Odisha: A report on political prisoners’ struggle


April 4, 2016

Support the struggle launched again by political prisoners in Odisha, 7 in Bhubaneswar, 5 in Ganjam!

by Prashant Rahi

(Most are accused in the cases pertaining to 5 Nayagarh cases registered in connection with a Multiple Raid in 2008 by a Maoist military detachment, including the raid of the local police armoury).

12 prisoners, 7 in Bhubanseshwar Special Jail and 5 in Bhanjanagar Sub-jail of Ganjam district of Odisha, in incarceration for a period of 3 to 8 years as undertrials have gone on indefinite hunger strike since March 30 and 31, respectively, demanding an end to the deliberate procrastination going on in their trials in spite of clear directions from the Cuttack High Court to conclude the them long before.
Those who went on strike at Bhubaneswar are:

1. Kamalakanta Sethi- Aged about 37 years
2. Smt. Chandrabati Tukruka-(Wife of Kamalalanta) Aged about 30 years
3. Asutosh Soren- Aged about 46 years
4. Kishore Kumar Jena- Aged about 43 years
5. Rabi Dulai- Aged about 30 years
6. Ranjit Sana- Aged about 29 years
7. And one other

They are all accused in one and the same set of cases at Nayagarh, 90 km south of Bhubaneswar, and used to be taken to the court at Nayagarh for their hearings until recently. The cases, 5 in number, are related to one particular chain of events in the conflict between the Maoists and the State. In response to a bail petition heard in the High Court for some of the accused in this case, the court had given an order rejecting the bail plea, but insisting that the trials be completed by the end of the second quarter of 2012. After that a couple of more bail pleas were made when the trial court failed to dispose off the cases in the stipulated time, and fresh orders with stipulated deadlines were issued by the same High Court to expedite the trials. However, the deadline was not met.

So far only 3 of the 5 cases have been concluded, all having resulted in acquittals. The remaining 2 trials have remained blocked at the very fag end of the list of witnesses, with only the I.O., if not one or two more unexpected ones, yet to depose. The failure of the I.O. to depose over more than six months now has led to this form of protest with the hope that this might bring pressure upon the Police Department and the concerned trial court to adopt stringent measures to ensure a speedy disposal of the last two cases.

Less than a year ago as well these same prisoners had resorted to the same measure after which there was an agreement to conclude the remaining cases soon. However, only one of the then remaining three cases were concluded within a few weeks, after which there has not been any further progress.
The advocate of the accused in the High Court was believed to have filed a third successive bail plea on behalf of these undertrials when the prisoners realizing it was futile to wait for things to move in their normal course, took this step.

The very next day, another group of alleged Maoist prisoners, one of whom may be a co-accused in the Nayagarh cases, at Banjanagar Sub-jail also joined the indefinite hunger strike. They are:

1. Malati Majhi-(W)- Aged about 24 years
2. Telem Soni- (W)- Aged about 25 years
3. K. Anita Majhi(W)- Aged about 28 years
4. Kandra Dalabehera- Aged about 40 years
5. Kadam Bijal- Aged about 27 years.

Of the 12 prisoners who have stopped taking even a morsel of food, 4 are women. The oldest among the striking prisoners is Ashutosh Soren who belongs to Dhanbad, Jharkhand, and is in his late forties. The prisoners are predominantly adivasis.

Earlier in the day today, a social activist and an advocate from a group called the Campaign Against Fabricated Cases, having learnt of the developments, filed an express complaint with the Odisha State Human Rights Commission. OSHRC Acting Chairperson, Shri BK Mishra, recently having taken over charge, immediately perused the complaint, and passed an order. The Principal Secretary (Home) and the Director General of Police have been directed to ensure that the witnesses, who are believed to be required to depose for the said trials, including the I. O., do so immediately and efforts be made to conclude the trials soon, as directed. Additionally the I. G. (Prisons) has been asked to urge the striking prisoners to give up their strike in a bid to prevent the strike from snowballing into a major strike all over.
It is apparent that the officials (Shri B. K. Mishra has been an Additional Sessions Judge at Rourkela until recently) are well aware of that delays on the part of witnesses in turning up at the courts to depose in trials is a common phenomenon. This is precisely why the fear of the strike assuming epidemic proportions has been admitted.

The argument advanced by the Campaign Against Fabricated Cases (CAFC) in its petition is that it is immaterial that the cases may pertain to very serious offences. The right to speedy trial is a fundamental right of an undertrial under Article 21 of the Constitution. Hence there can be no ground for the delay.

The only apparent reason for such gross violation of the constitutional and democratic rights of these prisoners as to the extent that they had to go on indefinite hunger strike would be that there is no pressure to expedite their much delayed trials from civil society. Most of the prisoners are so poor that their family members who come and meet them occasionally would themselves need help and advice for their own upkeep. None of them appear to be in a position to confer with the appointed lawyers and decide what course of action should be taken in order to fetch justice in time.

The CAFC even with its limited strength seems to be the only small collective in Odisha that could raise its voice as best it could in favour of the forgotten 12. At present there are close to 375 undertrials in about 18 jails of Odisha facing trials, all proceeding at snail pace, or simply not moving ahead at all. The offences would range from waging war or some such conspiracy against the state, to sedition and/or indulging in terrorist activities as per the sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, attacking police personnel who are government employees, restricting or restraining then from performing their duties, committing murders, attempting to murder and/or causing physical injuries with the use of sharp of blunt objects which may serve as weapons, often while holding illegal arms, either small and automatic and semi-automatic, or country-made guns.

The prisoners struggle could benefit if letters are sent in support of their demands to the Director General of Police, Principal Secretay (Home), as well as Chief Secretary, Chief Justice of Odisha and the Chief Minister. Others facing a similar fate could also be advised to follow similar measures as a means to have a bigger and stronger agitation from behind the four walls of the prisons in that part of the country, in order that the trials pending for long do not remain stagnant or slow to proceed any more.

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