NEARLY a fortnight after the Gadchiroli police claimed one of its biggest successes in an anti-Maoist operation, 21 of the 40 bodies remain unidentified. Most of them decomposed beyond recognition, these lie at four mortuaries, in Gadchiroli, Chandrapur, Gondia and Bramhapuri, and could contain answers to what happened to eight people who went missing from Gattepalli village in Gadchiroli district around the same time.
Of the 19 identified too, five bodies are yet to be claimed by their next of kin.
The relatives of the missing eight belonging to Gattepalli — the youngest 15, the oldest 39 — have been doing the rounds of police and mortuaries to see if their kin are among the dead. Their fears were strengthened when one of the bodies appeared to resemble one of the missing girls, Bhujji Usendi, 15. However, DNA result is awaited. The government ordered testing of all the bodies after reports emerged of eight missing villagers.
The families are reluctant to talk, claiming pressure from both the authorities and Maoists.
Gadchiroli SP Abhinav Deshmukh said, “We are relying upon DNA test to ascertain if the missing eight, four girls and three men (apart from Bhujji), had died in our operation. It will take some time for the DNA test results to reach us.”
Villagers say the eight, including Bhujji Usendi, Nusse Madavi, Anita Gawde, Raso Madavi, yet another Raso Madavi, Mangesh Atram, Mangesh Madavi and Irpa Madavi, left Gattepalli together with their bags around 7 pm on April 21. “They said they were going to the marriage of Soma Madavi at Kasnasur,” says a villager.
The encounter, in which the Gadchiroli police shot 34 near Kasnasur village in Bhamragad tehsil, happened early next morning. The distance from Gattepalli to Kasnasur is about 23 km. A shortcut through the jungle on foot cuts this to about 15 km. The villagers say the eight set out on foot. In a separate encounter, near Rajaram Khanla village in Aheri tehsil, police killed six more alleged Maoists.
The guests at the Kasnasur wedding say the eight never turned up. Refusing to be identified, a Kasnasur villager said, “The marriage was on April 22 at 11 am. The previous night of a wedding, we tribals hold a group dance, where people from up to 10-12 km away turn up, even if not invited — unlike the marriage, attended by only the invitees. We are sure that the eight Gattepalli youth were not at the wedding. But we can’t be sure who all were at the dance the previous day.”
The two Gattepalli villagers who were present at the wedding, Gonglu Gawde and his sister-in-law Tulsibai, relatives of the groom Soma, say they didn’t see the eight at either the dance or the wedding.
Police believe the eight left their homes on April 21, with ‘Sainath’ alias Domesh Atram, a ‘divisional committee member’ of the CPI (Maoist) and a native of Gattepalli, with the intention of joining the Naxals. Sainath was among those killed in the encounters.
However, there are several holes in the police claims. Apart from Sainath, police records show only one other resident of the village, a girl, as having joined the Maoists. Villagers claim Sainath never tried to recruit from among them.
Bhujji’s father Karve says, “My daughter left with the others saying she was going for a wedding. I got worried when she didn’t return the next day. I don’t think she could have gone with Sainath to become a Maoist.”
SP Deshmukh, however, said only one inference could be drawn from available evidence. “Since we know for sure the eight missing did not go for the Kasnasur wedding, and since they belong to Sainath’s village, the only conclusion one can draw is that Sainath, who was under pressure from his top brass to get new recruits, called them to the camp near Kasnasur, and they eventually died (in the encounter).”
The police officer also claimed that the deceased were wearing fatigues, and that they had photographs and videographic evidence to prove this. “We are required to submit it all to the National Human Rights Commission.”
Lalsu Nogoti, a tribal leader and Independent member of the Bhamragad zilla parishad, said, “From what the parents say, it seems that the eight may have been shot dead by police.”
Incidentally, the villagers also deny that either Sainath or the other Maoist cadres killed, including another ‘divisional committee member’, were present at the Kasnasur wedding. This counters a theory that the food served to them at the wedding was laced with sedatives, helping police overpower them in the encounters that followed. Not one police official was injured in the shootouts.
A Kasnasur villager said, “Two of them, however, had come to the village on April 21 to collect rice.” He added, “We never cook for them. They cook their own food.”
Police have claimed that elite C-60 commandos fired 12-13 grenades at the Maoist camp, located on a rocky island in the middle of the Indravati river, from two flanks, thus trapping them.
With a magisterial inquiry on, the SP said, “Normally it is the prerogative of doctors performing a post-mortem to decide if and whose viscera is to be preserved for forensic test to ascertain the possibility of poisoning. But in this case, we have sought preservation of everyone’s viscera.”