Who Killed Sodi Deva?

How a series of illegal detentions and a Maoist leaflet celebrating women's day led to the death of a 20-year-old in Chhattisgarh's Sukma district on March 8.

With a trembling hand, Podiyam Ganga reached for the stamp pad to put the impression of his left thumb on the police complaint. Ganga was amongst the ten or so Adivasis who had come from Bodhrajpadar village of Konta tehsil to Sukma, the headquarter of the district administration in Chhattisgarh, on Saturday, March 16.

They were there to register police complaints on two inter-related incidents.

On Friday, March 8, around 35-40 villagers of Bodhrajpadar were travelling on a tractor – often the only means of public transport in these parts – on their way to Bheji thana, seven kilometres from their village.

Amongst them was 20-year-old Sodi Deva. 

In his early 50s, Ganga, the Patel of the village, was not far behind on a cycle. The previous day, when some of the villagers were returning from the Konta weekly market, they had gone once more to Bheji thana to demand the release of four persons from their village – Deva’s father Dula among them – who had been in police custody for a month.

They had made the same request many times during the previous month, but had been turned away. This time, however, they were told that if all the villagers came to the thana the next day, the four would be set free.

Around 1.5 kilometres before the thana and half a kilometre from Bheji village, Deva and a few others in the tractor noticed sheets of paper on the ground weighed down with stones, near the edge of the road.

They knew these were Maoist parchas (leaflets). Ganga, on his cycle, had also seen them.

One of the leaflets. Credit: Bela Bhatia

When Deva noticed two policemen at a grocery store further up on the road, he jumped off the tractor and also stopped Ganga when he caught up with him. “We told them about the parchas,” said Ganga. “We do not know their names, but the surname of both was Markam (an adivasi surname). They asked us to go back and get the parchas. We refused. They started abusing us in foul language. ‘Bhosadike, do as you are told if you want to meet your relatives’, they shouted.”

Deva borrowed a cycle and reluctantly headed to the spot with Ganga. At a short distance from the spot, Ganga had an urge to pee and pedalled towards the thicket of trees that are on both sides of that road.

“From where I was, I could see Deva as he stopped near the parchas. There were a few of them and he started picking them up. He was bent over the last one when there was a terrifying blast, a roaring fire and smoke. I saw Deva fly higher than a giant tree close by. Then I saw him fall.”

Scared to go closer, Ganga turned back towards the thana. According to him and the other villagers, the police made the villagers lead the way to the site after learning about the blast.

“Why did they not go in the front?” they asked. “They have machines… there could have been another bomb.”

Deva’s lifeless body with a missing right arm lay face down on the gravel, only there was no face.

As Ganga related what had happened, others listened. Amongst them were Dula, Deva’s father, as well as the other three who had been in police custody.

The ‘surrender’ game

The first person to be taken in, on January 20, had been Kawasi Lakhma (not to be confused with the Congress MLA from Konta constituency).

Tall and lanky, Lakhma is in his mid-twenties. He said that he was sleeping at home when a group of mostly Gondi-speaking forces picked him up at around 4 am.

He was first taken to the CRPF-DRG camp at Elarmadgu, around 1.5 kilometres from their village, where he was kept for three days, and then to Bheji thana. “I was beaten up at the camp and the thana by police after they had consumed daru (alcohol). Amongst them, was one called Kashyap. They kept forcing me to surrender. I told them that I used to work for them [the Maoists] but left two years ago, so why should I surrender?”

Kawasi Lakhma, Podiyam Nandu and Dirdo Deva. Credit: Bela Bhatia

Kawasi Lakhma was joined in Bheji thana by three others from the village, who were all picked up at dawn on February 7. Two of them, Sodi Dula and Dirdo Deva, are older men in their mid-40s while the third, Podiyam Nandu, is in his twenties.

Dula and Deva said that they were kept in the camp for five days and then brought to the thana. Nandu, however, was kept at the camp for three weeks before being taken to the thana. All three said that they were beaten when they were first taken in – Dula in the village, Deva in the thana and Nandu in the camp.

Like Lakhma, Nandu was under pressure to surrender, but he resisted. He told them that he used to be part of the jan-militia but had left it after a year. That was a few years ago, and he has been living at home in the village ever since.

Deva said, “I was not asked to surrender but a drunk ‘Major Sham’ kept asking me to speak in Hindi and kept beating me for not being able to do so.”

Dula said that he was not asked to surrender either, but was nevertheless accused of having slept in his uncle’s house the previous night “because he was hiding out of fear”. What had actually happened was that after having a few drinks of tadi (palm toddy), he had been too drowsy to go home.

While in police custody, they were kept in a room next to the office section of the thana. In the camp as well as the thana, they were made to do odd jobs like sweeping, chopping wood, cutting vegetables, washing utensils and cleaning the yard. Family members went to the thana many times, but their pleas were ignored. Sometimes they were told that the four would be released whenever the sahib came.

They were finally released after the blast.

Deva’s father, Dula. Credit: Bela Bhatia

The Code of Criminal Procedure does not allow a person arrested without a warrant to be detained in police custody for more than 24 hours (Section 57). The period may extend to up to 15 days only by an order of a judicial magistrate (Section 167). A police official who did not want to be named said that permission from a magistrate is hardly ever taken and that it was very unlikely that it was taken in this case.

The illegal confinement of four persons for weeks is not unusual in the conflict-ridden districts of Bastar. It is a matter of enquiry whether an entry about their “arrest” was even made in the police station diary.

For the IED blast, an FIR has been registered. The FIR bears the signature of Podiyam Ganga as the person who filed it two hours after the incident. This is mystifying since Ganga came to Sukma to file a police complaint a week later. Possibly, at the time he was too shocked to know what he was signing.

The FIR, made out against unknown Maoists, states that the villagers were on their way to the bazar that day, that Deva picked up the parchas on his own volition, and that the IED planted there was an act of criminal conspiracy with the intention of causing death. The signature of the receiving officer is that of sub-inspector Pramod Kumar Kashyap.

The FIR.

The Superintendent of Police D.S. Meravi gave a patient hearing on March 16 to the aggrieved group from Bodhrajpadar. He ordered the immediate transfer of two assistant sub-inspectors at Bheji thana – Budharuram Markam and Chainuram Markam. Further punitive action would be taken, he assured.

He said that Deva’s father would receive the monetary compensation that is due when a civilian is killed in a Maoist action (Rs 5 lakh) and that a family member or relative would get a job in a government office.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the police complaint filed by the four against their illegal detention leads to the filing of an FIR.

It also remains to be seen whether the complaint about Deva and Ganga being forced to bring the parchas, which lead to Deva’s death, extends to a counter-FIR. 

So, who killed Sodi Deva? It can be argued that if the four had not been illegally detained, causing the villagers to go to the police station in the first place, and if the police had not so callously forced Ganga and Deva to get the parchas, Deva would be alive.

It is also possible that, instead of him, a tractor-full of people would have died, or a villager on her way to the market, or just a wandering cow or goat. This is hardly first time that the planting of IEDs by Maoists to target the police has backfired.

March 8 is celebrated as international women’s day. In Bodhrajpadar, however, it will be remembered as a day when a Maoist leaflet – celebrating women’s day – killed Sodi Deva.

Bela Bhatia is an independent researcher, reporter and human-rights lawyer based in Bastar, south Chhattisgarh.