Pande Kawasi’s parents along with other villagers.
THE DANTEWADA district administration launched its Lon Varratu (meaning return home, in Gondi) campaign in June last year, putting up pamphlets encouraging Maoists to surrender. Of the more than 1,600 Maoists in villages as per police records, around 300 have surrendered in the past eight months, with most moving back to their villages. On Tuesday evening, one of them, 20-year-old Pande, accused of being the member of a theatre group linked to Maoists, died at a guest house in the police lines, reportedly of suicide.
On Thursday, a sobbing Somari Kawasi said she was not allowed to meet her daughter in lock-up just hours earlier. The family also said the police had held Pande from a friend’s place on February 18.
Somari and Pande’s father Sannu initially refused to take her body, before yielding on Thursday evening following a meeting with Dantewada Collector Deepak Soni. The Collector announced a magisterial inquiry on Wednesday, and Rs 1 lakh to the family for Pande’s cremation.
“Our daughter could never have killed herself. If I was allowed to meet her, maybe she would be alive,” Somari, 40, a resident of Gudse village of Katekalyan block, said. The day Pande was held, she had gone to her friend Jogi’s house, Somari added. “The two were picked up in front of the entire village.”
Police, however, claim that Jogi, who carries a bounty of Rs 5 lakh on her head, surrendered on February 18 along with Pande. They say they didn’t want to detain Pande but she insisted on accompanying Jogi. Police also claim that the Chetna Natya Mandali of which Pande was an “active member” is a cultural offshoot of the Maoists. The family denies this.
SP Abhishek Pallav said the two women were kept in a guest house in the Karli police lines. “We kept them under supervision of two women constables.”
As per police, Jogi said that Pande had gone to the bathroom, and when she didn’t come out for 30 minutes, she and one of the constables went to check. “They found Pande hanging from a beam with a gamcha.”
When police produced Jogi briefly before the activists and the family, she answered questions in monosyllables. She denied any sexual assault.
On February 19, Somari and Sannu first made their way to the Dantewada district headquarters, more than 60 km from their village, with sarpanch Hemlata Kawasi, to find out about Pande, and were told she “surrendered”.
When they met Pande the next day, Somari said, Pande broke down. “She wanted to come home. She said she had been beaten up.”
The family said they were told by the police to come the following week to take Pande back. “On Tuesday, we reached around 2 pm, but were told she is being interrogated. We were asked to come in the evening,” Sannu said in broken Hindi. Around 4.30 pm, they got a call from the Karli guest house. “No one told us anything, a staff member guided us to her room, where Jogi met us. Pande was lying in the bathroom… There were no strangulation marks,” Sannu said.
Demanding an independent probe, Somari said, “Our daughter was kept against her will, brutalised, and pushed to take this extreme step.”
SP Pallav said he was ready for any probe, blaming the family for Pande’s death. “Jogi and Pande consistently said they wanted to work with the police but persuasion by family members and local public representatives under pressure of Maoists led to the loss of a life.” According to Pallav, the family members kept telling Pande that Maoists would not take her surrender kindly.
About why police had turned the family away on Tuesday afternoon, Pallav said he had told them to come later since he was out for work. The post-mortem report is awaited.
Pallav accused the activists and villagers of trying to defame the Lon Varratu scheme. The surrendered ultras are allowed to go back home, police say, unless they have a threat against them, in which case they are kept at camps or made to work with the forces.