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The Merchant of Murshidabad

December 30, 2010

At 10.45 a.m. on May 1, 2007 Pijush Guha checked into the Mahindra Hotel here and vanished. The hotel register indicates that he checked out at 8.45 p.m. the same day but no one knows where he went, who he met or what he did till 4.10 p.m. on May 6, 2007, when Anil Kumar Singh claimed he saw town inspector B.S. Jagrit detain Mr. Guha near the Raipur railway station.

According to Mr. Singh’s court testimony, the police searched Mr. Guha’s black and blue shoulder bag and found pamphlets supporting the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), a mobile phone, a rail ticket dated May 6, 2007, Rs. 49,0000 in cash and three letters which, Mr. Guha said, were written by the jailed Narayan Sanyal, an alleged Maoist, and handed over to him by physician and human rights activist, Binayak Sen. Mr. Jagrit claimed he made the arrest on the basis of information received on his wireless set but did not know where Mr. Guha had been during the five days prior to his arrest.
On December 24 this year, judge B.P. Verma of the Raipur sessions court found Mr. Jagrit and Mr. Kumar’s statements, among others, credible enough to sentence Mr. Guha, Mr. Sanyal and Dr. Sen to life imprisonment for supporting the CPI (Maoist) and conspiring to commit sedition.

While the sentencing of Dr. Sen has attracted considerable comment; Mr. Guha remains an enigmatic figure. He has been convicted of sedition, he is implicated in a Maoist case in Purulia, West Bengal, but who is Guha? Why was he in Raipur and where was he those crucial five days?

Mr. Guha was born on February 4, 1971 at Sagarpara in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, where he studied up to Class 10 before shifting to the Narkuldanga High School in Kolkata. “He completed his Bachelor of Sciences in biology from Gurudas College in Phoolbagan before doing a hardware course,” said his brother Sujoy Guha, a school teacher in Murshidabad. Soon after college, Mr. Guha and his partners bought a factory at Sagarpara and began manufacturing beedis under the brand names of ‘Badshah’ and ‘Dada’.

“The Dada brand was named after cricketer Saurav Ganguly,” said Rupa, Mr. Guha’s wife. “Pijush used to come to Raipur to buy tendu leaves for their beedi factory back home. He was also interested in manufacturing biodiesel from jatropha and had met several officials in the Chhattisgarh government in this regard.”

On May 1, 2007, Rupa said, she spoke to her husband in the morning and he told her he would return home the following day. That evening, however, a group of policemen arrived at Mr. Guha’s ancestral home in Murshidabad and questioned his parents about him. “The police came again on May 4 but refused to tell us where Pijush was and so I got worried,” said Rupa.

Despite holding Mr. Guha in prison for nearly four years and producing 97 witnesses, the Chhattisgarh police have been unable to explain how Mr. Guha was arrested, how he got hold of the letters written by Mr. Sanyal, and how they relied on Mr. Anil Singh’s testimony that he heard Mr. Guha tell the police that Dr. Sen gave him the letters.

Alleged illegal detention
Mr. Guha testified that he was picked up by the police on May 1, 2007 from the Mahindra hotel, blindfolded, illegally detained and interrogated for five days before his arrest was staged on the station road on May 6, 2007.

Defence maintains that all evidence was planted by the police. Mr. Anil Kumar Singh, an eyewitness, whose testimony was crucial for the prosecution, said he was not present at the moment of Mr. Guha’s arrest but arrived soon after.

Mr. Guha’s lawyers have produced a railway ticket in his name and dated May 2 2007, to show that he intended returning home but was picked up by the police. The police also produced a ticket, dated May 6, 2007, to support their claim. “It is correct to say that the seized ticket bore Pijush Guha’s name,” Mr. Jagrit testified. However, the seized ticket is an unreserved one.

Incorrect petition

In a special leave petition (SLP) filed in the Supreme Court on November 23, 2009, investigating officer S.S. Rajpoot said Mr. Guha was arrested at Hotel Mahindra, not at the railway station as claimed earlier. Questioned about this discrepancy, Mr. Rajpoot said he had made a typing mistake in his written submission to the highest court, an explanation Mr. Verma accepted in his judgment.

Mr. Verma wrote (in Hindi): “The prosecution is favoured by Pijush Guha’s inability to explain how he got the letters … as for the police picking him up on 1.5.2007 from Mahindra Hotel and blindfolding him … no witnesses have been produced.”

Alleged Maoist links
Mr. Verma writes that the testimony of sub-inspector Sadhan Kumar Pathak of Purulia confirms that Mr. Guha had Maoist links. In his testimony, Mr. Pathak claimed that Mr. Guha was part of a Maoist attack on a CRPF camp in Purulia in 2005. On cross-examination, he admitted that the first information report (FIR) made no mention of Mr. Guha. A report by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties notes that Mr. Guha was implicated in the Purulia case two years later on May 6, 2007: the same date when the Chhattisgarh police claimed that they arrested him.

First Published in The Hindu on  Dec 27

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