Midnight massacre

Print edition : July 27, 2012

A CRPF jawan injured during the operation against Maoists in Chhattisgarh's Bijapur district on June 29 being taken to hospital in Raipur.-PTI

In the anti-Maoist operation in Chhattisgarh, it is difficult to take a categorical stand that would indict the CRPF for having committed a blunder or overreacted.

As many as 17 people all tribal people were killed in a remote village (Sarkeguda) in Chhattisgarhs Bijapur district, on June 29, following what the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) claimed was a chance encounter en route to another village (Silger) where heavy Maoist movement had been reported. A few local activists alleged that the CRPF action was a fake encounter that in reality was a reckless extermination of innocent villagers.

The incident has naturally aroused strong emotions, particularly because a few teenagers were among those killed. (The youngest was 15 years old. Two other casualties were aged 18 and 19.) Several questions have been raised over the version given out by Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram and the CRPF chief K. Vijay Kumar. Incidentally, Vijay Kumar is an outstanding professional with a huge reputation for professionalism and integrity. Ironically, Union Minister for Tribal Affairs Kishore Chandra Deo castigated the CRPF even as his colleague in the Home Ministry stoutly defended it.

The truth or justification for the operation lay somewhere in between. There is an even chance that a few of those killed were innocent and had unwittingly got mixed up with the wrong crowd. (There is also the theory that Maoists are in the habit of putting up a human shield consisting of village residents to ward off police operations. Also, the practice of recruiting teenagers to the Maoist ranks like what the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) used to do years ago is not unusual.) Such mass killing be it of local people or members of security forces has been happening in the Maoist-affected States of central and eastern India for quite some time. Let us not forget that violence has become nearly endemic in Chhattisgarh. Who can forget the April 6, 2010, Maoist ambush and killing of 73 CRPF men in the Dantewada forest? Nearly, 1,000 Maoists were said to have taken part in this dastardly attack.

The June 29 incident does not come as a total surprise if one reckons the undiminished Maoist capacity to challenge the local authorities and inflict substantial casualties on them. Nevertheless, the loss of precious lives causes us immense anguish, especially in the context of the three confirmed teenager deaths.

Grief is a natural and inevitable response. A mature nation, however, soon puts such a tragedy behind it and looks ahead to explore how best to prevent such horror from repeating itself. This is why a national debate is necessary.

The CRPF should not shy away from such an exercise or take umbrage at it. Such a healthy discourse is actually to be encouraged in the cause of honing its own professional skills. The debate should, however, be dignified, restrained and meaningful, paving the way for corrective action and not recrimination. It is heartening that the Union Home Minister has gone public expressing his regrets if any innocent has been killed. This should help take the sting out of his initial stand, which gave the unfortunate impression that the CRPF was not at all to be blamed. It is the very first step towards bridging the gulf between the security forces and the inhabitants of the locality.

The State government has also a similar obligation. The fact that the State and the Centre are now in the hands of different political persuasions should not come in the way of honest introspection. There is no place for politics when it is a question of maintaining law and order. This is the mark of civilisation in governance, and we citizens have a right to demand it after 65 years of independence from the alien ruler.

The basic facts of the gory incident have figured extensively in the media. There are a few that cannot be disputed. This was a joint operation by the CRPF and the State police. There were press reports prior to the incident of a gang of Maoists from Odisha entering Chhattisgarh. In this context, the CRPF assertion that this was a planned operation following receipt of intelligence information about heavy Maoist movement in the region gains credibility. There are crucial contradictions, however, between what the CRPF claims and what activists in the area assert. The latter are categorical that the CRPF indulged in unprovoked wanton violence. Some wild allegations of looting and molesting of women have also been made. The CRPF squarely repudiated them. It claimed that its local officers received specific intelligence that a company of Maoists was sighted in the area, and a CRPF contingent was proceeding towards Silger to engage the intruders. En route it stumbled upon a group of villagers huddled together.

Subsequent information was that the gathering comprised people from several villages. The rationale for such a late night meeting is rightly questioned by the CRPF. There was suspicion that this group belonged to the Maoists. Soon thereafter the latter opened fire on the CRPF contingent, which returned the fire, during which the casualties occurred. There is a dispute as to whether the village group (presumably Maoists) fired first or the CRPF acted unilaterally. This issue may not ever be resolved. The CRPF owes it to us to proffer more reliable inputs on this. Or else the suspicion that it was the aggressor will linger and prevent any truce in the area. There was also the allegation that some of the bodies were mutilated by the CRPF men using sharp-edged weapons. The post-mortem results should establish or disprove this. Until this information is available, it will not be fair to accuse the CRPF of such unpardonable brutality. It is relevant that some of the dead have been identified by their relations and acknowledged to be Maoist sympathisers.

It must be remembered that the whole incident happened late in the night. Even with the help of night-vision binoculars, it would have been difficult to make out the composition of the group that had fired upon the CRPF. The presence of teenagers could easily have been overlooked at a moment when the CRPF was being subjected to firing.

On these facts it is difficult to take a categorical stand which would indict the CRPF for having either committed a blunder or overreacted to an innocuous situation. There is as usual the demand for a judicial inquiry. In the process some uncharitable words have been said about the CRPF. Considering the undisputed professionalism that this elite force has established over the years and the extremely stressful conditions under which it works, especially in the Maoist-affected areas, there is need for extreme circumspection so that the jawans do not get demoralised. I do not buy the argument that an inquiry of the kind that is being demanded by some cannot demoralise the CRPF men.

A judicial inquiry is tortuous and yields itself to abuse by vested interests. The CRPF is not infallible. It may have also come to adverse notice earlier for human rights violations in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere in the country. But I do not think we should subject it to the rigours of a judicial inquiry in this particular instance, especially when its bona fides are beyond dispute. In the absence of any evidence of rancour against the local population, the benefit of doubt should go to the CRPF. The CRPF is the largest central police organisation in India. It stands by the local police in times of crisis. It has developed into a highly professional organisation over the years. It has a distinctly cosmopolitan set-up that draws men from different parts of the country. Both the government and the public have a high stake in its growth, and nothing should be done to demoralise its ranks.

On its part the CRPF needs to evolve a transparent standard operating procedure (SOP) to take care of all situations. It should already have one such document. There is a case for taking the public into confidence in the matter so that the latter is convinced that the CRPF is an apolitical and scrupulously professional outfit. In my view, the average citizen knows precious little about how the organisation is equipped and what persuades it to stick to the right path. The Director-General, CRPF, and his officers will do well to go round the country and meet with community leaders to educate them in this regard. Nothing short of this will work in the difficult situation generated by Sarkeguda.

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