Vittala, father Lingappa after the acquittal Thursday.

By Johnson T A

A tribal youth from a remote village bordering the Kudremukh national park in Dakshina Kannada district, who was arrested in 2012 when he was a 23-year-old journalism student, along with his father, by an anti-Naxal unit of Karnataka Police has been acquitted by a district court — after police failed to show any Naxal links of the duo.

Vittala Malekudiya, 32, now a journalist with a leading Kannada daily, and his father Lingappa Malekudiya, 60, who still lives in their village of Kuthloor, were acquitted with the court observing that most of the material seized to prove their Naxal links were articles “required for day-to-day livelihood”.

The material also included a book on Bhagat Singh seized from Vittala’s hostel room, a letter seeking boycott of Parliament polls until his village gets basic amenities, and clippings of newspaper articles. “Possessing books of Bhagat Singh is not barred under law…the reading of such newspapers is not barred under law,” the court said.

The Malekudiyas were arrested on March 3, 2012, from their home on the basis of “information” obtained by the unit’s senior officer that they were assisting five Naxals for whom the force was combing the Kudremukh forest region. The father and son were charged with criminal conspiracy and sedition under the IPC and terrorism under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

The five alleged Naxals — Vikram Gowda, Pradeepa, John, Prabha and Sundari — were named in an FIR along with the Malekudiyas but were never arrested. Ahead of the trial, the case against the five, who are alleged to be underground in a neighbouring state, was separated from that of the Malekudiyas by a magistrate’s court.

“I am very happy to be acquitted in this case. We struggled for nine years and fought hard to get this acquittal. We were framed as Naxal extremists but there were no points in the chargesheet to indicate these charges. Our innocence has been proven,” Vittala said.

“We attended every court hearing. Even during Covid, we would stand outside court on some days. It was very hard for us to commute from our village to Mangalore for hearings. We had to be in court before 11 am and there were no buses from near our village,” he said.

Many of the hearings during the Covid period were attended via Whatsapp video calls by the Malekudiyas with the help of their advocate Dinesh Hegde Ullepady. The Malekudiya tribal community lives in the forests around the national park, and subsists by selling forest produce and engaging in small agriculture.

When he was arrested, Vittala was in the second semester of a journalism masters programme at Mangalore University. He was in prison between March to June and had to run between courts in Puttur and Belthangady to obtain special permission to write his semester exams in 2012. “I was taken in handcuffs to the exam and this created a controversy at the time,” Vittala said.

The father and son were granted technical bail in June 2012 after police failed to file a chargesheet at the end of 90 days of judicial custody. Vittala completed his course in 2016 and got a job in a vernacular newspaper in 2018.

“I feel great satisfaction in having proved they were innocent. The police themselves admitted that the seized materials were household articles,” said Ullepady, the advocate.

“We made a prayer to the district court for an honorable acquittal and not just an acquittal. Honorable acquittals are given when police have filed a false case and the honour of the arrested person has to be restored. The district court has given only an acquittal and we will approach the High Court for an honorable acquittal,” he said.

One of the key factors that the third additional district judge for Dakshina Kannada, B B Jakati, pointed out while acquitting them is that the police failed to provide any evidence of alleged Naxal links from three mobile phones that were among the seized material.

“The CDR of these mobiles have not been produced. Even during the course of trial, the prosecution has not shown the incriminating evidence available in original mobiles seized…mere seizure of mobiles from the custody of accused or at their instance would not help the case of the prosecution in any manner,” the court noted.

On the letter found in Vittala’s room, the court said: “…it appears that the accused No.6 being the student of journalism wrote such a letter to boycott the bye-election of Lok Sabha because the leaders have not fulfilled long standing demands of the tribal people of Kuthloor village. On reading it can be easily stated that such letters contain demands of local people.”

The court has also observed that as many as ten people from the village, who were enlisted among 23 prosecution witnesses, had not supported the police’s case.

“If the accused No. 6 and 7 were really involved in Naxalite activity, at leastVittala Malekudiya, 32, now a journalist with a leading Kannada daily, and his father Lingappa Malekudiya, 60, who still lives in their village of Kuthloor, were acquitted with the court observing that most of the material seized to prove their Naxal links were articles required for day-to-day livelihood. One villager would have spoken of such a fact. None of the villagers spoke such a fact, so, there is absolutely no evidence to prove that the accused No. 6 and 7 were members of Naxalite group and they were concealing the accused No.1 to 5 or assisting them in Naxalite activities in the forest area of Kuthloor Village,” the court said.

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