Student, Activist, Naxalite? Framed!


The arrest of a young tribal graduate on charges of having links with Naxals is based on flimsy evidence, says Imran Khan

Nipped in the bud Vittala raised his voice against eviction
Nipped in the bud Vittala raised his voice against eviction

THE STORY of Vittala is uncannily similar to Lingaram Kodopi. On 10 September 2011, Kodopi, a tribal journalist from Chhattisgarh, was arrested and falsely accused of being a Maoist. Vittala’s story is no different.

The 22-year-old tribal, a first-year student of Mass Communication and Journalism from Mangalore University, and his father were arrested from their house by the elite anti-Naxal force (ANF) of the Karnataka Police on charges of aiding Maoists. Son of a farmer and a Malekudiya, a Scheduled Tribe community in the Western Ghats, Vittala is the only member from his community to have carved a name for himself in the world outside the jungles. How a young educated Adivasi could become a threat to Indian democracy is an intriguing account of presumptions and half-truths.

Vittala’s present predicament dates back to 2009, when Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) leader Muneer Katipalla and a group of mediapersons from Mangalore had visited the Kuthloor hamlet, 60 km from Mangalore, to do a series of stories on the plight of the Malekudiyas. The young tribal had then assisted the group, helping them trek through thick foliage. Impressed by his earnestness to study, Muneer and a few journalists decided to fund his education and help him go to college — a dream that came crashing down on 3 March when Vittala and his father were booked by the ANF for allegedly helping the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). His brother Purushottam, 19, is absconding. All three were charged with waging a war against the State; an offence that carries a maximum punishment of death.

“The case against Vittala is completely fabricated,” says DYFI leader Muneer. “He was working for the empowerment of the Malekudiyas, making them aware of the administration’s misleading packages for eviction. This led to his arrest.”

The Malekudiyas inhabit part of the Kudremukh Wildlife Sanctuary. As part of Project Tiger, the tribals are being relocated from the sanctuary land to avoid human-animal conflict. While 20 families have accepted the relocation package of Rs 10 lakh and moved out of Kuthloor, the remaining 40 are resisting relocation.

According to Vittala’s mother Honnama, 45, on 2 March around 6.30 pm, the ANF barged into their house and started beating up her husband Linganna, 50, who fractured his ankle. Vittala was visiting his relatives during that time. When he was informed of what had happened, he immediately rushed home. “Since it takes two hours of trekking through the jungle, he could reach home only the next morning,” says one of Vittala’s journalist friends on condition of anonymity. “We didn’t expect him to get arrested.”

Vittala and his father have been booked under Sections 10 and 13 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and under Sections 34 and 121 of the Indian Penal Code. During the search of the house, the police claims to have found handbills, paper cuttings on Naxal issues, binoculars and other related materials.

“The binoculars recovered from him were purchased four years ago during the Laksha Deepotsava festival in Dharmasthala,” says Vittala’s friends. “The handbills were of DYFI programmes and other than that, the police recovered 250 gm of tea and sugar from his house.”

A friend laments that even if Vittala is given a clean chit, the Maoist stigma is bound to ruin his future

Earlier in 2005, a study by the Samajawadi Adhyayana Kendra (Centre for Socialist Studies), Bengaluru, on the socio-economic problems in the Naxal-affected Malnad area, had concluded that feudalism and economic disparity, which gave rise to Naxalism in other states, are not found in the Malnad area. The area covers the western and eastern slopes of the Western Ghats mountain range and portions of Shimoga, Chikkamaguluru, Uttara Kannada, Hassan and Kodagu districts. The study cautioned about the apprehension among forest dwellers, especially the Malekudiyas, about not being allowed to collect forest produce and getting evicted from wildlife sanctuaries.

Naxalism grew in Malnad on the issue of eviction. The Maoist party (then People’s War Group) under Saketh Rajan conducted a survey in 2000 to assess whether conditions in the Western Ghats were conducive to Naxals. SOCOMA (Social Conditions in Malnad, Karnataka), as it came to be known, found that forest coverage allowed the group easy access to the region. But over the years, the movement has declined to the point of almost disappearing, especially after the death of Rajan in 2005.

“The actual number of Naxals in this area is not much,” says IGP Alok Kumar, head of the anti-Naxal force in Karnataka. “There are no real issues in Karnataka for them to take a strong ground.”

Echoing similar sentiments, Muneer says, “Naxals have lost steam. There are no takers for the movement among the Adivasis. Then, why is the ANF unnecessarily creating problems by harassing innocent people?”

AS A student with Mangalore University, Vittala had joined the SFI and later became the state committee member of the Budakattu Adivasi Samavesha Samithi, a tribal wing of the CPM that fights for the rights of Dalits and Adivasis in this region. The government and the police are wary of the possibility of a movement against Project Tiger under the banner of the samithi. But, does that justify Vittala’s arrest? In what can only be described as a shocking violation of the landmark Supreme Court judgment of 2011, in which the apex court had ruled that membership of a banned organisation by itself is not a crime, the FIR against Vittala seems to rest on flimsy evidence.

“The news came as a shock to me,” says Wahida Sultana, Chairman of the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Mangalore University. “During the time he studied here, we found nothing to suggest that he had any sympathy for the Maoist cause.”

However, Mangalore IGP CH Pratap Reddy says that even though the movement has lost its popular support, the area has strategic value for the Maoists to conduct training programmes and to ease mobilisation of troops from other states. “We arrested Vittala based on the inputs we received from the intelligence wing and the ANF,” says Reddy. “The local police is investigating the case. We are not denying he is a journalism student, but we are acting based on credible intelligence.”

Vittala’s friends in the media and civil rights activists say that he has been framed. A friend working for an English daily laments that even if he is given a clean chit by the police, the stigma of being a suspected Maoist will ruin Vittala’s future. “He didn’t want to be just another farmer or hunter. Even if he comes clean, who is going to give him a job now?”

As Vittala finds the needle of suspicion pointed towards him, a strong case could be made for the manufactured truth of the charges against him. Meanwhile, the ambitious Adivasi waits for justice.

Imran Khan is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
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