State repression against students in the aftermath of the anti-trader agitation in Orissa - A report
The PUCL sent a two member team comprising Neerja Chowdhury and Smita Kothari to Orissa to investigate allegations of continued police harassment and intimidation against students who had initiated the anti-trader movement in western Orissa in September 1980. Reproduced below is their report, the first half of which deals with police repression while the latter section details the background of the movement.
Eighteen months after the anti-trader movement in western Orissa, the student leaders who spearheaded it continue to be subjected to police harassment and intimidation. Though the police repression has waned, students have been implicated in hundreds of cases ranging from dacoity, arson to murder; many have to spend most of their time running to courts, travelling from all over the four western districts. Some have as many as 30 cases pending against them. According to Sambalpur Superintendent of Police Uma Shankar Mishra, cases are going on against at least 50 students.
Not content with implicating them in cases, the administration is determined to ruin their academic careers. Rustication orders were issued by the principal of Gangadhar Meher College in Sambalpur, nerve centre of the agitation, seven student leaders for their involvement in the movement. They were not allowed to appear for their examinations due to be held within that week. Though three of them challenged the rustication orders and obtained court injunctions instructing the Principal and University authorities to allow them to sit for the examinations, they were prevented from doing so.
A secret circular was sent by the Collector of Sambalpur in mid-1981 instructing college principals to examine the antecedants of students before admitting them. The criteria for admission was no longer to be the merit of the student but his political affiliation and beliefs. In effect the police decides admission of the students. The few principals and heads of department who questioned the legality of the circular are being harassed.
It is unfortunate that the significance and impact of the movement and the organised police repression against it received limited coverage in the national press. Though Orissa remains a feudal society, with 85 per cent population living below the poverty line, its problems have not received national attention.
The movement was sparked off by a skirmish a group of students had with the trading community in Sambalpur during the collections of funds for flood relief in September 1980. It grew rapidly in western Orissa and then drew in the coastal districts. The resentment against the increasing social and political domination of the traders - largely Marwarhi - transformed itself into anger at the State repression unleashed against the students. The students were pitched against a trader-police-politician combine that initially, labelled them as communalists and then resorted to violence to cripple their movement.
The movement was not communal, as was made out but was directed against the exploitative practices of the trading community. It called for action against blackmarketeers and hoarders and demanded that essential commodities reach those reeling under the floods of September 1980. The spontaneous support it received from the people was indicative of the strong sentiment that exists against the trading community of western Orissa. These sentiments continue to simmer under the surface and may erupt again any time.
In the clash between the traders and the students in Khetrajpur on September 22, 1980 which triggered off the agitation, 30 students were injured and hospitalised whereas none of the traders were hurt. Though the students in their FIR named traders responsible for beating them up, the police did not take any action against them for seven days.
Instead the police entered the G.M. College premises, beat up students, arrested 100 of them and eight lecturers.
The police connived openly with the traders. A subsequent episode in Binka highlighted this partisanship in its crudest form. During the distribution of flood-relief material in Binka in Bolangir district September 26, 1980, a wealthy zamindar Dukhu Ram Aggarwal was also found standing in the queue. "What's the landlord doing here?" enquired Kalia Gula, a landless adivasi who worked on Aggarwal's fields and happened to recognise him. An angry Aggarwal turned on him, beat him up, and humiliated him to the extent of forcing the bleeding man to lick his own spit from the ground.
News of this episode spread like wildfire. And when 15,000 people gathered on the following day to demonstrate in the small town, the police opened fire on them. Siridhar Beheria, a 22-year old panwalla died on the spot. Twenty-five others were hospitalised.
The police role was equally dubious during the looting of shops in Bolangir on September 28. From 11 in the morning to five in the evening miscreants assisted by Congress(I) activists went on a rampage in the town. An attempt was made to blame the students for the vandalism. Significantly all the shops looted belonged to businessmen who had with held support to the Congress(I). During the six hours of looting, the police made no arrests. In fact, in the following days, looted material was discovered from the houses of many policemen by senior officials. The students alleged that police were party to the looting. They first wanted to create a climate of fear and insecurity in the traders before collecting money from them under the guise of offering them protection. It is publicly acknowledged that many policemen of the area acquired property and private vehicles overnight.
Most of those arrested after the incident belonged to Congress(I). The Youth Congress President in Bolangir, Akbar Khan, was the main accused in the Bolangir case. Interestingly enough, on the day of the looting, senior Congress(I) personalities like State Minister Lalit Gandhi, recently convicted in a jeep theft case, and Prasanna Pal, Deputy Speaker of the Orissa Assembly, were in Bolangir.
As the movement spread rapidly into the major towns of western Orissa, the CRP was called in. Flag marches were held, hundreds of students were arrested. The students had demanded that their assaulters at Khetrajpur be punished that the flood affected students be exempted from paying their tuition fees; that adequate compensation be paid to the flood afflicted people, that the government check prices and ensure the procurement and distribution of essential commodities and so on.
Instead of responding to these demands, the government stepped up the police repression. The massive assembly of students outside the Secretariat in Bhuvaneshwar on November 21, 1980, was lathi charged; 5000 were arrested (all were released except 29 leaders who were charged under Section 444 IPC for arson). Lathi charges and firings also took place in almost all the district headquarters during the successful Orissa Bandh of December 5, injuring scores of people. Even journalists were not spared. Guru Kalyan Mahapatra of "Prajatantra" was so brutally beaten-up by the police in Cuttack - despite his repeated declaration that he was a journalist - that he was in hospital for three months. Lakhimi Dhar Maharana and Udhab Behera died in Kamakhyanagar in Dhenkanal district and Diwakhar Baradhan, a 15-year-old school student, was killed in Cuttack. In fact, Basant Biswal, State Minister for Mining, considered by many as the de facto Chief Minister of Orissa, had publicly gone on record that the Bandh would be rendered unsuccessful at any cost.
Grounds for Detention
In the case of Utkal Parida of Salipur College in Cuttack district, he was detained as he had been earlier charged under sections 34, 147, 148, 149, 336, 337, 341, 353, 379, 395, 426, 435, 436 and 447 of the IPC. Additionally, "he alongwith his associates made a conspiracy to set fire to a government bus on November 28 but due to the timely arrival of the police this could be averted" and "he alongwith (5 names) was inciting the mass for making the Bandh of December 5, a success".
Ashok Kumar Lenka of Chhatilo in Cuttack district and the President of Ravenshaw College 1979-80 was arrested under the NSO as "he is agitating the students to support Suresh Pujari and to join strike under the direction of Pujari". Additionally "he is most likely to take a prominent role in the December 5 Bandh" and "if we allow him to continue his anti-social activities we will be giving him further (not clear) to spearhead the agitation".
On the afternoon of February 18, while a meeting of the town's leading citizens was being held in the G.M. College, organised at the initiative of the Principal, R.S. Raghavan, with a view to seek a solution to the problems raised by the movement, a bus was burnt outside the college gates and its driver assaulted. Though no arrests were made on the spot by the policemen posted in large numbers at the gate, later they charged student leaders for it. According to the students, anti-social elements, in connivance with the police, staged the incident in order to implicate them in false cases.
Later that night, hundreds of policemen led by the Sambalpur SP, Uma Shankar Mishra, surrounded the G.M. College. The SP approached Principal Raghavan for permission to search the premises for the culprits responsible for burning the buses earlier in the evening. The Principal refused, but the police forced its way in. From 11 p.m. to the early hours of the morning they broke into hostel rooms, pulled students out of their beds, forced them to kneel down in submission and beat them up. None of the 400 hostellers were spared. Blood splattered the walls and floor of the rooms, according to eyewitnesses. Residents of the neighbourhood heard screams of help emanating from the hostel.
Even the women's hostel was not spared. Principal Vijay Raghavan condemned the arbitrary and brutal behaviour of the police. Within 48 hours he was demoted and transferred.
The SP defended the police action, alleging brick batting by the students from the roof of the building. Shopkeepers of the area revealed that in the clash between students and the police that afternoon, students had indulged in brickbatting. Even if it were true, in no way does it justify the midnight raid of the police and the merciless beatings that followed. The SP dismissed them. "Has any one been rendered permanently lame or disabled?" He admitted however that "all the hostels were cleaned up".
Three weeks later, a number of student leaders were charged with the bus driver's murder. He died in hospital on March 7. The students maintained that after he had sustained minor injuries on February 18, for which he was treated, he was discharged from hospital two days later. However, on March 7, while he was on his way to Rourkela, he suffered severe pain and was admitted into hospital. The doctor at Kolunga hospital who treated him certified that he died because of a tumour in the liver. Many of those charged with the murder, claimed the students, were not even in Sambalpur on that day.
The students countered that the allegations were vague and general in nature. The principal responded with another notice on May 25. He detailed the various cases in which the students had been implicated in the eight months of the movement. It warned them of disciplinary action under Section 11 of the Orissa Education Code and Section 221 of the Sambalpur University Act and Statutes, 1966. Arson, dacoity, "recovery" of explosives from the office of the Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini in Sambalpur on April 10 and the murder of Harihar Mahakud, driver of the bus on March 7, were among the innumerable cases cited against them. During the course of the agitation, the Vahini Office was raided by the police as it was a regular meeting place of the student activists. Finally on April 10, 1981, "explosives" were "recovered" from there.
On July 13, the principal passed rustication orders against six students and dismissed Surya Bohidar. That he was acting at the instance of the administration and the police was evident. "I was asked by the administration to find ways and means to restore normalcy," he admitted to this team. Suresh Pujari, President of the All Orissa Students Action Committee, who spear headed the agitation and one of those rusticated, challenged the rustication order in the court of the sub Judge Vinod Mishra at Cuttack. The Judge stayed the order by issuing an interim injunction restraining the principal and the university authorities from interfering in any way with the examination of the petitioner.
Two other rusticated students, Sudhir Kumar Pujari and Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini activist Direshwar Sarangi, also challenged the legality of the order. According to advocate S.P. Mishra, who is fighting their case, the principal's action flouted University rules. He is empowered only to recommend rustication to the Governing body of the University, as per the University Act and Statutes, 1966. Only after concerned student is heard in the matter, can action be taken against him. "It cannot be left to the subjective decision of the principal," said Mishra, "but must be based on concrete fact and evidence." The order was issued on the grounds that the students were involved in criminal cases and that they had participated in the student movement of Orissa. "For a start", argued advocate Mishra, "the verdicts are still awaited in these cases. Secondly, the students demanded facilities for those who had lost their homes during the floods. They are within their constitutional rights to agitate for these demands." In these two cases also, the court passed an injunction, in December 1981, that the students be allowed to appear for their examinations to be held in April 1982.
It was significant that a day after all the temporary stay granted to Suresh Pujari was confirmed on August 16, 1981, he was arrested from the premises under Section 107 Cr.P.C. before he could fill his forms for his final M.Sc. examinations. Under the normal circumstances arrests are not made under Section Section 107, a deterrant order without provision for jail or bail. Pujari was, however, asked to furnish a security of Rs.60,000.
"I requested the SP to let me fill up my examination form," maintained Pujari, "but I was not allowed." There was a heated exchange between the two men. According to Pujari, the SP threatened him, "I'll see you inside the 'hazat' (lock-up)" - an allegation denied by the police officer.
That night, he subsequently declared before an executive magistrate, five masked men entered the lock-up and rolled batons through the joints of his body till he was rendered unconscious.
A month earlier, similar treatment was metered out to a young advocate-cum-journalist editing a local paper "Ganavarta". Ashok Kumar Bisi, arrested during the agitation against bus ticket price hike on July 24, 1981, also alleged that he was assaulted by masked men in police lock-up in Sambalpur.
During the course of the movement, police beatings were frequent. Bikram Panda, President of Kuchinda College Students Union, and Sadhu Charan Chhuris, an M.Com. student from Sambalpur University became near invalids. Usu Kanta Tripathy, President of the Lakshmi Narayan College in Jharsuguda and Hare Krishna Mahatab sustained serious head injuries.
College Principal Pressurised
Again Pujari filed a suit in the Sub-Judge Court of R.K. Mishra in Sambalpur with a prayer for an injunction, directing the Law college principal and University authorities to admit him into the college. The prayer was granted. On the strength of the court order, Law College Principal P.R. Dubey admitted Pujari. After the court order was issued, the police tried to presurrise Dubey to disregard the order. He did not relent.
The pressure on him continued. The University administrator, S.Sahu, recently urged Dubey to take action against three Law College students - Suresh Pujari was among them - who had behaved in an "unbecoming" fashion with him. Again Dubey refused. The Chancellor of the University has recently initiated an enquiry against Dubey to go into his appointment as the Principal of Law College. Dubey suspects this as "purely a Congress-I move" to harass and browbeat him.
Though many principals were unhappy with the circular, none challenged its legality. Some ignored it, refusing "to spy on the students". P.R. Dubey referred to the Public Prosecutor for a legal opinion on the circular, was informed in writing that the principal was the sole decision making authority in the matter. "One intelligence officer orally gave me a list of five students, including Suresh Pujari, who he asked me not to admit. I admitted all of them. That is why they (the administration) are angry with me".
of the Movement
In September 1980, a devastating flood inundated parts of Western Orissa. Even the price of 'choorha' (beaten rice) shot up to Rs.7 per kg. G.M. College in Sambalpur became a large camp for 6000 flood affected people. The student community began to mobilise support by collecting food and clothing. Incidentally, public resentment grew as the flood relief allocation from the Central Government did not find its way to those affected - a factor that contributed to the spontaneous support extended to the students.
On September 22, when a group of students were collecting donations in the main business centre, Khetrajpur, 3 kilometres from Sambalpur, they had an altercation with some traders. In the ensuring clash, Surya Kant Bohidar was beaten up by the traders. Later that afternoon when a large student contingent went to Khetrajpur, they too were beaten up. The police remained passive spectators. Prominent businessmen, among them Ramu Agarwal, Chhana Trivedi, Ram Ratan Jalan, Jagdish Bakshi are believed to have personally assaulted the students. While 30 students were hospitalised, not a single trader was hurt. Though the students named the businessmen in their FIR, the police took no action against them. The incident crystallised the latent anger against the powerful trading community.
This domination prevented the local community from entering trading activity. From the early sixties, the Marwarhi community also entered politics, in addition to financing and controlling every political party. This alienated the local population further. The traders have thus become both the chief financiers of the ruling party politicians and controllers of the flow of capital of the pauperised tribals and small peasantry.
The political leadership of the state whether of the left of right has been drawn mainly from the coastal districts. Though western Orissa provided a large part of the State's per capita income in the form of business of rice and kendu leaves and more recently saal seeds, no independent leadership from the tribal and backward communities from western Orissa has been allowed to mature by the powerful coastal lobbies. Nearly 30% of the population in these districts is tribal and 15% is scheduled castes. Thus there has been an unchallenged rule of the trader-bureaucrat police combine.
The encounter at Khetrajpur with the trading community agitated student communities in other towns of western Orissa. The trading community responded to the movement by a counter-campaign which dubbed it communal. Their Merchant's Association collected lakhs of rupees overnight. It is believed to have spent Rs.2 lakhs alone on sending telegrams to political leaders for lobbying support. The President of the All India Marwarhi Association who toured the area met leaders in Delhi about the "beleaguered" situation of the Marwarhis in Orissa. Locally they gave money to the police, the administration and the politicians and also mobilised the RSS in this counter-campaign.
Mounts, Action Committee Formed
This support posed a visible threat to the entrenched vested interests leading to the beginning of the repression. Even school-going children were not spared (as in Jharband, where 134 boys and girls were arrested under Section 395 for dacoity). On September 24, all the schools and colleges of Sambalpur were shut down.
After the looting in Bolangir, schools and colleges were closed indefinitely in Sundergarh, Kalahandi and in Rourkela. Curfew had by now been imposed in different towns all over western Orissa. Though many student leaders went underground, student and youth action committees mushroomed. The administration called in the Central Reserve Police in many towns. As the arrests of students continued unabated, the movement spanned out in the rest of Orissa. On October 21/22, at a joint conference of 200 student representatives held in Sambalpur, the All Orissa Action Committee came into existence, headed Suresh Pujari. It included major youth groups like SFI, AISF, Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini, Chhatra Sabha, ABVP, DSO, SYS and the Chhatra Janata. It put forward an eight point charter of demands:
1. Check price hike and ensure government procurement and distribution
of essential commodities; stern action against blackmarketeers and hoarders;
To press for the implementation of their demands, the students went on hungerstrike in front of the Collectorate and BDO and SDO offices in the blocks. In Sambalpur, batches of students were arrested under Section 309 (attempt to commit suicide). The movement picked up momentum. It was decided to observe November 5 as protest day and boycott classes, hold rallies and demonstrations. This was the first united success of the movement. A sense of confidence underlay the next decision of the students to hold a massive demonstration in front of the Secretariat on November 21. Despite the efforts to prevent in students converging in Bhuvaneshwar --arresting incoming students at bus stops and railway stations - 15,000 people assembled there. The meeting was lathi charged and 5,000 arrests made.
Mahtab Split Movement
Following the Bhubaneshwar rally, the students called for an all-Orissa Bandh on December 5. The political parties which had remained indifferent or hostile at the beginning made a volt face and many political leaders issued statements supporting the Bandh. The government came down with a heavy hand on the agitationists. Lathi-charges and firings took place in virtually every district headquarter. An indefinite curfew was imposed on Bhubaneshwar, Cuttack, Phulbani and Rourkela.
Three days before the all-Orissa Bandh, Orissa veteran politician Harekrishna Mahtab, through his column in the "Prajatantra" offered to mediate between the government and the students. The government accepted the offer with alacrity. So did the ABVP constituted All Utkal Students Action Committee. A nine member committee was constituted with Mahtab as its chairman. Notwithstanding the repression, this step strategically confused the students and proved an unexpected breakthrough for the government.
Though the publicised offer was initially to solve the students unrest later the Committee changed its terms of reference to investigate factors leading to students unrest. "Chhatra Samasya Samadhan Samiti, was renamed Chhatra Samasya Anusandhan Samiti. The students, rejecting the mediation efforts, wanted direct negotiators with the government. They were skeptical. After all, the government was not bound to accept the Mahtab Committee recommendations. Was the Committee investigating the unrest or was it going to suggest solutions? No clarifications were forthcoming either from Mahtab or from the government.
After the observance of Martyr's Day on December 12, 1980, to mourn those killed during the Bandh, the student leadership felt the need to widen the base of the movement. A two-week programme was announced to fan out into the countryside to understand the problems of the poor peasantry, tribals and bonded labour, to educate them about the goals of the movement and form action committees of farmers and workers. In order to assess their progress and chart out future direction, a statewide convention of students was called in Rourkela of representative from 300 colleges.
At the convention, three major points came up for debate; the interestingly organised statewide repression, the inter-relationship with political parties and planning future strategy. For the first time, discussions were held on the problems of the small presents and possibilities of solving them. A 130 kms. Padayatra from Padampur to Sambalpur was organised and additional demands were enjoined to the earlier eight point charter. But subsequent police repression and harassment blocked further efforts in this direction. Involved in scores of cases, the students were left time for little else. The decline set in.
The students had from the beginning been content with a firefighting approach and were not prepared organisationally for a sustained and longdrawn effort. It was the police that indirectly brought them together.
Throughout the agitation, the movement remained largely middle-class in character - a majority of the students were drawn from rich peasant backgrounds - and the initial eight point charter of demands reflected this. Landless labour participated in the demonstration in Bolangir but this was localised and momentary.
A cadre-based organisation - politically consistent and drawing its strength from both urban and rural populations - never came into being. Owing to an incapacity to confront the landed interests in the rural areas, the movement reduced itself to an anti-corruption and anti-police agitation which could be controlled easily.
Thrown into positions of leadership without any preparation, the students could not reconcile differences between the various political groupings. These gradually developed into serious infighting and opportunism which accelerated the collapse.