On 29th July 2011, Magdalene, a 15-year-old girl from Mailpidi village, was walking back home after school. On her way, she was arrested by the police. “Stop pretending to be a student” the police told her as they went through her school bag and roughed her up. Her crime? Bank robbery; armed conflict with the police; and being a Maoist.
These kinds of stories aren’t rare, or even uncommon in Jharkhand. The state tops the list of over-crowded jails in the country; 70 percent of criminals in there are under-trial, and false conviction rate is alarmingly high too. Activists fighting for land rights, and protesting against state’s use of brute force in its attempts to curb the Maoist insurgency, are often put behind bars. People are abducted at the mere suspicion of sympathizing with the Maoists.
Magdalene’s village, Mailpidi, is nestled between the Elephant Corridor and the Saranda-Singhbum range in Jharkhand. No roads or vehicles go there. Magdalene shifted to Murhu in the next district and rented a place to stay with her brother so that she could go to school easily. Little did she know that her plans of getting a better education were going to be put on hold by the Jharkhand police.
After being arrested, Magdalene, baffled and hapless, was taken to the Khunti jail and transferred to the Namkum Women’s Probation Home. She stayed here for 10 months and for the first 9, no one — not her family, not her friends, not her teachers — knew where she was.
“But why did they think she was a Maoist? Did she do something?” I asked Amita, our Community Correspondent who, among other activists, was involved in getting Magdalene out of jail.
“This was not the first time she was arrested” Amita reveals, “She was arrested in 2010 after a tussle at the Murhu State Bank between some people and the police. She wasn’t involved in any of it; she wasn’t even there. She and her friends were visiting her sister who lived nearby.”
Amita continues, “They went to see a cricket match at her sister’s house when that shootout happened. The police came around to do a routine search and found a bunch of kids in school uniforms who weren’t originally from Murhu. They concluded that they must be Maoists and took them all into custody.” Magdalene and her friends spent 3 months in jail.
It took a lot of convincing from her teachers, who clarified to the police that there had been a mistake, for the four students to be released. They put the incident behind them and attempted to move on with their lives. Magdalene went back to her school and continued to live with her brother in Murhu.
July 2011, Magdalene found herself in a women’s probation home again. “There was no evidence against her. It seems that the Superintendent of Police instigated the other officers to arrest her. The charge sheet from the event in 2010 does not even have her name on it,” says Alistair Bodro, an activist who has worked closely with Magdalene and many others like her.
“I am sure if you took a look around jails in Khunti and others in Jharkhand, you’d find a lot of the people who have been falsely accused of being conspirators against the state. They are poor and nobody comes to bother the police if they disappear,” he says. The police have been arresting people on unsubstantiated grounds to mount figures. The jacked-up jail population of Jharkhand touts the efforts of the state police in fighting insurgents, but a closer look reveals that democratic principles are being jeopardized by the state as much as its enemy.
It was a matter of chance that Alistair found Magdalene at the probation home. Once he had the information, he was able to involve enough people to get her out of the jail. Two years later, Magdalene is beginning to put back together her plans that were rudely interrupted.
Her family was convinced that she should just stay at home and forget about completing school. “But she’s not going to give up so easily,” says Amita; who, along with other activists, was able to secure admission for Magdalene at the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidhyalaya. The District Commissioner and school principal have been very supportive through the entire process.
Even as Magdalene attempts to get on with her studies and make new friends, the court case against her continues to drag on. She is currently supposed to appear at the court in Khunti every month. The ordeal, both Amita and Magdalene’s teachers agree, is detrimental to her emotional well being as well as her studies. “Cases like this one need to be brought forward. More people need to know about the state’s repression otherwise it will never stop,” Alistair said.