THE election process in Jharkhand has ended, but the aftershock of poll-related violence by Maoist rebels and the counter-attacks by security forces continues. The idea that has emerged from the post-election public debate is that the offensive against the left extremist threat cannot have much success if the administrative and security establishment continue with their current approach, which focusses on manufacturing success statistics, without any concern for the common people.
At the centre of this debate is Sumra Tola Barhania, a village located some 200 km from the State capital, Ranchi, and the incidents that occurred there on April 15, on the eve of the first phase of the two-phased Lok Sabha elections in the State. Barhania is situated in Barwadih block of Latehar district, in a jungle, off the road leading to Mondal, another block centre. One of the most widely reported election-related Maoist attacks took place close to this village on the morning of April 15. Immediately after the attack, both the administrative machinery and the security establishment claimed that the attack had been repulsed and five Maoist rebels killed. It was also reported that two jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and a driver of a bus carrying poll officials had been killed in the gunbattle with the Maoists. The security forces were reported to be escorting poll officials.
However, within 24 hours, social and political activists in Barwadih disputed the official claim on the basis of the version provided by local residents. According to them, the five Maoists who were killed by the forces were actually residents of their village who had no connection whatsoever with the extremist group. The villagers said that two jawans rounded up the five villagers and shot them dead in a fake encounter outside the village.
Four of the five slain villagers (Supay Bodra, 55, a part-time night watchman for the public sector Central Mine Planning and Research Institute; Supay Soma Bodra, 18, and Masi Soma Bodra, 14, both high school students; and Sanjay Bodra, 20, a first-year degree student, were members of one family and the other person was Pitai Munda, 32.
The villagers and social and political activists, who have formed a committee to highlight the tragedy, gave the sequence of events on that day. Around 6-30 a.m., some Maoist rebels waylaid a bus carrying poll officials and security personnel on the Barwadih-Mondal road and triggered a landmine explosion. A gunbattle ensued and lasted an hour, going by the sound of gunshots. Once the sound of firing died down, around 7-30 that morning, two men in uniform came to the village seeking help to track down the Maoists, who had apparently dissolved into the jungles. They compelled my children and brother and neighbour to go along with them. By early evening that day, we came to know that all of them had been killed and were branded as the Maoists who attacked the security forces, Soma Bodra, father of Supay Soma and Masi Soma, told Frontline.
Soma Bodra said that when the security personnel came to Barhania, the villagers were going about their daily chores. When the family members of those taken away tried to follow the security personnel, they were prevented from doing so. Shortly thereafter, another round of firing was heard. Soma said the villagers thought those who had been taken away would be let off after questioning. But when they did not return until noon, a group of villagers made bold to go over to Barwadih through the jungle. The news that five Maoists had been killed had by then spread at the block headquarters. When a local photographer showed a group of villagers the photograph of those killed, it became clear that it was their own villagers who had been killed.
The bodies were kept in the Barwadih police station but were later shifted to a hospital in Latehar. At the police station, the villagers demanded that the bodies be handed over to them, but the security personnel refused to do so. In fact, the bodies were even declared unclaimed after a post-mortem was conducted in the hospital. It was then that a group of social activists, including Birju Ram, the district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, and Fr. Seby, a priest in a local church, intervened and convinced the doctors to hand over the bodies to the family members.
In the next couple of days, the villagers and the social and political activists who had rallied in their support formed a broad-based committee to highlight the injustice inflicted on Barhania. Latehar-based leaders of various parties, including Harsh Vardhan Singh (Bharatiya Janata Party), Ayodhya Kumar (Rashtriya Janata Dal), Birju Ram (CPI(ML)-Liberation), K.D. Singh (Communist Party of India), Sujith Kumar Paswan (Jharkhand Mukti Morcha), Victor Karketta (Jharkhand Vikas Morcha), and Fr. George Monippally belonging to the Bharat Jan Andolan, a social organisation, were involved in this. The committee demanded that those responsible for the killing of innocent villagers be punished and that the family members of the slain people be given adequate compensation.
Government officials, however, persisted with the argument that the slain people were Maoist extremists. Sarvatendu Tatagath, Latehar District Collector, asserted during a telephonic conversation with Frontline on April 19 that those killed were Maoists.
The Maoists have a three-layered organisation. The guerilla army, the political wing and the back-up team. These five people belonged to the back-up team, he said. When the government argument was brought to the notice of Fr. Seby, he said that Barhania was one of the few villages in the locality that had steadfastly resisted Maoist activity.
The households in this village have 19 people working for various security organisations, including the State police and the army. The village has a high rate of literacy and a higher education rate compared with the rest of the villages in the area. The government overlooked all these facts when it branded the slain villagers as Maoists, he said. As the committee continued with the agitation against the governments position on the incident, the authorities made a slight shift in their stand. On April 24, Reji Dung Dung, Inspector-General of the State police, made a statement that the slain villagers had no connection with the Maoists. He added that the villagers were not killed by the security forces but by the Maoists, who had taken them away.
Following the IGPs revision, Governor Syed Sibtey Razi ordered the transfer of the Collector, District Superintendent of Police Hemant Toppo and Deputy Inspector-General Nandu Prasad. Government sources pointed out that the trio was charged with failure to protect the lives of common people from Maoist attacks. A magisterial inquiry has been ordered into the killings.
When Frontline visited Barhania on April 25, a day after Reji Dung Dung offered an explanation, the grief and anger of the villagers was unmistakable. The very word election makes me shiver now. My husband does not sleep inside our hut for fear of being attacked by the very people who killed my children. We have lost everything and we are living in fear, said Nauri Bodra. The villagers, obviously, are yet to come out of the shock of the violence at their doorstep. Birju Ram said they were determined to seek justice.
Fr. George Monippally told Frontline that the committee of social and political organisations had decided to continue its struggle until those responsible for the killing were punished and the families were given adequate compensation. We, along with the villagers of Barhania, are determined to highlight this tragedy in such a manner that the administrative and security establishment dare not carry out such dastardly attacks on innocent people anymore.
Evidently, a probe into the incident and consequent actions will help the establishment to make a course correction. Given the public perception that government action on issues of human rights comes at an abominably slow pace, the State government needs to act fast.