Firing in the dark

Print edition : July 27, 2012

A funeral procession at Sarkeguda village on June 30. The funeral ceremonies for the victims of the firing were spaced out as there were not enough men to dig graves for all the corpses.-AMAN SETHI

The State unit of the Congress refutes the Union Home Ministrys version of the killing of 20 Maoists in a Chhattisgarh village.

The killing of 20 people, including minors, in Sukma and Bijapur districts of Chhattisgarh by paramilitary forces in the early hours of June 29 has left the Congress party polarised. While 18 alleged Maoists were killed in Sarkeguda village of Bijapur district, two other suspected Maoists were killed in a separate incident on the same day in adjoining Sukma district. According to the Union Home Ministry, these suspected guerillas were killed in an encounter. However, the State unit of the Congress, which sent a 12-member probe team to Sarkeguda, has alleged that the victims were innocent villagers and the encounter was a fake one. While allegations of fake encounters in South Bastar have become commonplace, this is the first time that the State unit of the Congress has openly come out against the joint military operations in the Dandakaranya forests, known to be a Maoist stronghold.

The paramilitary forces and the State police came out with continuously changing versions after the killings. Initially, the media were told that about 600 troopers from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Combat Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) commando unit along with men from the State police had killed six hardcore Maoists in Sarkeguda in a counter-insurgency operation. The rest of those killed, they were told, were village militia members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

But the police records showed that only two of those killed were Maoists. Five days after the incident, amid conflicting reports, the State police said that the minors killed were being used as human shields by the rebels during the encounter and their deaths were collateral damage. In Delhi, the Home Minister defended the joint operation and said he was sorry if there were a few innocent victims.

The State Congress fact-finding team found that the victims included school-going minors and old people who were residents of Sarkeguda and adjoining villages and had no connection with Maoists. Kowasi Lakhma, the Congress legislator from Sukma who headed the team, told Frontline: Innocent Adivasis were killed. They were peasants who had gathered to discuss their annual seed festival, and the forces opened fire on them. I personally know most of these villagers. They did not have any connection with the Maoists.

State Congress chief Nand Kumar Patel echoed Lakhmas views. The people who died had ration cards, the children who died went to schools. It was a fake encounter, undoubtedly, and the killings were cold-blooded murders. It is clear that the police system in Chhattisgarh and the State intelligence have collapsed, he said.

Democratic organisations, political parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, and social activists have demanded a judicial probe. A statement of the Revolutionary Democratic Front said: The seed festival is an important event in the agrarian cycle of the Adivasi peasants of Bastar, observed during the onset of the monsoon. The rituals connected to this festival are believed to be necessary for enhancing the productivity of the seeds and for ensuring a good harvest of crops. This festival, apart from marking the commencement of the agricultural season, is also crucial for making collective decisions regarding the utilisation and distribution of agricultural land and means of production. Given the import of such meetings ahead of the seed festival, it is hardly surprising that several hundred villagers from the three villages were present in the meeting called for planning the upcoming festival. The meeting included the old and the young, men and women. Like many of the meetings, ceremonies and festivals of the Bastar Adivasis, the meeting at Sirkegudem village on June 28 too went on till the small hours of the night (when the forces opened fire). As per the testimonies of some eyewitnesses published in newspapers, the villagers shouted at the armed personnel to halt fire, but the firing was not stopped.

The police version was that on June 28, on a tip-off from the State police, three teams of 200 troopers each set off from different camps around 9 p.m. towards a village called Silger, where a large Maoist contingent was supposedly holding a meeting with villagers. On the way the forces faced firing, around 1 a.m., from a crowd that had gathered in Sarkeguda village. The forces fired back, and six CRPF men were injured and 18 Maoist rebels were killed in the crossfire.

Villagers told reporters, however, that none of the victims was a naxalite. They said that a nine-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy were among the dead, while three more children, between 12 and 15, had also been killed in the massacre. Twelve-year-old Kaka Saraswati was one of them. Vijju, 65, an Adivasi woman, lost two of her sons in the massacre. They also alleged that the troopers had molested young women and looted homes. As for the injuries suffered by the CRPF men, the villagers said that they had not fired at the forces and could not say how the injuries had been caused.

Mourners with the corpse of one of the victims, at Sarkeguda village. The residents insist that all those killed in the police firing were innocent people attending a village meeting.-AMAN SETHI

Despite the claim that the forces recovered a large number of arms, the State police could show only one countrymade rifle to the press. In two separate statements, Vijay Madkam, secretary of the South Bastar committee of the CPI (Maoist), and Jagan, spokesperson of the North Telangana special zone committee, said on June 30 that all the people killed in the massacre were Adivasi villagers and that no leaders or cadre of the Maoist party had been killed. They also said that there was no firing by Maoists as they were not even present.

Home Minister P. Chidambaram claimed that three important Maoist leaders, Mahesh, Nagesh and Somulu, had been killed in the encounter. But regional newspapers reported that there was no Mahesh in the official list of those killed. There are two Nageshes. Kaka Nagesh was a 17-year-old student of Class 10 and Madkam Nagesh was a 32-year-old professional dholak player (drummer) who was called in to play during festivals. None of those killed in the encounter had any criminal record at the Barsaguda police station, in whose jurisdiction Sarkeguda falls, along with Kotteguda and Rajapetta villages.

Gudsa Usendi, spokesperson of Dandakaranya special zonal committee of the CPI (Maoist), in a telephonic interview to ABN-Andhra Jyothi, condemned the statement made by the Home Ministry that top Maoist leaders Somulu, Nagesh and Mahesh were among the killed. He also clarified that Irpa Suresh, claimed by the government to be the commander of the guerilla forces in Bijapur and Dantewada, was not among the killed. The Irpa Suresh who was killed was in reality a tribal peasant visiting his relatives in the village. Union Tribal Affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo also challenged Chidambarams version. I have been getting feedback not just from the Congress State unit but also from voluntary organisations that of the 20 persons gunned down, half were teenagers, and a child who sustained injuries was just four years old. If those killed were extremists, then why were most of them unarmed? No arms were recovered from them. You cannot fire at random in the dark; its inexcusable, he told The Hindu.

Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian activist from Chhattisgarh whose Vanvasi Chetna Ashram was destroyed by the State forces, said that mining interests led to such incidents. The companies that were given mining leases in areas behind the Bailadila mines can transport their iron ore only through these three villages where the incident took place. These are the only three villages that fall on the route. It would not be surprising that the encounter against naxalites is a disguised attempt by the State government to clear these villages so that iron ore can be transported easily.

The rift in the Congress is indicative of a disconnect between the policies pursued by the Union government and the politics the party stands for in the tribal regions. In both Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which have large tribal populations, the State units have objected to the Union governments policy of indiscriminate mining which leads to displacement of tribal people. In both these States, the Congress is in the opposition. The partys State units have also objected to the military operations in the States, which have gone wrong many times, in the name of combating left-wing extremists.

Kishore Chandra Deo told The Hindu: The Forest Rights Act must be implemented fully before commencing mining. The FRA was the first step to recognise the rights of the tribal people over their land. If mining begins before you recognise the tribal peoples rights over their land, and you simply throw them out, they will be rendered homeless and stateless.

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