Human Rights

A fake encounter in Chhattisgarh

Print edition : January 03, 2020

June 30, 2012: The funeral procession of a man killed in the firing at Sarkeguda village in Chhattisgarh. Photo: The Hindu Archives

More than seven years after the Sarkeguda “encounter”, an inquiry commission concludes that there is no evidence that any of those killed or injured were naxalites. The report brings into focus other encounter cases in Chhattisgarh as well.

Kaka Saraswati and Kaka Nagesh, both aged 12, and Irpa Suresh and Hapka Mittoo, both just 15, were among the 17 villagers gunned down by security forces at Sarkeguda, Chhattisgarh, in June 2012. Seventeen-year-old Kunjam Malla and 16-year-olds Korsa Bichem and Madakam Ramvilas were among the other villagers who were branded as “hardcore” naxalites and killed in cold blood in an “encounter”.

After more than seven years of the mass murder, which was passed off as a successful counterinsurgency operation by the security forces, the lid has been blown off the lie. A single-member inquiry commission under a retired Madhya Pradesh High Court judge, Justice V.K. Agarwal, set up by the then Raman Singh government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), released a report in the first week of December concluding that there was no evidence to prove that any of those killed or injured were naxalites. It stated that there was no proof that naxalites were present anywhere near the vicinity of the “encounter”. In a strong indictment of the forces, the commission suggested that in the aftermath of the “encounter”, they stitched up an elaborate lie to justify the unprovoked massacre of the villagers.

On the intervening night of June 28-29, 2012, security forces comprising Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and State police personnel headed towards Silger in Sukma district, which is 15 kilometres from Sarkeguda in Bijapur district, on receiving intelligence inputs about naxalite presence there. The party of 200 troopers that started from Basaguda was led by S. Elango, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Operations, CRPF, Bijapur.

Celebration of festivals is not unusual in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh. On that night, villagers of Kottaguda, Rajpenta and Sarkeguda had gathered in the clearing between the three villages to discuss the arrangements for the Beej Pandum festival when they were fired upon by Elango’s party. The three villages share a common earth shrine, and the field where the firing took place is an open area surrounded by houses in the respective villages.

Bijapur is considered a hotbed of left-wing extremism, and Sarkeguda has a long history of suffering as a result of that. In 2005, the now banned civil militia Salwa Judum burnt the village; the villagers began to return in 2009 and were still struggling to rebuild all houses and herd their cattle together. “The meeting on the 28th night [in 2012] was held to discuss how to help those without cattle and single women headed households, and also to plan the holding of the seed sowing festival,” says the sociologist Nandini Sundar in her book The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar. According to tradition, preparations for the festival are made in the night and the celebrations happen in the morning.

The security forces claimed that they had suddenly come upon a meeting of naxalites in a dense forest and that they had initiated the firing, injuring six security personnel. The security forces had only fired in self-defence, which resulted in all the deaths, they said.

But their claims were proven to be false and misleading during the hearings of the inquiry commission. It was, in fact, found that there was no firing from the meeting and that the forces had fired upon the villagers without any provocation for quite some time, immediately killing 15 people and injuring 11.

The next morning, when Irpa Ramesh, a villager, was peeping from his house, he was dragged out, beaten up and subsequently shot dead in front of the house. What transpired next was a major cover-up by the security forces and the government, which claimed that big naxalite leaders were killed in an encounter. In fact, the then Union Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, announced that three important leaders of the naxalites, Mahesh, Nagesh and Somulu, had been killed.

This was blatantly false as there was no Mahesh among the villagers who were killed. Of the two Nageshes killed, Kaka Nagesh was a Class 10 student in a government school who had two cases against him, the first one slapped when he was only 12 years old and the second one when he was 14. In both the cases, the police alleged that he had fired upon security personnel. Madkam Nagesh, 32, was a drummer who played his dholak at festivals.

At the time of the “encounter”, both the BJP government in the State and the Congress government at the Centre hailed it as the “biggest Maoist encounter”. The media splashed the news without any verification, giving the impression that a major anti-naxalite operation had been conducted successfully. It was only when human rights groups made a noise about the incident and the State Congress conducted a fact-finding probe into the “encounter” that the Raman Singh government set up the inquiry commission. Chidambaram was forced to issue an apology.

The State government outlined seven questions as Terms of Reference for the commission. Did an encounter take place between the security forces and naxalites on the night between June 28 and 29, 2012, in Sarkeguda village under Basaguda police station in Bijapur district? When and how did the incident occur? Did anyone die or get injured among the security forces or the naxalites or apart from them? What were the circumstances in which the security forces had to undertake this exercise on that night? Prior to undertaking this exercise/operation, did the security forces take appropriate steps and precautions? What were the circumstances in which the security forces had to fire, and could that have been avoided? What are the recommendations for the future?

Villagers vindicated

Coming more than seven years after the incident, the inquiry commission report is a vindication of the stand taken by the villagers and activists in the aftermath of the “encounter”. Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel made a strong statement that “strict action” would be taken against those responsible for the Sarkeguda killing. Human rights activists and lawyers hope this means that at least a first information report (FIR) will be lodged soon. A lawyer associated with the case said it would require strong political will for this case to see its logical end. The findings of the commission, to a large extent, should be helpful in building a case against those responsible for the “encounter”. The villagers were represented by Yug Choudhary, Shalini Gera of JAGLAG (Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group) and Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, who is herself now in prison in the Bhima Koregaon case.

Despite the claims of the security forces about being fired upon, at least six of the villagers who were killed had gunshot injuries in the head, 11 had gunshot injuries on their torsos and 10 villagers—Korsa Bichche, Irpa Munna, Hapka Mattoo, Irpa Dharmaiya, Madakam Ramvilas, Kaka Samaiya, Sarke Rammna, Mandiv Ayatu, Madakam Dileep and Irpa Suresh—had gunshot injuries on their backs. The nature of injuries clearly indicated that the forces had not fired in self-defence but on the members of the meeting while they were fleeing from the scene of the occurrence. It was submitted that such fleeing persons could not have posed any threat to the security forces and that causing fatal bullet shot injuries to them was totally unwarranted. At least one person was shot from the top of his head and there was evidence of burst-firing, although the CRPF denied this.

The report concluded that the firing by the security forces was a case of excessive use of force. It said that the injuries to the six security personnel occurred from the firing of fellow troopers, most probably as a result of panic when the security forces were confronted with an unexpected meeting of villagers so late in the night. The contradictory versions of the story presented by the police and the CRPF led the commission to declare their statements as unreliable.

The commission found that after the firing incident, the security forces went on to assault the villagers and that the police investigation into the incident was manipulated and dishonest. The commission dismissed the alleged seizure of bharmars (countrymade rifles), pellets and so on from the incident site (to prove naxalite presence). “…Seizure memos of the pellets, etc., were not properly made. The seizure memos allegedly prepared by Ibrahim Khan...do not have full description and details and particulars of the items seized. Besides, articles seized were not properly sealed. Thus, seizure was not in accordance with accepted laid-down procedure which was also highly delayed and not as per the norms,” the report says.

Ibrahim Khan, who was part of the police party that accompanied Elango’s team, was both the FIR informant and the investigating officer who conducted the most important field investigations initially. Human rights groups had alleged that Ibrahim Khan was kept as the investigating officer initially precisely to see that the documents regarding the seizure and so on could be suitably tailored to meet the needs of a fabricated account of the encounter and suppress the fact that it was the forces that opened unilateral and unprovoked fire.

In the light of several discrepancies, the commission dismissed the oral testimonies and relied, instead, on the circumstances. The commission came down heavily on the security forces, but despite overwhelming proof of their cover-up and manipulation, it stopped short of recommending punishment for them. It suggested that the forces be trained better with modern gadgets and means of communication for swifter command and guarded action in critical situations. It recommended training to improve the “mental fabric” of security forces personnel to make them more balanced so that they act with equanimity and do not succumb to panic reaction in critical situations. All the recommendations of the commission were aimed at improving the confidence of the security forces and protecting them from panic reactions that lead to the murder of innocent villagers.

An activist wondered how the gathering of a few villagers outside their own homes could become a “critical situation” for the security forces to “panic” to such an extent that they ended up killing all the villagers. “The irony lies in the recommendations of the report where the murderers have to be protected against their own unprovoked actions,” said the activist.

Encounter cases

The judicial inquiry report has brought into focus other encounter cases in Chhattisgarh. Several Supreme Court orders and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) have maintained that all encounters are extrajudicial and illegal. In a writ petition filed by the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association in 2017, listing 1,528 alleged extrajudicial killings by the police and the security forces in Manipur, Justices Madan Lokur and Uday Umesh Lalit held that even when dealing with an “enemy”, the rule of law would apply.

In PUCL vs State of Maharashtra, a bench comprising the then Chief Justice of India, R.M. Lodha, and Justice Rohinton F. Nariman stated that no authority had the right to violate the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. Most importantly, the bench issued a guideline that a magisterial inquiry under Section 176 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) must be held in every case of encounter killing and a report sent to the Judicial Magistrate having jurisdiction under Section 190 of the CrPC.

The Sarkeguda killings are one in a series of offensives launched by the state against Adivasis. Encounters in Chhattisgarh, especially the Bastar region, became the justified norm since the launch of Operation Green Hunt in 2009 when the security forces would comb through entire villages. This phase resulted in a larger number of deaths than in 2005-07 when Salwa Judum was most active.

The next few years saw three major incidents that got highlighted in the public domain. One of them was in Sarkeguda. The other was in Tadmetla and its neighbouring villages of Timapuram and Morpalli where entire villages were burnt by the security forces in March 2011. The forces also looted money and household goods and burnt alive whoever they could find. A Supreme Court-ordered inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation indicted eight policemen for the violation of human rights. A charge sheet has been filed in the case. When Swami Agnivesh and Art of Living representatives tried to reach the Dornapal camp, which housed the victims of the security forces’ atrocities, to deliver relief materials to the villagers, a murderous crowd led by Salwa Judum leaders forced them to flee.

In 2013, eight villagers were killed in Edesmeta in Bijapur. The report of a judicial inquiry into this is awaited. Between October 2015 and March 2016, as many as 40 women in five villages of Bijapur were sexually assaulted by personnel of the Chhattisgarh Police. The NHRC took cognisance of the issue and an FIR was lodged but no one was held guilty. In August 2018, 15 villagers were killed by the District Reserve Guard and the Special Task Force at Nulkatong in Sukma. A public interest litigation petition in the matter is up for hearing in the Supreme Court.

While on a combing operation in Gompad village of Konta in 2009, nine villagers were killed. The forces stripped, raped and killed Kattam Kanni. In the process, they chopped off three of her infant’s fingers and put the crying baby on his dead mother’s chest. Such ghastly acts are part of the war on Bastar where the forces not only kill villagers by branding them naxalites but also carry out inhuman acts of violence. Given the nature of barbarity practised by the security forces there, the recommendation of the inquiry commission to “improve the mental fabric” of the forces to make them “more balanced” may not be completely unwarranted.

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