Back to Square One, Says Petitioner as SC Disposes of Plea on Edesmetta Firing

Three years after asking the CBI to investigate the killing of eight people in Edesmetta in 2013, the top court has closed the matter without any clarity on the outcome of the probe.

Mumbai: Nine years after a petition seeking justice for the killing of eight people in Edesmetta was filed, the Supreme Court on December 15, Thursday, disposed of the matter asking the petitioner to go to the CBI court with the grievances. The CBI, which was directed by the apex court in 2019 to investigate the matter, had submitted a “sealed envelope” at the last hearing. The apex court has directed the CBI too to proceed before the trial court with the chargesheet. The court, however, has not set any timeline for the completion of the investigation. 

The petitioner – human rights activist Degree Prasad Chouhan – had moved the court soon after the 2013 incident, seeking legal action against the elite Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) unit of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The security forces were accused of killing eight people – including three minors – and injuring several villagers of Edesmetta in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district on the intervening night of May 17 and 18, 2013. 

The court’s decision to dispose of the matter came a few days after solicitor general of India Tushar Mehta sought legal action against Chouhan for “perjury and fabrication of evidence”. Mehta had claimed that the NGOs send their “own people” as part of fact-finding teams and come to “predetermined conclusions” in their reports. He was hinting at the report that was compiled soon after the Edesmetta incident, for which Chouhan was part of the fact-finding team. 

Mehta, as a respondent in the petition, had made it clear from his statement that the CBI, instead of investigating the allegation against the central forces, was focusing on Chouhan. And the decision of the division bench of Justices M.R. Shah and C.T. Ravikumar on Thursday, Chouhan says, has taken them back to square one. “Since the state and central agencies had not done their part, we had approached the Supreme Court. In 2019, a CBI inquiry was initiated into the matter following the Supreme Court’s order. And with today’s decision, things again look bleak,” Chouhan told The Wire.

Advocate Kawalpreet Kaur, who is assisting senior advocate Colin Gonsalves in the case, told The Wire that the case was disposed of without offering any clarity. “The CBI handed over three sealed envelopes to the court. We have no idea what those envelopes possess. We, as the petitioner’s lawyers, requested the court to make the envelope available to us. But the court turned our request down.”

The three envelopes submitted to the court are marked as “final status reports”. In the November 21 hearing, Mehta had told the court that the agency’s investigation was at the “final stage” and on November 30, the envelopes were submitted to the court.

The Supreme Court has, on many occasions, expressed concern over the “sealed enveloped jurisprudence”. The most recent criticism was by the Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud when he said the practice sets a “dangerous precedent”. He had said that practice makes “the process of adjudication vague and opaque”. CJI Chandrachud had criticised sealed covers earlier too, as did former CJI N.V. Ramana. In the Edesmetta case, however, the court seems to have accepted such envelopes without any reservations. 

The Supreme Court of India, New Delhi. Photo: Pinakpani/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Governments accused of cover up attempts

Both the state and Union governments attempted to cover up the Edesmetta firing. The firing occurred on the night of May 17, 2013, when the villagers were celebrating Beej Pandum, an annual ritual sowing festival just before the rains. Those killed included Karam Somlu (35); Punem Somu (30); Beeja Pandum priest Karam Pandu (37); Karam Guddu (10); Karam Masa (16); Karam Badru (8); and Punem Lakku (15)

Soon after the incident, the local Gangalur police station filed an FIR claiming that many “Naxalites regularly came to the village for shelter” and that the action of the armed forces was part of the regular combing action. In the firing, CoBRA constable Dev Prakash had also died. The Gangalur police station FIR focussed on the killing of the constable and the villagers’ death was not considered within the purview of this investigation. 

Chouhan approached the police station with the testimonies of those injured and families of those killed in the incident. He was, however, sent back. Following this, he moved the apex court. 

While the court’s hearing continued, two important developments happened. First, the one-member judicial commission presided over by Justice V.K. Agarwal had held the armed forces responsible for killing innocent villagers in a “panic firing”. Agarwal’s report also said that the CoBRA constable may have been killed in cross firing by his colleagues because the there was no evidence to show that the villagers were armed. In another important development, the state government had declared ex-gratia compensation for those killed and injured in the firing – something that is not done when Maoists are killed in encounters. 

Fresh affidavit filed

Mehta seeking legal action against Chouhan follows the precedent set in another case where innocent persons were killed in police firing in Chhattisgarh. The top court, dismissing a case filed by rights activist and Gandhian Himanshu Kumar, imposed a fine on him.

But in response to Mehta’s argument in the court, Chouhan filed another affidavit in which he questioned the CBI’s conduct and investigation over the past three years. The petition raises questions about the very nature of the FIR that was registered by the CBI. The Supreme Court in 2019 had directed the CBI to investigate the killing but “the CBI FIR nowhere acknowledges the killing of 8 villages by combined forces- both central and state,” Chouhan’s affidavit points out. “The FIR doesn’t acknowledge the senseless massacre of innocent tribals and the CBI investigation has not taken place on that incident (sic),” the affidavit further claims. The Wire has accessed both the Gangalur police’s FIR and the one filed by the CBI and has verified that they are identical. 

Human rights activist Degree Prasad Chouhan. Photo: Special arrangement.

The affidavit also has signed statements of six relatives of the deceased persons, along with another 26 villagers. The family members include Kaaram Somli, father of Masa; Karam Bandi, father of eight-year-old Badru; Punem Sanki, father of Somu; Kaaram Somli, father of Somlu; Somlu, brother of Lakku; Somlu, brother of 10-year-old Guddu and son of Pandu. The victims’ families have unanimously accused the CBI of not conducting a proper investigation. 

“The Chhattisgarh police filed a false report calling the killed people Naxalites… we told the CBI team sent by the SC to investigate that our family member was murdered by the police. The CBI recorded our statements in the presence of the police. What was written was neither read to us nor was its copy shared with us. Thus, we request the court to give us justice,” they write. These letters are attached alongside Chouhan’s affidavit. 

Other villagers, including many eyewitnesses, have also accused the CBI of keeping them in the dark and not handing over or reading out to them what was recorded as their statements. 

The Wire reached out to the CBI spokesperson for comments but is yet to hear from them. The story will be updated if a response is received.