur came in, aggressive rallies were organised by vigilantes against Soni Sori, Bela Bhatia and "outside NGOs", threatening them with physical violence if they entered Bijapur again.  When Malini Subramaniam reported the fake surrenders of Maoists, or the fake encounters, the vigilante group "Samajik Ekta Manch" launched a vilification campaign against her. 

You are no doubt aware of the Supreme Court orders to disband Salwa Judum but such vigilante groups are now operating with impunity in different names. This is a clear violation of Supreme Court orders.

Now they have reportedly targeted JagLAG and the local Bar Association has once again issued a fatwa against local lawyers working with them. For three days, the police summoned Prachi, the young household help working at Malini's, for interrogation, and kept her there for hours.  Despite the law that women witnesses can only be examined at their place of residence, she was taken away to the police station late at night for questioning. Malini's landlord, who was also summoned to the thana has now issued an eviction notice to her.  Malini's husband, Ashim was also held inside the thana all day yesterday The latest news is that Malini and her family have left Jagdalpur.

JagLAG lawyers have also received threats that they might be attacked in the court.

Clearly the administration in Jagdalpur is not willing to protect these lawyers to work without any fear or intimidation.

We request you to intervene immediately to uphold the legal rights of the group. We also request you to immediately direct the local administration to end the efforts to have them evicted to ensure safe accommodation and to stop the blatantly illegal harassment.