Were There Civilians Among 'Naxals' Killed in the Gadchiroli 'Encounter'?

The police said it was 'verifying' names in a purported letter released by CPI-Maoist claiming that only 22 of the 40 persons whose bodies were found in Indravati river belonged to the armed rebellion group.

Nearly three weeks after the C-60 commandos of Gadchiroli police killed 40 persons in a supposed encounter at the banks of Indravati river, the banned group, Communist Party of India- Maoist (CPI-Maoist), has issued a statement condemning the killings. While the veracity of the source of this statement couldn’t be independently verified, the letter claims to be issued by Shrinivas, the secretary of western sub-zonal bureau of Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee. The letter had identified and stated that 22 of those killed belonged to the armed rebellion group.

If the statement is anything to go by, the Gadchiroli police will have some explaining to do with the rebels claiming that at least three persons from the list of the victims released by the police were “civilians” and did not belong to the group. The letter states that it has not been able to source information of the rest and hence has not been able to confirm the identities of the rest of the 15 persons who were killed in the police firing.

Already, civil rights groups and locals have challenged the police’s claim that the firing was not done in self-defence, but was a well-planned ploy worked out on the basis of intelligence inputs received by the police. The Wire’s report has also raised serious doubts over the police’s version.

Eight persons, mostly minor children from Gattepalli village in Gadchiroli, are feared to be killed in the firing and their participation in the movement is unlikely, going by the families’ claims and the circumstances in which they had travelled to the firing spot. Their families have claimed that the eight youth – five girls and three boys – had left Gattepalli to attend a wedding in a near Kasansur village where the police had opened fire on April 22.

The four- page letter signed and issued on April 26, emerged only two days ago. Along with a detailed statement condemning the killings, the letter has also issued photographs of those killed in the firings. An entire page is dedicated to list out the 22 persons they claim to be a part of the rebel group, along with their party rank. Three have been identified as “civilian” and it claims one of them had been forcibly made to wear army fatigues.

378417367 Maoists Statement by The Wire on Scribd

According to the list, three crucial commandos of the Naxal groups – Sainath alias Dolesh Madhi Atram (32), the alleged commander of Permelli Dalam (who, according to the police, was recently elevated as the divisional committee member) from Gattepalli, division committee (popularly known as ‘DVC’) rank-level member Naxal Srinu alias Srinath, and Nandu – were among those killed in the ambush. Besides them, six were assistant commandants, four party committee member, and rest are party members. Srinu was 45- years old and the oldest to be killed in the firing. The youngest was an 18- year old girl named Bujji Punem alias Kranti from Korsagudem in Bijapur district, Chhattisgarh.

The letter claimed these 22 alleged Naxals killed were a part of Technical Counter Offensive Campaign (TCOC) from the Aheri-Perimili region and had gathered to discuss their further action plans. The letter claimed this was their worst loss in the movement’s 38 years of presence in Gadchiroli region.

No police personnel was injured in the alleged “fire exchange” with the alleged Naxals. Representational Picture. Credit: Reuters

The district superintendent of police Abhinav Deshmukh said while the source of the list has not been confirmed yet, the list has some additional names which the police had not found before. “Some names and photographs do not match and some new names are also mentioned in the list. We are verifying them. Our investigation has stumbled upon new evidence and it is likely that that over 60 Naxals were present at the spot,” Deshmukh told The Wire.

So far, the police claim to have identified 19 bodies, of which 15 have already been handed over to the respective families. Deshmukh said his officers were in the process of verifying the identity of four more. “Other bodies will have to be verified through DNA samples collected from those who come forward. It is a lengthy process,” he added.

The initial reports had claimed that the police had succeeded in killing 40 “Naxals” in a deadly fire exchange. No police personnel was injured in the alleged “fire exchange”. The police claimed that its over 150- C-60 commandos had entered into the forest of Kasansur village in Etapalli block in the wee hours of April 22, and when the Naxals gathered on the banks of Indravati river in the morning, unarmed, they were fired at. So far, the police have confirmed and handed over only one girl’s body to the family. Sixteen bodies were recovered from the river on the same day and another 18 on the following days. Another six, including Nandu, were killed at a nearby Kapewancha area in Rajaram Khandla forest on April 23.

The police have also begun the process of disposing of the unclaimed bodies. “We have collected their DNA samples and have already disposed of 20 bodies with the sub- divisional magistrate’s permission. There aren’t any rules as to how long a body needs to be preserved. The process of disposing of the bodies have been video-graphed. All bodies have been buried in case a need to exhume them arises,” Deshmukh told The Wire.

Two separate magisterial inquiries have been ordered in the two incidents of killings. According to the present order, the executive magistrates would be inquiring into the killings, as against the judicial magistrate inquiry mandated under 176 (1A) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). There are clear National Human Rights Commissions guidelines issued on procedures to be followed in case of extra-judicial killings. In 2016, the Bombay high court had reprimanded the prisons department for not carrying out these inquiries in case of deaths in the prison. Encounter killings have by far remained away from the court’s scrutiny and mostly gone unnoticed and unquestioned.

The Gadchiroli police, on May 3, had issued a full-page advertisement in a leading English daily with five names and the reward money on each person’s head. The advertisement titled, “Give information, earn million”, was issued as a part of the “routine public announcement”, Deshmukh claimed.

The five persons include, Malojula Venugopal alias Bhupati of Yedapalli post, KarimNagar in Andhra Pradesh, Dipak alias Milind Teltumbde of Rajur post in Wani taluka of Yavatmal district, Narmada Akka of Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, Joganna alias Chimala Narsayya from Ramgundam post in Guntur of Andhra Pradesh and Pahadsingh alias Baburao Topha from Chhuriya taluka in Rajnandgaon district in Chhattisgarh. The cash award ranges from Rs 60 lakh to Rs 16 lakh.

“We usually issue advertisements in regional newspapers. Only a few months ago, we had issued several such appeals in many Marathi papers. This was the first time we decided to put out an advertisement in an English daily to reach out to the urban masses. These wanted Naxals are in their 50s and have been visiting hospitals and other contacts in urban areas. Hence, we decided to make an announcement that could reach a wider audience,” Deshmukh claimed.