On June 28-29 in 2012, the media flashed a story about the killing of 17 Naxalites in a CRPF encounter in Bijapur, Chhattisgarh. These news flashes were followed by congratulatory messages from the then chief minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh, and central home minister P. Chidambaram.
However, in Bijapur, the atmosphere was one of anguish and despair. The communities from villages of Sarkeguda, Rajpenta, and Kottaguda in Bijapur, who had witnessed the said “encounter”, insisted that it was a case of mass extra-judicial killings. They contended that the forces opened unprovoked fire on a gathering of the three villages. Family members asserted that those killed were not Naxalites but ordinary villagers, including six minors.
A few days later, an investigative report in the Indian Express raised questions about the authenticity of the official story of ‘Naxalites killed in encounter killings’. A 12-member fact-finding team led by Congress legislator and then state Congress vice president, Kwasi Lakma, also countered this official narrative. As inconsistencies in the official story emerged, the state government set up a one-member judicial commission of inquiry to investigate the incidents of June 28-29, 2012, and appointed a retired high court judge, Justice V.K. Aggarwal, to preside over the commission.
After over seven years, the villagers of Sarkeguda, Rajpenta, and Kottaguda stand vindicated as the Justice V.K. Agarwal Commission has found no evidence that those killed were Naxalites. The commission report also states that CRPF forces opened unprovoked fire, and attacked some of the victims from close quarters with guns and sharp objects. Justice Agarwal has also stated in the report that there was “clear manipulation in investigation“.
A perusal of the report’s findings indicate gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law in a systematic manner by the CRPF unit. Essentially, this is a case of mass atrocity or mass crimes.
Bastar, a void of accountability
The massacre in Sarkeguda is not an isolated incident. Bastar has been an intense battleground for around three decades now and ordinary Adivasi men and women have borne the brunt of this war. Unchecked police versions of stories of Naxalites killed in encounters fill up the pages of local newspapers every day.
In a few cases like Sarkeguda, where family survivors and communities find access to some human rights defender or independent journalist, the narratives of victim-survivors get a small placeholder in the cacophony of the official narrative.
Bastar exists in a void of accountability. National and state security policies incentivise encounter killings. Extra-judicial killings by state and non-state forces are rampant, and impunity is the norm. Counter-insurgency strategies, built on unaccountable use of force are an incorrect prescription for an insurgency that was caused by the state’s marginalisation of Adivasi communities. They will only further the divide between communities and the state. Under international law, victims of gross human rights violations have a right to truth, justice, reparations, and a guarantee of non-repetition.
Sarkeguda is a rare case where the victim communities have got a semblance of their fundamental human right to truth-seeking. The then state Congress opposition played a commendable role in raising the concerns of the communities. Today, that same Congress party forms the government in Chhattisgarh, but the government hasn’t done much to address the findings of the report yet.
When the Congress party came to power in Chhattisgarh, last year, chief minister Bhupesh Baghel said that his government was keen on initiating a dialogue with all stakeholders, including the affected Adivasi population, to find a solution on how to bring an end to violence and fear in the region.
The Sarkeguda report is an opportunity for the state government to initiate that process of dialogue and healing. The first step would be to acknowledge the truth by tabling the report in the legislature. The scope of the Justice Agarwal Commission was limited and did not include the mandate to issue findings on individual culpability. Understandably, the commission report is silent on that aspect.
However, the report highlights that the nature of injuries show that many victims were fired upon from close quarters and hit with a sharp object. The report also mentions manipulation in the probe and indicates systematic, targeted, illegal killings by members of the CRPF unit.
The state should also promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigate these killings and prosecute the perpetrators of these grave crimes. More so, it must support the victims of the Sarkeguda massacre by providing effective legal representation and protection to the communities during the course of any investigation and/or trial of individual perpetrators. The state should also take steps to provide reparations to the communities for the harm suffered.
Right after the massacre, a CRPF camp was set up in Sarkeguda. Communities have often shared incidents of harassment by the posted at the camp. Paramilitary officers posted in Bastar are trained to look at the entire population with suspicion.
Even though it is concerning and illegal, the harassment by officers, is not surprising. The state needs to re-examine training protocols and manuals and include human rights sensitisation training. One way of reparations and reconciliation can be to obligate the concerned CRPF unit to build a memorial for the victims of the Sarkeguda massacre to commemorate the loss. Memorialisation, apart from paying respects to the victims, can develop knowledge and understanding of the grave massacre. In countries impacted by violent conflict like Rwanda, Argentina, Chile, etc, memorials to victims of severe human rights violations have played a crucial role in the process of healing and reconciliation.
Most importantly, the state of Chhattisgarh should issue an official apology to the people of Sarkeguda in the legislature and commit to the non-recurrence of grave human rights violations in the future.
Whatever steps the government decides to take, the state must consult with community leaders and their representatives at each stage, and include them as crucial stakeholders. It is an opportunity for the state Congress government to execute an alternate vision of healing, understanding and responsive governance.
Three decades of use of bullets and repression hasn’t led us anywhere. Maybe it’s time to give accountability a chance and take the first steps towards peace-building in Bastar.
The author was a part of the legal team that assisted the Sarkeguda communities in the commission of inquiry. The views in this article are the author’s personal views, and should not be read as a representation of the demands of the community.