PUCL Bulletin, August 2001

Police kill tribal activists during a land rights agitation in Puntamba, Maharashtra

Also see,
Adivasis' struggle for land rights in Puntamba

Concern for safety of John Abraham an activist in Puntamba

Dear Friends: This is what happened in Puntamba on 26th June at the police firing. After the police firing and death of two tribal activists in Puntamba on June 26, 2001, there has been wide coverage of the incident by the newspapers with a view to blaming the Adivasis. However, large portion of these reports is false. Ideally, the facts of the incident should have been cross-checked and properly investigated by the newspaper reporters.

The newspapers reported that the Adivasis were armed with weapons while on morcha. Facts: The activists and people in the morcha were not carrying any weapons. Local people informed that the weapons allegedly found or seized from the Adivasis were in fact put by the police themselves.

There are reports that a mob of thousand marched towards the police station. Facts: People who witnessed the incident informed that the mob was of 250-300 Adivasis. Most of these were women and children. The activists/adivasis in the morcha had no intention of committing violence.

People in morcha were violent towards police. Facts: There is some truth in it, though. But the reality is that Inspector Mali has been stationed at Puntamba outpost for many years. He has developed close links and association with the local politicians and goondas. Since, he has never been sympathetic or supportive to the victims of the atrocities committed against the Adivasis in the past. He has always taken the side of human rights violators. With his this background, many of the Adivasis in the morcha got agitated. And, when he came to calm down the morcha, there was confrontation between him and a woman activist. Police reacted to this and tried to physically assault her. This made the rest of the people in morcha angry and they started throwing stones at the police. While this was on, suddenly, there was firing by police. This information was gathered from the local villagers, police and activists in piecemeal. It was difficult to interview or meet anyone actually present at the time of the said incident. The Adivasis feared the police. This has been brought to the notice of the Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister of the State of Maharashra, Mr. Chhagan Bhujbal.

There is no clarity whether the police fired in the air before firing towards the mob. However, Pradip Dushing, one of the victims of this firing, was chased by police and shot at from a short distance/ at a close range. Mr. Satpute and Pawar, two policemen present at that time, directed the police involved in firing towards injured Pradip Dushing and asked to shoot him. In the schoolyard at about 100-ft. distance from the police station, there is evidence of police firing. Police has tried to destroy the signs of police firing. This has also been reported in almost all newspapers and Sarvamat has in fact published this with photographs.

Smt. Indubai Machare, the woman activist who was killed in the police firing, was actively involved in mobilising and organising womenfolk in the area. Because of her this work, two years back, her small hut was burnt down and she herself was beaten. That time Indubai had her leg fractured. Yet, police took no cognisance. Indubai belonged to "Vadar" community, one of the lower castes in the social strata. Now, police has launched a defamation campaign against her.

If the police version of the incident is true and is to be justified, then the question arises, why should they attempt to destroy evidences?
The organisation has been working in Puntamba for the past seven years. During this period how many of the issues raised by the organisation were taken up seriously/cognisance of by the police? In how many cases of atrocities committed against Adivasis did the police take action? It is very important that the police should inform how many incidents of violence were there during the movements of the said organisation during the period of last 7 years.

We have got more information after the representatives of human rights and development organisations visited the spot, Puntamba village, around 95 kms away from Ahmednagar.

Following are some of the details.
1. A group of 250-300 tribals, mostly women and children, marched to the local police station on June 25th to register their protest against apparent partisan attitude of the local police in the molestation case of a tribal woman by a local political leader. It has been reported that there has been a close nexus between local vested interests and local police. During the protest march, it was reported that there was an altercation between the local Asst Sub-Inspector, Mr. Mail, and some of the women activists. Police reacted to this by trying to physically assault one of the women activists. As a result the accompanying tribals got agitated. This was followed by police lathi-large and some stone pelting by the protestors. Instead of handling the situation with responsibility, the police chose to callously fire at the protestors. It has been reported that one of the tribal leader, Pradeep Dushing, 36, was chased and shot from a close range. Another tribal activist, Smt. Indubai Machare, 45, was killed in the police firing.

Among the 37 activists injured, three of them are in critical condition. Following this incident, police have arrested 18 activists under false charges of attempt to commit murder and arson. To absolve themselves of the responsibility of the incident police not only fabricated cases against activists but also spread misleading information.

When the incident occurred, one of the key activists John P. Abraham was far away in Aurangabad. However, when he rushed to the spot learning about the incident, he has also been falsely implicated in a case of attempted murder and arrested along with his wife Rina. It is very clear that this whole incident is a culmination of the growing tension between the local vested interests and the landless tribals who have been asking for their livelihood rights. There seems to be a clear nexus between the local elites, political leaders, the local police and the administration. Adivasi Bhumi Hakk Andolan (Tribal Land Rights Movement) has been fighting for the land and livelihood rights of the tribal communities in the district. The leaders of this movement, Pradeep Dushing (who was killed) and John P. Abraham (who is in jail under false charges) have been appreciated for their non-violent means of action and widely acknowledged as human rights defenders. It is very clear that the whole incident is an attempt to suppress the peaceful struggle by one of the most marginalized communities for their survival and livelihood.

We are also enclosing a field brief we have received from the activists of the local network who visited the village Puntamba soon after the incident.
This is not an isolated incident. During the last couple of months, there have been a number of cases of atrocities against dalits and tribals across the country. Despite the increasing instances of violence against the most deprived sections of Indian society, there has not been any serious initiative by the government agencies to address the issue of atrocities against dalits and tribals.

Hence, we demand

  • Immediate judicial inquiry into the police firing, land alienation and alleged rape;
  • Suspension of the police officials responsible for the killing;
  • Withdrawal of false cases against the activists including John P. Abraham and Rina.

In Solidarity.

-- John Samuel; Bhim Raskar; Sitaram Shastri; Sampat; Gauri

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