Over the course of a judicial inquiry into a 2012 incident that left 17 people dead, villagers in Bastar have come together to question the role security forces’ played.
Over the next few months, security forces in Bastar will be presenting their final arguments before a judicial inquiry commission in an alleged fake encounter case from 2012. Villagers have put across their version of events, despite the fear of facing consequences. During the course of the inquiry, multiple discrepancies have come up that thoroughly weaken the state’s narrative of events. But will those in power be granted impunity once again?
A night of many narratives
On June 29, 2012, several TV channels and newspapers reported that security forces from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) and the Chhattisgarh police had ventured into the Silger forests, an “uncharted Maoist zone,” and killed 18 Naxalites in two separate operations at Bijapur and Sukma districts of Bastar, Chhattisgarh.
CNN-IBN (now News18) quoted then home minister P. Chidambaram as saying the operation was “a planned one,” but the Maoists opened fire first. He praised the troops for dealing with the ambush with “great courage and skills”.
A Times of India report, while conceding that among those killed was a 16-year-old, went on to add that “allegations of fake encounter notwithstanding, the two gun battles marked a moment of triumph for police in the battle of attrition against Maoists”.
But the triumph evaporated on July 2, 2012, when Kowasi Lakma, Congress MLA from Chhattisgarh, flatly contradicted Chidambaram and the government’s narrative. Lakma pointed out that in the incident in Bijapur, among those killed were seven minors and women. He upheld the claim made by protesting villagers that those killed were not Naxalites but a group from Sarkeguda, Kottaguda and Rajpeta villages who had been holding a meeting in a clearing to discuss preparations for Beej Padum, a sowing festival.
The villagers said that a little after 10 pm on the night of June 28, they were fired upon even though some of them kept calling out and identifying themselves as villagers. Fifteen of them died that night, including 12-year-old Saraswati Kaka. Another victim, 14-year-old Irpa Suresh, was taken to the hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.
Irpa Ramesh, who had climbed a tree to escape the shooting, was shot and killed the next morning in a space between two houses, allegedly by the forces, and his face bludgeoned with a brick.
The villagers also alleged that the forces beat them using the butt of their guns when they rushed to the site and that some women were molested. Many of the bodies bore evidence of such injuries.
Besides the state Congress fact-finding team that said the incident was most certainly a fake encounter, the Communist Party of India, under Adivasi leader Manish Kunjum, conducted its own inquiry. Another team that met with the villagers consisted of Jayprakash Rao Polsani, Nandini Sundar and Kopa Kunjum. There was also a team sent by the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisation.
Faced with a barrage of protests, with even then tribal affairs minister K.C. Deo expressing his displeasure, the Chhattisgarh government announced a single-member judicial inquiry commission under Justice V.K. Agrawal, retired judge of the Madhya Pradesh high court.
Holes in the state’s case
The commission’s mandate was to ascertain whether an encounter happened, when and how the incident occurred, how many people died and who they were, and the circumstances under which the security forces opened fire.
On Saturday, March 25, 2017, the commission heard final arguments of the villagers represented by the Jagdalpur Legal Aid group (JagLag) and argued by advocate Yug Choudhary of the Bombay high court.
Choudhary observed how it was significant that while the villagers had spoken in one voice, two radically different versions regarding the incident emerged from the state and the CRPF.
According to the CRPF version, two teams comprising a mix of the three forces were making their way towards Basaguda. One team was under Commander S. Elango and one under Commandant Anand Singh, which left about half an hour earlier and was walking parallel to Elango’s team.
According to Elango’s statement and testimonies from other members, his team suddenly heard voices. Then there were cries of “Police police, kill, kill” and they were ambushed. They came under fire from the right and then left, and fired back in self-defence. The firing went on for some 45 minutes and was so intense they were unable to flank and surround the enemy. Elango, who has 25 years of experience in counter insurgency, served in the UN peacekeeping force and is familiar with standard operating procedure, explained before the commission that Naxal ambushes are planned in advance and executed with care.
But in the state’s version, narrated by “surrendered” Naxals Irpa Ganesh and Punem Mangu, a meeting had been ordered that night by the Naxals to plan for encroaching the land of villagers who had joined the police forces. These witnesses claimed that the village meeting was underway when the Naxals suddenly spotted the police force close to them, took advantage of the opportunity and opened fire. As opposed to the CRPF version, this was a chance meeting, a surprise encounter.
Strengthening their arguments with detailed information on ballistics, forensics and the statements from the CRPF and the police, the legal team for the villagers contested the security force’s claim that provocation had led to controlled firing.
Elango had said parabombs (light flares) are commonly used by the troops for illuminating an area in the dark. But he admitted that even though he was aware that the teams would be passing through the vicinity of certain villages during the route, no parabomb was used when they heard voices in the dark and were fired upon. Parabombs, he said, were used only after the firing to illuminate the area and provide care to the injured.
During cross examination, Elango claimed the reason they did not use parabombs earlier was because they wanted to retain “the advantage of element of surprise”. But this was contradictory to his affidavit, which said that when the ambush occurred it was the troops that were taken by absolute surprise. There were no answers as to why the troops did not use the night vision equipment they possessed to identify the direction of the attack and the attackers.
Asked why they did not resort to mortar when they were under attack, Elango said that mortar cannot be effectively employed in a forest. But his own GPS quadrants show that he was in a clearing, something he too has admitted to. Elango also had no explanation to offer for the fact that the deceased people had bullet injuries on their backs and that injuries on the deceased people show they were in kneeling or supine positions.
Chaudhary asserted that the troops did not bother to use fire bombs, night vision equipment or mortar that night because they were not under fire. Who, then, was the aggressor? The village legal team also pointed to disparities between medico-legal statements and conflicting testimonies by some of the security troops on the nature of injuries suffered by them.
An illustration was provided by Arnav Ghosh’s medical examination, which states that he received a bullet injury wound on the left big toe. He reiterated this when he gave his statement to the police in 2012. But his affidavit to the commission says it was his right big toe that was injured – a claim he repeated in person during his cross examination. Furthermore, in written documents, he claimed that once he was hit on his toe, he fell down. But before the commission, he made the oral claim that he was lying belly down in order to fire at targets when he was hit. So how did he fall? This also raises the question of how he was shot in the big toe, left or right, if he was lying down facing the target.
Questions were raised about the seizures allegedly made from the site. Among them were three Bharmar guns, found near the dead bodies. The State Forensic Science laboratory reported that two of them were not in working order. Furthermore, Bharmars are muzzle loaders that require rags or paper for wadding. The guns also require rods to pack the ammunition tightly. However, there are no records of this wadding or rods found at the site. It was also pointed out that these guns, normally used to kill prey like rabbits, are of low velocity and need to be reloaded. It was argued that the injuries sustained by the troops could be because of the ricocheting bullets of their own fire or the result of “friendly fire” – cross firing among the troops.
One of the noteworthy issues raised during the commission’s hearings was the way the state arbitrarily uses the label of Naxals.
After the dead were identified at the police station by their relatives, an FIR was filed claiming that the villagers had confirmed that all the dead and injured, barring two dead minors and three injured, were Jan Militia members (locally-armed squads of village defence committees of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army). But this claim is not supported by any of the villagers’ testimonies.
Irpa Kamala, sarpanch of Kotaguda, in her affidavit states that when she was at the Basaguda thana on June 29, the police were threatening and forcing villagers to write that Naxals had come to the meeting. She adds that several days later, at the collector’s office, she reiterated that there had been no Naxals present at the gathering and that people were being coerced to make false statements.
The police also claimed there were a number of cases pending against those killed but no one was convicted and it is not clear whether the people even knew there were cases against them.
During final arguments, Chaudhary asked how it is that anyone who charges the state with a crime can suddenly be termed a Naxal. He referred to the case of Sarke Pullaiya, a villager who runs a ration shop. Pullaiya was among the injured who initially refused to go to a hospital out of fear, but was later taken by journalists. During his cross examination it was suggested that Pullaiya did not receive any injuries during the shooting incident but was shot later by Naxals. Chaudhary wondered how it was possible for a person to be told he is a Naxal, then told his injury was caused by a Naxal and also receive compensation from the state for injury caused by a Naxal.
He also discredited the claim of police witness Ganesh, said to be a surrendered Naxal, who had a “change of heart” in 2014 because he was influenced by the government’s policies and schemes. During cross examination, Ganesh admitted he did not know the meaning of words like class war and class consciousness. Nor had he heard of the politburo.
The CRPF and then the police are to present their final arguments over the next few months, after which the commission will present its report. But it is evident that one of the most important features of the Sarkheguda incident and the hearings is the spirited manner in which the villagers have been able to successfully challenge and then deconstruct the state’s narrative.
Says Shalini Gera of JagLag, “It was the villagers who took the lead from the very beginning, with protests held at Bijapur on June 30. They have been very vocal and steadfast.” Their resolute stand is especially commendable, notes Gera, because it was these very villagers who had fled because of the repression by the Salwa Judum and had been persuaded to return in 2010. This time around, they have decided to stay on and fight.
Women at the forefront
A salient feature of this fight is the way the women have taken the lead. Kamla Kaka, a mitanin prerak (health trainer) whose nephew Rahul Kaka was killed, and Madkam Ratna, sister of 15-year-old Ram Vilas who aspired to be a lawyer before he was gunned down, went to the sub-divisional magistrate when they learnt a magisterial inquiry was to be held and gave oral statements.
Later, when they learnt that the magistrate had said no one had turned up for the inquiry, they went all the way to Delhi to meet with then home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde. They also met with then chief minister Raman Singh in Raipur. These were women who until then had not ventured out of their region. Rita Kaka, another woman who gave an affidavit, filed a complaint at the NHRC of police harassment even though she was extremely nervous about the consequences.
It is their push that has emboldened others to keep up the momentum in the struggle for justice.
Gera points out how gender roles have been reversed in the increasingly repressive atmosphere of Bastar. The men do not venture into weekly markets or haats, or to gather firewood in the forests for fear of being picked up. Many are fleeing to Andhra and it is not uncommon for villages to be populated largely by women and elderly men. It is the women then who are leading the resistance.
Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist from Mumbai who is interested in human rights and development issues.