Where is our saviour?

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As Kopa Kunjam languishes in jail, the tribals of Lingagiri have nobody to fight for their cause, finds Anil Mishra

Frontline Kunjam helped rehabilitate villages destroyed by the Salwa Judum
Frontline Kunjam helped rehabilitate villages destroyed by the Salwa Judum
Photo: Vijay Pandey

FOR THE police, Kopa Kunjam is a dreaded Naxalite involved in looting and murder in the Dantewada region. For the tribals of Lingagiri, he is a saviour who helped them get back on their feet after a series of violent attacks unleashed by the Salwa Judum.

“For one year, Kopa looked after us like his children. He bought us food, clothes and everything else we needed. He rebuilt our houses that had been burned down,” says Sita, a villager.

Villagers claim Kunjam is paying the price for helping those who were caught in the crossfire between the State and Naxalites. The Adivasi had been working with social activist Himanshu Kumar’s NGO, Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA), for the rehabilitation of tribals driven out by the Salwa Judum.

According to TEHELKA’s findings, Kunjam was arrested in a bid to weaken the VCA’s efforts. On the day before his arrest, ACP Amresh Mishra called Kunjam and asked him to work with the police instead of the VCA, claims Kumar. Mishra even offered to grant him a liquor shop and a jeep. But Kunjam didn’t budge.

The police chargesheet claims that Kunjam was arrested on 10 December 2009 on charges of murdering former Hirapur panchayat president Punem Hungaram in June that year.

On 2 June, Kunjam, Hungaram, Dharampur panchayat member Jhadi Nageshwar and others were travelling with ration supplies for Lingagiri villagers when they were stopped by Naxalites. Nageshwar and Hungaram were captured by the Naxalites and taken into the jungle. Nageshwar claims that Kunjam followed them into the forest and pleaded with the Naxalites to release the two but his pleas went unheeded. On 13 June, Nageshwar was let off but Hungaram was killed.

The police found Hungaram’s body immediately after the incident but they accused Kunjam of murder and arrested him six months later. According to the chargesheet, Kunjam was arrested based on the statements of Hungaram’s daughter, Revaty Durgam, and colleague Kakem Krishna. Since his arrest, Lingagiri residents have not been allowed to meet Kunjam. His trial is on and two witnesses have testified that Kunjam did not murder Hungaram.

The State has thwarted all chances of establishing peace in north Bastar by arresting Kunjam, says Kumar. He claims Kunjam had mobilised tribals to speak about police atrocities at a meeting to be attended by Home Minister P Chidambaram. This had angered the police and they put him behind bars.

The VCA has shut its Dantewada office. With Kunjam in jail, the villagers of Lingagiri craving for peace and justice don’t know whom to ask for help.

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