ON MONDAY, the day after Diwali, when Naresh Pal stepped out of his house in Chandpur village at around 7 am, he saw eight men navigating their way through the fields on the bank of a river about 500 metres away. Pal, 24, who owns farmland and a store in Chandpur village, thought they were fishermen, or villagers from the surrounding area. In the hours that followed, his first instinct proved to be wrong. For Pal, unwittingly, became the first witness in Khejradev panchayat to have spotted the eight SIMI activists who were gunned down, barely three kilometres from Chandpur, hours after they escaped from the Bhopal Central Jail on Monday.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Pal said after the first sighting, he saw three of the men again, about half-an-hour later, at much closer range. “Electricity supply here is intermittent… Since there was electricity in the morning, I went to my fields, near the river, to water the crop. I saw three of the men, on the opposite bank of the river that they had waded through… All three had taken off their trousers and shoes, and were carrying them in their hands… One of them had a bag… I did not see them carrying any weapons. The other five men must have been in the river because I didn’t see them… I raised my hand and said ‘Jai Shri Ram’, but nobody responded,” said Pal.
It was only when he returned home at around 8 am, and turned on the television, that Pal came to know about the jailbreak. “I got suspicious… My phone was not working, so I borrowed a phone from another farmer, Gyan Singh. He dialled 100 and got a policeman to speak to me. The policeman asked if I saw the men changing clothes. He asked me to come to Etkhedi, but I said I couldn’t,” said Pal.
Gyan Singh and Pal then made their way to the main basti of Chandpur, where they informed other villagers. The sarpanch, Mohan Singh Meena, was also informed. Another call was made to the police. According to Pal, members of the ATS arrived by 10 am and took him to Manikhedi, about three kilometres from his village. “We could see the men climbing the hill. I followed them for a bit, but was told to stop at one point. We weren’t allowed to go any further,” he said.
In the minutes that followed, police personnel swarmed the villages around the area, encircling the hill which the eight men had climbed. Pal heard shots in the distance, but said he could not tell if there was firing from both sides. “I didn’t even see the bodies. They didn’t let us go,” he said. Till Wednesday, the area saw many visitors, all wanting to take a look at the encounter spot. By Thursday, however, the crowd had melted away, leaving only the bloodstained rocks where their bodies fell, now marked with numbers — one to eight.