‘I know I will go to jail, but paying the fine would mean I did a wrong’

ACTIVIST Himanshu Kumar says he won’t pay the “exemplary” cost of Rs 5 lakh imposed on him by the Supreme Court on Thursday, while rejecting a petition by him seeking a probe into the alleged torture and extrajudicial killings by the security forces during anti-Maoist operations in Dantewada in 2009.

“I know I will go to jail. Paying the fine would mean accepting that I did something wrong,” Kumar, who for 17 years ran an NGO called Vanvasi Chetna Ashram in Dantewada, told The Indian Express. The 57-year-old left the state in 2010, forced out, he says, by threats in the wake of his Dantewada allegations.

The incident dates back to September and October 2009 when 17 tribals, including a 12-year-old girl, were killed and many injured and their houses destroyed in villages of then Dantewada and now Sukma district in Chhattisgarh. While Kumar and several villagers accused the security forces of killing the tribals, the Raman Singh-led BJP government at the time blamed the Naxals.

After Kumar approached the court in 2009, police exhumed seven bodies from the outskirts of one of the villages, Gompad.

While dismissing his petition for a probe into the deaths, the Supreme Court Thursday asked the CBI and state police to investigate whether the PIL had been filed by him deliberately to discredit the security personnel and help Left Wing Extremists. Kumar was ordered to submit the Rs 5 lakh fine over the “frivolous” litigation within four weeks, failing which authorities could take “appropriate steps” for recovery.

Also seeking action against Kumar, the court said: “We clarify that it shall not be limited only to the offence under Section 211 of the IPC (false charge of offence made with intent to injure). A case of criminal conspiracy or any other offence under the IPC may also surface… We leave it to the better discretion of the State of Chhattisgarh / CBI to act.”

While officials of the Congress government in the state said they were “examining the order”, the BJP hailed the Court decision. Raman Singh, who was the Chief Minister at the time of the deaths, said: “The Supreme Court has clarified that our forces were not wrong at the time. Himanshu Kumar and others made so much noise about innocent tribals being killed by security forces. We have been vindicated by this order, in a way, and the action against him is justified.”

Kumar says he has been in the crosshairs of authorities since the time he filed the petition in the Supreme Court. He had to flee “overnight” from Chhattisgarh, he adds. The Vanvasi Chetna Ashram was later demolished. “My co-petitioners (family members of some of those killed and eyewitnesses) were abducted and I was not allowed to speak to them despite the court’s order. Eventually, I was informed by some of my friends that the state was ready to take extreme measures to silence me and that I should leave.”

Kumar claims that testimonies he recorded on October 11, 2009, in the affected villages talked of security forces killing six people in Gachanpalli on September 17 that year, followed by two people in Velpocha and Nalkathong, and nine in Gompad, on October 1. In his petition to the Supreme Court, Kumar said family members and neighbours of the deceased had seen security personnel attack them without provocation.

The Centre countered that while security personnel were present, they were responding to Maoists operating in the area — which was upheld by the Supreme Court. Incidentally, the Centre also stated that it had lost statements given by the villagers in front of a district judge in Delhi.

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Kumar says the dismissal of his plea by the Supreme Court means “several families have lost the hope of justice”.

Born to freedom fighter parents in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, Kumar grew up at Gandhi Ashram in Meerut. His father worked closely with Vinoba Bhave, and Kumar says he had a huge influence on him.

After his marriage, he along with his wife moved to Chhattisgarh to work for the tribals, raising health issues like malaria, creating awareness about literacy, and taking on the government over alleged human rights violations, especially during the Salwa Judum movement. He worked in Bastar extensively, often travelling long distances on foot to reach difficult terrains.

“Now, they want to come after me for raising this issue and bringing it to the court of law,” Kumar says. “I am sure of going to jail, but I don’t regret bringing this issue to court.”

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